The struggle for identity and purpose in the Russian historical novel: from Pushkin to Tolstoy

Brian Hamnett

in The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199695041
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191732164 | DOI:
The struggle for identity and purpose in the Russian historical novel: from Pushkin to Tolstoy

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The Russian Empire imbibed French influences and then German philosophies, taking from them what its educated and governing elites thought would be useful to Russia. The medium of the historical novel combined Russian roots and literary traditions dating from the time of Karamzin, with foreign influences from Britain and France. As in other European countries, Russian historical novels often competed with historical drama and narratives for the interpretation of the past. Pushkin—whose poetry had initially been influenced by Byron—wrote in all three of these mediums. This past became one of the outstanding issues in Russia, since issues such as Westernisation or defence of the Byzantine, Orthodox, and Slav inheritance dominated debate from the 1840s. Karamzin had also laid the foundations of Russian historiography, which developed strongly in the decades before 1914. Russia’s national identity became a problem for historians and novelists, since Russia proper was subsumed within the greater Russian Empire. The European role of this Empire was the subject of ‘War and Peace’. Although Tolstoy’s broader vision of humanity and the course of history have hardly stood the test of time, his portrayal of the Russian Empire’s entanglements in the Caucasus with minor Muslim potentates in his little-known late work, ‘Hadji Murat’, has poignant relevance to the present day.

Keywords: Tsarism; police; court; rebellion; repression; intelligentsia; peasantry; ethnicity; Napoleon

Chapter.  16625 words. 

Subjects: Literature

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