The persistence of the eighteenth century in the Russian cultural imagination


The first lines of Rossiiada by Mikhail Kheraskov (7756.c.1)

The second 2014/15 CamCREES seminar saw Professor Luba Golburt of UC Berkeley speak about the paradox of the obscurity and tenacity of the 18th century in the Russian cultural and historical imagination.  These notes go on to look at her question of the Russian 18th century’s true length, in terms of classification and subject headings.

Russian literature’s “Golden Age” was the 19th century, exemplified by Pushkin, the poet described to this day in Russia as nashe vse (our everything).  Professor Golburt’s absorbing talk looked at the way in which the epoch which preceded it, the 18th century, both fell into undeserved obscurity and yet also cast an enduring shadow long after it ended.  The talk was based on Professor Golburt’s recently published book, The first epoch : the eighteenth century and the Russian cultural imagination (the University Library’s copy is electronic and can be accessed by Library readers from this LibrarySearch record).Professor Golburt talked about the Russian 18th century’s mixture of feudalism and enlightenment and the various literary styles and figures the century saw.  If Pushkin was the start of Russian literature, then where did that leave the 18th century?  As she demonstrated, many later writers treated it as foreign country, and she talked about the many ways in which the 18th century was manifested in 19th-century literature from the Golden Age to the century’s end and the work of writers such as Turgenev.

Professor Golburt started her talk, though, by a consideration of what exactly the span of the 18th century was in Russia if we looked at the historical context more broadly than strict dates.  The Russian century was bookended by the reigns of two of the most significant figures in Russian history.  As the century began, Peter the Great was already in power.  Several relatively short reigns followed his death in 1725, before the rise to the throne of Catherine the Great in 1762.  She would rule for 34 years until her death in 1796.  If the Russian 18th century started with Peter the Great, did it end in 1796 with the death of Catherine the Great?  Or was it longer?  As Professor Golburt explained, one could argue if one wished that Russia’s 18th century really ended later in the 19th century – maybe with the defeat of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, for example, maybe even with the true end of the epoch’s feudalism in 1861’s emancipation of the serfs.

20141028 2. Kniazhnin

Title page of volume 1 of Iakov Kniazhnin’s Sobranie sochinenii (S756.c.748.1-2)

How is the Russian 18th century dealt with in the bibliographic catalogue?  The University Library, as many Anglophone libraries, uses Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) in its catalogue records.  Subject headings are particularly important in a collection such as ours.  Over half our books are housed in closed-access storage (the subject of a recent blog post), which means that the reader must rely on subject headings to achieve the browsability afforded by the open shelf.  Books which are on the open shelf, however, are subject to the Library’s rather idiosyncratic scheme, so the physical browsability of the actual books can usefully by supplemented by our records’ subject headings, even if the objectivity of controlled taxonomies is at the mercy of the cataloguer’s inevitable subjectivity.

Russian literature is dealt with by LCSH and our local classification scheme relatively simply and similarly.  The list below shows LCSH in bold followed by headings in our classification scheme.

Russian literature — To 1700         ≈ [see below]
Russian literature — 18th century
 ≈ Russian poetry [etc*] — Early, to 1800
Russian literature — 19th century 
≈ Russian poetry [etc] — 1801-1900
Russian literature — 20th century
 ≈ Russian poetry [etc] — 1901-1991
Russian literature — 21st century
≈ Russian poetry [etc] — 1992-

*[except Russian drama, which starts with “Early, to 1900”]

The major difference is that, while the LCSH system includes the general term “Russian literature” as well as specific genres such as “Russian poetry”, the Library’s classification scheme concentrates on genres.  Books on cross-genre Russian literature would likely be placed in 756:13 (History of literature), 756:14 (Special periods), or 756:16 (Special topics and aspects).

While 18th-century Russian literature, then, is easily labelled in these schemes, the Russian 18th century is not so quite so simply handled in terms of its history.  LCSH allow for multiple cuts at the cake.  You can apply both the standard Russia–History–18th century heading as well as a multitude of more specific headings relating to rulers (eg Russia–History–Peter I, 1689-1725) or events (eg Russia–History–Rebellion of Pugachev, 1773-1775).  There is also one heading provided for a wider period than just the 18th century alone, but Russia–History–1613-1917 is specifically designed for material covering the whole >400-year period of the House of Romanov.

A book can, and usually should, have multiple subject headings in its record.  In the University Library, though, where we keep only one copy of a book, it can have only one classmark.  The classification scheme for Russian history is quite interesting (and controversial in its treatment of many modern countries as Russian localities; interested readers can find it within this page).  It too gives an overarching House of Romanov category (586:4), but gives rather strange and uneven treatment to the period and figures within it.  The 18th century is covered by just two classmarks.  586:5 is “1689-1725 : Peter the Great”, and 586:6 is “1762-1796 : Catherine the Great. 18th century”.  Those who determined the classification scheme clearly saw the century as ending with Catherine; the next classmark, 586:7, is “1796-1914 : 19th century in general”.  No long 18th century for Russia in the University Library…

This piece is illustrated with pictures from some of the Library’s very few Russian literary editions actually published in the 18th century; we standardly hold later editions of works by authors from this period.  The first illustration comes from our 12-volume set of works by Mikhail Kheraskov (1733-1807), showing the first page in volume 1 of his epic poem Rossiada.  The set, which was published from 1796 to 1803 is at 7756.c.1-12.   The second shows the title of page of volume 1 of a 1787 Sobranie sochinenii (Set of works (4 volumes in 2); S756.c.78.1-2) by Iakov Kniazhnin (1742-1791).

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

Mel Bach

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