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Reading in Russia

Damiano Rebecchini
Raffaella Vassena

Making the Symbolist Book / Fashioning the Symbolist Reader: the Case of Aleksandr Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses

Jonathan Stone


The study of book history in the modernist era offers a direct glimpse into the conflicts at the heart of the new art. By affording attention to turn-of-the-century material culture and the recontextualization of the market forces that impacted modernism’s institutionalization and scripted its interaction with the public, this article affirms the centrality of the making the physical book itself as a component of understanding Russian Symbolism and its readership. An examination of the first book of Russian poetry issued by the Symbolist publishing house Skorpion reveals the intricacies of Russian modernism’s attempts to fashion its readers through the production of its tangible products. Aleksandr Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses, as shaped by Valerii Briusov, represents many of the key shifts in both aesthetic and material terms that were undertaken by the Symbolists.

Texte intégral

1The creation of books that embody modernism’s novel relationship with the tangible facets of authorship – compiling, printing, and disseminating its works – helps to reveal the new art’s engagement with the fundamental struggles of modernity. Shifts in the interactions between author, editor, and reader impacted the development of modernism in Russia in ways that were manifest in both its physical products and the modernists’ underlying approach to the literary. In other words, it is worthy to note how modernism can be viewed as a textual response to modernity and the ensuing cultural and epistemological changes afoot at the turn of the century. By affording attention to the material culture of the turn of the century and the reorientation of the market forces that impacted modernism’s institutionalization and scripted its interaction with the public, we can appreciate the centrality of the making the physical book itself as a component of studying Russian Symbolism.

2The study of Russian modernism has embraced a retrospective relationship to its texts, often prioritizing those that have been anthologized and canonized. Such a divorce of the text and context (sometimes doubly or triply enacted through multiple iterations of a new organizational format produced in quick succession) renders several key analytical tools moot. The extent to which modernism relies on a network of cultural formations and these networks in turn foster an institutionally mediated set of interactions among participants is most appreciable when our understanding of its production includes the making of the modernist book itself. Doing so reveals the processes by which Symbolism came to the Russian reader and sheds light on the various degrees of coding incorporated into its original publications. By stripping this movement of the sheen of teleological order acquired through retrospective appreciation and recontextualization, an examination of Russian Symbolism’s material production offers an elucidation of Symbolism that does not discount the role of contextual clues and networks of extra-textual resonance in its establishment in Russia and, more broadly speaking, its general development as an aesthetic and as an idea.

  • 1 Iser 1980.
  • 2 See Klancher 1987.

3The heavily scripted interaction between author and reader was of paramount interest to the Russian Symbolists. While using the formation and presentation of their texts to shape their engagement with their readership, the Symbolists also relied on the various reactions and responses their writing evoked in order to generate meaning and convey the conceptual shape of their art. The notion of the literary work’s dynamism, a foundational aspect of Reception theory as articulated by Wolfgang Iser, provides a framework for viewing such a production of meaning in early Russian modernism.1 Symbolism’s aesthetic tenets are only fully appreciable in the interaction of the reader’s and author’s perspectives. I will demonstrate the extent to which the Symbolists were cognizant of this and the impact it left on the production of their art. Although here it must be noted that a relevant distinction should be maintained between reader and audience. I suggest that for the Symbolists, the former is a close cousin of Iser’s implied reader and embodies the sympathetic and comprehending recipient of the new art. However, the Russian Symbolists also had to contend with the audience for their works, a more amorphous and unruly set of readers (often with members of the established literary-critical sphere at their lead). A key goal of the early Symbolists can be seen as the transformation or even narrowing of audience into reader – that is of taming or discounting those who responded hostilely to their writing and establishing a reading public for their works consisting primarily of those who comprehended and accepted their aesthetics. Representing the broader social, ideological, and cultural readership, the audience represents a more varied and contextually dependent set of responses to a text.2 Through whittling down this audience into more homogeneous and like-minded readers, the Symbolists utilized both the process of producing their books and navigating their interactions with the public. With these simultaneous goals at hand, the early books of the Russian Symbolists can be understood through the lens of both book history and reception study. In fact, as I mean to show through an examination of one particular book from the turn of the century, neither approach in isolation offers a complete picture of the early Symbolists’ work, but in conjunction they demonstrate the complexities of introducing modernism in Russia.

  • 3 Reitblat 2009: 307-308.
  • 4 Kotrelev 1988: 654-655.

4An essential component in Symbolism’s taking root in Russia was the consolidation of resources that allowed its practitioners to assume multiple roles offering control over the means of producing and disseminating their writing. To this end, the year 1900 comes as a watershed in Russian print culture marked by the confluence of technical innovation, aesthetic motivation, and a small group that embraced the modernist reassessment of the artist’s position in society. In late 1899, the publishing house Skorpion materialized as a primary vehicle for Symbolism to find its expression in print and reach its readers. Valerii Briusov’s zeal as a principal bell-ringer for Symbolism made him well suited to serve as Skorpion’s editor, but it could not have existed without the financial support of its publisher Sergei Poliakov. The fusion of a wealthy patron (Poliakov was from a prominent merchant and manufacturing family) and poet certainly has long precent in promoting the arts, but in the case of Russian modernism the patrons were instrumental in establishing a notably new mechanism for artistic creation that led to a refashioning of contemporary Russian literature’s readership. The imposition onto Symbolism of an institutional framework with its ensuing resources, oversight, and standardization marks a new phase in the life of the movement and represents a point from which its practitioners and readers were bound in an enterprise from which they could not retreat. This was a necessary stage that took advantage of the potential for the “growth and development of the sphere of readership” at a moment when the Symbolists had “neither leaders, nor unifying mechanisms, nor organs of print and were unrecognizable as Symbolists to their readers.”3 This final point is worth dwelling on. The lack of recognition among readers had constantly bedeviled practitioners of the new art in Russia from the moment of their first appearances in print in the early 1890s. A Symbolist press under the auspices of a self-consciously Symbolist editor provided the contextual and bibliographical codes to alert the reader that the book in hand was an unambiguous and unparodic work of Symbolism. Nikolai Kotrelev emphasizes Skorpion’s pivotal position as a publishing house that reclaimed critical agency from the thick journals that had directed all levels of literary and social discourse. He notes that “Skorpion showed itself to be a new type of agent in the Russian literary and cultural process” and “guaranteed the presence of the Russian Symbolists in the literary marketplace [and] allowed the Symbolists to fortify and occupy an independent position in the professional sphere giving them a subjective sense of social value and, objectively, forced the professional sphere to give serious consideration to a new group of writers.”4 More than just another venue for printing literary works, Skorpion intentionally set out to function as sanctuary around which like-minded authors and readers could gather. It served as a corrective for the triple lack of “leaders, unifying mechanisms, and organs of print” and in so doing it allowed for Symbolism’s conceptual identity to coalesce while its tangible manifestations more readily came to fruition.

5When Skorpion entered the scene, the practice of privately and discretely printing literary works had an ample foundation among the younger generation of writers. Skorpion adopted key elements of the ethos and visual cues of such editions. Their earliest books were in fairly unornamented wrappers (the striking covers of their later publications, displaying the work of accomplished artists such as Feofilaktov, Aubrey Beardsley, and Fidus would begin to appear in 1903), utilized uniform fonts and printer’s ornaments, were devoid of elaborate initial capital letters, and evidenced rather similar page size and layout. In other words, considered individually they were essentially indistinguishable from books privately printed at the behest of the author. This was an aesthetic intended to attract and please a small circle of readers and was markedly not part of a commercial venture. By retaining the feel of books that were directed towards a limited and restricted readership, Skorpion signals an allegiance with the insular confines of an artistic coterie as opposed to the mass publishing market. However, the degree of professionalization and editorial oversight that the Symbolist press instilled into their books distinguishes them from the stand-alone publications that appeared in the 1890s.

  • 5 Gollerbakh 2008: 231.

6An appreciable epistemological and aesthetic stance emerges when such books are gathered under the collective sign of Skorpion. The institutional facet of publishing Symbolism from 1900 on is the key to understanding the movement’s group identity and properly plotting the history of how Symbolism, as an idea, took stable root in Russian literary culture. The value of uniformity and the significance of recognition must not be overlooked. The necessity of fusing the public’s perception of Symbolism as a movement and Symbolism as a collection of books was reflected in the intentionality with which these editions were crafted. This is where scholars of the book have begun to make inroads into understanding how notably different modernist publishing ventures were from their predecessors. Those involved in publishing Symbolist texts “honed new methods of visual organization and book formulation in accordance with the general ideology of Symbolism. The appearance of the edition, the stylistic unity of its formulation, the expressiveness of its various visual and material components and their alignment with its content all became the subject of general attention and was an object of intense investigation.”5 The new hybrid traits of the Symbolist publishing house allowed it to strike a balance between functioning as a small circle of authors writing for an intentionally restricted readership (the familiar letter mode of the 19th-century Russian Romantic poets, the most immediate poetic model for the Symbolists) and as a press that harnessed the emergent technological resources and social networks of a broadly directed mass print culture. One of Skorpion’s earliest books demonstrates the dynamics of how it managed to effect such change in Symbolism’s conceptual and material history.

  • 6 Joan Delaney Grossman provides an informative account of Dobroliubov’s career. Grossman 1981. See a (...)
  • 7 Aleksandr Kobrinskii gives a detailed account of the preparation of this book in his Forward and No (...)

7The press’s first publication of a work of Russian literature was its unpresupposing volume of Aleksandr Dobroliubov’s poetry, released at the end of March 1900. Dobroliubov’s notoriety as a Russian decadent was a prominent element of the early image of Symbolism in Russia. His thorough knowledge of modern French literature, his markedly decadent appearance and behavior, and his professed affinity for opium earned him notice both in the circles around Severnyi vestnik (the thick journal most amenable to publishing the new art, mainly through translations and the works of the elder cadre of modernists, notably Gippius, Merezhkovskii, and Sologub) and in Briusov’s own narrow conceptualization of Russian Symbolism.6 Having already left the literary world to lead the life of a religious pilgrim and ascetic by 1899, Dobroliubov was not involved in the preparation of this book, the contents of which were drawn mainly from manuscripts he had left with Iakov Erlikh and Briusov.7

  • 8 Gippius 2000: 264. In his unpublished review of Dobroliubov’s 1895 Natura naturans Natura naturata. (...)

8The oddity of the situation and the extent of Dobroliubov’s non-participation in the publication of his poetry empowered Briusov to fashion all aspects of the book to further his own literary project. This allowed for a wholesale reinvention of Dobroliubov’s artistic identity. As an isolated literary figure of the mid-1890s, he conveyed a decadent ethos which, as Vladimir Gippius recalled, “was an extreme self-affirmation of the personality, a melancholic aestheticism, absolutely elusive.” With license to refashion Dobroliubov, Briusov transforms him into a Symbolist, one with access to “life, nature, and sociability.”8 As a withdrawn decadent Dobroliubov could hardly function as the cornerstone of the institution that Briusov was now constructing; a markedly Symbolist Dobroliubov, positive and life affirming, could. Effecting this shift was paramount in Briusov’s strategy for Symbolism’s entrenchment in Russian literary culture.

  • 9 Kobrinskii 2005: 617
  • 10 Ibid.: 611.

9As Aleksandr Kobrinskii describes the book, “the volume Collected Verses was compiled just as books of deceased authors are compiled – by their heirs and researchers.”9 Briusov appreciated the degree to which Dobroliubov’s poetry and reputation limited the appeal of his collected writings. His original intention was to sell the volume by subscription only, not printing more copies than were ordered. Another aspect of this plan was the projected selling price of 2 rubles – two to three times the normal cost of a book at the time – in order to restrict its accessibility, and even its appeal, to the general reading public. It has been surmised that Briusov considered this strategy in order to keep the book from hostile critics who would only subject it to derision.10 However, that is merely one facet of a strategy that would come to delineate modernism’s understanding of its limited marketability. Of note here is the impulse to shield this work from a certain type of reader and purposefully direct it towards another type of reader. This strategy, realized in part through the construction of the book’s physical attributes, is indicative of the trajectory taken by Skorpion at this formative moment. The signaling and codification that went into publishing Symbolism place it at the intersection of three major approaches to understanding modernism: the revaluation of a work of art’s relationship to the marketplace; a direct and informed engagement with the processes of book production; and a revised notion of evaluating their work’s reception that hinges upon the distinction between readership and audience. Thus the limiting of these works comes in economic, material, and sociological forms. The use of limited editions would become significant in the history of English modernism, most famously by Joyce and Lawrence. By employing such an insular approach to selling their books, these authors reveal how tightly interwoven modernism’s crisis of aesthetic value was to the works’ evolving, and ultimately, problematic place in the literary marketplace. Salability, profitability, and overt readability no longer equalled quality and the authors and publishers of modernism would seek alternate means to establish the value of their books. This was an integral aspect of Briusov’s project in the first decade of the new art’s appearance in Russia and Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses supplied him with the opportunity to formulate a model Symbolist book in light of this new literary framework. This full range of production must be factored into an understanding of what constituted “Symbolism” to those creating, compiling, and reading it. This called for a reformulation of the way these constituent groups interacted with one another and the establishment of agency among them. Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses models those changes.

  • 11 Rainey 1998: 85.
  • 12 “The ordinary edition and the limited edition entailed antithetical and incompatible understandings (...)
  • 13 Ibid.: 71.

10Lawrence Rainey examines the “nexus between cultural aspirations and their institutional actualization” in order to reassert the significance of key external elements, particularly questions of value and audience, in discussions of such aesthetically innovative works as The Waste Land and Ulysses.11 Rainey seizes upon the intermediary role of institutions in order to investigate the frameworks by which new art was commodified. Thus the institutionalization of modernism entailed a shift in the processes of cultural production and a redirection of the paths by which it reached the readers. Joyce intentionally bypassed the general public when he agreed to have Sylvia Beach print and distribute Ulysses in a limited edition of 1000 copies, resulting in an exorbitant pricing and physical inaccessibility that made them doubly restrictive. This move, “inherently monopolistic,” reflects a retreat from traditional ideas of publishing and readership.12 Briusov clearly desired to enact a similar retreat and understood the “crisis of aesthetic value”13 that it demonstrates. Dobroliubov, whose extreme embrace of a Symbolist worldview was apparent in both his persona and his poetry, made for a compelling test of modernism’s amenability to refashioning Russia’s literary institutions. Briusov comprehended that Dobroliubov’s work called for the revaluation of literary and commercial conventions and sought to realize its proper appreciation and valuation by narrowing its access only to the sympathetic and like-minded reader. Briusov attempted to redirect the capacity of determining Symbolism’s quality and worth into the hands of readers who actively seek out a book of Symbolism (and thus, in Rainey’s terms, become its patrons and investors as well as its readers) and Skorpion proved to be the vehicle that enabled such a reappraisal.

  • 14 Southworth 2010: 16.
  • 15 As Southworth notes, cultural production becomes “a collaborative process outside the limits of any (...)

11The plan for an expressly limited edition of Dobroliubov’s poetry did not materialize and the book was offered for sale with Skorpion. Nevertheless, the context of that publication accomplished the limitation of the book’s readership much as a subscription edition would have. What Briusov is here struggling with is Symbolism’s place in the public sphere and the process of cultural production. The desire to consolidate Russian Symbolism in the single space of Skorpion reveals an attempt to withdraw from the established nineteenth-century networks of publication and reorient modernism’s relationship with its means of production. The unified and seemingly collective nature of Symbolism, as presented by Briusov and Skorpion, was designed to offer a more coherent and orchestrated approach to the value-generating forces of the literary market. This is the opening salvo in what would amount to a respectable catalogue of approximately 150 books published by Skorpion until its demise in 1916. Much like the slightly later venture of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press (founded in 1917), Skorpion sought to serve as a “hub” for the “networks of actors and ideas” drawn to associate with such a group of publications.14 Two important traits emerge from the infusion of an institutionalized network perspective in the approach to Russian Symbolism. Agency is shifted from the individual author or isolated reader to the collective15 and the editor becomes responsible for establishing the parameters of the network. Through conceiving and executing the editions, the editor fashions the contextual and bibliographical codes that reconfigure art’s interaction with its audience. With Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses, a new phase of Russian Symbolism commenced.

  • 16 Konevskoi wrote the first, and more traditional, introduction titled, “K lichnosti Aleksandra Dobro (...)

12The merging of Dobroliubov’s provocatively decadent and unabashedly alienating figure with Skorpion’s promotion of the new art signals the creation of a publishing enterprise that allows Russia’s Symbolists direct access to their aesthetically sympathetic readers. Briusov’s initial instincts to shield this book from a literary public already confounded by Dobroliubov’s first book are realized in its placement with Skorpion. Briusov learned to anticipate and dismiss a priori the hostile reader. As an editor, he effected a move from a polemical mode of interaction to a didactic one and no longer sought to debate the meaningful-or meaninglessness of Symbolism with the critics. In the context of a Symbolist press, Briusov can instruct the self-selected reader as to why he is already drawn to Symbolism. The book’s reception and influence within the guarded sphere of Russian Symbolists is now what is most central and becomes the primary indicator of its value as a new type of artistic commodity – one piece of a larger conceptual identity as manifested in its institution of publication. To this end, the pair of introductions to Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses, written by Konevskoi and Briusov,16 squarely align Dobroliubov with a larger project in Russian literature. Konevskoi delineates Dobroliubov’s method of perceiving and internalizing the world. Briusov provides a distinctly different approach to Dobroliubov consistent with Briusov’s coordinating role at the center of the myriad forces that intersect in producing Symbolism.

13Briusov quite pointedly extricates himself from a polemical approach such that he can offer a description of poetry’s function in terms appreciable only to a Symbolist. Even couched as a broadly enumerated overview of versification’s relevance for Russian literature and the Russian language, Briusov’s introduction is closely bound to an expressly modernist poetics and destined to reach only those readers willing to open a volume of overtly Symbolist poetry. It is written from a decadent perspective that has no qualm with freely mixing the physical and the ideal, the tangible and the intangible. For this introduction, Briusov can assume a didactic persona from which he speaks directly to the Symbolist reader. He establishes a forum for discussing the role of literature in contemporary Russian culture in both general and specific terms. The specificity of the context provided by an association with Skorpion performs the same self-selecting function of readership as would have Briusov’s previous plan of offering this book by subscription only. With such a clearly proclaimed attachment to the figure of Dobroliubov, Briusov rather assuredly addresses his essay to aesthetic allies who share his worldview. Freed of the burden of an unsympathetic reader, he can broaden the horizon of his theoretical project for Russian Symbolism and begin to demonstrate its rightful place as a literary school as naturally and natively occurring in Russia as in the west. With the introduction of such a distinctly Symbolist space of publication as Skorpion, Briusov focuses on developing a historical perspective for Symbolism in Russia. The standardization and historicization of Symbolism come to fruition within the insular confines of a Symbolist press and Briusov fosters a clear conception of Symbolism’s readers and writers with its establishment as an academy.

14From the external perspective of a scholar, the notions of “institution,” “network,” and “hub” are an apt terminology to understand the dynamics of Skorpion. However, those associated with Briusov himself characterized his accomplishments somewhat differently. The critic A. V. Amfiteatrov made the following observation about Skorpion’s literary-critical journal Vesy (Libra) in a letter of 9 July 1909 to Briusov.

  • 17 Quoted in Lavrov and Maksimov 1982: 131.

The role of editor of such a journal seems to me devilishly hard, for you can’t survive with just an uprising of literary eccentricities; the time for this has passed, and to support an uprising as a logical system and form an academy out of it, as you were able to do, requires, in addition to talent, an extremely well-rounded education, both general and specialized.17

15With this sentiment, Amfiteatrov formulates the essential function Briusov was fulfilling as the implicit editor of all Skorpion publications. The totality of the enterprise evidences the complexity of interactions of a modernist network and the explicit engagement with the processes of publication that mark a literary institution. But when the discussion is limited to the role of an individual figure in the network, one facet of the institution, Amfiteatrov’s concept of an “academy” becomes a fitting way of viewing Briusov’s place in the broader context of Skorpion. This produces the narrative that he transformed a disorganized and identityless muddle into a cohesive and structured group that was simultaneously occupied with the creation and reception of the new art. It explains the transformation enacted upon Dobroliubov’s work that turns a stand-alone oddity into part of a concerted effort to redirect the Russian literary landscape. This is accomplished by the framework through which Dobroliubov’s second book is presented, a framing enacted by Briusov’s editorial molding of the volume and the book’s placement at the fore of Skorpion’s project to tie together and organize the previously disparate networks that comprise Russian Symbolism. At the head of Symbolism’s academy, Briusov sets out to guide and instruct its many participants. In this way, agency is both diffusely scattered throughout the networks coming together in this project while still localized with the force orchestrating its institutional platform – the Symbolist editor. His presence is the added element that takes Dobroliubov’s isolated and seemingly incomprehensible poetry and demonstrates its linkages and influence among a distinct sphere of readers. Briusov employs the platform of the editor to initiate a dialogue with the reader. This is no longer the polemical back and forth between skeptical or hostile critic and defender of Symbolism, but rather a lesson directed at the sympathetic reader. This framework instills Dobroliubov’s poetry with a more overt literary context and affirms the significance of sociological and material factors in the role it plays in presenting the new art in Russia.

  • 18 Jerome McGann elaborates on the distinction between bibliographical and coding and George Bornstein (...)

16Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses was an early model for the institutionalized publication and presentation of Symbolism in book form. In conjunction with the explicit guidance provided by the introductions, this book offered a myriad of signals to the reader through the visual and tangible elements of the book itself. It reflects the importance of the book as a physical object in the development of nascent Russian modernism and its capacity to redefine and even create the networks of cultural and material formations that were essential to articulating the new art’s aesthetic value and program. Dobroliubov’s book supplies telling examples of the broader intersection of the tangible and the conceptual in Russian Symbolism. It consciously navigates the novelty of presenting both Symbolist poetry and a book of Symbolist poetry to the Russian reading public. A central component of this approach is the notion of bibliographical coding.18 In discerning the function of the Symbolist book in fin-de-siècle Russian culture, consideration must be given to its physical attributes and the signals they convey. Significantly before the quite well-known examples of visual and typographic experimentalism of the Russian avant-garde, the Symbolists evidenced a distinct concern with the production of their books.

  • 19 Bourdieu 1993: 115. See also Bourdieu 1996: 141-173 passim.
  • 20 As Bourdieu notes, “The autonomization of intellectual and artistic production is correlative with (...)

17Underlying the material elements of Symbolist books and their place in the networks and institutions that conceived, produced, and received them is an intersection of literary analysis, economics, and sociology best articulated by Pierre Bourdieu. By expanding an approach to the conceptual history of Russian Symbolism to include the theories and lexicon of what has been broadly termed the field of cultural production, we can include into our purview aspects of these books overlooked by purely literary and historical analyses. The Symbolists’ place in the late nineteenth century align them with a moment of rejection and reevaluation in terms of both the market/audience for their works as well as the underpinning aesthetic tendencies of their art. As a “symbolic good,” Symbolism turned away from the “field of large-scale cultural production” and took root in the alternate “field of restricted production.” The former is broadly directed at the whole of the reading public (including the “non-producers of cultural goods”) while the latter is meant exclusively for “a public of producers of cultural goods” who function as both “clients and competitors.”19 Briusov could confidently place Dobroliubov’s work at the head of Skorpion’s foray into the field of cultural production precisely because it inhabited a restricted rather than large-scale field. This was the crucial element of Skorpion’s innovation and what sets the publication of Russian Symbolism after 1900 apart from the Symbolist books produced in the 1890s. In addition to limiting the audience to fellow producers of cultural goods (the Symbolist terms included “like-minded” and “sympathetic” readers), this shift allowed for a discrete professionalization of the Symbolists without their having to navigate the broader literary and publishing marketplace.20 The Symbolists could achieve legitimacy and recognition by acknowledging the capacity for evaluating their art only in other Symbolists – their clients and competitors. Retreating from the established networks and institutions of publishing permits the Symbolists to construct anew the rules for ascribing value and assessing the significance of the new art. In the spirit of reinventing both the concrete mechanisms of literary production and the abstract concept of the literary, the Russian Symbolists relied on relocating the cultural and social circles with which their work interacted and restricting the audience for their writing to an extreme degree of insularity. Symbolism was produced exclusively for Symbolists and Skorpion allowed for this transformation to be institutionalized.

18During the half-decade preceding the founding of Skorpion, Briusov had employed a host of strategies to create the impression that Russian Symbolism was a cohesive and organized group rather than the disparate literary uprising noted by Amfiteatrov. He used numerous pseudonyms to write both poetry and reviews, he engaged in polemical exchanges with Symbolism’s incomprehending readers and unsympathetic critics, and he deployed the productive ambiguity of parody to illustrate the most pronounced aesthetic novelties of Symbolism and Decadence. These tasks prepared Briusov for the role of the editor and sculptor of Russian Symbolism and Skorpion offered him the venue for giving the movement its form in the sheltered space of exclusively Symbolist networks. Briusov embraced and expanded the role of editor to include many fundamental aspects of the conception and execution of Skorpion’s publications. Dobroliubov’s absence allowed him to exercise this control over the house’s first significant book of poetry by a Russian Symbolist. The sense of the collective nature of the book is emphasized by the cover. In plain green wrappers, the book affords equal prominence to the name of the author and those of the composers of its two introductions (Briusov and Konevskoi) with Briusov’s surname occupying the entirety of the final line. The press’s device, an astrologically inspired reference to the sign of the zodiac after which the press is named, is also made central to the book’s presentation through its highly visible placement on the cover. These indications of the work’s association with this nascently coherent group are a tangible manifestation of an aesthetic affiliation for which Briusov had been striving since 1894.

19The rear cover of the Collected Verses continues this aspect of its bibliographical code by including a list of other books offered for sale: Dobroliubov’s first book, Konveskoi’s first (and only) book of poetry, Briusov’s two earlier books of poetry and a collection of essays, the compendium of poetry Kniga razdumii containing the works of Briusov, Konevskoi, Bal’mont, and Durnov, and Skorpion’s two other books, translations of Ibsen and Hamsun. This marked position reveals the paradigmatic shift that Skorpion undertook in the production of its books. Advertisements comprised a significant element of publishing culture at the time and were a staple of the Victorian explosion of the mass book market. Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses superficially partakes of similar market interests and its rear wrappers are graphically indistinguishable from other publishers’ advertisements, yet when the the content of the book’s covers are incorporated into the general analysis of its codified interaction with the reader, this list signals the type of field shift outlined by Bourdieu. In addition to identifying the material-cultural context in which this book is meant to be read, this list incorporates its author into a seemingly established group of writers. This booklist can fulfill the economic purpose of increasing sales of the other volumes, but that is not the primary function of so prominently telegraphing the network of ideas and authors into which Dobroliubov must be included. Considering the small edition sizes and alienation from established lines of distribution and sales, these books harbored little ambition for turning any profit of note. However if their potential audience and market are intentionally limited from the start, another system for determining their value must be at play. The booklist at the rear is both an instructive syllabus for the newcomer to Symbolism, an account of which works are sanctioned as having value in this sphere, and an indication of who were this book’s intended “clients-competitors.” Not meant to entice the customer, this list served more as a warning meant to stave off the sorts of misunderstandings and derisive readers that hounded Symbolism in its initial years as a literary movement and publishing venture.

  • 21 Jury 2012: 119. Jury (pp. 123-5) also provides ample examples of the variety of typographic design (...)
  • 22 Gray 1986: 164.

20Foremost in Skorpion’s project was the careful fashioning of Russian Symbolism’s readership. This enabled for a shift in tone in the presentation of Symbolism. No longer defensive, no longer polemical, no longer ambivalently parodic, Symbolism could embrace the earnestness of its aesthetic and project a seriousness in a space relatively shielded from the broader reading public. In this respect, Skorpion served as an echo chamber for Symbolist ideas and cultivated a readership of fellow Symbolists. The whole of the book is directed at conveying a sense of historical grounding and guiding the reader into a serious consideration of Symbolism as an organized and established facet of the Russian literary tradition. The interior of Dobroliubov’s book partakes of such material-textual indications that the contents are substantive contributions to a new aesthetic. The prevailing font is rather uniform and subdued, a possible nod to the very particular choice of fonts employed in another landmark modernist publication The World of Art (Mir iskusstva). In preparing his new journal, which would premier in 1898, Sergei Diaghilev unearthed an eighteenth-century font from the archives of the Academy of Sciences. This choice marked a deliberate turn away from the cacophonous blend of font styles and sizes that distinguish a more Victorian sensibility in publishing. These artificially ornate fonts with exaggerated curves and a bubbly contour along with elaborate, yet stock, printer’s ornaments were a hallmark of nineteenth-century print culture and had a mass appeal. Used in such broadly circulating Russian publications as Niva, this style had a clear link to the visuals of a bourgeoning advertising culture that was central for such publications. The economic potential of jobbing printing expanded the repertoire of venues for some of the most visible examples of new printing and typographical advancement. By taking advantage of a large variety of wood type of “unprecedented scale” and “distinctive forms,” this expressive typography experienced an explosion in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.21 As Nicolete Gray notes, these omnipresent visual cues were prompted by the proliferation of commercial letter design and display types.22 A standard for graphic design and font selection had been established by the turn of the century, identifiable with a traditional economic and social networks, and thus a opened up the possibility to turning away from such standards of nineteenth-century commercial mass print culture. The creation of the field of large-scale cultural production in the publishing of Russian literature over the last two decades of the nineteenth century also engendered a field of restricted cultural production into which Skorpion could readily slip.

  • 23 Gerald Janecek notes the “traditional” nature of Symbolist book design while still to their concern (...)

21Skorpion’s books strove to gesture towards their goal of respectability and normalcy among the limited sphere of readers willing to seek them out. Not wholly immersed in traditional aesthetics, the books also often made restrained and sparing use of san serif fonts (as opposed to their hodgepodge inclusion in the nineteenth century) which would come to be heavily associated with a clean modernist art form. Yet the overall impression from the book is of a simplicity and plainness that at once signal a departure from the commercially attuned norms of late nineteenth-century publishing while also subtly belying the notion that this poetry represents an assault on artistic traditions. The staid uniformity of the book does not immediately read as shocking or new.23 Its novelty derives from the totality of the institution to which it was attached, the contextual codes it offers to the reader, while the bibliographical coding of the book itself indicates a new tradition, an alternate cultural field, as solidly rooted in its own network of cultural producers and evaluators. The intentionality of the work’s presentation emerges as a core component of its function as an early example of Skorpion’s project to establish a canon of the new art in Russian.

22Dobroliubov excelled at establishing the distinct persona of the modernist poet. He embraced the early cliches of decadence and actively made himself known as such through his appearance and behavior. The graphic qualities of his 1895 book Natura naturans. Natura naturata reflect the image of a poet attempting to elicit a strong reaction of shock and disorientation from his reader. The schizophrenic nature of the book’s presentation of the poems (including the jarring combination of fonts, excessive use of spacing and punctuation in the titling, and disorderly layout of the works) cues the reader into an immediate understanding of their intended novelty. Such textual clues are able to cause the book to be affiliated with the stereotypes of the new art. Left to his own devices, Dobroliubov gravitated towards the extremes of presenting the new art. This was typical for the publication of Symbolism and decadence in the mid 1890s and is indicative of its initially ambivalent position in the literary sphere. By so thoroughly eschewing these devices in Skorpion’s publications, Briusov embarked upon a project of normalizing these works and attempted to move them away from the parodic contexts that accompanied their reception in the early years of Symbolism. He offered numerous bibliographic codes to indicate how this art should be read and received and it is emphatically not as parody or an attempt to shock and offend. Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses opens with seemingly scholarly forewords and ends with five pages of notes including a description of the various manuscripts from which the poems were taken. Not the work of a stand-alone eccentric, such a book is designed to become a building block in the establishment of a new literary and aesthetic form. It represents the institutional reification of the cultural and aesthetic forces that had been gathering in Russia for the previous decade. With a book of verse focused on the exploration of the natural world and a relatively subdued presentation of the poet’s lyrical “I,” this book differs starkly from Dobroliubov’s previous publication. The indications of cohesiveness and constructedness of this edition reflect the centrality of Briusov’s involvement as an organizing force in shaping the new art.

23The thirty-one poems included in the Collected Verses are linked by several notable traits that are the clear product of Briusov’s editorial impetus and not the linguistic code of the poems themselves. The neutral title of Sobranie stikhov so thoroughly circumvents offering color or commentary to the nature of the work that the printer appears to have confused it with the equally generic title Sbornik stikhov. It also implies to the reader that these poems function as individual units in a single entity, as equally significant parts of a unified whole. This impression is reinforced by the lack of distinct sections in the book, a common feature of books of poetry, emphasizing that the interaction which the reader should note is between poem and book. Dobroliubov’s poetry is thus granted a sense of history and context that typically comes with a more established poet. A framing that sets out to recast Dobroliubov as a foundational figure in the new art posits these poems as models for emulation. Once the book’s audience is restricted to Symbolist sympathizers, Briusov can present Dobroliubov as a founding member of an established group.

24The continuous numeration of the poems also fosters the effect that the whole of the book is as informative as any single poem and that considered in its totality, this work is an essential component of the instantaneous Symbolist canon that Skorpion formed from the disparate pieces of Symbolism that preceded it. The emphasis is on an aesthetic cohesion that is highlighted by stripping the graphic qualities of the text bare and drawing out the poems themselves. Yet, as an analysis of the book’s content in its original context reveals, this very act is instrumental in shaping the ways these poems are read. In this respect, Briusov has realized a meaningful harmony between the bibliographical and linguistic codes of this work and Skorpion is, for him, the sole venue in which such a balance can be achieved and maintained.

25The arc fashioned by the positioning of the poems within the collection imposes a palpable trajectory onto the book. The opening poems most heavily emphasize the power of the poet’s lyrical “I” and its familiar interaction with the (singular) “you” of the work’s reader. However, this dialogue quickly collapses into the poet’s lonely rumination with himself (the “you” s addressed include the poet’s distant descendants, a demonic figure, and a deceased friend). The isolation of these early poems is exemplified by the third poem of the book.

Встал ли я ночью? утром ли встал?
Свечи задуть иль зажечь приказал?
С кем говорил я? один ли молчал?
Что собирал? что потерял?
- Где улыбнулись? Кто зарыдал?


Где? на равнине? иль в горной стране?
Отрок ли я, иль звезда в вышине?
Вспомнил ли что, иль забыл в полусне?
Я ль над цветком, иль могила на мне?
Я ли весна, иль грущу о весне?


Воды ль струятся? кипит ли вино?
Все ли различно? все ли одно?
Я ль в поле темном? Я ль поле темно?
Отрок ли я? или умер давно?
- Все пожелал? или все суждено?

26This work, a virtual echo chamber of Dobroliubov’s aesthetic and philosophical searching, could have readily been mistaken for the hypertrophy and posturing of an accomplished parodist of the new art such as Aleksandr Emel’ianov-Kokhanskii. Several years earlier, such an assessment would have been part of the anticipated response to a poem with 26 question marks in 15 lines and a series of increasingly surreal rhetorical questions. Yet coming near the start of this particular book at this particular moment enmeshed in this particular material and aesthetic context, such a poem creates the expectation that further reading will provide answers, or at least direction for their further pursuit.

27The expansiveness of the book continues with the central poem of the collection, in the sixteenth position (of thirty-one), “Proshedshchee, nastoiashchee i griadushchee.” The addressee is now a plural “you” and the conundrums have been transformed from questions to imperatives, “наслаждайтесь небытием бытия.” The ambivalent question marks become affirming exclamation points:

Пусть живет настоящее сильно
И торжествует в трезвой красе!
Но да будет ослепительней трезвости
Молодого грядущего даль!
И не бойтесь подобных мечтаний!


Там я слышу звуки военных рогов!
Вижу чей-то безрадостный взор!
Там, быть может, воскреснет и воля моя
И проявить всесилье свое!
Там желает и ожидает она воплощений своих.

28The book’s horizons are broadened as its audience increases in scope if not quantity. The shift from inwardly directed retrospection (the study of a singular personality, as advertised in Konevskoi’s introductory essay) to an invitingly didactic model text is enacted by an expansion of the book’s epistemological purview. It now strives for a universality (reflected in the capaciousness of Briusov’s introductory essay) that is more fitting for the foundational work of a literary canon than an outlying book of poetry with limited mass or commercial appeal. In Briusov’s hands and with the imprint of Skorpion, Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses can productively function as both.

29Towards the end of the work, Dobroliubov boasts of a “knowledge” [poznan’e] in which “А мне ведь, братцы, чудо объявилося,/Явь во сне иль сон во дне.” His prophetic status is emphasized in the final poem which opens “Прощайте вериги” and goes on to declare “Безумец, встречаю светила ликующим кликом. /А небо дарует мне сердце пророка.” For the emerging circles of Symbolists, this finale solidifies Dobroliubov’s status as one of the instructors in Briusov’s academy. The material context of the book itself repositions Dobroliubov’s poetry as an integral element of the Symbolist project. The clarity and uniformity of the book’s font, the clean and fluid layout of the poems on the page, the seeming simplicity of the form in which these poems are presented all convey the import of this book in readily discernible ways. These facets of the bibliographical code enable Briusov to construct the book’s distinct narrative arc and thus bolster the impact of its linguistic coding for the newly restricted audience to which it is directed. The poems must no longer be considered in isolation; every level of context – from the line to the page to the book to the neighboring and forthcoming publications in a Skorpion catalogue – becomes pivotal to this work’s capacity to generate meaning.


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McGann J., 1991, The Textual Condition, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

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1 Iser 1980.

2 See Klancher 1987.

3 Reitblat 2009: 307-308.

4 Kotrelev 1988: 654-655.

5 Gollerbakh 2008: 231.

6 Joan Delaney Grossman provides an informative account of Dobroliubov’s career. Grossman 1981. See also Ivanova 1997 and Kobrinskii 2005.

7 Aleksandr Kobrinskii gives a detailed account of the preparation of this book in his Forward and Notes to the Dobroliubov section of Kobrinskii 2005.

8 Gippius 2000: 264. In his unpublished review of Dobroliubov’s 1895 Natura naturans Natura naturata. Briusov notes that the poetry, which he admires, is “cold, weak, and dead.” Quoted in Ivanova 1997: 234.

9 Kobrinskii 2005: 617

10 Ibid.: 611.

11 Rainey 1998: 85.

12 “The ordinary edition and the limited edition entailed antithetical and incompatible understandings of production, audience, and market dynamics. They could not coexist.” (Ibid.: 56).

13 Ibid.: 71.

14 Southworth 2010: 16.

15 As Southworth notes, cultural production becomes “a collaborative process outside the limits of any given text and beyond the control of any single agent.” (Ibid.: 21).

16 Konevskoi wrote the first, and more traditional, introduction titled, “K lichnosti Aleksandra Dobroliubova” [Towards the Study of Aleksandr Dobroliubov’s Personality] which was followed by Briusov’s “O russkom stikhoslozhenii” [On Russian Versification].

17 Quoted in Lavrov and Maksimov 1982: 131.

18 Jerome McGann elaborates on the distinction between bibliographical and coding and George Bornstein introduces the significant third element of contextual coding. McGann 1991, Bornstein 2001.

19 Bourdieu 1993: 115. See also Bourdieu 1996: 141-173 passim.

20 As Bourdieu notes, “The autonomization of intellectual and artistic production is correlative with the constitution of a socially distinguishable category of professional artists or intellectuals,” (Bourdieu 1993: 112).

21 Jury 2012: 119. Jury (pp. 123-5) also provides ample examples of the variety of typographic design prevalent in such mass circulating forms as newspapers, advertisements, and music hall posters.

22 Gray 1986: 164.

23 Gerald Janecek notes the “traditional” nature of Symbolist book design while still to their concern with the details of the material aspects of their publications, particularly on Briusov’s part (Janecek 1984: 11).


He is Assistant Professor of Russian and Russian Studies at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of The Historical Dictionary of Russian Literature and has published articles on Mikhail Bakhtin, Valerii Briusov, and Aleksandr Blok. His current project is a book titled Russian Symbolism and the Institutionalization of Modernism. His three favourite books are: V. Nabokov, Pnin; T. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow; O. Mandel’shtam, Kamen’.


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