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Russia Triumphant: War Poetry in the Eighteenth Century

Joachim Klein


This paper deals with a variety of lyric poetry that was widely cultivated under Catherine II — the poetry of war. This poetry was written almost always as oc- casional court poetry; it flourished in the general context of festivities organized in celebration of the Russian successes in the numerous wars of the period. The analysis takes into account not only the main poets, but also the minor poets in order to receive a fuller picture of the period’s mentality. Presenting themselves as loyal subjects, the poets dedicated their texts mostly to Catherine II, congratulating her on her victories and praising her multifarious virtues. This panegyric element sheds a light on the cult of the empress and the specifics of her contemporary image. But the poets addressed their works not only to Catherine, but also to her victorious generals and in some cases also to the armed forces. In practicing this kind of poetry, the authors not only showed their patriotism, but also their poetic virtuosity and their erudition: their poetic task was to translate the well-known military facts into the solemn “language” of the “high style”. Writing a victory ode was a celebratory act sui generis: according to a venerable tradition of classical antiquity, the poetic word was able to transcend time, ensuring eternal glory. Remaining close to official doctrine, the poets were nevertheless able to express their own patriotic view on the ongoing wars. This patriotism came in two kinds; each one represented a certain attitude to war. The first was a radical patriotism that advocated the pursuit of national glory by the ruthless use of military power in foreign politics. The second kind was a moderate patriotism that saw war as a necessary evil; it obsessively strove to reconcile Catherine’s bellicose politics with the traditional ideal of а “just war”. The article closes with a discussion of war poetry in its relation to the peace-loving ideals of European Enlightenment.


Eighteenth century; Occasional court poetry; the theme of war; the cult of the empress; two kinds of Russian patriotism


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