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Russian Epistolary Writing from the Middle Ages to the Turn of the 19th Century  

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

Epistolary writing is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Russia’s contributions to world literature—despite the landmark theoretical work of the Russian Formalists in the 1920s, which presciently highlighted the literary interest of the letter and paved the way for the explosion of scholarship on epistolarity in the West in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, the epistolary mode has accompanied and helped to shape Russian literature since its beginnings. For many centuries, epistolary texts offered a space for unusually vivid expressions of unique authorial selves while at the same time encouraging self-conscious play with literary form. Within a century of the adoption of writing by the Eastern Slavs in the mid-10th century, people across the social spectrum were writing letters on birchbark; in the Middle Ages, when Russian writing aimed above all to teach religious truths and build a Christian community, epistolary forms facilitated the creation of exceptionally individualized representations of the author(s) and/or addressee(s) of letters. In the early modern period, epistolary forms played an important role in the development of literature, since they were among the first types of text to be recognized as distinct genres. The late 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed the heyday of the European-style familiar letter, which became a primary literary genre through which elite writers maintained emotional, social, and professional ties, projected a sophisticated self-image, and wrestled with the implications of Russia’s participation in Western cultural life.

Article

Remaking Charles Dickens for 21st-Century Russia  

Emily Finer

Charles Dickens’s writing entered the Russian cultural sphere only a year after he published The Pickwick Papers in England. In 1838, extracts from The Pickwick Papers appeared concurrently in different translations in several Russian journals. Canonical 19th-century writers and thinkers (including Nikolai Gogol, Vissarion Belinsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lev Tolstoy) read the novels in Russian, French, German, or English, either serialized in journals or as books. The popularity of Dickens in Russian translation was such that by the centenary of his birth in 1912 the third complete works—with new translations of all the novels—had been published. His stories of childhood were by then commonly excerpted and rewritten in magazines for Russian children. During Soviet times, Dickens increased in importance and was embedded in both official and private cultural spheres. His realism, his interest in poverty, and his own childhood experience of deprivation in London all rendered him suitable for retranslation for the new mass reader and for Soviet children, all of whom were to be furnished with negative portrayals of life under capitalism. Despite these propagandistic intentions, children and adults often identified with the suffering of Dickens’s child characters and found comfort in his reliable happy endings. In the Soviet Union, novels by Dickens typically held positive associations of warmth, safety, and moral consistency. They also offered inspiration for imaginative travel to a foreign country they could not dream of visiting in person. This convergence of official and personal appreciations of Dickens resulted in the publication of the most complete of complete works: thirty volumes of completely new translations supported by detailed scholarly apparatus. This so-called dark green edition was published in time for the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s birth in 1962, and a five-kopek postage stamp with a portrait of Dickens was issued in the same year. By the 2000s, a reading public who read Dickens as children in the Soviet Union could now read Dickens in English, on and offline, and even visit London for themselves. Two hundred years after Dickens’s birth, in 2012, the glossy Russian magazine Snob dedicated a special issue to Dickens with new commissions from notable writers including Eduard Limonov, Evgenii Popov, and Marina Stepnova. For the special issue’s editors, Dickens was less a representative of English culture than a conduit of nostalgia for their childhoods in the Soviet Union. At the same time, they noted that Dickens’s reception in Russia had come full circle: from the hypercapitalist publishing environment of Victorian London to the wild capitalism of Putin’s Russia.

Article

Male Noble Dress in 19th-Century Russian Literature  

Daniel Green

Dress was highly semiotically charged in 19th-century Russia. Clothing was a material representation of structures of power; this was a reality that writers were aware of and drew on in their work. What a person wore depended on their status, but also partly on their inclinations. Some clothes, such as uniforms, were legally prescribed, while others, such as fashionable dress, relied on generally understood codes. Noblemen used their clothing choices to negotiate their relationship with the state and to express their political leanings. At times they conformed with and at times they retreated from the norms of the public sphere. They also sometimes dressed in opposition to the status quo. Writers used the significances of different kinds of clothing to explore the nuances of social structures and how they affected individuals within society.

Article

Russian Modernist Theater  

Alisa Ballard Lin

Few theatrical epochs have had the lasting international impact of Russian modernist theater. The two most influential theater directors to emerge from this era, Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold, continue to provide rich fodder in their acting theories and performance practices for contemporary theater creators worldwide. Meanwhile, the early 20th century in Russian theater was a time of fierce theoretical and practice-based polemics, rapid technological development, and monumental shifts in theatrical practice as actors were trained in specific internal and external (bodily) techniques and directors took on increasingly more importance for the creative design of a production. At the same time, popular theater was a major avenue of theatrical development in the era, with cabaret and other minor forms enjoying great popularity in Russia and on tours abroad, while avant-garde artists like the Russian futurists created shocking street-based performance art that capitalized on the modernist sense of newness and rejection of the past. Points of debate in studies of Russian modernist theater include disagreement over the definition of what counts as modernist and how seriously to take the polarization and polemics that these theater artists themselves espoused. While modernist theater in Europe is known for its emphasis on closet drama, on grand experiments that were ultimately unperformable, and on mistrust of language and representation, performance practice took a related but different path in Russian culture in the first decades of the 20th century. Despite a great diversity of performance styles, venues, and audiences, theater in the age of Russian modernism unifies around a few key points. First, it placed great emphasis on honing and highlighting the various physical and mental skills of the actor. Second, Russian modernist theater generally valued language and the literary tradition, both Russian and global, despite some efforts to break with literature in theater. Third, theater of this era presented a tone of irony, self-consciousness, and theatricalism. In all its manifestations, it was experimental and self-reflexive, interrogating theater’s relationship to the world and boldly devising new forms. Fourth, Russian modernist theater was richly integrated into its artistic, intellectual, and political context, with ties to science, philosophy, psychology, visual arts, music, dance, film, and literature. Theater came to serve the political ends of the young Soviet nation in the 1920s, though politics were not a predominant force in theater throughout Russian modernism. Theater was not immediately strongly affected by the Russian Revolution of 1917, but by the end of the 1920s, theater was forced to bend to the strong will of Soviet censors, and by the mid-1930s, theatrical innovation was greatly diminished under Stalin-era censorship and its insistence on the style of socialist realism, as well as the general threat of the Stalinist Terror.

Article

Clothes, Costume, and Fashion in Russian Modernism  

James Rann

Writers have always been conscious of the contribution that clothes can make to their work—as material objects, as outward signs of inner character, and as metaphors, especially for language itself. In the early 20th century, however, a time of rapid technological change, as well as of industrialization, globalization, and urbanization, literary interrogations and descriptions of dress evolved to respond to the new ways in which garments were designed, made, marketed, and sold, and to fashion’s increasing pervasiveness in society. Particularly sensitive to these changes were many of the writers associated with modernism, who shared with the nascent fashion industry a preoccupation with questions of novelty and the presentation of the self. Russia was no exception, and there poets, playwrights, and novelists explored and exploited the meanings of clothes and fashion in order to address the urgent questions concerning sex, gender, and race that were thrown up by life in the modern city. Moreover, as elsewhere, these explorations were not limited to the page; rather, writers’ own wardrobes played a part, especially among those who styled themselves as dandies. In other ways, however, Russia diverged from the European norm in its relationship to clothes and fashion and, therefore, in their intersection with literature. First, the habit of appropriating motifs and styles from non-European cultures, which was further galvanized by the modernist turn away from 19th-century culture, had a very different significance in Russia. The long history of ambivalence about Russia’s place in European culture meant that Russians were capable of finding the exotic in their own backyard, leading, for instance, to a vogue for peasant poets. Second, Russia experienced a particularly intense craze for masquerades in the first two decades of the century, which was both reflected in contemporary literature and, in part, a product of an obsession with the connection between inner essences and outer appearances that also manifested itself in modernist poetry. Third, Russian writers of the time were more inclined than most to see their work as part of a wider transformative mission; this often took the form of an attempt to overcome the perceived division between life and art by infusing the everyday with creativity. Clothes, both on the page and in the streets, were an important front in this battle. Finally, the upheaval caused by the revolutions of 1917 and the emergence of the socialist state had profound effects on the organization of fashion as both industry and discourse. Some writers responded by imagining the post-fashion future; others by involving themselves in reconfiguring what socialist commodities might look like; still others by criticizing a surprisingly resilient consumer culture, at least until the Stalin-inspired reorganization of many aspects of society, including fashion and literature, in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Article

Russian Poetry and Cold War Politics in the West  

Emily Lygo

The reception of Soviet and Russian poetry in the West was shaped by the binary nature of Cold War politics no less than other fields of culture and sport. Indeed, the associations between poetry and authenticity meant poetry was especially significant as testimony. In the USSR itself, writers’ memoirs were some of the most important texts published in this era, speaking as they did of the personal experience of the Stalin period that had not been expressed before. Konstantin Paustovsky and Il’ya Ehrenburg, for example, published multivolume memoirs during this period, both of which were translated into English and published in the West. A similar focus on individuals and testimony is reflected in the framing of works of Russian literature in English translation. In 1964, Max Hayward and Patricia Blake’s selection of Russian writers was entitled Dissonant Voices, while George Luckyj’s study of non-Russian Soviet literature in 1975 was entitled Discordant Voices. Also in 1964, the translation of the anthology Tarusskie stranitsy was given an additional subtitle, “new voices in Russian writing.” The idea of the individual voice, which is clearly found in lyric poetry of course, was central to the preoccupation with finding an authentic expression of Russia that would be a counterpoint to the Soviet official one. After the death of Stalin, the voices of poets writing in the USSR who had been censored by the authorities were recovered by academics and émigré Russians: Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago and its poems and the poetry of Osip Mandel’shtam and Anna Akhmatova were amplified in the Western media as voices that could express authentically the suffering, injustice, and inhumanity of the Stalinist system. In the case of Dr. Zhivago, the CIA also worked clandestinely to ensure it was published and distributed in the West. The fact that these works remained only partially published in the USSR fueled the ongoing criticism of the Soviet government’s repressive nature. At the same time, young poets such as Evgenii Evtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, publishing some poetry that challenged Stalinist norms and criticized the past, were fêted by the Western media. They were subject to political censorship, of course, and had to compromise with the authorities in order to pursue their careers. Across the Cold War years there was a hardening of opinions in the West toward poets who compromised with the regime, and support for those such as Natalia Gorbanevskaya who fought for human rights in the USSR and were prepared to suffer imprisonment for their principles. Uncensored poetry, smuggled out to the West, was published and often accompanied by stories of arrest and imprisonment and sadistic practices in psychiatric hospitals. Poets were among the writers who began to emigrate, too, forming the third wave of Russian emigration; Joseph Brodsky arrived in the USA in 1972 already well known for his trial by the authorities and time spent in northern exile as punishment. Stories of persecution, and poetry written in the Gulag or prison, were undeniably testament to the tyranny of the Soviet government, and could even play a political role themselves: Irina Ratushinskaya’s release from the Gulag in 1986 may have been influenced by the publication of her work and campaigns for her release in the West. The CIA and other intelligence agencies financed cultural institutions such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) in order to promote and amplify criticism and damning evidence of Soviet illiberalism; this meant that poetry and literature that served the cause of anti-Soviet agitation was perhaps more easily accepted for publication, and more widely translated and promoted. Such manipulation of cultural organs, for example the high-profile and high-quality magazine Encounter funded by the CIA, does not detract from the quality of work produced by its contributors, most of whom were unaware of the financial backdrop. Joseph Brodsky’s poetry, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987, is no less talented for being read and discussed in the context of anti-Soviet discussion; indeed, Brodsky himself wrote against tyranny and criticized the USSR. Nonetheless, the story of Russian poetry in the Cold War cannot be told without acknowledging its interactions with politics.

Article

Form and Formalism  

Stephen Cohen

From the Platonic ur-antiformalism, the reaction to which gave shape and purpose to classical and early modern literary theory, to the agon between form and history that dominated 20th-century literary criticism and pedagogy, the concept of form and the methodologies of its study (formalism) have at once grounded and challenged our understanding of literature. Is form an ornament or supplement to literature’s essential content, a component of literature’s meaning and function, or the very defining essence of the literary? Does form inhere in the macro-structures of literary mode and genre, the micro-structures of figure, style, and prosody, or the unique shape of the individual text? Does form stand apart and insulated from the vicissitudes of history and the pressures of ideology, is it the object (or agent) of historical and ideological determination, or does it provide us a vantage from which to understand and perhaps resist them? These questions and the variety of answers they have generated have shaped and continue to shape both the practice of literary studies and its status as an academic discipline.

Article

Moscow: The Third Rome  

Nick Mayhew

In the mid-19th century, three 16th-century Russian sources were published that alluded to Moscow as the “third Rome.” When 19th-century Russian historians discovered these texts, many interpreted them as evidence of an ancient imperial ideology of endless expansion, an ideology that would go on to define Russian foreign policy from the 16th century to the modern day. But what did these 16th-century depictions of Moscow as the third Rome actually have in mind? Did their meaning remain stable or did it change over the course of the early modern period? And how significant were they to early modern Russian imperial ideology more broadly? Scholars have pointed out that one cannot assume that depictions of Moscow as the third Rome were necessarily meant to be imperial celebrations per se. After all, the Muscovites considered that the first Rome fell for various heretical beliefs, in particular that Christ did not possess a human soul, and the second Rome, Constantinople, fell to the Turks in 1453 precisely because it had accepted some of these heretical “Latin” doctrines. As such, the image of Moscow as the third Rome might have marked a celebration of the city as a new imperial center, but it could also allude to Moscow’s duty to protect the “true” Orthodox faith after the fall—actual and theological—of Rome and Constantinople. As time progressed, however, the nuances of religious polemic once captured by the trope were lost. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, the image of Moscow as the third Rome took on a more unequivocally imperialist tone. Nonetheless, it would be easy to overstate the significance of allusions to Moscow as the third Rome to early modern Russian imperial ideology more broadly. Not only was the trope rare and by no means the only imperial comparison to be found in Muscovite literature, it was also ignored by secular authorities and banned by clerics.