In literary circles the emergence of the Russian novel as a powerful force in the 19th century is often described as an inexplicable phenomenon. That a country that had seemingly lagged behind Western Europe in cultural and political terms should produce in little over 40 years such eminent writers as Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy certainly demands an explication. That explication lies deep in the history of Russia.
The adoption of the Christian faith in 988 by the ancient city of Kiev, the cradle of Russian history and civilisation, owed much to its historical attachment to Constantinople, the capital of an empire and the southern end of a trade route from the Baltic. Before the great schism between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Churches in 1054 two Greek monks, Cyril and Methodius, had gone on a proselytising mission to central Europe using a southern Slavonic language and a Greek based alphabet, thereafter called the Cyrillic alphabet. Subsequently the language was used to spread Christianity in Serbia and Bulgaria before being used in Kiev. In Kiev it was called Church Slavonic and became both the liturgical and literary language of the state. The everyday language, Russian, an eastern Slavonic language, shared the alphabet of the more refined church language. This linguistic duality existed until the 18th century when the two languages were fused together to form what is now the Russian language. Church Slavonic continued to be used as a liturgical language.