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  • Language and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia
  • Kevin M. F. Platt
Victor Zhivov , Language and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia. Trans. Marcus Levitt (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2009). Pp. xvii + 506. $78.00.

In early 1715, Peter the Great ordered the translation of Bernhardus Varenius's General Geography (1650), one of the most important synthetic accounts of current scientific knowledge of the era. Displeased with the first version of the translation, carried out by director of the Moscow Typography Fedor Polikarpov, Peter ordered via his representative Ivan Musin-Pushkin that it be corrected, "not using high Slavonic words but the simple Russian language . . . the language of the Foreign Office" (68). This episode presents—like a world reflected in a drop of water—the grand historical processes of linguistic reform under Peter in lucid, schematic form. The Slavonic language that had until the start of the eighteenth century been the dominant written language of Muscovy was to be replaced by a new written language based on current "simple" Russian, in a process similar to the shift from Latin to vernacular writing that had been taking place across Western Europe for centuries. However, as Victor Zhivov's magisterial study demonstrates, things were decidedly more complicated than Peter's instructions might suggest, and than classic scholarship on these processes in Russia once claimed.

Language and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia, Marcus Levitt's translation of Zhivov's 1996 summation of decades of research, traces policies, reforms, rhetorical prescriptions, and actualities of usage of written language in Russia from the late seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, presenting an authoritative account of how the dynamic of language change that originated in the Petrine cultural revolution shaped the modern Russian written language. Zhivov's approach is based on his conviction that a history of the language of Russian writing must be based on a functional and semiotic account of linguistic data rather than on a purely genetic or descriptive one. Accordingly, his work is founded on a study of not only the theoretical formulations and demands of political and cultural figures, but also of actual usage across a broad range of texts.

As Zhivov shows, contemporary views of language over the course of the long eighteenth century often diverged greatly from the realities of usage, so that calls for change not only were not, but could not have been implemented in [End Page 644] the terms in which these demands were articulated. The most prominent case in point is the matter of rejecting or defending a "Slavonic" written language versus a "simple Russian" one—a cultural struggle that recurred in various forms at various historical moments, from the century pre-dating Peter up to the debates between "archaists" and "innovators" in the early nineteenth century. As Zhivov demonstrates, no clear-cut division between these ostensibly distinct languages pertained in actual usage at any time; here he decisively departs from the views of an earlier generation of scholars, who held that written Slavonic and oral Russian constituted a diglossic system in the centuries before Peter's reforms. Instead, Zhivov shows how diverse linguistic elements—grammatical, lexical, syntactic, and even orthographic—mixed in a continuum of stylistic and functional registers. The dominant form of writing in the pre-Petrine era already had become what he refers to as a "hybrid" form of the "bookish language," a result of earlier efforts at language reform in the interests of increased comprehensibility.

Given the entanglement in written usage of genetically Slavonic and Russian forms, the question of "rejection" or "return" to Slavonic was for each generation a matter of which specific elements of the current written language were perceived as Slavonic or archaic, and which were thought of as neutral or unmarked—perceptions that frequently corresponded poorly to the actual linguistic genealogy of these elements. Then, too, reform processes took place in varying ways in varying functional spheres of literary language and in distinct institutional contexts, ranging from the language of the church, through scientific discourses, to the diverse stylistic registers of differing literary genres.

Given the complexity presented by this variegated linguistic landscape for reform and normalization projects, language reformers themselves often violated their own prescriptions, which...


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