If you’ve ever read any form of Russian literature, you most likely read Pushkin’s words. Even though you might have not read Pushkin’s works directly (as there are countless Russian writers and poets), you were still reading words, phrases, sentence structures, tones, and rhythms that were the first developed in his works. Russian experts say that all Russian literature written after Alexander Pushkin is in some way and form influenced by Pushkin’s writing. Even more, Pushkin’s works established themes and motifs that soon defined central elements of Russian culture — themes that are still present in literature and norms to this day. Why is this so? And how did Pushkin influence the Russian language? This article will answer these questions by exploring Russia’s history and giving perspective on Pushikin’s impact on the course of Russian culture.
To understand Pushkin’s influence over the language, one must understand the historical context behind his rise to fame. Back in the early 19th century, the Russian language was far from the one we know today — it was rarely spoken by the upper classes (who largely spoke French instead) and was the main language of the lower classes. Because the upper classes so widely ignored Russian, the language failed to develop complex sentence structures, many critical words, and techniques to express intricate ideas. The language’s “lower-class” status confined it to a meager lexicon and simple phraseology that could not compete with other languages of that time such as English, German, and French.
This dissonance between the upper and lower classes largely reflected the social and political climate of the Russian Empire. In the early 19th century, Russian society was organized into two distinct groups: the nobility and the serfs. The serfs comprised most of the population and were legally bound to the land owned by the nobility, who in return for the work done by the serfs, gave them food and shelter (much akin to American slavery that was happening at the time). Due to this sharp social division, and the Russian language was seen as the “language of the poor” and thus failed to develop in the ways other languages did. Only when Pushkin began masterfully using the Russian language in his works did the rest of the nobility adopt it and began using it in their speech and writing.
So how did Pushkin influence the language? Well, claiming that he influenced the Russian language is a great understatement. He created the modern Russian language. He developed the highly nuanced level of language that has defined all Russian literature after him and is credited with massively augmenting the Russian vocabulary. Whenever Pushkin encountered a gap in the Russian vocabulary, he used a word from another language (known as calques) which eventually made their way into the common language. By knowing foreign languages, he was able to incorporate influences from Western writers into his prose to further the language’s complexity. Because Russian was not widely written at the time, there were few conventional grammatical rules and sentence constructions backing the language, so Pushkin developed a rich rhetorical style that others began to mirror in their works. Even though his life was fairly short (he lived to be 37 years old) he managed to leave an example of almost every literary genre — from lyrical poetry to novels — that soon became the de-facto standard of the language.
Although Pushkin by far made the biggest strides in developing the Russian language, it’s important to note that he was heavily influenced by other pioneers of his time period, such as Derzhavin, Zhuvsky, and Batyushkov. Yet, Pushkin was able to build upon the style of these contemporaneous writers by using some of their defining elements and his own unique colloquialisms and poetic sentence constructions. Alexander Pushkin remains one of the most celebrated writers and poets of all of Russian history.