A History of Russian Literature


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Victor Terras

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This magisterial work, written by one of the world’s foremost Slavic scholars, presents a survey of Russian literature from its beginning in the eleventh century to modern times. Victor Terras argues eloquently that Russian literature has reflected, defined, and shaped the nation’s beliefs and goals, and he sets his survey against a background of social and political developments and religious and philosophic thought.


Terras traces a rich literary heritage that encompasses Russian folklore of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, medieval literature that in style and substance drew on the Byzantine tradition, and literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Russia passed through a succession of literary schools—neoclassicism, sentimentalism, romanticism, and realism—imported from the West. Terras then moves on to the masterful realist fiction of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoi during the second half of the nineteenth century, showing how it was a catalyst for the social and cultural advances following the reforms of Alexander II. In discussing the period preceding the revolution of 1917, Terras links the literary movements with parallel developments in the theater, music, and the visual arts, explaining that these all placed Russia in the forefront of European modernism. Terras divides Russian literature after the revolution into émigré and Soviet writing, and he demonstrates how the latter acted as a propaganda tool of the Communist party. He concludes his survey with the dissident movement that followed Stalin’s death, arguing that the movement again made literature a leader in the struggle for freedom of thought, genuine relevance, and communion with Western culture.

Victor Terras is Henry Ledyard Goddard University Professor Emeritus and professor emeritus of Slavic languages and comparative literature at Brown University.

"I doubted that any one person could ever again undertake to write a complete history of Russian literature, as D.S. Mirsky had done so brilliantly seventy years ago. That was obviously a rash statement, now proved false. Terras has done the impossible. His erudition and mastery of such vast and disparate material are simply astounding, and Terras's industry is legendary. . . . The result is a major achievement and a valuable contribution to our discipline. We have long needed an up-to-date, discursive history, written from a single point of view, free of prejudice and party bias, but nevertheless not afraid to pass judgments. Terras has given us such a book, and students and teachers of the subject will remain in his debt for many years."—Hugh McLean

"This book will replace the few other histories of Russian literature. Erudite, insightful, and concise, it is an indispensable work for specialists and for the general reader."—Robert L. Jackson

"This encyclopedic, invaluable survey captures the full sweep of Russian literature, from sixth-century saints' lives to Mayakovsky's `cubo-futurist' theater and contemporary samizdat poetry. With capsule profiles of hundreds of writers and literary works, the book compresses an enormous wealth of information into 650 pages. The scope is vast: folk songs and tales, picaresque adventures, fables, drama, satire, novels, poetry, essays, criticism. . . . This ready reference both for scholars and for serious students sets Russian literature in a social and political context that makes it more accessible to Western readers."—Publishers Weekly

"Captures the full sweep of Russian literature, from sixth-century saints' lives to Mayakovsky's `cubo-futurists' theater and contemporary samizdat poetry."—Bookazine Bulletin

"Provides a highly knowledgeable overview of the evolution of Russian literature which has made such distinctive contributions to the literature of Europe."—John Barkham Reviews

"[An] elegant, erudite study. . . . Terras offers profiles of hundreds of writers and writings in these pages, illuminating key themes with clarity and profound understanding. An important reference guide."—State

"This is the first encyclopedia of its kind in English: a reference-packed volume citing over ten centuries of Russian literature and including over a thousand entries by over a hundred scholars. From individual writers' works to the impact of other cultures and nations on Russian writings, this work provides extensive, in-depth access for any college-level student studying Russian works."—Bookwatch

"Terras's handsome, well-indexed work is absolutely essential for all academic and public libraries."—Choice

"Rarely does such a magisterial volume come out in such a timely manner as this one."—Daniel Russian, Harvard Review

"A very useful and readable history of the literature of this people."—Antiquarian Books

"This is an excellent general history. Victor Terras, who taught at Brown for many years, brings an encyclopedic knowledge and an artist's sensitivity to bear in this most useful study."—Virginia Quarterly Review

"It now appears that Victor Terras's excellent Handbook of Russian Literature (1985) was, in a manner of speaking, just the prelude to this grand work which will certainly be welcomed by all scholars and students of Russian literature. . . . Thorough, clearly written, will laid out, and very usable. . . . This work will stand on its own for some time to come as by far the best one-volume history of Russian literature in English or perhaps any language."—Allan Reid, International Fiction Review

"A superb history of Russian literature, one that surely will reign as the standard history for years and decades. . . . [It] belongs in the library of every teacher and every serious student of Russina literature."—William E. Harkins, Slavic Review

"Terras provides an impressive array of facts: names, dates, plot summaries, and basic historical background . . . a book that no one with a basic or professional interest in Russian literature should be without. . . . A completely reliable source."—Andrew Wachtel, Modern Philology

"Terras makes interesting and important observations about the continuity of certain folkloric motifs, about the surprisingly persistent influence of the Byzantine theology about the peculiar moralism of Russian literature. . . . Students will find it invaluable. . . . a first class textbook and reference book."—Helen Szamuely, Times Educational Supplement

"Clearly a labour of love and one that will last. . . . Professor Terras's book is written with an easy erudition and distinctly individual tone that will make it a pleasure to read, both for the general public at whom it is targeted, and also for scholars and teachers, who will doubtless recommend it to their students."—Arnold McMillin, Slavonic & East European Review

"Extremely useful. . . . The new History is indeed a 'magisterial work'. . . . The profession owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Victor Terras."—Michael Katz, Russian Review

"To embrace the ghousand-year history of Russian literature in one volume is a mighty task and one which Terras has accomplished in style."—Anatoly Naiman, Times Literary Supplement
ISBN: 9780300059342
Publication Date: January 26, 1994
668 pages, 7 x 10