Revising the Notion of a “Secular/Religious” Rift in Mid-to-Late Eighteenth-Century Russian Culture

Marcus Levitt, University of Southern California

This paper argues against the generally accepted picture of Russian culture in the eighteenth century as exclusively secular and rationalist. It suggests that a new cultural synthesis emerged during the fifty-year period from the mid 1740s through roughly the late 1790s, a rapprochement between ecclesiastical and secular culture. The argument here rests upon and elaborates the work of Viktor Zhivov on the development of the Russian literary language. While the Petrine period witnessed a sharp linguistic differentiation between secular and religious languages, which was graphically illustrated in the creation of the new “civic script,” by mid-century the developing literary language had been re-defined as the “Slaveno-rossijskij jazyk,” which as the label suggests, subsumes both Church Slavonic and vernacular elements. Živov traces the process by which this language was defined—in essence, the creation of a discourse of synthesis—and provides a powerful framework from which to examine the changing cultural status of religion. The new “Slaveno-rossijskij synthesis” was to be, in Živov’s formulation, “the single language for a single unified culture” (“edinyj jazyk edinoj kul′tury”).

The rapprochement between the religious and vernacular traditions may also be demonstrated in a whole series of literary, sociological and institutional phenomena. However, it seems more appropriate to describe this phenomenon as a unique discourse rather than simply a period or movement, insofar as discourse occupies a mediating position between cultural ideology and the embodiment of its conceptions (to whatever degree) in concrete actions, political, social and institutional formations. This approach seems particularly pertinent to the phenomenon under discussion, insofar as the discourse in question was embodied in—and in some sense equivalent to—the very vehicle of communication itself—the new literary language. The paper will trace some of the contours of this discourse in both the secular and religious literary traditions, which (it will be argued) manifested significant parallels, crossovers, and commonalities. Secular writers wrote in various “duxovnye žanry,” while the new generation of Russian (rather than Ukrainian) “enlightened churchmen” who came into authority under Elizabeth and Catherine revived the Petrine tradition of giving sermons, which were acknowledged by the neo-classical genre system, written in the new synthetic language (rather than in Slavonic), and often published by secular presses. An understanding of the discourse of synthesis has important consequences for how we understand such central and disputed notions as a Russian Enlightenment, the role of the church in imperial Russia, and the context in which modern Russian literature came into being.