There are many ironies in the history of Russian literature. In chronological terms alone, it is as impressive as any world literature. With a thousand-year heritage, it is almost as old as the Russian state itself. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, however, Russian literature had produced very few works of perennial value. Indeed, what the world recognizes as great Russian literature has been in existence for no more than two hundred years: roughly as long as the United States of America.

The two indisputable Russian literary masterpieces produced before the eighteenth century—the anonymous twelfth-century heroic epic The Lay of the Host of Igor and the seventeenth-century autobiography of the fiery schismatic Archpriest Awakum—exercised no influence on the literatures of Europe and remained unknown even among the neighboring Slavs. One example will dramatize the extent of the country’s...

 
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