The Book as an Event: The Formal Method: An Anthology of Russian Modernism

Guest editor: Nikolay Poselyagin

In the rubric “The Book as an Event,” the three-volume publication The For­mal Method: An Anthology of Russian Moder­nism, edited by Serguei Alex. Oushakine, is discussed. It is built upon not only the style traditional for the humanities in Russia, as a canonical and canonizing selection of “classical” author­s and texts, but also it is a kind of an overview of the intellectual evolution of a number of figures of Russian formalism and the Russian avant-garde, reflec­ted in their own articles and manifestos. This overview demonstrates the great complexity, unpredictability, and internal contradictions of each of these evolutions. But in addition to this, the anthology also has another, even more important task: it tries to update the complex and still inadequately reflected theoretical legacy that remains from supporters of the formal method. The ways such reactualization takes places and what intellectual challenges the contemporary reader will face when undertaking the anthology is discussed by participants in this rubric: Polina Barskova, Boris Gas­parov, Michael Kunichika, Yuri Levin­g, Mark Lipovetsky, Basil Lvoff, Galina Orlova, Irina Sandomirskaja and Sergey Zenkin. The materials of this discussion show that Oushakine’s project is capable of giving rise to many different, sometimes even practically contradictionary interpretations, and that the reactualization of formalism today is in and of itself an extremely complex challenge for the humanities.

Research on Autobiographies: Three Perspectives

Guest editor: Yuri Zaretskiy

The “fashion” for research on autobio­graphies began in the 1970s with the initiatives of literary critics, who were determined to identify the formal, semantic, and historical boundaries of the autobiographical genre. Philosophers and historians quickly joined this initiative — frequently from a critical position. The result of this new attention to autobiographical texts was a series of books and articles that reflected a previously unprecendented scholarly interest not only in autobiographies, but also its relatives: memoirs, diaries, and travelogues. Incidentally, researchers were unable to create a universally recognized definition for the autobiographical genre — the variety within the distribution of the stories people wrote about themselves did not fit into the narrow boundaries of a definition.

Today, after linguistic, anthropological, and other “turns” in cultural research, many arguments from the participants of the long ago discussions seem straightforward, sometimes even naive. The eurocentrism that seemed self-evident to them looks archaic, and it was based on the affirmation of the dependence of the autobiographical tradition on the formation of individualism in the West. Turning away from the development of a univer­sal concept of the “autobiography,” researchers now generally agree that this concept can only be correctly applied to designate a specific genre of European literature of the modern period. As far as earlier texts of a personal nature are concerned, the more vague term “autobiographical composition” is generally used, or an entire spectrum of neologisms that entered into scholarly rotation in the 1990s (egodocument, Selbstzeugnis, l’ecrit du for privé, life-writing).

In parallel with theoretical and methodological inquiries, by expanding the cultural and temporal boundaries, the multidisciplinary aspect of the study of autobiographical texts is also expanding. In analytical philosophy, it is the call to clarify how the category of “I” is formed by language in various communicative situations; in psychology, in particular psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology, autobiographical writing is used as a therapeutic tool; in pedagogy, autobiographical stories are used in the process of educating and teaching; in feminist and gender studies, autobiographies occupy a special place as the most representative documents that give us the chance to hear the voices of women, and in postcolonial studies, the voices of subaltern populations. And this list far from covers all of the various disciplines for which autobiographical compositions are an essential object of research.

Of course, the claim is not being made that the three articles published here present this research space, which is so hard to capture — they are only three perspectives, which were also chosen relatively at random. Incidentally, one of these perspectives is highly representative. I am talking about the dazzlingly vivid essay “Rousseau and the Autobiographical Revolution,” by Philippe Lejeune, the recognized master of the study of the autobiography. It is Lejeune who stood at the sources of discussions on the beginning of the autobiographical genre in French — and more broadly, European — literature. Then, he had defended the point of view according to which Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions would be considered the first autobiography. As the reader will see, since then, this point of view has been subjected to changes, although not radical ones — for Lejeune, Rousseau is now not the founder of the genre, but a decisive transformer of it, a revolutionary who filled it with contemporary personal content. And, it must be added, it is difficult to argue against his arguments in support of his thesis.

The second perspective presented by Gabriele Jancke in the article “Diaries in Historical Research: Early Modern Texts and Contexts” is the view of a researcher who is usually presented as a historian who studies autobiographical compositions of the modern era in German-speaking regions. This definition, however, is only partly fair: Gab­rie­le Jancke is a historian of a special disposition. First of all, this is because her research is deeply rooted in the context of contemporary knowledge in the social sciences and humanities and has been carefully verified in theoretical terms. Moreover, she is the creator of an original methodology of studying personal documents, the content of which is expressed concisely in her theory of “autobiography as a social practice.” Jancke’s work is a rare example of research where a historian who studies specific autobiographical texts, that is, working in the microhistorical tradition, pays close attention to the historical circumstances of their appearance and existence, that is, links the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels into a single historical unit. The “social bed” with which she familiarizes readers of her article, the description of the practice of keeping diaries in societies based on households, as well as a picture of the connections and relationships between people in the early modern era, is a brilliant illustration of this.

Finally, the third perspective presented in the article “My Life for the State: The Mass Practice of Composing Work Record Autobiographies for Work by Soviet People” by Yury Zaretskiy covers texts belonging to specific autobiographical “subgenre,” which, presumably, will be well-remembered by Russian readers of an older generation. They are short formulaic stories about oneself composed by people in the USSR for various state and societal institutions and organizations in accordance with the requirements of the Soviet paperwork (autobiographies for records). The analysis of the content of such autobiographies from the 1950s through the 1980s and the circumstances of their composition has allowed the author of the article to come to a series of conclusions about thier place and role in Soviet society: 1) the target audience of these texts was the Soviet state; 2) truthfulness was an important requirement; 3) this requirement did not rule out a certain level of freedom for their authors; 4) within the boundaries of this freedom, they had the possibility of using certain strategies to present themselves to the state in the best light; 5) the practice of writing autobiographies for records corresponds to the practice of Christian confession; 6) this practice served as mechanism for subjectification and was a means for the formation of the Soviet person.

Case Study

The article “My Children Are Third-Generation Workers in the Arts...”: The Communicative Functions of Domestic Memoirs of the 1930s by Maria Mayofi­s is dedicated to an analysis of the transmission of memories of the pre-revolutionary past among the Soviet musical and artistic elite in the second half of the 1930s. Some of the memoirs and autobiographical writings from that period were initially created only for handwritten circulation or to be read aloud to friends and guests at home. In this case, the microsocial environment in which these memoirs were to function had a large influence on the thematic repertoire, hierarchy of values, and type of subjects written about and depicted, as did family memoir traditions and family archives. The author uses the concept of the episteme of memory, introduced by psychologist Jens Brockmeier, as the analytical framework for discussing this set of issues. The memoirs of the opera singer Maria Dulova, written from 1934–1935, serve as the case study.

A Hero of Our Time

The articles that comprise this section were first presented as a talk at the international research conference “‘Hero of Our Time’: Leaders of Public Opinion and Their Cults in the Era of (Post)Modernity,” sponsored by New Literary Observer and European University at St. Petersburg (Moscow, 1–3 June 2018). The most important component of modern European history was the emergence of a secular culture, which defended individual autonomy from the dictates of the church and the state. The emergence of institutions of civil society was accompanied by the phenomenon of secular public figures, “leaders of public opinion,” “rulers of thoughts,” and “national heroes.” In the Russian tradition, from the light hand of Mikhail Lermontov, the expression “the hero of our time” became entrenched in the language. It describes a sociocultural type of person who becomes a symbol for an entire generation (or several generations), largely defining the ethical, aesthetic, and behavioral norms and practices of an era. These new cultural heroes successfully compete with traditional hierarchies of authority, and over time, they markedly undermine the symbolic capital of monarchs and saints.

Irina Basalaeva’s “‘Real People’ of the ‘Heartfelt Patriotism’ Era in the National Cinema” examines a rare case of resuscitation in post-Soviet Russian cinema in the form of the status of an ideological imperative: the Soviet myth of the real man. Aleksandr Melnik’s film The Territory is an intelligible political message to the “people” on behalf of the state. The discursive production of this message was not limited to the framework of the film, but was also diffusely distributed in the media space in the form of “orthopedic” narrative support for the film’s text, which is quite unusual in the practice of modern Russian postproduction. The article focuses on the distinguishing characteristics of the aesthetics of the genuine in the era of digital cinema. In the list of features of a true man, those that do not fit into the canonical image of the hero of Soviet “male” cinema are detailed.

Aleksei Popov’s “No One Believes the Colonel: The Glorification of the Militar­y Portions of Brezhnev’s Biography as a Tuning Fork of Historical Memory” underlines that the purposeful glorification of Leonid Brezhnev’s time spent in the military was a notable trend in Soviet public policy of the 1970s and an important element of formation of the Soviet leader’s “cult of personalit­y.” The apotheo­sis of this process was the 1978 edition of Malaya Zemlya, an autobiographical work by Brezhnev, and the subsequent reprints and extensive public discussion surrounding it. Despite the fact that during the Brezhnev period, the memory of World War II formed the backbone of Soviet memorial discourse, the glorification of military portions of the Brezhnev’s life on the non-public level caused rejection or even outright derision. In this article, the author attempts to analyze the reasons for Brezhnev’s “memorial fiasco” based on a wide range of sources.

Alexander Suslov’s “On the Origins of the Ambivalent Cult of Henryk Sienkiewicz: The 1880s” aims to explain the reason for the dual nature of Sienkiewicz’s reception in Poland through a study of the first large-scale controversy caused by his historical novels. This research shows how in the 1880s, the framing of Sienkiewicz’s perception as a national hero and anti-hero was based on various pictures of the Polish “ideal fatherland,” which was conservative and articulated in the spirit of modernization.

Vasiliy Kondrat’ev: The Islander

The NLO Publishing House is preparing to publish a volume of prose and essays by Vasiliy Kondrat’ev (1967–1999), a leading representative of the last generation of unoffical Leningrad literature, whose life was tragically cut short as the result of an accident. Kondrat’ev began publishing in samizdat form in 1989 in Mitin Zhurnal and in the almanac Ravnodenstvie, and later his poems, prose, and translations were published in the journals Chernovnik, Mesto Pechati, Zvezvda Vostoka, and Kommentarii. He translated André Breton, Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Paul Bowles, Giorgio de Chirico, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and others. He was the author of forewards for Yuri Yurkun’s book Foolish Company and Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. He was a laureate of the Andrei Bely Prize (1988). He published only one book during his lifetime — Walks (1993). The section dedicated to Vasiliy Kondrat’ev and preceding the publication of the collection of his compositions includes Igor Vishnevetsky’s article “The Literary Fate of Vasiliy Kondrat’ev” and texts by Kondrat’ev himself: the story/spoof “The Islander” (1991), the “pataphysical” essay “Alfred-Jarry” (1998), and letters to Arkady Dragomoshchenko and Yuri Leiderman.

Vishnevetsky’s article deals with “literary fate” of Vasiliy Kondrat’ev (1967–1999) and various possible contexts of his experimental work in poetry and prose; it presents a systemic analysis of Kondrat’ev’s poetics and ideas; it also discusses Kondrat’ev’s gradual transition from experimental, largely surrealist poetry to prose, which employed the strategies and means, which we normally associate with “poetic utterance”. Specific attention is paid to Kondrat’ev’s concept of “open poetic form” and its realization in his own work. Vishnevetsky argues that a challenge presented by Kondrat’ev’s experiments and ideas to his contemporaries and Russian literature in general came ahead of his time and therefore was not fully appreciated, yet the time has come for reevaluation and re-contextualization of Kondrat’ev’s oeuvre and correct understanding of his place in contemporary Russian literature.


Oleg Ivanovich Fedotov’s “Brodsky on the Poetics of the Verses of Tsvetaeva’s Poem ‘New Year’s’” comments on Brodsky’s observations in verse on Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “New Year’s”, which are interesting primarily because the setting for the analysis of expression is inseparably connected with the content. With a careful reading of the essay, many of observations may give rise to a valuable heuristic impulse among both poets who are looking to widen and enrich their artistic horizons and researchers, literary scholars, and linguistics, who may gain an infectious lesson in the harmonious fusion of scientific thinking and artistic imagination.

Ekaterina Tupova’s “Tolstoy Motifs in David Samoylov’s Poem ‘The Return’ (1988)” is devoted to David Samoylov’s reception and elaboration of Tolstoy’s plot motifs in the poem “Vosvrashenie” (“The Return”) (1988). In addition to central reference to the significant episode of Leo Tolstoy’s life (his departure from home and death), poem includes much number of reflections of Tolstoy’s prose — particularly, of some plot lines and scenes of “Anna Karenina”, “Resurrection”, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Devil”. Several motifs, inspired by Tolstoy or corresponding to his works and life, create a kind of subtext, which interpretation helps to understand complicated (and even puzzling) poem and expands representation of last period of Samoylov’s creative work.

Grigory Benevich’s “Poetry of Hybrid Warfare: On Igor Bulatovsky’s Poem ‘What the Throat Will Say...’ and Other Poems” analyzes ten poems by Igor Bulatovsky from the collection “To Watch Death” (2016), written in the context of what is known as the hybrid war in Ukraine. Special focus has been given to the first poem of the collection that has intertextual links with numerous works of Russian poetry, particularly “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” It also shows this poem’s connection with military operations in the Donbass in the spring of 2014. The article analyzes the methods that the poet applies as he transforms and uses inspiration from military and political events to solve purely poetic issues, avoiding straightforward journalism and ideology while simultaneous taking a deeply humanistic stance in his approach to understanding the very essence of war by poetic means.