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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 therefore at times took the form of ideological manifestos rather than manuals for or descriptions of use. Here one may mention the repeated echoes of the programs of Western European theorists of language purism, most importantly those of Claude Favre de Vaugelas, whose works were attentively studied by such leading Russian literary figures as Vassilii Trediakovskii and Aleksandr Sumarokov. Language purism, in classical French formulations, implied modeling the literary language on the spoken language of the most tasteful members of court society, rejecting archaisms, vulgarisms, and neologisms. But norms of "tasteful" Russian were slow to emerge at the imperial court in St. Petersburg and among Russian polite society, where French was the dominant language for most of the period in question; neologisms were at times practically unavoidable, given the need for new technical and scholarly terms; and views as to what constituted archaisms and vulgarisms varied immensely within and between periods.

In sum, Zhivov gives a tremendously detailed account of transformations of usage in response not to ideal descriptions of linguistic systems or genealogies, but to rapidly changing actual views concerning the semiotic significance of one or another linguistic marker in various functional registers and genres. His account takes us from the state-led innovations of the Petrine era through the literary debates on reform and normalization of the mid-eighteenth century, culminating in the rise to dominance of a new synthetic "Slavianorossiiskii" language in the era of Catherine the Great. Zhivov then examines the later era of modernizing purism associated with the literary activities of Nikolai Karamzin and his circle, the debates between the "archaists" and the "innovators," and finally, the retention of marked inheritances from Slavonic in the language of religious writing in the first half of the nineteenth century. [End Page 645]

One of the few shortcomings of this volume derives from Zhivov's decision not to revise his work for this edition. Not only is it a pity that the book does not reflect his own and others' more recent studies; one also regrets the absence of potentially more accessible synthetic statements—geared to the needs of a more generalist readership in English—of the main arguments and results of the volume, which are therefore available only to readers patient enough to work through amazingly detailed catalogs of minor linguistic nuances. Fortunately, the book is equipped with a fabulously detailed and useful index. One cannot help but note, as well, that there is a larger number of typographical errors than one would wish for.

But these few flaws hardly detract from the significance of this publication. Zhivov's work is to its subject what Varenius's was to its own: a masterful synthetic statement summarizing the most authoritative current knowledge. This precise, fluid, and highly competent translation by Marcus Levitt, himself a prominent scholar of eighteenth-century Russian literature and culture, performs a service for English readers as significant as Polikarpov's did for Peter's contemporaries. This volume will serve as a fundamental reference and teaching text for all students and scholars of Russian culture and literature. With its close attention to matters of intercultural influence and borrowing, it will be a valuable resource for scholars working on other traditions and on broader cultural histories of the Enlightenment. [End Page 646]

Kevin M. F. Platt
The University of Pennsylvania

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
644-646
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-26
Open Access
No
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