Russian literature was first produced after the introduction of Christianity from Byzantium in the 10th cent. Byzantine influence, which suffused the culture of Kievan Rus, explains the adoption of Church Slavonic as the religious and literary language. Early Church Slavonic literature was overwhelmingly religious in character and didactic in intent, although some movement toward a literary purpose marked the chronicles attributed to the friar Nestor. More original were the byliny, oral folk lays, which fused Christian and pagan traditions and at times achieved the level of great epic poetry.
The first written masterpiece of Russian literature was The Song of Igor's Campaign (c.1187; see Igor), which towered above the general cultural desolation under Tatar domination. A few notable sermons and lives of saints were written in this period, and in the early 15th cent. the priest Sophonia of Ryazan wrote the epic Beyond the River Don to commemorate the victory over the Tatars at Kulikovo (1380). Athanasy Nikitin (d. 1472) wrote a distinguished account of his Journey beyond Three Seas to distant lands.
The rise of the grand duchy of Moscow and the overthrow of the Tatars was followed by an expansion of literary activity, still largely in a religious vein. Russian literature in general was hampered by the autocratic regime of the czars and by political and religious turmoil, although these conditions generated the few exceptional works of the 16th and 17th cent. The recriminatory correspondence between Czar Ivan IV and Prince Andrei Mikhailovich Kurbsky (c.1528–83), who had deserted to the Poles, showed polemical and linguistic mastery. The great schism that rent the Russian Church in the mid-17th cent. produced the memorable autobiography of the archpriest Avvakum (martyred 1682), the first work in colloquial Russian.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.