Mysteries of ‘Great Russian Literature’
University of St Andrews
In English-language publications the set phrase ‘great Russian literature’ pops up quite frequently when Russian culture is discussed or the Kremlin’s current abuse of this culture for political ends. Curiously, no thought is given to the fact that no set phrases of this type exist for talking about English, French or German literature. Yet, at present this unthinking use of the ossified expression ‘great Russian literature’ in the West facilitates Moscow’s weaponization of culture. Hence, the urgent need arises to reflect on the origins of this strange expression, which would help wean Western commentators off it in favor of freer and evidence-based thinking.
Russian Imperialism Continued
To the whole world’s profound shock, on 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of peaceful Ukraine. This unprovoked war is a throwback from Europe’s imperial past. Until the mid-20th century, it was deemed ‘normal’ that a state larger than its neighbors in demographic, territorial and military terms may choose to conquer the latter. In the early modern period, such a move would be ‘justified’ through the ‘necessity’ to Christianize ‘pagans’ (or peoples who professed non-scriptural and non-monotheistic religions) and ‘infidels’ (that is, Muslims and Jews) or to spread the ‘right form’ of Christianity, be it Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity or Lutheranism. After the end of the religious wars, social darwinism and geopolitics took over as ‘modern justifications’ of imperial conquests. In this line of thinking, empires were ‘better fit’ for survival at the expense of weaker and smaller polities.
With the Helsinki Final Act signed by the West and the Soviet bloc countries in 1975, the imperial logic of doing politics in Europe was laid to rest. The largely parallel processes of European integration and NATO enlargement are steeped in respect for all European states irrespective of size. This respect, alongside the Helsinki principle of the inviolability of borders in Europe, became the cornerstone of peace and stability on the Old Continent in the wake of the fall of communism and the breakups of the ethnoterritorial federations of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Yet, the freshly post-Soviet Russian Federation almost immediately began to undermine the established order in the name of increasingly resurgent Russian imperialism.
First, Moscow shyly tried its hand at this new imperialism with the carving of Transnistria out from Moldova in the course of the 1992 war. Next came the not so shy genocidal-scale suppression of independent Ichkeria during the two Chechen wars (1994-96, 1999-2000). At that time, the West still harbored a hope that Russia would become an outsized but largely ‘normal European country.’ Early signs of resurgent Russian imperialism were dismissed as political ‘phantom pains’ of the suddenly vanished Soviet empire. In Brussels or Washington politicians were not eager to listen to Moldovan or Ichkerian complaints to the contrary. Instead, Russian officials and figures of culture were lionized in Western capitals. Not incidentally, they lubricated their warm reception in Paris, London, Rome or New York with billions of petrodollars generated by new Russia’s ‘economic miracle.’ Getting acquainted with a Russian oligarch became a sought-for sign of distinction. Furthermore, in 2001, to the Chechens’ dismay, the US welcomed Russia as a trusted ally in the ‘war on terror.’
Meanwhile, reunited Germany rebooted its Cold War Ostpolitik as Wandel durch Handel (‘change through commerce’). The widespread belief was that oil- and gas-rich Russia would gradually turn democratic through economic and technological entanglement with the West. In return, Berlin gained preferential access to cheap Russian energy, which allowed for making Germany into a world-leading export economy. The system worked just fine for a generation during the three postcommunist decades. Or did it?
Unabashedly, Russia attacked Georgia already in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin seized almost a fifth of the Georgian territory, annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and took effective control of easternmost Ukraine. In the last area, to destabilize Ukraine, Russia fueled a low-scale border war between 2014 and 2022. Beginning in 2015, Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war on the side of the ruling dictator. The Russian army perfected there their novel tactics of rapidly levelling entire cities, originally developed during the Chechen wars.
Despite this unrepentant course, after the half-a-decade-long suspension following the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, in 2019, Russian parliamentarians were permitted to rejoin to the Assembly of the Council of Europe, despite Kyiv’s protests. Less than three years later, in 2022, their country used this ‘method’ of destroying cities on an unprecedented scale to beat the Ukrainians into submission. Quite a late waking-up call for the short-sighted West, who at long last began to notice that after all something has been amiss in its cozy relationship with the kleptocratic and murderous Russia of today.
‘Great Russian literature’
Apart from all the shady billions of dollars for the Western likes of Gerhard Schröder or François Fillon, the Kremlin has successfully corrupted and ‘softened’ the West with the widespread and equally widely accepted stereotype of ‘great Russian culture.’ Russia has excelled at financing music events and arts initiatives across Europe and North America. The founding was especially welcome in the age of austerity measures that struck in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
In this manner the implantation is effected of leading Russian figures of culture across the West. By showing openly their unwavering and unthinking loyalty to Moscow, they act as significant agents of influence to confuse public opinion in Europe and North America. Such pro-Kremlin musicians, painters, actors, directors, conductors, or writers give credence to Russian authoritarianism and imperialism as a ‘valid alternative’ to democracy and human rights. On top of that, beginning in 2007, a dense network of Russkii Mir (‘Russian World’) Foundation centers was cast across the West. Ostensibly, like the British Council, these centers are to teach and promote Russian language and culture. In reality, non-transparent financing and toeing Moscow’s agenda make these centers into a main channel of Russian propaganda and influence. Unfortunately, to this day the globe’s Russkii Mir branches remain ‘legitimate,’ despite Russia’s ongoing total war on Ukraine.
After all there is no question that the punitive western sanctions aimed at the Russian economy and officials would ‘cancel’ Russian culture. That would be too much of a reaction. Really? Is the immersive experience of Leo Tolstoy’s or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels sufficient to pool wool over the West’s eyes to the ugly reality of Russian neoimperialism? Will it make Europeans and Americans conveniently overlook the Russian brutality that has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians and has displaced over 14 million and counting?
Western moderates emphasize that no war – however unjustified – will ever diminish ‘great Russian literature,’ which thus cannot be ‘cancelled.’ Yet, no one seems to reflect on why the English phrase ‘great Russian literature’ functions as a well-established collocation that garners almost 80,000 hits in the Google search engine. On the other hand, the phrases ‘great English literature,’  ‘great French literature,’ or ‘great German literature’ are not set phrases or collocations. Does it mean that English, French and German literatures are inferior to their Russian counterpart? Was Shakespeare, Molière or Goethe a lesser poet than Russia’s Pushkin, who still continues to be relatively unknown on the global literary stage?
Changing Names of Russian
The rise of the English collocation ‘great Russian literature’ has nothing to do with this literature’s inherent qualities or cultural influence. As typical in such cases, vagaries of history were here at play. An explanation lies with the Russian-language name of the Russian language, which changed twice between the early 19th and early 20th centuries. But the story was consigned to oblivion in Russia itself and lost in translation into English. As a result, nowadays in the West, scholars and even hard-hitting commentators on matters Russian parrot this collocation ‘great Russian literature’ without giving it any thought. As though it were obvious that Russian literature must be ‘naturally’ great. Unwittingly, all of us who unreflectively repeat this set phrase contribute for free to the Kremlin’s arsenal of ‘soft power’ employed for conducting hybrid warfare, which kills for real.
From the historical perspective, Russian is a mixture of Church Slavonic (Славенски Slavenski ‘Slavic’) and the Muscovian vernacular, or the Slavic dialect of Moscow. It was Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, who proposed such a formula in the mid-18th century. In 1755, his Western-style grammar of Russian written in Russian came off the press. In Russian Lomonosov referred to this new language as Россійскіи Rossiiskii. He derived this designation from the name of the Russian Empire (Россійская Имперія Rossiiskaia Imperiia), as proclaimed by Tsar Peter the Great in 1721. Both the empire and its language were then new projects that came along in quick succession, separated by as few as three decades. It was also another conscious act of emulating the West. After all, Spanish scholar Antonio de Nebrija, in the dedication to Queen Isabella I of Castile in his Gramática de la lengua castellana (1492), famously proposed that ‘language has always been the perfect instrument of empire.’
The French-speaking Russian ruling elite at the imperial court at St Petersburg decided that a future Russian should be closely modelled on the West’s then most prestigious language, namely, French. At that time French was the sociolect of all Europe’s nobility. In 1762, the fourth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (Dictionary of the French Academy) was published in Paris. In Russia, two decades later, this reference was duly translated into Russian, yielding Польной французской и россійской лексиконъ Polnoi frantsuzkoi i rossiiskoi leksikon’’ / Dictionnaire complet françois et russe (Complete French-Russian Dictionary, 1786). The new language’s name, Rossiiskii remained the same as proposed by Lomonosov.
This lexicographic achievement encouraged the Russian Academy to produce an authoritative six-volume monolingual dictionary Словарь Академіи Россійской Slovar’ Akademii Rossiiskoi (Dictionary of the Russian Academy), which came off the press between 1789 and 1794. Interestingly, the name of the standardized language is not explicitly mentioned either in the dictionary’s title or introduction. But afterward Russian, officially known as Rossiiskii, became the main official language of the Russian Empire, especially in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Following the defeat of the French invasion of Russia (1812), the ethnically Russian and Orthodox segment of Russia’s nobles consciously limited their day-to-day use of French.
However, the language’s Russian-language name was quite abruptly altered between the mid-1830s and mid-1840s from Россійскіи Rossiiskii to Русскіи Russkii. The root cause of this change was the 1830-31 anti-Russian uprising staged by the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, who wanted to reestablish their Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania as an independent country. In the late 18th century, Russia, Prussia and the Habsburgs had partitioned this nobility’s realm. The Russian tsar gained as much as four-fifths of the Polish-Lithuanian territory. These lands were then the best developed in the Russian Empire. As such they were designated to function as the socio-economic basis for the empire’s modernization through westernization. To this end Polish was retained across these territories as the official language. Russia’s then largest university in Wilno (Vilnius) employed Polish as its language of instruction. This institution produced two-thirds of all the empire’s university graduates, and was twice the size of Oxford University in terms of students enrolled. But because of the uprising the tsar decreed its permanent closure in 1832.
In 1833, the shock of the aforementioned Polish-Lithuanian uprising prompted Russian Minister of Education Sergey Uvarov to come up with the political slogan ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’ (Православная Вера, Самодержавие и Народность Pravoslavnaia Vera, Samoderzhavie i Narodnost’). This slogan’s aspiration to confessional and linguistic homogeneity under the tsar’s absolute rule, supposedly conferred on him by god, became the empire’s ‘modern’ ideology. It drew heavily on the idea of the shared language (that is, ‘nationality’) as the definition of the nation or body politic. Originally, it was poet and anti-Napoleonic activist Ernst Moritz Arndt, who inserted this formulation in his 1813 poem ‘Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland?’ (What is the Fatherland of the Germans?). His answer to this then hotly debated political dilemma was that such a German nation-state-in-waiting should extend there, ‘where the German tongue sounds’ (So weit die deutsche Zunge klingt). In all likelihood, Arndt composed this poem in 1812 when he stayed in St Petersburg, helping the Prussians with the shaping of the Prusso-Russian coalition that finally defeated Napoleon.
After 1833, in a coordinated fashion, St Petersburg imposed either Orthodox Christianity or the Russian language on the conquered peoples to give a stronger ideological coherence (understood as demographic homogeneity) to the empire. In most cases it proved too difficult to impose both religion and language. And with time, the practice showed that linguistic homogenization was less contentious than its confessional counterpart. Hence, following their defeated uprising of 1830-31, the Polish-Lithuanian nobility was allowed to keep their Catholic religion. Yet, Polish as the official language of their historic lands was replaced with Russian. This change was supported with a legal provision from the 16th-century Lithuanian Statute. Until 1840 this law book remained the basis of law in most Polish-Lithuanian lands under Russian rule. The statute proclaimed that these lands’ official language must be Рȣскі Ruski (Ruthenian).
Yet, as readily visible from the obvious difference in the spelling and pronunciation of its name, Ruski was not Rossiiskii, as Russian was known then. Ruthenian and Russian were two different and separate languages. The equation of the latter with the former for the sake of replacing Polish with Russian as the administrative language of the former Polish-Lithuanian lands was a political ploy. Yet, it required the aforementioned change in the Russian-language name of the Russian language from Rossiiskii to Russkii. Otherwise, leaning on the Lithuanian Statute as the legal basis for changing the region’s official language would have been unbelievable, at least, for the Polish-Lithuanian noble elite. Despite the defeat on the battlefield, they remained a substantial political force to be reckoned with, because they accounted for as many as two-thirds of all the Russian Empire’s nobles.
The irony is that the original Ruski–Ruthenian of the Lithuanian Statute functioned as the official language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania between the 13th and late 17th centuries, that is, long before Lomonosov even proposed how Russian could be codified as a ‘modern’ (that is, Western-style) language. Ruthenian was the first-ever Slavic vernacular in regular written use from the 13th to 17th centuries. From Ruthenian today’s Belarusian and Ukrainian developed, but not Russian. In Muscovy (or the predecessor of the Russian Empire), Ruthenian was known as Литовскій Litovskii (literally, ‘Lithuanian’), because it was official in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. (Today’s Lithuanian, which is a Baltic language has nothing to do with this Litovskii-Ruthenian.) On the other hand, the Slavic speech of Moscow was known in Ruthenian as Московска Moskovska (‘Muscovian’) in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The prestige of Ruthenian was so high in the early modern period that Muscovian officials took care to learn it, before progressing to Polish and Latin, and then to German and French. Hence, numerous Ruthenian linguistic loans persists in Russian to this day. What is more, Ruthenian also functioned as the main conduit through which numerous Latinisms and Polonisms entered Russian. Significantly, Lomonosov modelled his grammar of Russian on Ruthenian scholar and Archbishop of Połock (today, Połack in Belarus) Meletius Smotrytsky’s influential grammar of (Church) Slavonic (Славєнски Slavenski), which was first published in 1619 in Jewie (today, Vievis in Lithuania).,
In the 1880s, the policy of Russification was rolled out across the entire European section of the Russian Empire. This move necessitated the replacement of German, Georgian, Moldovan (Romanian) or Swedish, which were still official in different provinces, with Russian. At that time, a new appropriately imperial name of Russian became widespread, that is, the Великорусскій Velikorusskii ‘Great Russian language.’ This novel coinage started gaining currency, thanks to Vladimir Dal’s popular and influential four-volume Толковый словарь живаго великорусскаго языка Tolkovyi slovar’ zhivago velikorusskago iazyka (Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language), which came off the press in 1863-66. Two further editions followed in 1880 and 1903. Demand for this reference remained so high and its authority so prevalent that even the Bolsheviks resigned themselves to reprinting this dictionary twice, in 1935 and 1955.
The dictionary’s first edition coincided with the Polish-Lithuanian nobility’s another anti-tsarist uprising that took place in 1863-64. The suppression of this insurrection entailed doing away with the last remaining cases of the employment of Polish in some administrative roles and as a medium of education. On top of that, the previously scant use of Белорусскій Belorusskii ‘White Russian’ (Belarusian) and Малорусскій Malorusskii ‘Little Russian’ (Ukrainian) for literary and ethnographic ends was banned from printing. The decision was followed with the official espousal of the theory that Little Russian and White Russian are наречия narechiia (‘unimportant peasant dialects’) of the Great Russian language. As such, in the imperial view, these narechiia were destined for extinction. All the tsar’s ‘civilized’ subjects were to speak and write in Great Russian only.
Lost in Translation
Between the 1860s and the turn of the 1920s, across the Russian Empire, school lessons of the country’s language and literature were labelled, respectively, as ‘Great Russian language’ (Великорусскій язык Velikorusskii iazyk) and ‘Great Russian literature’ (Великорусская литература Velikorusskaia literatura). Titles of textbooks for these school subjects followed suit. Obviously, in this context the adjective ‘great’ did not advertize any superior qualities of this language or literature, but rather was part of the then official name of the Russian language, that is, ‘Great Russian.’ In Russian this name was written as a single word, Великорусскій Velikorusskii ‘Greatrussian.’ However, the conventions of English spelling required that in translation it became two words. In this manner, ambiguity was introduced to English literature whether the adjective ‘great’ is part of the name of Russia’s official language or rather an evaluation of this tongue’s ‘inherent greatness,’ as the present-day Kremlin’s propaganda would like us to believe.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 replaced the tsarist regime with Soviet totalitarianism. The old world was to be destroyed, giving way to a ‘radiantly communist future.’ In order to attract the former empire’s reluctant populations to this project, in 1922, the revolutionary government announced a struggle against Великорусский шовинизм Velikorusskii shovinism (‘Great Russian chauvinism’). All the empire’s ethnic languages were permitted and actively encouraged into official use in administration, schools and publishing. Russification was over, until it was reintroduced with vengeance in 1938. In the Soviet communist party’s view, Russian was to become the single socialist language of the Soviet classless people and of global communism.
Although the language’s name was modestly returned from bombastic ‘Great Russian’ to the modest moniker of ‘Russian,’ now the Soviet policy of Russification – in a quite megalomaniac fashion – targeted the entire world. The Kremlin used Russian culture and literature to justify and popularize this push for a global Russian. The Soviet propaganda went into overdrive. Following the quickly terminated two-year-long totalitarian alliance with Berlin, the Soviet Union joined the Western Allies against nazi Germany in 1941. Then a brand-new collocation великая Русская литература velikaia Russkaia literatura (‘great Russian literature’) made a showy entrance. Paradoxically, this new term had an easy ride on the back of the strenuously banned tsarist name of ‘Great Russian’ language and literature. In Russian the difference between ‘Великорусска Velikorusska’ and ‘великая Русская velikaia Russkaia’ literature is clearly discernible, though tends to be confusing.
However, in English translation the difference is all but lost, apart from the hard to interpret capitalization. In English Velikorusska literatura, or literature composed in the Great Russian language morphs into ‘Great Russian literature,’ while the Soviet propaganda’s laudatory label velika Russkaia literatura, translated as ‘great Russian literature,’ becomes indistinguishable in English from the other term. Although due to the Soviet struggle against Great Russian chauvinism, the English term ‘Great Russian literature’ declined rapidly in the early 1920s, nevertheless its remaining uses fed into the skyrocketing rise of the collocation ‘great Russian literature,’ beginning in the 1940s.
Seeing More Clearly
Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the English phrase was an inconspicuous statement of fact, namely, that a certain literature happened to be composed in the Great Russian language, which nowadays we refer to as ‘Russian.’ Yet, during World War II, the ‘friendly’ Soviet propaganda left the West with the hard-to-discern and essentially toxic legacy in the form of the set expression ‘great Russian literature.’ After having been conditioned to endorse the term ‘Great Russian language’ in the late tsarist period, Westerners were expected to accept the new but slightly rehashed obsolete expression easily. And indeed, they obliged. While the tsarist term came with no subluminal message, with the new one the Soviet propaganda coaxed the West to unquestioningly believe in some inherent ‘greatness’ of Russian literature. As though the quality, variety and sheer output of English, Spanish or French literature was not actually ‘greater’ than its Russian counterpart.
The post-Soviet Russian Federation banks richly on this innocuous legacy. Nowadays, the apparently neutral but in reality ideologized expression became part and parcel of the country’s arsenal of hybrid warfare. As a result, the Kremlin has no difficulties to shame the West for a slightest attempt to rein in the offensive use and spread of Russian literature and culture during the time when the Russian military forces wage total war on Ukraine with horrific consequences, including acts of genocide. In this respect even Western specialists in Russian studies duly toe the line. All reverently parrot the phrase ‘great Russian literature,’ though some are more skeptical about Moscow’s claims that neither Ukrainian language nor Ukrainian literature exists. Or that Ukrainian literature is ‘poor and folkloristic,’ which is obviously a skewed Russian colonial view of the Ukrainians and their modern and vibrant culture. Westerners should not trust this Russian opinion and check the facts on the ground, above all by enjoying more excellent books of Ukrainian literature.
When the West was not looking, the Kremlin weaponized not only Russian but also some elements of English. Let us be clear, when the collocation ‘great Russian literature’ is invoked uncritically, the utterer consciously or not does Moscow’s bidding. Beware.
 Becker, Seymour. 1985. Nobility and Privilege in Late Imperial Russia. DeKalb IL: Northern Illinois University Press, p 182.
 Stang, Christian S. 1935. Die westrussische Kanzleisprache des Grossfürstentums Litauen. Oslo: Dybwad.
 Martel, Antoine. 1938. La langue polonaise dans les pays ruthènes: Ukraine et Russie blanche, 1569-1667 (Ser: Travaux et Mémoires de l’Université de Lille. Nouvelle Série. Section 1, Droit-Lettres). Lille: l’Université de Lille, pp 67-160. https://fbc.pionier.net.pl/details/nhStVV5
 Cf Черных, Павел Яковлевич. 1927. Очерки по истории и диалектологии северно-великорусского наречия. Иркутск: тип. изд. “Власть труда”.
 Cf Орлов, Александр Сергеевич. 1912. Великорусская историческая литература XVI века. Конспект лекций, чит. в И.М.У. в 1911-1912 ак. г. Москва: О-во взаимопомощи студентов-филологов.