The Life of Avvakum
PLOT SUMMARY: Beginning with an invocation to god, Avvakum describes his childhood growing up in Grigorovo within the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. By the age of twenty-one, Avvakum had become an ordained deacon and became a priest two years later. After being visited by a young woman who came to confess her sins to him, Avvakum had a vision that set him on his holy path. Shortly after this he was beaten by a man angered by his teachings and “lay dead” for half an hour before being brought back to life. Avvakum moved from town to town with similar events taking place wherever he went as many people didn’t agree with his conservative ways.
In 1652 Avvakum, went to Moscow to protest Nikon and the brutality with which he was persecuting Old Believers. He was exiled to Siberia multiple times during this time. For the last fourteen years of his life, he was imprisoned in a pit in
the ground. During this time, he wrote The Life of Avvakum detailing his persecution. In 1682, he was condemned by a council against the Old Believers and burned at the stake.
ANALYSIS: The Life of Avvakum was one of the earliest works of Russian prison literature and in some ways set many of the trends for the tropes in prison literature that we saw so many times this semester. Among these tropes is the author telling stories about others that aren’t part of the primary narrative in the book. Avvakum does this when he discusses his interactions with the Boyar Vasiliy Petrovich Seremetev on pages 46 and 48.
Another theme that is present in The Life of Avvakum is that even as early as the late 1600s the Russian government was exiling people to Siberia as a convenient way to get rid of troublemakers and colonize a larger empire. Avvakum is exiled multiple times with the intention of him settling parts of Siberia, but returns and is eventually permanently exiled and imprisoned in Siberia.
“I lit three candles and stuck them to the lectern, and raised my right hand into the flame and held it there until the evil conflagration within me was extinguished.” (43)
“An official carried off a widow's daughter, and I besought him that he should return the orphan to her mother. But scorning our entreaty he raised up a storm against me; coming in a multitude they trampled me to death near the church. And I lay dead for more than half an hour, and returned to life with a sign from God.” (45)
“Later they exiled me to Siberia with my wife and children. And of our many privations on the road there is too much to tell, but maybe a small portion of them should be mentioned. The Archpriestess had a baby, and we carried her sick in a cart to Tobol'sk. For three thousand versts and about thirteen weeks we dragged along in carts, and by water and sledges one-half the way.” (55-56)
BIOGRAPHY: Avvakum Petrov was born in 1620/1621 in the town of Grigorovo, in present-day Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Most of what is known of his life is from his own work The Life of Avvakum, one of the first autobiographical texts in Russian, in which he details the extent of his lifelong persecution because of his religious beliefs. Avvakum was an archpriest of the Old Believers, a sect of Russian Orthodoxy, that opposed the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, who wanted to unite Russian and Greek Orthodoxy by changing the way Russians performed a number of religious rituals.
In 1652 Avvakum, went to Moscow to protest Nikon and the brutality with which he was persecuting Old Believers. Avvakum was repeatedly imprisoned and beaten for his beliefs and for proclaiming them unapologetically. He was exiled to Siberia multiple times during his life and his family was persecuted and imprisoned as well. For the last fourteen years of his life, he was imprisoned in a pit in the ground. During this time, he wrote The Life of Avvakum detailing his persecution. In 1682, he was condemned by a council against the Old Believers and burned at the stake.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica.
“Avvakum Petrovich.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Apr. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Avvakum-Petrovich.
Archpriest Avvakum. The Life of Avvakum. Translated by Kenneth Brown, Michigan Slavic Publications, 1979.
Hunt, Priscilla. "The Foolishness in The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum and the Problem of Innovation." Russian History, vol. 35, no. 3-4, 2008, 275-308.
Hunt makes the argument that Archpriest Avvakum defied convention by writing about his own life within the hagiographical framework of a saint-martyr’s life as part of a specific rhetorical strategy.
Hunt, Priscilla. "A Penitential Journey: The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum and the Kenotic Tradition." Canadian-American Slavic Studies, vol. 25, no. 1-4, 1991, pp. 201-224.
Hunt examines how Archpriest Avvakum manages to practice the tenets of Kenoticism while being fervent, righteous, and rebellious.
Riha, Thomas. “Avvakum’s Autobiography.” Readings in Russian Civilization. Volume 1, Russia before Peter the Great, 900-1799. University of Chicago Press, 1969, 128-140.
In the introduction to Avvakum’s autobiography, Thomas gives details surrounding the life and death of Avvakum and lists other works that feature Avvakum’s writing.