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The legend of Kitezj - the invisible city

15.12.2009 - (idw) University of Gothenburg

In Russian culture - prose, poetry, music and art - there is an important legend, the legend of the invisible city of Kitezh. According to the legend, there used to be a city on the bank of Lake Svetloyar, situated near Nizhny Novgorod in Russia. Research at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, reveils the rooths of this Russian folk myth. The story goes that the city survived the Tartar invasion by becoming invisible. The medieval legend was passed down verbally for a long time before being written down in the 1700s. The location of the city, which used to be known only to a narrow group of Old Believers, eventually became a destination for pilgrims of many faiths in the second half of the 1800s. At the time of the First World War, Kitezh had already come to symbolise the ideal Russia. Still to this day, the righteous are said to be able to hear the town bells and see the city's reflection in the lake. The Kitezh legend is widely known, and has been the subject of many publications and scholarly works.

Irina Karlsohn's doctoral thesis sets out to answer the questions about why the legend has been so important to so many people and about what the legend has represented during the different historical phases. The study explores the development of the legend and its role in the Russian culture 1843-1940. This holistic perspective has been missing in previous research. Karlsohn shows how the legend has been perceived differently during the different periods. Around a century ago, and especially after the revolution in 1905, the Russian intelligentsia tried to find a solution to the political ideological, artistic and philosophical crisis they felt was evident in Russia. They wanted some kind of spiritual renewal, and showed great interest in guiding the future direction of the Russian literature. Folk myths seemed useful in this context.

From 1900 to 1917, there was a steady stream of writings on Kitezh. The legend became an all-Russian myth, and the thesis explores this process in detail. Its apocalyptic meanings were a prerequisite for the interest shown by the Russian intelligentsia. A large number of Russian authors and poets travelled to the cult place associated with the legend, and their accounts contributed to the establishment of the myth in the literary canon. Yet, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera from 1907 - The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya - was the primary artistic account of the legend in the pre-revolution period. In addition, the opera had an obvious impact on later representations.

From 1917 to 1940, the Kitezh legend developed into a literary myth that was given an array of different meanings. At the same time, the Kitezh legend changed in the sense that the myth became a model of explanation that was applied on the country's dramatic historical events.

Karlsohn's thesis helps us understand Russian literature and cultural history, but it also has more modern relevance. Different political and religious groups still today use the Kitezh legend to interpret the meaning of Russian history. However, the historical roots are all too often left in the dark, and Karlsohn's thesis helps shed new light on these roots.

Title of the doctoral thesis: POISKI RUSI NEVIDIMOJ. Kiteskaja legenda v russkoj kul'ture. 1843-1940
The thesis will be publicly defended on Saturday 12 December 2009 at 10 am.
Venue: Lilla hörsalen, Humanisten, Renströmsgatan 6, Gothenburg.
Opponent: Professor Erik Egeberg
For more information, please contact Irina Karlsohn, e-mail:

Read more about the thesis here:
The thesis is written in Russian with a summary in Swedish and English.
Weitere Informationen: - press information - thesis
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