Russia Triumphant: War Poetry in the Eighteenth Century

This paper deals with a variety of lyric poetry that was extremely popular in eighteenth-century Russian literature — the poetry of war. I had access to over 160 texts, which amounted to a mass phenomenon at the time. This poetry is mostly of a very modest literary quality, but it sheds a light on the political mentality of of the period and, more specifically, on the cult of Catherine II.

War poetry was written almost always as occasional court poetry, celebrating Russian military successes in the numerous wars of the period: victories, favourable peace treaties, and annexations. The authors dedicated their poems mostly to the empress, but also to her victorious generals and to her troops. This poetry flourished in the general context of official and private festivities organized in celebration of the national triumphs: the writing of a war poem was an individual act of celebration; the style of such a poem was festive elation.

For the poets, writing war poems provided a welcome opportunity to display their patriotism before the empress and the other highly placed addressees. The poets’ patriotism came in two kinds; each one corresponded to a certain attitude to war. The first was a radical patriotism advocating the pursuit of national glory by the ruthless use of military power. The second kind was a moderate patriotism that saw war as a necessary evil; it obsessively strived to reconcile Catherine II’s bellicose politics with the traditional ideal of a 'just war'.

The radical attitude is clearly expressed in Lomonovs poems, for example in the twelfth stanza of his seminal ode on the conquest of the Turkish fortress of Khotin in 1739: Peter I proclaims here that thanks to Russian military prowess the 'whole world is now afraid of the Russians', and he is proud to state that the Russian empire has enormously expanded: 'To the north, to the west and to the east'. As can also be shown in other poems by Lomonosov, conquest and territorial expansion are seen as a natural activity of any ruler, which in the early modern history of Europe corresponded to a widespread notion.

The apologetic element, which characterizes the attitude of the moderate patriots, can clearly be discerned in the paradoxical fact that Catherine was celebrated in many war poems not only as a victorious, but also as a peace-loving ruler. This twin role was an important factor of Catherine's public image. As a conqueror, she was Peter the Great's equal; as a peace-loving humanitarian, she surpassed him. In this latter role, Catherine wages war only when she is forced to do so, her chief motive being a love of mankind.

In celebrating Catherine as a pacific ruler, the moderate patriots were compelled do justify her wars on moral grounds. The simplest way of doing this was to depict the enemy as an incarnation of universal evil who must be fought and destroyed with God's help. But there were also political considerations. This was, for example, the case when the Turkish wars were represented as wars of liberation — the Christian minorities of the Ottoman empire, especially the Greeks, were to be delivered from the 'Turkish yoke' by their Russian co-religionists as, for example, in Kheraskov's ode of 1769 in praise of the Russian troops. Still another way of justifying Catherine's Turkish wars was by appealing to the Enlightenment. Accordingly, these wars were fought under the banner of Western civilization against Muslim 'barbarism' and Muslim 'ignorance'. Sumarokov's ode of 1769 on the occasion of Catherine's accession day is a point in case.

The urge of Russian poets to morally justify the empress's foreign politics is especially obvious in the poems that celebrate the annexation of foreign territories — of the Crimean Khanate in 1783 and the Polish territories ten years later. The Russian poets routinely represent these annexations as a blessing for the annexed populations as, for example, the anonymous poet of the Ode on the Transfer of the Crimea and the Kuban'[-river] to the Russian State (1783). We find this apologetic cliché of blissful annexation also, for example, in Vasilii Petrov's ode On the Addition of the Polish Territories to Russia in 1793. As we might add, there was nothing unusual about the blatant untruthfullness of these poems at the time: this was a regular feature of court poetry which strived above all to please the monarch.

In conclusion, I would like to return to the astonishing popularity war poetry enjoyed in eighteenth-century Russia. This popularity is undeniable, but it should not lead us to the wrong conclusions about eighteenth-century Russia's cultural climate. Bellicose poetry was a typical feature of this climate; but the same might be said about a very different kind of literature. This was a literature in praise of peace; it consisted mostly of translations from French and German (as discussed by Michael Schippan). For the readers of this literature, the traditional right of monarchs to wage war as they pleased and to acquire eternal fame as a conqueror had become controversial. The obsessive efforts of the Russian poets to justify Catherine and her wars are an eloquent symptom of this enlightened view. Among Russia's original authors, this line was represented by Aleksandr Radishchev and his A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow of 1790 (see Robert Jones). Among the Russian poets, only Karamzin comes to mind in this respect. Karamzin is one of the very few, if not the only Russian poet who did not write patriotic war poems. In the autobiographical passages of his verse 'Epistle to Women', he expresses a definite disdain for the military. This poem appeared in 1796. Two years earlier, in 1794, Karamzin had written a letter to his friend Dmitriev, the author of the belligerent Voice of a Patriot about the Conquest of Warsaw (1794). Karamzin criticizes this poem with the following words: 'The Ode and the Voice of the Patriot are good in terms of poetry, but not in terms of subject matter. My friend, why don't you leave such things to our lesser poets. Don't humiliate the muses and Apollo' (Karamzin's italics).

It is, however, not entirely clear, whether Karamzin's remark is directed only against Dmitriev's poem and the suppression of the Polish uprising, or against war poetry and war as such. The latter seems to be the case in Karamzin's War Song [Военная песнь]. It represented a reaction to the outbreak of the Swedish War in 1788, but it was published only three years later, after the end of the war, apparently for reasons of censorship. At first sight, this poem is a bloodthirsty appeal to a 'brave soldier' to fight for the fatherland. This appeal goes on to the last stanza of the poem. But at the very end Karamzin surprises us by a turn-about, suddenly accusing his 'brave soldier' of murder:

'[...] and when the enemy dies,
Struck down by your bravery
Then clean yourself of the blood with tears from your heart.
You killed your fellow human beings, your brothers!'

– Joachim Klein, Universiteit Leiden

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