Evangel'skii tekst v russkoi literature XVIII-XX vekov [Gospel Texts in Russian Literature of the 18th-20th Centuries]. Petrozavodsk: Izdatel'stvo Petrozavodskogo Universiteta, 1994.
Reviewed by Oleg P. Turlac.
Gospel Texts in Russian Literature of the 18th-20th Centuries is a collection of materials from an international conference on this theme held at Petrozavodsk State University, Karelia, Russia, 7-12 June 1993. Contributors to the volume shed new light on modern themes in Russian literature.
In the introduction, Professor V. N. Zakharov of Petrozavodsk State University writes that most publications on the history of Russian literature fail to understand its spiritual essence. Although much has been written in the last century about the uniqueness and national distinctiveness of Russian literature, its Christian essence rarely has been acknowledged. Yet, Zakharov writes, "Christianity was as natural to the soul of Russians as the fact that the Volga falls to the Caspian Sea."1
The very concept of Russian literature is tied to Christianity. In contrast to those cultures that possessed a written language before adopting Christianity, Russian Christianity and language, and thus literature, are inseparable. In fact, Zakharov employs the term slovo (word/logos) instead of literature in his references to Russia's historic acceptance of the slovo (the Word) of Christ.2
Modern Russian literature resonates with the themes of God, Christ, and Christianity. In the eighteenth century, Mikhail Lomonosov wrote in his odes of the greatness of God. Who in Russia does not know Gavriil Derzhavin's odes entitled Bog (God) and Khristos (Christ)? And in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Fyodor Tyutchev, Afanasii Fet, Alexander Blok, Boris Pasternak, and Anna Akhmatova are filled with Christian imagery.
Russian writers frequently chose Christian names for the heroes of their novels. They also treated religious holidays such as Christmas, the Transfiguration of Christ, and Easter as inseparable parts of Russian life. The image of Christ's Transfiguration is deeply enmeshed in Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. The very name Zhivago is taken from the Gospel account of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-11), when Jesus was revealed to the disciples as the Son of the living God. The word living is translated into Russian as zhivago.3 Thus the name Zhivago implies the image of change, transformation, and transfiguration.
In Dostoevsky's Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment), Rodion Romanovich Raskol'nikov, who struggled deeply with spiritual issues, placed a New Testament under his pillow. It was this precious book that he asked Sonya Marmeladova to bring to him in the most difficult moment of his life.4
In Bratya Karamazovy, (The Brothers Karamazov) Alyosha has visions of Father Zossima and Christ in the context of the wedding at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-12). Dostoevsky states, "Christ visits people not only when they are grieving, but also when they experience joy. By performing a miracle he increased their joy . . . .Whoever loves the people, loves their joy as well."5
Even during the Soviet period, Zakharov argues, Russian literature was not systematically and wholly anti-Christian. Though despised and rejected by the mainstream Soviet literary establishment, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn managed to depict Christian values and imagery in their writing.6 Since the fall of the Soviet Union their works have been in great demand.
Gospel Texts in Russian Literature of the 18th-20th Centuries serves as an extremely helpful tool for the study of Russian literature, culture, and mentality. Those who have had conversations with Russians know how much their language is filled with examples, metaphors, and analogies taken from the classical literary works of such revered Russian writers as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, and Bulgakov. Rarely a conversation passes without comparing the present realities of life to ones depicted in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
In the post-Soviet era, as Russian Christian culture and religious consciousness experience revival, Russians are able to recover their spiritual roots in part by reacquainting themselves with biblical themes reflected in literature. Missionaries working in the former Soviet Union certainly should familiarize themselves with Russian literature and tap this rich resource of spiritual insight.
Oleg P. Turlac is professor of theology at the College of Theology and Education, Kishinev, Moldova, and a doctor of ministry candidate at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
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