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Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry

Katharine Hodgson
Joanne Shelton
Alexandra Smith

1. Introduction: Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry and the Post-Soviet Reader: Reinventing the Canon

Katharine Hodgson et Alexandra Smith

Texte intégral

  • 1 The chapters in this book grew from a series of workshops at which contributors gathered to share (...)

1The aim of this collection is to investigate the state of the Russian twentieth-century poetic canon in the context of socio-political changes triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.1 This introductory essay sets out the larger context of cultural evolution in which the alterations to the poetry canon, to be discussed in the chapters that follow, took place. It explores developments in Russian culture during a period which has seen both the dramatic disruption of links with the past, as well as the rediscovery of neglected aspects of the twentieth century’s cultural legacy.

2The process of reshaping the poetry canon is complex and multifaceted. This Introduction will focus on three main aspects related to canon change. It will start by considering the particular challenges posed by the mass of forgotten or previously unknown poetry from different parts of the century which became available over a short period of time. The following section will explore the relationship between the poetry canon and identity, looking at the influence of nostalgia on shaping perceptions of poetry associated with the Soviet past, as well as of the modernist poetic legacy of the early years of the century. After focusing the discussion on poets and poetic groups, the introduction then explores the role of literary criticism in canon change, considering how particular strands in twentieth-century Russian criticism have helped to form the poetry canon. Just as has been the case for the poetry canon, the canon of literary criticism has seen considerable change in recent years with the recovery of formalist thought, which has in turn influenced the way twentieth-century poetry has been perceived. The concluding part of the Introduction outlines the diversity of the emerging canon, as illustrated in the individual chapters that follow, and considers the more inclusive, less dogmatic approach to canon formation that seems to have developed since the early 1990s.

Raw Materials for Revising the Canon

  • 2 Nadezhda Mandel’shtam refers to the 1930s as a ‘pre-Gutenberg era’ in her memoir Hope Against Hope(...)
  • 3 The terms ‘accessible canon’ and ‘selective canon’ (below) are taken from Alastair Fowler, ‘Genre (...)

3During the last century the Soviet state sought to exercise far-reaching control over all aspects of culture, with unprecedented levels of state intervention in education and scholarship, literary criticism, and the publication and distribution of reading matter. Activity across all these fields contributes to the shaping of literary canons as a set of works and authors that are accorded exemplary status by, for example, their inclusion in educational syllabuses, literary histories, and anthologies. In the Soviet Union censorship meant that at any given time the works of certain authors could be deemed unpublishable, withdrawn from libraries, excluded from critical and scholarly discussion. The work of authors who had emigrated became largely inaccessible to most readers inside the country; some who remained in the Soviet Union were made subject to publication bans, while others preferred not to engage in the negotiations with editors and censors which were an unavoidable part of the process of getting their work published. The return to ‘pre-Gutenberg’ era culture in the 1920s and 1930s, when manuscripts were hidden, or shared only with a few trusted friends, was followed by the post-Stalin development of underground seminars, writers’ circles, and journals, and the growth of self-published samizdat literature.2 In the last decades of the Soviet Union’s existence there were steps towards creating a more inclusive poetry canon as some previously marginalised figures were brought back into the mainstream. From the late 1980s, however, as a result of the relaxation of censorship, and then its complete abolition, readers were faced with a hugely expanded accessible canon of twentieth-century works.3 Émigré poets were published once more and countless texts emerged from the archives and the underground, at the same time as the state relinquished its monopoly control over cultural life.

4Now that the mechanisms that had maintained the reputations of some, suppressed others, and permitted only a partial knowledge of other poets’ output had been dismantled it was plain that the late-Soviet poetry canon, as expressed in literary histories and textbooks of the previous decade, was in need of an overhaul. In the Soviet Union the process of forming selective canons was monopolised by official state-controlled institutions; attempts to propose an alternative view of the canon through different channels were severely restricted, and were possible only in the later Soviet period among a small number of poets and readers active in unofficial underground culture. As the state set aside its role as cultural policeman, and so removed the underground’s reason for existing, the task of defining the shape of the poetry canon was now open to all comers. Whatever their opinions on the content of the canon, they had a common goal: to reshape a canon that had been constructed to serve the state’s narrow ideological ends.

5While this process is still at a relatively early stage, it is possible that individuals are able to exercise particular influence, though this is likely to decrease as more numerous and varied agents become involved. Partisan promoters of certain schools of poetry, of particular individuals, and of rival ideological outlooks were able to enter the arena alongside experts and enthusiasts who were concerned to present a broadly inclusive picture of the century’s poetry, as well as publishers who were facing new market conditions and having to deal with the question of what readers might be prepared to buy. The spread of the internet in Russia has made it possible for anyone with online access to read and respond to a wide range of material. Educational institutions also have their part to play, as do the state educational authorities who issue guidance on what is to be studied, in influencing ideas about which poets and works should be considered canonical. Participants in the process of canon formation are far more numerous and diverse than they were before 1991.

  • 4 Frank Ellis, From Glasnost to the Internet: Russia’s New Infosphere (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999) (...)

6The canon-forming process in Soviet Russia involved only limited numbers of agents; it was, moreover, disrupted and delayed by the effects of decades of censorship. Significant legal and institutional changes at the start of the 1990s helped to clear a path for major cultural shifts. One particularly important development was the emergence of free speech, legitimised by a new media law approved by the final Soviet Parliament in 1990 and by the new Russian government in 1991. In the words of prominent Russian media expert Nadezhda Azhgikhina, this law ‘represented the greatest achievement of the liberal legal experts of the perestroika era’. The emergence of free speech in the Russian media paved the way for a large-scale rediscovery of previously censored or suppressed works of literature and cinema, as well as artefacts created in the Russian underground and by émigré artists. In the opinion of Frank Ellis, the official abolition of censorship was the most important factor in accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union and in changing the role of literature and of the author in Russian society. The Russian literary landscape changed significantly once readers could gain legitimate access to a wide range of different voices, especially when extensive online resources grew up alongside print culture, to create a vast, integrated information space.4

  • 5 Andrew Kahn, ‘Introduction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, edited by Andrew Kahn (Cambrid (...)

7A particular challenge confronting those involved in reconfiguring the canon was presented by the great number of poems that had emerged many years after they had been written, to be received in a dramatically changed cultural context. In the process of canon formation it is hardly unusual to see the reputations of authors change significantly over time. Aleksandr Pushkin, though celebrated in his own lifetime, was relatively neglected in the mid-nineteenth century, and his position as Russia’s ultra-canonical writer was secured only after a revival of his reputation starting in the 1870s.5 It is much less common to see unknown authors, or formerly well-known poets whose work has been forgotten, brought in to the canon after several decades in obscurity. Some poets, such as Mariia Shkapskaia and Zinaida Gippius, made a brief re-appearance in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it seems that they have yet to establish themselves in the canon, while those who, like Anna Akhmatova, had secured their canonical status in the later Soviet period, have retained it. Other, younger poets, for example Dmitrii Bobyshev, seem to have remained on the margins for reasons that are difficult to explain; Bobyshev may simply have been overshadowed by his famous contemporary, Iosif Brodskii. Part of the problem may be the fragmented way in which the ‘unknown’ poets have been received, separated from the context in which they created their work. The large twentieth-century poetic legacy that had come to light by the 1990s had not been subject to the kinds of processes involving contemporary would-be readers, publishers, and critics that contribute to the formation of canons. The task of assimilating such a volume of material went beyond simply integrating unknown or forgotten poets into an existing literary-historical narrative; the emergence of so much ‘new’ material made it clear that the existing narrative was fragmented, disjointed, and full of gaps caused by the deliberate suppression of information, or by straightforward lack of knowledge.

8The state of affairs in literary history that became clear by the 1990s mirrored the situation in broader accounts of the nation’s history. The process of rediscovering suppressed aspects of twentieth-century Russian history had made a tentative start during the post-Stalin Thaw period. This process resumed in the mid-1980s and quickly gathered pace, revealing numerous omissions and distortions in the official version. Attempts to supplant a familiar and reassuring version of the past with one that offered strange and disturbing perspectives were not perceived as the straightforward matter of establishing an objective and accurate historical account. How the past is remembered within a culture involves not just the need to preserve knowledge of it, but the emotional connections that exist with the culture of that past. The encounter with an unsettling history in the late 1980s and early 1990s evoked conflicting emotional responses: this ‘new’ past did not always sit comfortably with people’s memories of their own lived experience. Moves towards reshaping the previous century’s poetry canon have elicited a similarly mixed reactions from post-Soviet readers. There is an ambivalent attitude towards the poetry of the socialist realist tradition, in which nostalgia sits alongside unease about its open didacticism and aesthetic of accessibility. The poetry canon is one of the constructions that represents what a society considers worthy of being remembered, and contributes to the creation of a shared identity in the present. As the canon evolves in a shifting and unpredictable landscape, it expresses a complex relationship between the present and past as elements are foregrounded, neglected, or discarded. The canon has its own part to play in a wider social process of constructing collective memory, which is pieced together through the countless actions of individuals and institutions as they respond to cultural change, and, in turn, stimulate further such change. For a nation undergoing a reshaping of its recent history, at the same time as experiencing dramatic social and political change in the present, it is not surprising that such extensive upheavals have contributed to anxieties about modernity as much as they have encouraged excitement about the creative possibilities of cultural transformation.

  • 6 Michael Wachtel, The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pre (...)
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 As Vadim Volkov points out, in 1936 the Komsomol press in the Soviet Union launched a campaign pro (...)
  • 9 ‘Bank Slavianskii, Poety: Mandel’shtam, Pasternak, Blok, Pushkin’, (...)

9The sheer quantity of material that became available to Russian readers in a post-censorship, digitally connected world presented its own problems. In the early 1990s they were able to access a mass of virtually unknown literary texts from various decades of the twentieth century, but had little help in making sense of their relative cultural significance, particularly when works of high literature appeared on the same internet sites as texts aimed at mass entertainment. The ever-increasing volume of materials available online created an environment in which an expanding archive of digital cultural artefacts offered the resources from which selective canons might be drawn, rather than selective canons as such. At the same time, the role of literature, and of the poet in particular, began to change significantly. Michael Wachtel aptly identifies as a defining feature of Soviet-era culture the special role that was ascribed to poets: ‘in a society that controlled all sources of information, people looked to literature as a secret source of wisdom and a moral compass’, and the dissident poet, capable of outwitting the totalitarian regime, was often perceived ‘as a cultural hero unimaginable in the West’.6 In the post-Soviet period, however, the familiar roles of the poet as martyr and prophet withered away, paving the way for a new role for the post-Soviet poet as an entertainer competing with television sitcoms and Hollywood films.7 There was a proliferation of performances of Russian poetry both on television channels and internet sites, but no clear guidance for viewers about the cultural value of these recordings, or whether they should be treated purely as an eccentric collection of archival materials. Nevertheless there are indications that the Soviet notion of culturedness continued to make itself felt, even in the new, commercially focused world.8 Twentieth-century Russian poets often featured in advertisements for services, goods, and restaurants, signalling to consumers that at least some of the companies involved in the post-Soviet market valued high culture. For example, several advertisements for Slavianskii Bank contains references to the poetry of famous Russian modernist poets including Aleksandr Blok, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandel′shtam, and were nominated for a prize for the best video advertisements of the last twenty years.9

  • 10 Mark Lipovetsky, ‘Russian Literary Postmodernism in the 1990s’, Slavonic and East European Review, (...)
  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 32.

10While the boundary between high and mass cultural products became blurred, so too did temporal boundaries, when works created during the Revolutionary period emerged alongside writing from the Soviet underground of the late 1960s and 1970s, together with new texts by contemporary authors. Mark Lipovetsky recognises the difficulties created by the simultaneous appearance of the work of ‘at least three different generations’, which made it much harder for readers to draw nuanced distinctions between different, but perhaps related trends, or to appreciate the particular features of various modes of writing.10 Yet this simultaneous encounter with the literary legacy of different periods of the twentieth century also prompted critics and scholars to start redrawing the map of the century’s literary culture so as to reveal the connections between the present and the past which linked modernist works of earlier decades and more recent writing. The façade of socialist realism, it turned out, had obscured developments including postmodernist modes of expression that had taken place in the underground of the 1960s onwards, and had now finally come out into the open. From the 1960s until the late 1980s, in Lipovetsky’s view, ‘Russian postmodernist aesthetics was taking place underground, in constant confrontation not only with official aesthetics and ideology, but also with society as a whole’.11 Lipovetsky rightly points out that many established practitioners of Russian postmodernism did not feel opposed to the modernist tradition but ‘rather dreamed of revival of this tradition which has been interrupted by the aggressive nature of totalitarian culture’.12

  • 13 Juri Lotman, Culture and Explosion, edited by Marina Grishakova, translated by Wilma Clark (Berlin (...)
  • 14 Ibid., p. 166.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 169.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 10.

11The massive influx of new and forgotten texts in the 1990s may be seen as an explosive event in Russia’s cultural evolution, of the kind discussed by Iurii Lotman in his 1992 study Culture and Explosion. According to Lotman, Russian cultural development has been marked over several centuries by repeated sudden dramatic ruptures with the past which should be viewed as ‘an integral element of the linear dynamic process’. He draws a distinction between the effects of explosive change in Russian culture, structured according to a binary model ‘oriented towards notions of polarity and maximalism’, and in Western culture, which is characterised by a ternary structure ‘which strives to adapt the ideal to reality’.13 Lotman maintains that in ternary social structures ‘the core structure can survive an explosion so powerful and catastrophic that its echo can be heard through all the levels of culture’.14 While in the West historical connections are not entirely broken even by a major rupture, in Russian culture, due to the prevalence of binary structures, ‘moments of explosion rupture the continuous chain of events, unavoidably leading not only to deep crises but also to radical renewals’.15 In the light of Lotman’s comments, Russian cultural developments of the 1990s may be interpreted as part of such a radical renewal, since he understands explosions not solely as destructive events, but also as events which bring about opportunities for ‘creative transformation’.16

  • 17 Ibid., p. 59.

12There is a place in Lotman’s thinking for gradual processes of cultural change, which he understands as ‘relatively predictable’, unlike explosive processes.17 Certainly, the gradual post-Stalin evolution of the canon to re-admit Sergei Esenin, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, for example, can be defined as a non-explosive, gradual process. In Lotman’s understanding, the artistic consciousness tends to be governed by two different tendencies that shape the dynamic relationship between preservation and change:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 154.

In the phenomenon of art it is possible to isolate two opposing tendencies: the tendency toward the repetition of that which is already known and the tendency toward the creation of that which is fundamentally new. Does the first of these theses not arise from a contradiction to the thesis that art, as the result of explosion, always creates a text that is initially unpredictable?18

  • 19 Paul Lauter, Canons and Contexts (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 58.

13The explosive, rather than gradual process of change manifested in the simultaneous reception of three generations of poets in the 1990s presented readers with masses of new material which had the potential to reshape the canon, changing poets’ reputations and dismissing some writers, while welcoming others. It was far from evident, at the start of the final decade of the twentieth century, how the canon might change in response to the new situation. What did become clear, however, was that there was little interest in abandoning the idea of canon construction altogether. The immediate post-Soviet years were disordered and marked by anxiety about the prospect of growing chaos. The idea of a literary canon held the promise of order and hierarchy, something that could serve as a stable point of reference, even as it evolved. As well as offering a model of order, the canon also provided a means of creating narratives about the past which could propose possible identities and future directions. As Paul Lauter notes, ‘A canon is, to put it simply, a construct, like a history text, expressing what a society reads back into its past as important to its future’.19

Poetry and Nostalgia: The Canon and Identity

  • 20 The term loosely denotes Russian cultural developments in the 1880s–1910s. On the latest usage of (...)
  • 21 Galina Rylkova, The Archaeology of Anxiety: The Russian Silver Age and its Legacy (Pittsburgh: Uni (...)

14The type of catastrophic evolutionary patterns that Lotman sees as being typical for Russian culture give rise to a complex relationship with the past. This section will consider two aspects of Russian twentieth-century culture which have evoked powerful nostalgic responses: works strongly identified with mainstream Soviet culture, and the legacy of the modernist culture of the Silver Age.20 In both cases the nostalgic attachment to particular cultural phenomena may be seen as a reaction to a society’s experience of far-reaching disruption. Galina Rylkova sees the fascination with the Silver Age as a ‘cultural construct of retrospective origin brought to life as a means of overcoming the existential anxieties unleashed by the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war, and the Stalinist terror’.21 Fondness for the remembered culture of the Soviet Union grew as Russians experienced the prolonged uncertainty and repeated crises of the 1990s. This section will show how attitudes towards both Silver Age and mainstream Soviet poetry, which form a significant proportion of the century’s accessible canon, have been influential in shaping the process of post-Soviet canon formation.

  • 22 Adele Marie Barker, ‘Rereading Russia’, in Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, And Society Sin (...)

15In the early post-Soviet period it was clear that mainstream Soviet culture evoked an ambivalent response. Adele Barker notes the tensions that characterised Russian popular culture emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and describes this culture as being ‘torn between its own heritage and that of the West, between its revulsion with the past and its nostalgic desire to re-create the markers of it, between the lure of the lowbrow and the pressures to return to the elitist pre-revolutionary past’.22 Barker describes post-Soviet popular culture as ‘heavily nostalgic’ and marked by a complex relationship between the past and the present:

  • 23 Barker, ‘The Culture Factory: Theorising the Popular in the Old and New Russia’, in Consuming Russ (...)

Although much cultural production—from rave parties to anecdotes and art installations—in the new Russia deals with the past, it does so not merely to remember and to mourn but to rewrite the nostalgic text, often by domesticating, familiarizing, and even trivializing outworn symbols of oppression or by returning to what is familiar from a safe enough distance to preclude any real return to what is both mourned and despised.23

  • 24 Susan Holak, Alexei Matveev, and William Havlena, ‘Nostalgia in Post-Socialist Russia: Exploring A (...)
  • 25 Barker, ‘The Culture Factory’, p. 19.
  • 26 This tendency can be illustrated by the popularity of the 2015 television series loosely based on (...)

16William Havlena and Susan Holak see mass media and education as channels which have purveyed virtual nostalgia, imbued with emotions based on shared indirect experience, which enables recipients to create a new cultural identity for themselves.24 Barker notes that while many consumers of the new Russian popular culture in the 1990s had direct experience of the later decades of Soviet socialism, their nostalgia was shared by younger people who had only brief encounters with Soviet reality. The older generation’s lived experience, suggests Barker, helped to shape ‘the imaginations of the young’ through Russian cultural production which transmitted collective memory from one generation to the next.25 The sense of nostalgia experienced by younger audiences should be defined as virtual nostalgia because it was evoked not by their memories of personal experience but, for example, by television and radio programmes such as ‘Starye pesni o glavnom’ (‘The Main Songs of the Past’), ‘Rodivshiesia v SSSR’ (‘Born in the USSR’), and ‘Staroe radio’ (‘Old Radio’). The post-Soviet upheavals which affected many people’s lives dramatically intensified a need for a sense of identity, both for individuals and the wider nation, and the recent past, imagined as a time of relative stability and national prestige, could be mined for memories which would evoke pleasantly nostalgic feelings of a shared history informed by personal and emotional significance.26

  • 27 Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan, ‘Setting the Framework’, in War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Ce (...)

17The appeal of nostalgia in relation to Soviet culture was heightened because it offered a version of the past which was far more reassuring than the accounts of Russia’s twentieth-century history that spilled out of the archives from the late 1980s onwards. Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan declare that ‘public and private modes of remembering were severed in the Soviet period’.27 Bringing the two together once more raised awkward questions about how the disparate, often conflicting memories of individuals and society might be brought together in some kind of collective memory and shared identity. The task was made more complicated by the collapse of the grand narrative of the inevitable triumph of communism over capitalism, which meant that the project of nation-building and post-Soviet identity construction was being conducted against the background of multiple and conflicting views of Russia’s past, and its possible future direction.

  • 28 Oleg Gorbachev, ‘The Namedni Project and the Evolution of Nostalgia in Post-Soviet Russia’, Canadi (...)
  • 29 Ibid.

18Nostalgic representations of the Soviet past offered an attractive, emotionally satisfying solution which simplified an otherwise complex picture. For example, Leonid Parfenov’s television programmes about famous historical and literary figures in Russia, and also his entertaining programme Namedni (Not So Long Ago), featuring news reports from the past, have contributed considerably to the shaping of Russian collective nostalgia. The perceived gap between the past (remembered as former happy days) and the unsatisfactory present can stir up powerful emotions. Oleg Gorbachev, commenting on Parfenov’s programmes, makes an important distinction between the notion of cultural memory as the preservation of knowledge of the past and nostalgia as an embodiment of emotional experience: ‘The difference between nostalgia and collective memory is not merely the presence of emotion but also its intensity’.28 Gorbachev notes that over the last twenty years in Russia, as a result of active state involvement ‘there has occurred a gradual displacement of the ironic, reflexive nostalgia of which Parfenov is a purveyor, by a nostalgia of restorative type, which is distinguished by much greater simplification and a drive to mythologization’.29

  • 30 Moritz Gathmann, ‘Satire Against Cynicism’, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 13 March 2012, http://rbt (...)

19The tendency towards simplification of the past is often linked to the desire of famous post-Soviet cultural figures to promote their own literary canons. In 2011 the writer Dmitrii Bykov, actor Mikhail Efremov and newspaper editor Andrei Vasil′ev, acting as producer, embarked on a joint project Grazhdanin poet (Citizen Poet), which combined elements of nostalgia with an attempt to de-mythologize both past and present. The project consisted of a series of videos, broadcast first on television, then on the internet, in which Bykov’s parodies of work by well known poets were performed by Efremov. The opening episode featured Efremov as Nikolai Nekrasov, the nineteenth-century classic poet and editor whose poem ‘Poet i grazhdanin’ (‘The Poet and the Citizen’) gave the project its title.30 A majority of the poets whose work featured in the project were prominent figures in the literary canon of the Soviet era; many were famous poets of the Soviet period, including Vladimir Maiakovskii, Aleksandr Tvardovskii, and Evgenii Evtushenko. Grazhdanin poet blends the old and the new. Its attitude towards the past is highly ambivalent, while its treatment of the present day is unmistakably satirical.

  • 31 ‘Поэтом можешь ты не быть,/Но гражданиниом быть обязан’ (‘You do not have to be a poet, but you ar (...)

20The project’s title implies that a poet should play a civic role, gesturing as it does to Nekrasov’s poem in which the Citizen instructs the Poet that being a poet may be a matter of choice, but being a citizen is a matter of obligation, a dictum taken up by official Soviet culture.31 Many of the poets subjected to Bykov and Efremov’s treatment, from Pushkin to Soviet children’s classic Sergei Mikhalkov, were celebrated in Soviet-era literary histories as appropriately civic-minded poets fulfilling their prescribed role of enlightening and guiding their readers. Bykov’s own handling of his material suggests a less didactic and more playful stance. Nina Barkovskaya comments on the ambivalent nature of this project, saying:

  • 32 Nina Barkovskaya, ‘Poet and Citizen: Canon Game in Contemporary Russian Poetry’, in Russian Classi (...)

Undoubtedly, the aim is to shame those in power. […] At the same time, the project has been performed publicly in front of a huge audience. Poet and Citizen are just roles here; satire is theatricalised as a show. Make-up, sets, props (the discrepancy with historical realities emphasises the absurdity of what is happening on the stage and created [sic] an effect of defamiliarisation) are important.32

  • 33 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (Urbana and Chica (...)
  • 34 Svitlana Malykhina, Renaissance of Classical Allusions in Contemporary Russian Media (Lanham, NY: (...)

21The selection of poets who feature in Grazhdanin poet is unquestionably canonical, perhaps necessarily so, as the effectiveness of the satire depends to a considerable extent on the audience’s ability to recognise the poet, and, often, the particular poem which is being parodied. Parody need not be seen as an attack on the work or author selected for imitation; satirical poets often make fun of poems that have genuine artistic merit and are popular among readers. As Linda Hutcheon points out, despite being a threatening and anarchic force ‘that puts into question the legitimacy of other texts’, parody reinforces existing conventions: ‘parody’s transgressions ultimately remain authorized […] by the very norm it seeks to subvert’.33 Grazhdanin poet has a dual focus: contemporary realities are satirised using poetic personas which evoke the culture of the Soviet era, an approach which calls attention to discontinuity and incongruity. Neither the past nor the present is immune from mockery, and so Bykov keeps nostalgia at arms length. Bykov’s recourse to the literary canon can be seen as a contrast to the actions of the current leadership, which, as Svitlana Malykhina points out, ‘is using everything it can extract from history to boost the country’s imperial traditions’and to promote ‘a geopolitical strategy that puts Russia in the centre’.34 One can see Grazhdanin poet as an attempt to keep many established Soviet poets, including Esenin, Tvardovskii, Maiakovskii, Evtushenko, and Sergei Mikhalkov in a newly emerging poetic canon which is much more inclusive than the socialist realist canon was.

  • 35 Nina Barkovskaya, ‘Poet and Citizen’, p. 111.

22While Grazhdanin poet may cater to the contemporary Russian appetite for nostalgia, it refuses to wallow in uncritical enjoyment of familiar works from the Soviet past. Nina Barkovskaya characterises Bykov’s relationship towards the literary canon as ‘attraction-repulsion towards the literature of the past’.35 Bykov’s parodic renderings of the Soviet canon may express a certain affection for particular poets and works, but they mock the notion of universal truths and hierarchical orders that are part of the outlook that this body of work represented. Bykov’s parodies contain strong post-utopian overtones and the suggestion that official attempts to create new master narratives are based on outdated views and doomed to failure. Bykov’s frequent ironic references to the poetry of Maiakovskii and Evtushenko, poets often perceived as advocates of modernisation and the utopian restructuring of Soviet society, provide a playful critique of their views as idealistic and naïve. In drawing attention to his predecessors’ shortcomings Bykov does not portray himself as a poet-prophet, assuming instead the role of a poet-critic who playfully reassembles different fragments of the Soviet canon in order to subvert utopian understandings of modernisation and of the idea of progress.

23Bykov addresses the demise of the role of the poet-prophet in Russian contemporary culture in his 2011 poem ‘Skazka prodolzhaetsia’ (‘The Fairy Tale Continues’).36 The poem alludes to Maiakovskii’s 1929 poem, a classic of Soviet ‘production literature’, ‘Rasskaz Khrenova o Kuznetskstroe i liudiakh Kuznetska’ (‘Khrenov’s Story about the Construction of Kuznetsk and Its Citizens’). Maiakovskii’s poem declares that a new garden city will be constructed in Siberia thanks to the selfless efforts of Soviet workers and engineers to overcome the challenges presented by the climate. As Karen McCauley notes, the authors of production literature saw themselves as engineers whose texts were constructed with the help of aesthetic devices which they used like mechanical tools. They viewed the literary text ‘as an object or artefact capable of being dismantled and reproduced independent of the psychology of authorial genius’.37 Bykov’s text ‘Skazka prodolzhaetsia’ appropriates Maiakovskii’s declaration that ‘there will be a garden city here in four years’, using it as a refrain throughout the whole parody. It also playfully applies Maiakovskii’s utopian vision of modernisation to Bykov and his contemporaries who believed in a radical transformation of Russian society in the early 1990s. Bykov takes an ironic view of the idealistic and naïve dreams of a radiant future in Moscow that he and his fellow writers once cherished. Bykov’s poem prophesies glumly that in four years time the Russian capital will come to resemble ruins, and advises the reader not to expect help from anyone else in order to secure his own survival: ‘Ni goroda, ni sada ne budet nikogda […] Cherez chetyre goda zdes′ budesh′ tol’ko ty’ (‘There will never be any city or any garden. In four years time the only thing here will be you’.)38

24The Grazhdanin poet project expresses the shared experience of a nostalgic longing for the past, combined with a reminder that this past cannot serve as a model for the future. It relies on the capacity of Russian and Soviet poetry as a mnemonic tool which can be used for re-organising individual and collective memories. The project’s episodes are readily available to be viewed online. Bykov and Efremov’s enterprise contributes, therefore, to the representation of poetry both as a source of memory containing collective and personal knowledge and as a wellspring of nostalgia associated with a repository of cultural myths and emotions.

  • 39 Rylkova, The Archaeology of Anxiety, p. 3.

25Although the Silver Age is something few, if any, Russians in the 1990s had personal memories of, it nevertheless occupied a significant position in the collective memory. There are powerful emotional associations and cultural myths connected with the early decades of the twentieth century, seen by many literary scholars as ‘a charmed lost era’ marked by a flowering of the arts, and brought to a premature close by the Soviet state’s imposition of cultural control.39 The nostalgic appeal of Russia’s rich modernist culture, which developed rapidly in this period, was already evident in Soviet times, when modernist writing was attractive because it offered something very unlike standard socialist realist fare and because of its marginal position. The growth of the cultural underground in the 1970s marked a revival of modernist aesthetic principles that asserted the autonomy of cultural activities from the state. Pre-revolutionary models of small-scale poetry performances, among people who were striving to create a collective identity as devotees to high art and aiming to transcend reality, proved attractive in an era of stagnation, when hopes for far-reaching change that had been kindled by the Thaw were largely extinguished. In the late-Soviet cultural space, non-conformist poetry, represented by such poets of the 1970s and 1980s as Elena Shvarts, Leonid Gubanov and Ol′ga Sedakova, occupied a peripheral position in comparison to the work of popular Thaw-era poets such as Evtushenko: their work can be interpreted as an alternative modernism which was at odds with, and resisted by, official cultural policies.

  • 40 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World’, in Geographies of Modernism: L (...)
  • 41 Ibid.

26A defining characteristic of modernism, in Andreas Huyssen’s view, was the belief in the transcending powers of art. The late-Soviet underground was able to use its peripheral position outside the official cultural hierarchy to create works of art and literature oriented towards pre-revolutionary modernist culture. The end of the Soviet Union presented new challenges: culture was released from its ideological shackles, but it was faced with the pressures of the marketplace, something that the early twentieth-century modernists had also confronted. Huyssen explains the rise of modernism as a radical response to the division between high culture aimed at the elite, and commercialised culture for the masses: ‘Modernism was by and large the attempt to turn the traditional European postulate of high culture against tradition itself and to create a radically new high culture that opened up utopian horizons of social and political change’.40 To create this new high culture ‘that would shun the commercialization of capitalism’ and appeal to a mass audience, says Huyssen, both modernist and avant-garde artists, such as Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin and Sergei Tret′iakov appropriated and reworked elements drawn both from popular and mass culture.41 In the Soviet Union this kind of modernist experimentation was short-lived; artists and writers escaped commercial pressures but found themselves subject to the state’s requirements for ideologically acceptable literature.

27In the early post-Soviet years, figures emerging from the underground found themselves in an environment where they risked being marginalised as representatives of high culture unable or unwilling to respond to new commercial pressures. This state of alienation is captured effectively in Aleksei German Junior’s 2005 film Garpastum, set at the start of World War One, which represents the growing gap between artist and audience through the figure of leading modernist poet Aleksandr Blok (played by Gosha Kutsenko). Blok is presented as a tragic hero who feels excluded from the society he had hoped to transform. German’s image of Blok as a tragic hero alludes also to the anxieties of Russian writers in the 2000s who felt displaced in a new environment driven by commercial success.

  • 42 Mikhail Aizenberg, ‘In Lieu of an Introduction’, Russian Studies in Literature, 4 (1993), 8–24 (p. (...)
  • 43 Sergei Gandlevskii, ‘Sochineniia Timura Kibirova’, Poeticheskaia kukhnia (St Petersburg: Pushkinsk (...)
  • 44 Thomas Lahusen, ‘Socialist Realism in Search of Its Shores: Some Historical Remarks on the “Histor (...)

28Timur Kibirov, a conceptualist poet from Moscow who became popular in the 1990s, expresses just such anxieties in his work of the early post-Soviet years, alongside a certain nostalgia for the lost universe of Soviet popular culture. His early work, such as his 1984 collection Kogda byl Lenin malen’kim (When Lenin Was a Little Boy), is full of parodic appropriations of clichés found in official Soviet culture. The works of Russian conceptualists, including Kibirov, have been associated with the use of heteroglossia (plural language) which is opposed to a unique poetic language. In the words of Mikhail Aizenberg, ‘in conceptualist art it is not the author who is expressing himself in his own language but languages themselves, always someone else’s, conversing among themselves’.42 Sergei Gandlevskii described Kibirov’s poetry as ‘a priceless encyclopaedia of a dead language’, in recognition of the value it would acquire once the ‘newspeak’ of the Soviet era retreated from living memory.43 Thomas Lahusen’s remark that, with the disappearance of the Soviet state, the socialist realist heritage might be seen as a repository of cultural myths which ‘truthfully represents the Soviet past’ is helpful for understanding contemporary intertextual and parodic poetry.44 It would be safe to say that works of Soviet official poetry of the kind that Kibirov drew on are now perceived not only as an embodiment of Soviet everyday life and values, which may provoke nostalgic reactions, but also as containing striking aesthetic features based on an eclectic mixture of various nineteenth-and twentieth-century poetic trends. While socialist realism as a mode of artistic expression is now perceived by contemporary Russian readers as monological and reductive, some features of socialist realist art were successfully appropriated by literary and artistic experiments of the 1990s and 2000s, including the kinship metaphor and the ethics of communal support and shared experience which were adopted by the Mit’ki group; Bykov’s project Grazhdanin poet, and Kibirov’s elegiac 1994 collection of poetry Santimenty (Sentiments), to name but a few. It could be argued that Kibirov’s poetry offers something more than a reference work which preserves the culture of a long-lost civilisation: it gives some insight into the ambivalent relationship the inhabitants of that civilisation had with their culture, and into the painful but necessary process of separation from it. Certainly Kibirov’s 1987 long poem ‘Skvoz′ proshchal′nye slezy’ (‘Through Tears of Parting’), features multiple ironic allusions to, and quotations from Soviet songs and poems, but also reveals the poet’s nostalgic attachment to this already vanishing culture.

  • 45 Sofya Khagi, ‘Art as Aping: The Uses of Dialogism in Timur Kibirov’s “To Igor” Pomerantsev. Summer (...)

29Sofya Khagi detects in Kibirov’s poetry two competing tendencies: it is oriented on the one hand towards an ironic detachment from the past, and on the other, towards the desire to convey ‘a meaningful sentimental nostalgia experienced by an average post-Soviet citizen’. Khagi concedes that Kibirov’s poetry ‘has found its niche in modern Russian poetry’ because it aspires both ‘to repudiate “the other’s word”’ and ‘to dis-alienate the culture of the past’.45 The ambivalent attitude shown by Kibirov towards Soviet culture and literature is in keeping with the post-Soviet trend towards creating a more inclusive canon of Russian twentieth-century poetry, replacing the binary opposition between official and unofficial poetry with a different, more nuanced vision of the past. Kibirov’s treatment of the post-Soviet present is no less ambivalent than his handling of former times. His 1992 poem ‘Letnie razmyshleniia o sud ′ bakh iziashchnoi slovesnosti’ (‘Summer Reflections on the Fate of Belles Lettres’) addressed to Igor′Pomerantsev, a former dissident writer from Ukraine now resident in Prague, offers witty musings on the predicament of the artist in a newly emerged consumer society, a topic Kibirov addresses in other poems of the 1990s.

  • 46 The term ‘Golden Age’ is usually applied to Russian poetry and fiction of the 1800s to the 1830s b (...)

30Khagi’s analysis of ‘Letnie razmyshleniia’ suggests that the setting for the poem, Kibirov’s summer cottage in Shil′kovo, should be viewed as the location of the poet’s internal exile which empowers him with a sense of moral authority. In the poem the lyric hero uses the device of estrangement in order to voice his criticism of Moscow as the centre of economic reforms. The poet represents authors who, like Kibirov, once belonged to unofficial Soviet culture but are now are excluded from and ridiculed by the new social order; similarly marginalised are nineteenth-century ideals of freedom and artistic harmony. The poet’s longing to acquire symbolic power is entwined in his poetry with an ironic depiction of cultural and ideological changes, yet it is not satire that enables him to overcome his sense of displacement, but the recourse to the early nineteenth-century genre known as the friendly epistle. This was usually a friendly letter in verse written to a fellow poet, often seen as a hybrid form of the prose letter and the elegy. One of the most popular Golden Age genres, it promoted the cult of friendship and was associated with the development of dialogic devices and the incorporation of prosaic elements into poetic language.46 Kibirov’s epistle evokes Pushkin’s conversational style of the 1820s and promotes a spirit of unity with other poets who, like the author himself, wish to depart from the imitation of popular styles and genres that seems to have become a requirement for success in the new cultural marketplace.

  • 47 Edith W. Clowes, Russia on the Edge: Imagined Geographies and Post-Soviet Identity (Ithaca and Lon (...)
  • 48 Ibid., p. 12.

31By situating himself on the geographical periphery, on the margins of contemporary society, and by adopting a peripheral and temporally distant genre through which to address the problems of the present day, Kibirov points to the potential value of re-imagining the relationship between what is considered central and peripheral. His poem, cast as a private letter to a friend, becomes a marker of friendliness not only to the addressee but also to the world at large. It contributes to a strand of Russian cultural discourse over the last three decades or so which relates to questions of identity and imagined geographies, explored in Edith Clowes’s recent study Russia on the Edge. Clowes concludes that Russian intellectuals’ current discourse about peripheries was developed as early as the 1970s with a view to rethinking the geopolitical realia of the Soviet empire and challenging Moscow’s self-justifications as the centre of that empire.47 Clowes aptly acknowledges that the crisis of identity experienced by Moscow in the early 1990s is rooted in late Soviet culture when the ‘conceptual oppositions of centre and periphery’ became popular among Russian intellectuals and artists who eagerly constructed imagined geographies in which Moscow featured as an insignificant ‘hinterland’ of other, stronger empires.48 In late Soviet unofficial poetry and in early post-Soviet poetry this tendency manifested itself both in the revival of neo-classical themes (found, for example, in the works of Brodskii, Shvarts, and Sedakova) and in the appropriation of oriental and Eurasian themes shaped by the legacy of Russian romanticism and modernism (a trend evident in the works of Bella Akhmadulina, Bulat Okudzhava, Gennadii Aigi, Inna Lisnianskaia, and Russian song writer and performer Boris Grebenshchikov). Such alternative aesthetic trends developed in late Soviet culture almost simultaneously, coinciding with the emergence of conceptualism and the revival of lyric poetry which became increasingly oriented towards the use of intertextuality and palimpsest, as well as parodic and metaphysical overtones. Perhaps it was due to their peripheral position in relation to Soviet mainstream literature that unofficial Soviet poets felt a need to find their ideal interlocutors not in contemporary society but in the past. Their engagement with modernist poets who were victimised and destroyed by the Communist regime—such as Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Nikolai Zabolotskii, Kharms, and Mandel′shtam—also provided them with a sense of moral authority and empowered them as witnesses to the truth about Russian historical developments.

32As the Soviet official canon, and its underground counterpart, were made redundant by the end of the Soviet era, it was inevitable that the process of creating a new canon would involve looking backwards to discover what might be appealing to readers in the new Russian Federation, and might provide some sense of cultural continuity in the face of sudden and far-reaching change. Paradoxically, perhaps, nostalgia was evoked both by the poetry of modernism which had been suppressed by the Soviet state, and by the poetry which the same state had then enlisted for its own purposes. The coexistence of these strands of twentieth-century Russian poetry in the emerging canon demonstrates the profound ambivalence with which the changes of the 1990s were greeted.

Beyond Russian Formalism: The Poetry Canon in the Context of Changes to the Canon of Literary Criticism and Theory

  • 49 Stephanie Sandler, ‘Introduction: Myths and Paradoxes of the Russian Poet’, in Rereading Russian P (...)
  • 50 Ibid., p. 13.
  • 51 Ibid.
  • 52 Ibid., p. 14.

33In her Introduction to Rereading Russian Poetry, Stephanie Sandler praises the efforts of the editors of the journal Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie (New Literary Review), which began publication in 1992, for their promotion of new approaches to Russian culture. She recognizes the valuable work the journal had done in making available to Russian readers many previously unknown texts and memoir accounts by Russian and Western authors, as well as the writings of Western critics whose works had been ignored in Soviet times, including Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze. Sandler comments that the journal ‘made even methodologically conservative publications significant and exciting by the choice of the subject matter, for example, publications about Kuzmin, clustered accounts of Petersburg and Moscow avant-garde poets, and essays on contemporary poetry’.49 Sandler readily acknowledges the influential work carried out by literary scholars based in the Soviet Union, such as those associated either with the Tartu or Moscow groups of semioticians, including Roman Timenchik, Vladimir Toporov and Tamara Tsivian, who pursued subtext-based work on Acmeism and had ‘a powerful effect on the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry’.50 In Sandler’s view, not only did they succeed in bringing the poetry of Akhmatova and Mandel′shtam to the attention of readers and scholars with the help of subtext theory, they also provided the tools for understanding ‘the apparently obscure verse of Mandel′shtam and the later Akhmatova’.51 While she praises the impact of these scholars’subtext theory outside Russia, Sandler nevertheless identifies an enduring division among literary scholars based inside Russia, separating semioticians, structuralists and poststructuralists, as well as historically and textually based scholars. This forms a striking contrast with the kind of training received by Western interpreters of Russian poetry, which takes in both formal and historical methods, allowing researchers to blend ‘interpretative argument with careful contextualization in biography, culture and history’.52

  • 53 Uil’iam Mills Todd III [William Mills Todd III], ‘Otkrytiia i proryvy sovetskoi teorii literatury (...)

34During a large part of the Soviet era the literary academy was unable to access or to apply the legacy of Russian formalist thinking that had made a considerable impact in the 1920s. Starting in the 1930s the works of the Russian formalists were no longer systematically studied and were not widely available even to specialist readers. When, in the post-Stalin period, scholars interested in formalism or structuralism began to publish, their work appeared in highly specialised journals or collections of articles published in Estonia, Latvia, or Moscow, rather than in journals or collections aimed at a broader readership.53 It is important to remember in this context that scholars in the West had access to formalist works which were not available to their Soviet counterparts. Foreign scholars’ rediscovery of Russian modernist poets whose works were suppressed in the Soviet Union was prompted in part by the publication of formalist works in which quotations from Russian poetry of the 1900s to the 1920s were often to be found, as well as by émigré memoirs and essays on Russian modernism.

  • 54 Victor Erlich, ‘Russian Formalism: In Perspective’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2 (De (...)
  • 55 Ibid.
  • 56 Ibid.
  • 57 Ibid., p. 217.

35Although a serious examination of the legacy of Russian formalism was under way in the West as early as the 1950s, the integration of its main ideas into western scholarship was rather slow. In a 1954 article Victor Erlich states: ‘The linguistic barriers, as well as the cultural isolation of the Soviet Union, prevented the bulk of Western literary scholars from taking cognizance of the achievement of the Russian formalist School, indeed of its very existence’.54 Curiously, as Erlich’s article suggests, although Russian formalism was often seen as ‘a specifically Russian phenomenon’, ‘a reaction against symbolist metaphysics’, and ‘a mouthpiece of the Futurist movement’, some scholars viewed it as ‘a body of critical thought’ inseparable from the global trend of the re-examination of methods of literary study especially evident in European literary criticism.55 Erlich says that the formalist, while fighting local battles with critics and educationalists, was unaware that he ‘found himself asking the same questions and giving practically the same answers as did some of his confrères in Germany, France, England, and the United States’.56 Erlich’s list of similarities between the formalist School and the Anglo-American ‘new criticism’ is compelling. He also asserts that ‘the emphasis on the organic unity of work of literature’, advocated by both approaches, can be described as ‘organistic’ 57because critics of both schools viewed literature as a linguistic system of devices that evolved in accordance with its own set of rules. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became clear that many insights of the Russian formalists had outlived totalitarian cultural policies and found their way into Russian poetic practices and theoretical approaches during the late-Soviet and post-Soviet periods.

  • 58 Among the most important monographs the following are especially worthy of mention: Oge Khanzen-Li (...)
  • 59 Todd, ‘Otkrytiia i proryvy sovetskoi teorii literatury v poslestalinskuiu epokhu’, pp. 571–607, p. (...)
  • 60 Ibid., p. 584.

36The full rediscovery of the formalist legacy in Russia took place only in the post-Soviet period thanks to the efforts of such journals and publishing houses as Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Znamia (The Banner), Iazyki russkoi kul’tury (Languages of Russian Culture), and Kriticheskaia massa (Critical Mass).58 The disrupted reception of formalist scholarship left its mark on twentieth-century Russian literary studies. William Mills Todd III points out that many important tenets of Russian formalist theory were largely suppressed due to the severe censorship of, and ideological pressures on, Soviet critics in the 1930s to the 1950s. Although Todd does mention the rediscovery of Russian formalism during the post-Stalin period, he states that its reception in the remaining Soviet period was patchy and idiosyncratic: while Boris Eikhenbaum’s 1929 book Moi vremennik (My Chronicle) was republished only in 2001, his 1923 essay ‘Melodika russkogo liricheskogo stikha’ (‘The Melody of Russian Lyric Verse’) was published in a collection of his articles in 1969.59 According to Todd, the publication of the proceedings of the Tynianov conferences organised in the early 1980s by Aleksandr Chudakov and Marietta Chudakova triggered an interest in Tynianov and his contemporaries. Yet the circle of scholars from Latvia, Estonia and Russia who contributed to these conferences did not occupy a position at the centre of the Soviet establishment; the conferences took place in Latvia, a peripheral location. Although these scholars may have occupied a marginal position in the Soviet academy, they should not be seen, Todd suggests, as being completely separate from the established field of Russian literary studies: they succeeded in ‘constructing a semiotic version of the traditional heroic description of Russian authors’ and in promoting many traditional values of high culture.60

  • 61 O. M. Brik, ‘Ritm and sintaksis (Materialy k izucheniiu stikhotvornoi rechi)’, Novyi LEF, 3 (1927) (...)
  • 62 Quoted in Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (New Have (...)
  • 63 Evgeny Dobrenko, The Making of the State Writer: Social and Aesthetic Origin of Soviet Literary Cu (...)

37The study of poetry in Russia usually tends to oscillate between two poles: the aesthetic and the sociological. The formalists are well known for their significant contribution to the study of structural features and aesthetic functions of devices used in Russian verse. The range of issues explored in their works include rhythmical impulse and rhythmicalsyntactic word combination (explored by Osip Brik); the role of intonation in the lyric (studied by Boris Eikhenbaum); rhythmically organised speech and changes in the metrical system (analysed by Boris Tomashevskii), and the peculiarities of poetic speech and poetic genres (examined by Iurii Tynianov).61 According to Roman Jakobson, who believed that ‘poetry is language in its aesthetic function’, in any poem, ‘different levels blend, complement each other or combine to give the poem the value of an absolute object’.62 Arguably, the renewed post-Soviet reception of Russian formalist thought has promoted the emergence of a new artistic sensibility oriented towards the complexity of poetic language and an appreciation of the experimental aspects of pastiche. It has also prepared the Russian reader for a considerable re-evaluation of Russian modernist poetry of the early twentieth century, including émigré writing, as well as of the neo-avant-garde poetry of the 1960s to the 1980s. The belated re-acquaintance with formalist thinking marked a complete departure from the socialist realist aesthetic which had produced no adequate theoretical tools for the analysis of texts that deviated from its norms. Such criteria as mass accessibility, an ideologically driven belief in a radiant future, and simplicity, were at the core of socialist realist dogma. As Evgeny Dobrenko points out, the aesthetic agenda of socialist realism ‘boiled down to the defeat of modernism’ and its utopian character manifested itself in the desire to jump out of history ‘by creating a premodernist aesthetic’.63

  • 64 Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonar (...)

38Dobrenko’s comment about the suppression of the modernist tradition during the Soviet period can be supported by a few examples that highlight the negative attitude towards modernist lyric poetry, associated by Soviet critics with individualism and stylistic complexity. As early as 1920, Maksim Gor′kii, one of the main precursors of socialist realism, attempted to canonise the notion of simplicity and artlessness of poetry in his reminiscences about Lev Tolstoi. According to Gor′kii, Tolstoi was critical of Konstantin Bal′mont’s poems: he defined them as ‘charlatanism’, ‘rubbish’, ‘a nonsensical string of words’, and went on to say that new poets are ‘inventing’ rather than writing poems ‘straight from the soul’ in the style of Afanasii Fet who ‘expressed a genuine, real, people’s sense of poetry’.64 It is clear that, in his memoirs, Gor′kii uses the authority of Tolstoi in order to promote his own vision of Soviet literature as something rooted in a premodernist aesthetic.

39In his 1935 survey of Soviet poetry, Andrew Steiger puts forward the widespread view that he encountered in the Soviet Union: the role of poetry should be primarily educational, it should embody the spirit of national life and make the wealth of Russian folklore accessible to a wider public. Steiger writes:

  • 65 Andrew J. Steiger, ‘Soviet Poetry-Dynamized Incarnate Sound’, Books Abroad, 3 (1935), 247–50 (p. 2 (...)

The new Soviet poetry roots in the life of the people. A dynamic exchange of harmonic poetic verse is heard. Primitive illiterate bards come from remote regions to recite unwritten songs in the enlightened capital. Cultured modern poets send their voices pulsating on radio waves to the farthest corners of the land. Poetry is written to be heard and is heard even before it is read and the reading public of the Soviet poet is like an ocean compared to the inland sea of the revolutionary days.65

  • 66 Ibid.
  • 67 Irina G. Tazhidinova, ‘“Declaration of Emotional Independence” in Soviet Poetry in the 1930s: A Hi (...)
  • 68 Stephanie Sandler, ‘Poetry after 1930’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Russian Li (...)
  • 69 Ibid., p. 115.

40As can be inferred from Steiger’s article, the Soviet poet was expected to be a spokesman of his nation and a platform orator who contributed to the popularisation of poetry through public performances and radio broadcasts. Unlike the former minstrel or folk bard, asserts Steiger, the Soviet poet ‘uses the rich heritage of Russian classical poetry to make his spoken verse more varied in style, more cultured in content, more moving in effect’.66 In the 1930s, this orientation towards a mass audience went hand in hand with the tendency to produce depersonalised lyric verse and songs which created the impression of shared collective experiences and thereby limited the expression of erotic emotions, individual experiences of love, and a subjectivised vision of the self.67 Sandler rightly identifies a strong trend in the 1930s to the 1950s to promote narrative poetry that would ‘pursue plots of successful integration into the new socialist order’ and suggests that ‘the requirements for lyric poetry were hotly debated’.68 The principal task of Soviet poetry was to help readers develop their own identity as Soviet citizens. Aesthetic considerations were secondary, yet this does not mean that the poetry that was written to fulfil this task was necessarily lacking aesthetic merit, a fact recognised by Stephanie Sandler, who says: ‘Poets who participated in tasks of identity formation for the new citizen produced poems in praise of Stalin and odes extolling the heroic Soviet people during World War Two. These poets were in many cases as sincere as marginalized poets, and the quality was not always inferior’.69

41The emphasis placed by the Soviet state on the importance of collective values and contemporary themes in literature did not wither away after the death of Stalin, or even after the vigorous discussions on lyric poetry which took place at the 1954 Writers’ Union Congress. A resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, published in 1959, declares:

  • 70 Pravda, 23 May 1959. Quoted in English in Maurice Friedberg, ‘Socialist Realism: Twenty-Five Years (...)

The high calling of Soviet writers is to unfold truthfully and imaginatively the beauty of the heroic toil of the people, the grandeur and majesty of the struggle for Communism, to be impassionate propagandists of the Seven Year Plan, to uproot the survivals of capitalism in the consciousness of the people, to assist in removing all that still hinders our movement forward.70

  • 71 Literaturnaia gazeta, 20 May 1954, p. 4. Quoted in English in Friedberg, ‘Socialist Realism’, p. 2 (...)

42Not all Soviet writers were enthused by the optimistic tone of this resolution, and questioned the validity of the notions that writers should ‘varnish’ reality and peddle artificial optimism. In an article published in Literaturnaia gazeta (Literary Gazette) in May 1959, Konstantin Paustovskii, a talented post-war writer, courageously attacked the ‘burdensome tradition’ of having to avoid writing about the shortcomings of Soviet life and the necessity ‘to demonstrate to every Soviet reader the superiority of our system over the capitalist’. He also pointed out that the unwillingness to write about suffering due to ‘the fear of a mere hint of sadness’ constitutes ‘another harmful tradition’ because it suggests that the entirety of Soviet life takes place beneath ‘azure skies, to the accompaniment of the strong and optimistic laughter of “active” men and women’.71

  • 72 Quoted in ibid.
  • 73 Emily Lygo, Leningrad Poetry 1953–1975: The Thaw Generation (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), p. 3.
  • 74 Ibid., p. 7.

43The discussions of the 1950s about the main tenets of socialist realism and their applicability to post-Stalin literary production attracted the attention of many poets, too. Nikolai Aseev urged publishers to produce small editions of poetry (a print run of between 500 and 1000 copies); Il′ia Sel′vinskii accused Soviet critics of favouring only Mikhail Isakovskii’s patriotic song-like poetry, Tvardovskii’s poems with their folksy style, and Aleksei Surkov’s poetry, which was conservative in form and full of clichés. Sel′vinskii thought that Soviet critics should promote diversity and recognise the right of poets to produce experimental and difficult poetry as opposed to accessible and highly simplified verse. Semen Kirsanov also voiced his concerns about the long-standing habit of Soviet critics to label as ‘naturalists’ or ‘formalists’ any poets who wanted to use ‘in addition to grey, the other colours of the spectrum’.72 As a result of such debates, as Emily Lygo demonstrates in her book on Leningrad poetry of the Thaw period, many liberal writers of the time contributed to the restoration of lyric poetry to the Soviet canon. ‘The fashion for poetry’, writes Lygo, ‘was not only a response of young people to the Thaw […], [it] was also cultivated by the authorities: in the early 1950s, the Kremlin issued instructions to all local branches of the Writers’ Union to improve the state of Soviet poetry, which was deemed to have fallen behind other genres in its development’.73 The Soviet government’s imperative to enable lyric poetry to develop in the 1950s created several opportunities for young people to get their work published in various journals, including the periodical Iunost′ (Youth), to enrol in the creative writing courses offered by the Gor′kii Literary Institute in Moscow, and to become members of literary associations supported by local branches of the Union of Writers in many cities. At the same time, underground and alternative groups of poets emerged in Moscow and in Leningrad too.74

  • 75 Sandler, ‘Poetry after 1930’, p. 117.

44Undoubtedly, the cultural policies of the post-Stalin Thaw created a favourable environment in which the socialist realist approach to poetry could challenged by poet-performers such as Evtushenko and Voznesenskii, whose stadium recitals attracted mass audiences in the 1960s. Their performances may be seen as an attempt to create a kind of mass culture that offered an alternative to mainstream Soviet culture. Their recitals of poetry formed an intense emotional and intimate bond between the reader and the poet. It was very different from the rigid and highly controlled relationship between the mass reader and the Soviet poet that existed before the Thaw. A different alternative model was developed by poets such as Shvarts who, in the 1970s, ‘created a lively poetic underground’ in which authors turned away from the broader public in order to focus their attention towards ‘each other’s small audiences’ and circulate their works in a ‘samizdat-like atmosphere’.75

  • 76 Viacheslav Ogryzko, ‘“Vosslavim, bratsy, sumerki svobody”, ili kak dogmatik Aleksandr Dymshits dob (...)

45While poets were, in different ways and to a greater or lesser degree, distancing themselves from socialist realism, pioneering scholars and critics were starting to formulate new approaches to literary texts, with the aim of overcoming the socialist realist orientation towards the production of accessible mass literature and seeking a more nuanced interpretation of modernist writing. It is an aim exemplified by the efforts of Soviet critic Aleksandr Dymshits to publish a collection of Mandel'shtam’s poetry as part of the series Biblioteka poeta (The Poet’s Library). It took him more than ten years to do so because many established poets, censors and officials were opposed to such a publication. As Tvardovskii noted in 1961, it might be useful to publish Mandel'shtam’s poetry in the Soviet Union but not as part of such a prestigious series. Tvardovskii’s reservations were rooted in his anxiety about whether Mandel'shtam’s lyric poetry, with its highly subjectivised poetic persona, was suitable for the Soviet mass reader. Not only did Tvardovskii define Mandel'shtam’s poetry as being too narrow (describing it as ‘chamber poetry’ (‘kamernaia poeziia’)) but he also characterised its author as being mentally ill.76 The volume that eventually appeared thanks to Dymshits’s persistence brought at least a selection of Mandel′shtam’s poems back into the accessible canon, helping to fill a gap which had lasted for decades.

  • 77 Abram Terts, Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (Paris: Syntaxis, 1988), p. 60.
  • 78 As Konstantin Kustanovich explains, the term ‘Sots Art’ was coined in 1972 by the unofficial Russi (...)

46The example of the profound difference of opinion over publishing Mandel'shtam’s poetry indicates the complexity of cultural developments in Russia during the 1950s and 1960s. Many liberally minded writers and poets were unwilling to consider a departure from socialist realism. Literary critic Andrei Siniavskii, on the other hand, advocated a turn to the grotesque as an appropriate mode for new art in the post-Stalin period in his seminal 1957 study Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (What Is Socialist Realism) available only in samizdat and tamizdat forms under the pseudonym Abram Terts until the late 1980s. Siniavskii proclaimed Soviet literature of the 1950s to be a peculiar hybrid of different styles: neither classical, nor realistic. In an ironic way, he defined it as a ‘half-classical half-art of not very socialist definitely not realism’.77 According to Mikhail Epstein, Siniavskii’s reinterpretation of socialist realism created a playful distance from the ideological content of its products and laid the foundation for the emergence of Russian Sots Art and conceptualism in the 1970s and 1980s.78 The artists linked to those movements became interested in the appropriation of the signs and images of socialist realism for use in a new socio-political context. As Epstein noted, Siniavskii

  • 79 Mikhail Epstein, ‘The Philosophical Implications of Russian Conceptualism’, Journal of Eurasian St (...)

is not only sensitive enough to grasp the inherently parodic element in socialist realism, but he goes so far as to advise the self-conscious exploitation of parody as an enhancement of Soviet heroic art. He regrets that the eclectic mixture of realism and classicism that was officially promoted from the 1930s through the 1950s lacks the genuinely phantasmagoric proportions capable of transforming dull, didactic imitations of life into inspirational imitations of didacticism and teleology itself.79

  • 80 Krystyna Pomorska, Russian Formalist Theory and Its Poetic Ambiance (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), p. (...)

47Epstein does not mention, however, that most of the examples of Russian poetry used in Siniavskii’s treatise Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm were drawn not from Socialist realist classics, but from the verse of Pasternak and Maiakovskii, poets who were also at the centre of attention of the Russian formalists’analysis of poetic form. Like the formalists, Siniavskii was interested in the Russian futurists, including Maiakovskii and early Pasternak, because they, like the Acmeists, were preoccupied with the concept of poetry as a craft. The cult of craftsmanship among futurists, as Kristina Pomorska reminds us, enabled them to sweep away the symbolist notion of poetry ‘as ridiculous mysticism’.80

  • 81 Richard F. Gustafson, ‘Ginzburg’s Theory of the Lyric’, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 2 (1985) (...)

48One scholar with strong connections to the formalist tradition who played a significant role in training new generations of critics and poets was Lidiia Ginzburg, the author of the 1964 book O lirike (On Lyric Poetry) which focused, in the style of her mentor Tynianov, on the historical development of literary modes and styles. As Richard Gustafson rightly notes, it would be wrong to see Ginzburg as a living embodiment of Russian formalist theory. Gustafson asserts that Ginzburg ‘transcended formalism’, known for its striking grounding in linguistics, because she was not interested in writing ‘a summa of devices’. For Gustafson, Ginzburg was a humanist ‘trained in the school of close analysis’. According to Gustafson, Ginzburg, while basing her study on a theory of contextuality, locates her ‘concern for human values’ ‘at the centre of her work and of her theory of the lyric’.81 Her theory of contextuality suggests that the poetic word depends heavily on the context in which it is perceived. She writes:

  • 82 Lidiia Ginzburg, O lirike (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel′, 1964), p. 270. Quoted in English in Gust (...)

Outside of a dictionary a word lives in a context; it is defined by the context. The fate of the poetic word, furthermore, depends especially strongly on the context. The context narrows the word, displaces it, dynamizing some of its meanings to the detriment of others. At the same time, however, the context expands the word, grafting onto it various layers of associations. Poetic context is a loose concept. It goes from the sentence to the immediately given rhythmic and syntactical unit, to the poem itself, to the cycle of poems, to the oeuvre of the writer and finally to the literary movements and styles of the time. One or other of these contexts dominates in different periods or in different individual systems.82

49In her book on the lyric Ginzburg considered the work of both nineteenth-and twentieth-century poets. The list of poets she discussed includes Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Fet, Fedor Tiutchev, Blok, Maiakovskii, Annenskii, Pasternak, Valeri Briusov, Blok, Vladimir Solov’ev, Fedor Sologub, and Andrei Belyi. Together with Zara Mints, whose contribution is discussed below, Lotman, Siniavskii and Dymshits, Ginzburg should be remembered today as one of the critics who aspired to broaden the Russian poetic canon by breaking the mould of socialist realist dogma.

  • 83 A. V. Lavrov, ‘Neskol'ko slov o Zare Grigor’evne Mints, redaktore i vdokhnovitele taruskikh “Bloko (...)

50The Tynianov conferences held between 1982 and 2012 provided a platform for developing new approaches to the study of Russian modernism, including poetry. Many innovative perspectives on the study of Blok in the context of Russian symbolist culture were incorporated into a series of publications known as the Blok volumes, founded by University of Tartu professor Zara Grigor’evna Mints in 1964. Articles in these volumes explored semiotic, formalist and intertextual approaches to literature. In contrast to the Tartu scholars who worked on Blok and his contemporaries in a contextualised manner, many established Soviet scholars had created their own image of Blok, moulding him into a precursor of socialist realism. As Aleksandr Lavrov puts it, in the 1960s Soviet scholars saw Blok not as a real person but as a hero who spent his life fighting the decadents and symbolists. In their eyes, Blok was a subversive poet, ‘who did not live, did not create, but carried out his “heroic feat”, struggling against decadence, symbolism, religious obscurantism, while soaring like a heavenly bird above his worthless fellow-countrymen and contemporaries’.83

  • 84 Ibid., p. 10.

51Towards the end of her life, Mints, the founder of the series of Blok volumes, having achieved recognition as one of the leading experts on Russian symbolism, developed a strong interest in the poetry that had been suppressed by Soviet officials, reinforcing thereby her political commitment to the recovery of authors and works from the Soviet literary periphery. For example, in the 1988 Blok volume she published an article by B. V. Pliukhanov about Elizaveta Kuz'mina-Karavaeva (known usually as Mat' Mariia), an important Russian émigré poet, playwright and religious thinker who, early in her career was associated with the Russian symbolist movement. In 1990, shortly before her death, Mints wrote an article about Iurii Gal′, an unknown poet who died young in one of the Gulag camps, but whose manuscripts were preserved by his relatives. In addition to publishing her article about Gal′, Mints suggested organising a panel on the legacy of Russian symbolism and Soviet Gulag poetry for a conference planned in Tartu in 1991.84

52Both Mints and Lotman (her husband) are well known in Russia and abroad as founders of the Tartu School of Semiotics which included a circle of scholars active in the 1960s to the 1980s whose approach was consciously non-Marxist. As Maxim Koupovykh points out, Soviet structuralists and semioticians went against the grain of Soviet Marxist humanities:

  • 85 Maxim Koupovykh, The Soviet Empire of Signs: A Social and Intellectual History of the Tartu School (...)

[they] were criticised not so much for their non-Marxism as for challenging established disciplinary borderlines, as well as a web of Romantic and Realist assumptions in the foundation of both Russian and Soviet ‘Marxist’ humanities: the work of art is a unique image, or even a ‘reflection’, of reality in its ‘typical features’, created by the unique artistic genius, who, like Hegelian ‘great personality’, is granted with the ability to sense the Zeitgeist and express it by means of his unique mastership (masterstvo).85

  • 86 Richard Robert Sheldon, ‘Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky: Literary Theory and Practice, 1914–1930’ (un (...)
  • 87 Ibid., p. 141.

53These critics’ willingness to venture beyond officially sanctioned ways of thinking helped to make room for models of literary evolution which view the canon in more flexible terms. The understanding of canon that dominated in Russia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was informed by Romantic notions of the unique artistic genius and of literature as an expression of the spirit of a given nation. The canon, therefore, tended to be constructed as a linear, teleological demonstration of how the way was prepared for the advent of writers of genius who would express the national spirit most fully. Formalist critic Viktor Shklovskii’s vision of cultural evolution focused not on authors or nations, but on the dynamics at work in the realm of literary form. Shklovskii’s vision of art was influenced by the eminent Russian nineteenth-century scholar Aleksandr Veselovskii (1838–1906) who, as Richard Sheldon observes, ‘demonstrated the possibility of studying literature as a construct of discrete verbal norms’. Veselovskii, along with his brother Aleksei, believed that European literature had evolved in part through the adoption of literary devices and genres imported from the Orient or from folk ritual.86 While Veselovskii envisaged this process as gradual and continuous, Shklovskii’s view was that literary evolution was a dialectical process driven by distinct shifts, a notion that may have laid the foundation for Lotman’s idea of explosions as part of evolutionary cultural processes. Shklovskii appropriated Broder Christiansen’s concept of the quality of divergence triggered by a deviation from the usual, ‘from some sort of operative canon’ (‘canon’ used here in the sense of a set of norms of style and form, rather than exemplary texts) and resulting in ‘an emotional impression of special quality’ which is inaccessible to sensory perception.87 It was Shklovskii’s view that new forms arise from unnoticed and unrefined forms that are already in existence on the cultural margins. The suggestion that literary evolution might develop in eccentric and nonlinear ways creates the possibility that arbitrary changes could become influential in the construction of a literary canon and that works, authors, and approaches considered as peripheral might in due course play a significant role in bringing about cultural change.

  • 88 Rachel Schmidt, Critical Images: The Canonization of Don Quixote through Illustrated Editions of t (...)

54When canon formation is not restricted to a small number of officials and state-controlled bodies, as it was in the Soviet Union, the actions that contribute to a poet’s canonisation are distributed among a variety of agents, including critics, scholars, and editors, who present and explain his or her work to readers. Bearing in mind the complexity of any literary text, Rachel Schmidt argues that canonising authorities often rely on critical annotations, visual images, and other devices that enable the reader to interpret a given work as suitable for inclusion in the canon as a classic text.88 Schmidt sees an important role for commentary that accompanies a text and shows how it meets the criteria of the canonising authority. Many post-Soviet anthologies and recently published volumes of the prestigious series Biblioteka poeta, as well as post-Soviet biographies of Russian twentieth-century dissident and émigré poets including Tsvetaeva, Brodskii, and Georgii Ivanov, have provided extensive commentaries on previously marginalised poets and contributed to their canonisation. The role of visual culture in the process of canonisation is also immense. Internet sites such as RuTube, Vimeo and YouTube enabled post-Soviet subjects in Russia and outside Russia to watch documentaries and films produced in the 1990s–2000s: these films deal with the lives and works of prominent Russian twentieth-century poets, especially those who, like Akhmatova, Mandel′shtam and Tsvetaeva, are interpreted in the Russian popular imagination as martyrs of the Soviet regime.

55In the case of late-twentieth-century Russia, previously marginalised or peripheral spaces such as underground culture, émigré literature and semi-official cultural landscapes both in Moscow and the provinces were already becoming more visible as coexisting traditions with the help of Evtushenko’s landmark 1994 anthology of Russian poetry Strofy veka (Stanzas of the Century), initially serialised in the popular weekly periodical Ogonek (The Little Light).89 An examination of the various coexisting traditions of Russian poetry was also undertaken by numerous documentaries about Russian modernist poets and post-war poets and by internet sites such as Vavilon (Babylon), Samizdat veka (The Century’s Self-Publishing), Neofitsial’naia poeziia (Unofficial Poetry), Russkaia poeziia 1960kh gg. (Russian Poetry of the 1960s); theatrical productions about the lives of twentieth-century Russian poets, and anthologies dedicated to poetry of the Silver Age also contributed to revealing a broader picture of the century’s poetry.90 In addition to the changes in the Russian literary landscape oriented towards the recovery of forgotten poets and traditions, Semen Vilenskii’s 2005 anthology of poetry written by Gulag prisoners presented a challenge not only to historians of Russian literature but also to the promoters of a new educational syllabus in schools and universities.91 Vilenskii’s anthology suggested that the existing canon of Soviet poetry should include Gulag poetry as a genre in its own right, and implied that Evtushenko’s anthology Strofy veka was not as all-inclusive as the title suggests. While Evtushenko’s anthology does offer readers many works that were previously excluded from the mainstream of Soviet published literature, it is nevertheless the case that a large portion of it is made up of the work of poets who were published during the Soviet period.

Multiplicity and Diversity: Facets of the Emerging Canon in the 1990s–2000s

56The present collection explores several examples of how the contemporary process of overcoming the many constraints created by socialist realist critics, censors and poets is starting to reshape the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry. It points to the exciting diversity of the post-Soviet literary landscape and uncovers its links with the Thaw period as well as with the unofficial poetry of the 1970s to the 1980s. The volume also highlights the ongoing creative dialogue between the centre and the periphery, be it the provinces, Gulag prisons, or émigré communities of poets and writers. Not only do the contributors to the present volume analyse different coexisting versions of the poetic canon in contemporary Russia, they also concern themselves with identifying some significant gaps in the Russian collective memory.

57The poetry of the Russian diaspora is one area that was relatively unfamiliar to readers in the Soviet Union; its reception in Russia has been gradual, with numerous gaps in readers’ knowledge still to be filled. Maria Rubins draws attention to the second generation of émigré poets who remain largely unknown to the post-Soviet reader in Russia. Taking her cue from Russian émigré critic Georgii Fedotov, she illustrates how the original and distinct voice of the Paris Note group of poets was shaped by their engagement with the Russian national canon but also by their experience of living in the diaspora where they encountered other influences which promoted a cross-cultural, transnational sensibility. Other chapters also consider the twentieth-century poetry canon as something that has developed across national boundaries. Aaron Hodgson’s chapter on the reception of Brodskii in Russia in the 1990s–2000s suggests that the rise of popular culture and the influence of the Russian media on the literary imagination contributed to the formation of a mythologised image of the poet as a martyr and an authority who bridges the gap between Russian national and Anglo-Saxon traditions. Alexandra Smith also identifies the impact of extra-literary factors on the reception of such important émigré poets as Marina Tsvetaeva, Vladimir Nabokov and Georgii Ivanov. Their experiences of exile and displacement seems to appeal to the post-Soviet reader engrossed in a nostalgic imaginary construction of the past. Joanne Shelton examines the legacy of émigré writer Ivan Bunin as a poet rather than a prose writer in contemporary Russia and explores the role played both by institutions, such as museums and schools, and by other poets, in securing his place in the post-Soviet poetic canon. In his insightful chapter ‘Canonical Mandel′shtam’, Andrew Kahn investigates the role played in Mandel′shtam’s canonisation in the West and in post-Soviet Russia by established poets, who acted as critics and canon-makers; he concludes that several important post-Stalin poets, including Sedakova and Brodskii, downplay such biographical factors as Mandel′shtam’s martyr-like fate, and engage with the poet’s aesthetic ideas about defamiliarisation as well as his unique appreciation of reality in its visual and sound polyphony. Stephanie Sandler’s informative examination of various innovative trends in Russian contemporary poetry, not all of it written in Russia, or, indeed, in Russian, highlights its eclectic nature and its strong orientation towards experimentation. Her examples include the visual poetry of Gennadii Aigi and Elizaveta Mnatsakanova (b. 1922); the emphasis on narrative which may be found in many poems written by Maria Stepanova, Elena Fanailova, and Fedor Svarovskii; and performative traits of Dmitri Prigov’s poetry. The main goal of Sandler’s analysis ‘has been to look at those who are at the boundaries, who offer new ways to see the changing totality that is Russian poetry today’. Elena Shvarts, the subject of the chapter by Josephine von Zitzewitz, was a poet active in the late-Soviet Leningrad literary underground rather than in the diaspora. Shvarts is unique among her fellow Leningrad underground poets in having successfully made the transition from being known only in this restricted milieu to becoming part of mainstream literary culture. Von Zitzewitz explores the ways in which Shvarts’s poetry and persona have made her someone who is able to stand in for the entire underground and take her place as an established figure in the contemporary twentieth-century poetry canon.

58Other chapters focus on ways in which the reputations of particular poets or groups of poets whose work was, to a greater or lesser extent, officially published in the Soviet Union, have been changing since the 1990s. Katharine Hodgson demonstrates successfully how Boris Slutskii, one of the poets most strongly identified with the Soviet establishment, has been liberated from his Soviet captivity and rediscovered not as an influential war poet but rather as a philosophical poet who became a role model for many unofficial poets interested in Jewish themes and in the poetry of trauma. As Hodgson notes, Slutskii’s poetic career ‘demonstrates the inadequacy of simplistic divisions between “official” and “unofficial” poetry as a way of understanding twentieth-century Russian poetry, and the power of poetic innovation’. Olga Sobolev also urges the post-Soviet reader to liberate the poet from the dubious tradition embedded in Soviet scholarship that portrayed Blok as a supporter of revolutionary changes in Russia and as a precursor of socialist realist poetry. She suggests that Blok’s reception in the 1990s–2000s started shifting away from political aspects of Blok’s poems and essays towards an exploration of the philosophical and metaphysical concerns embedded in his works. Blok’s vision of creativity based on the dynamic relationship between the irrational and the rational, Sobolev asserts, accords well with contemporary debates about the role of poetry as a tool for understanding reality. Alexandra Harrington’s engaging discussion of Anna Akhmatova’s cult in contemporary Russia reveals the emergence of glamour ideology. This trend has given rise to a new type of biographical writing in Russian that accommodates popular culture’s preoccupation with stardom. Harrington examines Tamara Kataeva’s highly controversial books about Akhmatova— Anti-Akhmatova (2007) and Abolition of Slavery (2012)—and explains their immense popularity by the tendency of post-Soviet readers to demythologise idols of the past and to reassess canonical authors. Emily Lygo’s contribution provides a very useful examination of poets who are strongly identified with the post-Stalin Thaw; it examines what recent work by influential critics, as well as the contents of poetry anthologies, textbooks and educational syllabuses can tell us about the place that poets of the Thaw generation occupy in the contemporary canon.

  • 92 Quoted in Richard Vaughan, ‘Literature—Why Dostoyevsky is One of Russia’s Best Teachers’, The Time (...)

59All of the case studies included in the present volume suggest that many living Russian poets have successfully integrated themselves into new cultural and social developments and explored new opportunities for forging their identities as performers, philosophers, entertainers, critics, translators, and multimedia figures. This volume also illustrates how the re-configuration of the Russian poetic canon has encouraged many educationalists and critics to reassess their traditional views about lyric poetry and civic poetry. It certainly prompts the reader to re-examine the simplistic division between official and unofficial poetry which existed in the western scholarship of the Cold War period. The present collection also shows that views of the twentieth-century Russian poetry canon as an expression of nation are not sufficient to encompass the complexities of verse written in different diaspora communities, or poetry that was composed in the same geographical space, but one that was profoundly divided, with only certain texts reaching a readership soon after being created. The national canon is, meanwhile, being promoted with increasing energy by the Russian authorities hoping to construct a new Russian identity beyond borders based on the logocentric world view and on the idea of shared national values. A conservative approach to the Russian literary canon can be found in a 2014 interview with Dmitrii Livanov published in The Times Educational Supplement. Livanov, the Russian minister of education and science, suggested that all nations, including Britain, should follow Russia’s example by compelling students to study their own literary canon. Livanov said that all students in Russia were expected to acquire a golden repository of cultural values by the time they left school. He went on to say: ‘You can’t leave a Russian school without having read poetry by Pushkin, novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky or short stories by Chekhov’.92

  • 93 Dmitrii Bykov, Sovetskaia literatura: kratkii kurs (Moscow: Prozaik, 2012); Bykov, Sovetskaia lite (...)

60As Livanov’s list of authors indicates, the national literary canon that he would like to preserve in Russia is still very much oriented towards nineteenth-century literature written in Russian and widely translated outside Russia. The present collection demonstrates that notions of constructing a poetic canon around the cult of Pushkin as supreme national poet appear to be rapidly crumbling away, and are being replaced by multiple coexisting canonical traditions. It also suggests that the process of reassessment of Russian poetry understood during the Soviet era as ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ has resulted in a new configuration of the canon. Lotman’s aforementioned association of poetry with cultural memory (both personal and collective) appears to be highly productive for contemporary poetic experiments and creative engagements with the past. Dmitrii Bykov, whose collaborative project Grazhdanin poet has been discussed above, seems to represent a different approach to the literary canon. He clearly has no interest in overturning or dismissing the canon as such, and recognises its role as one of the elements that make up collective identity. Yet he also acknowledges the importance of personal associations that individual readers or, indeed, critics, may have with particular writers and their works. His 2012 collection of essays Sovetskaia literatura: kratkii kurs (Soviet Literature: A Short Course), and indeed the expanded version published two years later with the subtitle rasshirennyi kurs (Extended Course) offers a highly individual and playful account of Soviet canonical literature which mocks the solemn didactic tradition, and, indeed, the Stalin-era Short Course of Soviet History which was compulsory reading for Soviet citizens.93

  • 94 Andrei Siniavskii, Progulki s Pushkinym (London: Overseas Publications Interchange, 1975). For an (...)

61Bykov treats his texts and authors with the same kind of ambivalence evident in Grazhdanin poet: he is neither reverent nor unequivocally dismissive. The keynote of his Short Course is familiarity, both in the sense of informality and of extensive knowledge. His take on the canon, both here and in his parodies, is to re-animate past writers, not to treat them as monuments to be politely admired. Bykov’s playful approach should not be seen as trivialising though it may not be to everyone’s taste, like Siniavskii’s Progulki s Pushkinym (Strolls with Pushkin, 1975), which caused scandal because of its admiring but less than reverent treatment of the most canonical or Russian poets.94 His contribution to the reassessment of the poetry canon is to appeal to a mass audience as a populariser. He may be trenchant in the way he delivers opinions, but he does not lay claim to have the one correct understanding of the issues. As an informed observer, but one who does not set himself up as ultimate arbiter, he offers a vision of the literary canon as something on which we can all have our opinions. This is a view of canon on a human scale rather than canon as monument: a resource to be drawn on, not a sacred object. While there are still scholars who seem to be attracted to the Soviet-era understanding of the canon as monolithic and authoritative, Bykov’s idiosyncractic approach suggests that a more democratic, flexible, and inclusive understanding of the literary canon is starting to take root.


1 The chapters in this book grew from a series of workshops at which contributors gathered to share their ideas and discuss how they might develop their work for publication. These workshops, held at the University of Exeter in December 2011, the University of Edinburgh in July 2012, and the University of Exeter in January 2013, were supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which the editors of this volume gratefully acknowledge.

2 Nadezhda Mandel’shtam refers to the 1930s as a ‘pre-Gutenberg era’ in her memoir Hope Against Hope, translated by Max Hayward (New York: Atheneum, 1970), p. 192.

3 The terms ‘accessible canon’ and ‘selective canon’ (below) are taken from Alastair Fowler, ‘Genre and the Literary Canon’, New Literary History, 11: 1, Anniversary Issue: II (Autumn 1979), 97–119 (pp. 98–99). For more on Fowler’s approach to categorising types of canon, see Olga Sobolev’s chapter in this volume, pp. 123– 56 (p. 130).

4 Frank Ellis, From Glasnost to the Internet: Russia’s New Infosphere (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 125–137.

5 Andrew Kahn, ‘Introduction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, edited by Andrew Kahn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 1–7 (p. 5).

6 Michael Wachtel, The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 10.

7 Ibid.

8 As Vadim Volkov points out, in 1936 the Komsomol press in the Soviet Union launched a campaign promoting the notion of culturedness that was linked not only to attending the theatre and cinema but also to the ‘mastery of a correct, literary speech—manner’ associated with reading good literature. See Vadim Volkov, ‘The Concept of Kul’turnost’: Notes on the Stalinist Civilizing Process’, in Stalinism: New Directions, edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Routledge: London and New York, 2000), pp. 210–30 (p. 223).

9 ‘Bank Slavianskii, Poety: Mandel’shtam, Pasternak, Blok, Pushkin’,

10 Mark Lipovetsky, ‘Russian Literary Postmodernism in the 1990s’, Slavonic and East European Review, 1 (2001), 31–50 (pp. 31–32).

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 32.

13 Juri Lotman, Culture and Explosion, edited by Marina Grishakova, translated by Wilma Clark (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009), p. 171, p. 166.

14 Ibid., p. 166.

15 Ibid., p. 169.

16 Ibid., p. 10.

17 Ibid., p. 59.

18 Ibid., p. 154.

19 Paul Lauter, Canons and Contexts (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 58.

20 The term loosely denotes Russian cultural developments in the 1880s–1910s. On the latest usage of this term see Alexandra Smith, ‘Silver Age Studies: The State of the Field’, in The AATSEEL Newsletter, 56: 2 (April 2013), 2–4,

21 Galina Rylkova, The Archaeology of Anxiety: The Russian Silver Age and its Legacy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007), pp. 6–7.

22 Adele Marie Barker, ‘Rereading Russia’, in Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, And Society Since Gorbachev, edited by Adele Marie Barker (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 3–11 (p. 5).

23 Barker, ‘The Culture Factory: Theorising the Popular in the Old and New Russia’, in Consuming Russia, pp. 12–48 (p. 19).

24 Susan Holak, Alexei Matveev, and William Havlena, ‘Nostalgia in Post-Socialist Russia: Exploring Applications to Advertising Strategy’, Journal of Business Research, 60 (2007), 649–55 (p. 650).

25 Barker, ‘The Culture Factory’, p. 19.

26 This tendency can be illustrated by the popularity of the 2015 television series loosely based on Vasilii Aksenov’s novel Tainstvennaia strast’(Secret Passion). It features famous Soviet poets of the 1960s, including Evgenii Evtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, Robert Rozhdestvenskii and Andrei Voznesenskii. Igor’Virabov reports that the thirteen-episode television story about popular poets of the 1960s attracted an incredible amount of interest among post-Soviet spectators eager to learn more about the Thaw: ‘Vakson vo mgle’, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 November 2016,

27 Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan, ‘Setting the Framework’, in War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century, edited by Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 6–39 (p. 6).

28 Oleg Gorbachev, ‘The Namedni Project and the Evolution of Nostalgia in Post-Soviet Russia’, Canadian Slavonic Papers, 3–4 (2015), 180–94 (p. 181).

29 Ibid.

30 Moritz Gathmann, ‘Satire Against Cynicism’, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 13 March 2012, For all the Grazdanin poet episodes, see

31 ‘Поэтом можешь ты не быть,/Но гражданиниом быть обязан’ (‘You do not have to be a poet, but you are obliged to be a citizen’), Nikolai Nekrasov, ‘Poet i grazhdanin’, Izbrannye sochineniia ((Moscow: OGIZ, 1945; 1st edn 1938), pp. 47–51 (p. 49).

32 Nina Barkovskaya, ‘Poet and Citizen: Canon Game in Contemporary Russian Poetry’, in Russian Classical Literature Today: The Challenges/Trials of Messianism and Mass Culture, edited by Yordan Lyutskanov, Hristo Manolaked and Radostin Rusev (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), pp. 110–25 (p. 114).

33 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 75.

34 Svitlana Malykhina, Renaissance of Classical Allusions in Contemporary Russian Media (Lanham, NY: Lexington Books, 2014), p. 47.

35 Nina Barkovskaya, ‘Poet and Citizen’, p. 111.


37 Karen A. McCauley, ‘Production Literature and the Industrial Imagination’, The Slavic and East European Journal, 42: 3 (Autumn 1998), 444–66 (p. 462).


39 Rylkova, The Archaeology of Anxiety, p. 3.

40 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World’, in Geographies of Modernism: Literatures, Cultures, Spaces, edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 6–18 (p. 11).

41 Ibid.

42 Mikhail Aizenberg, ‘In Lieu of an Introduction’, Russian Studies in Literature, 4 (1993), 8–24 (p. 10).

43 Sergei Gandlevskii, ‘Sochineniia Timura Kibirova’, Poeticheskaia kukhnia (St Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1998), pp. 18–22 (p. 22).

44 Thomas Lahusen, ‘Socialist Realism in Search of Its Shores: Some Historical Remarks on the “Historically Open Aesthetic System of the Truthful Representation of Life”’, in Socialist Realism Without Shores, edited by Thomas Lahusen and Evgenii Dobrenko (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 5–26 (p. 5).

45 Sofya Khagi, ‘Art as Aping: The Uses of Dialogism in Timur Kibirov’s “To Igor” Pomerantsev. Summer Reflections on the Fate of Belles Lettres’, The Russian Review, 4 (2002), 579–98 (p. 592).

46 The term ‘Golden Age’ is usually applied to Russian poetry and fiction of the 1800s to the 1830s but many scholars extend the usage of this term to Russian novels published in the 1840s to the 1880s. See, for example, the description of Russian nineteenth-century canonical works as ‘the “Golden Era” of the 19th century’, in Jonathan Stone, Historical Dictionary of Russian Literature (Lanham, Toronto, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2013), p. ix. Ivar Spector also suggests that it is customary to speak of the nineteenth century either as the classical or the golden age of Russian literature. See Ivar Spector, The Golden Age of Russian Literature (New York: Scholastic Press), 1939, p. 11.

47 Edith W. Clowes, Russia on the Edge: Imagined Geographies and Post-Soviet Identity (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011), pp. 7–9, p. 171.

48 Ibid., p. 12.

49 Stephanie Sandler, ‘Introduction: Myths and Paradoxes of the Russian Poet’, in Rereading Russian Poetry, edited by Stephanie Sandler (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 1–28 (p. 16).

50 Ibid., p. 13.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid., p. 14.

53 Uil’iam Mills Todd III [William Mills Todd III], ‘Otkrytiia i proryvy sovetskoi teorii literatury v poslestalinskuiu epokhu’, in Istoriia russkoi literaturnoi kritiki, edited by Evgenii Dobrenko and Galin Tikhanov (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011), pp. 571–607 (pp. 579–83).

54 Victor Erlich, ‘Russian Formalism: In Perspective’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2 (December 1954), 215–25 (p. 215).

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid., p. 217.

58 Among the most important monographs the following are especially worthy of mention: Oge Khanzen-Lieve, Russkii formalizm: metodologicheskaia rekonstruktsiia razvittiia na osnove printsipa ostraneniia (Moscow: Iazyki russkoi kul’tury, 2001); I. Iu. Svetlikova, Istoki russkogo formalizma: traditsiia psikhologizma i formalnaia shkola (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2005); Katrin Depretto, Formalizm v Rossii: predshestvenniki, istoriia, kontekst (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015).

59 Todd, ‘Otkrytiia i proryvy sovetskoi teorii literatury v poslestalinskuiu epokhu’, pp. 571–607, p. 579.

60 Ibid., p. 584.

61 O. M. Brik, ‘Ritm and sintaksis (Materialy k izucheniiu stikhotvornoi rechi)’, Novyi LEF, 3 (1927), 15–20; 4 (1927), 23–29; 5 (1927), 32–37; 6 (1927), 33–39; B. M. Eikhenbaum, O poezii (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel; 1969); Boris Tomashevskii, O stikhe (Leningrad: Priboi, 1929); Iurii Tynianov, Arkhaisty i novatory (Leningrad: Priboi, 1929).

62 Quoted in Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 9.

63 Evgeny Dobrenko, The Making of the State Writer: Social and Aesthetic Origin of Soviet Literary Culture, translated by Jesse M. Savage (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. xv.

64 Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf (New York: B. W. Huebsch Inc., 1920), p. 8.

65 Andrew J. Steiger, ‘Soviet Poetry-Dynamized Incarnate Sound’, Books Abroad, 3 (1935), 247–50 (p. 249).

66 Ibid.

67 Irina G. Tazhidinova, ‘“Declaration of Emotional Independence” in Soviet Poetry in the 1930s: A Historical-Sociological Analysis’, History and Historians in the Context of the Time, 12: 1 (2014), 48–54,

68 Stephanie Sandler, ‘Poetry after 1930’, in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Russian Literature, edited by Evgeny Dobrenko and Marina Balina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 115–34 (p. 116).

69 Ibid., p. 115.

70 Pravda, 23 May 1959. Quoted in English in Maurice Friedberg, ‘Socialist Realism: Twenty-Five Years Later’, The American Slavic and East European Review, 2 (1960), 276–87 (p. 281).

71 Literaturnaia gazeta, 20 May 1954, p. 4. Quoted in English in Friedberg, ‘Socialist Realism’, p. 283.

72 Quoted in ibid.

73 Emily Lygo, Leningrad Poetry 1953–1975: The Thaw Generation (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), p. 3.

74 Ibid., p. 7.

75 Sandler, ‘Poetry after 1930’, p. 117.

76 Viacheslav Ogryzko, ‘“Vosslavim, bratsy, sumerki svobody”, ili kak dogmatik Aleksandr Dymshits dobil partiinye vlasti i vypustil v “Biblioteke poeta” tomik poluzapreshchennogo Osipa Mandel’shtama’, Literaturnaia Rossiia, 11 March 2016,

77 Abram Terts, Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (Paris: Syntaxis, 1988), p. 60.

78 As Konstantin Kustanovich explains, the term ‘Sots Art’ was coined in 1972 by the unofficial Russian artists Vitalii Komar and Aleksandr Melamid. They used it to define their own mode of artistic expression. Subsequently the term was used to describe Soviet unofficial visual artefacts and literary texts produced in 1972–1985 that aspired to deconstruct totalitarian language and to subvert the style of socialist realism with the help of irony and parody. See Konstantin Kustanovich, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being the Other: Myth and Nostalgia in Sots Art’, Slavonica, 9: 1 (2003), 3–18 (p. 3).

79 Mikhail Epstein, ‘The Philosophical Implications of Russian Conceptualism’, Journal of Eurasian Studies, 1 (2010), 64–71 (p. 67).

80 Krystyna Pomorska, Russian Formalist Theory and Its Poetic Ambiance (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), p. 92.

81 Richard F. Gustafson, ‘Ginzburg’s Theory of the Lyric’, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 2 (1985), 135–39 (p. 136).

82 Lidiia Ginzburg, O lirike (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel′, 1964), p. 270. Quoted in English in Gustafson, ‘Ginzburg’s Theory of the Lyric’, p. 136.

83 A. V. Lavrov, ‘Neskol'ko slov o Zare Grigor’evne Mints, redaktore i vdokhnovitele taruskikh “Blokovskikh sbornikov”’, Blokovskii sbornik, 12 (1993), 6–10 (pp. 7–8).

84 Ibid., p. 10.

85 Maxim Koupovykh, The Soviet Empire of Signs: A Social and Intellectual History of the Tartu School of Semiotics (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2005), p. 53.

86 Richard Robert Sheldon, ‘Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky: Literary Theory and Practice, 1914–1930’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Michigan, 1966), p. 2.

87 Ibid., p. 141.

88 Rachel Schmidt, Critical Images: The Canonization of Don Quixote through Illustrated Editions of the 18th Century (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), p. 22.

89 Strofy veka. Antologiia russkoi poezii, edited by Evgenii Evtushenko (Moscow: Polifakt, 1994).

90,,; Poeziia Serebrianogo veka, compiled by Boris Akimov (Moscow: Eksmo, 2007); Poety Serebrianogo veka,; Antologiia poezii Serebrianogo veka: 1890–1940, compiled by Karen Dzhangirov,; Russkaia poeziia: Stikhi serebrianogo veka,

91 Poeziia uznikov Gulaga. Antologiia, compiled by Semen Vilenskii (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnyi fond Demokratiia/Materik, 2005).

92 Quoted in Richard Vaughan, ‘Literature—Why Dostoyevsky is One of Russia’s Best Teachers’, The Times Educational Supplement, 24 January 2014, p. 8.

93 Dmitrii Bykov, Sovetskaia literatura: kratkii kurs (Moscow: Prozaik, 2012); Bykov, Sovetskaia literatura: rasshirennyi kurs (Moscow: Prozaik, 2014); Istoriia VKP (b): kratkii kurs (Moscow: OGIZ, 1945; 1st edn 1938).

94 Andrei Siniavskii, Progulki s Pushkinym (London: Overseas Publications Interchange, 1975). For an analysis of the responses to Siniavskii’s book, see Stephanie Sandler, ‘Sex, Death and Nation in the “Strolls with Pushkin” controversy’, Slavic Review, 51: 2 (1992), 294–308.


Research focuses on twentieth-century Russian poetry, particularly the complexities faced by writers during the Soviet period, and how attitudes towards the cultural legacy of the USSR have evolved since 1991. Katharine has published extensively on the topic, including with Alexandra Smith, The Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry Canon and Post-Soviet National Identity (2017) and Voicing the Soviet Experience: the Poetry of Ol´ga Berggol´ts (2003). Between 2010 and 2013 Katharine led a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), ‘Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry, 1991–2008’ (, which has enabled her to examine how the twentieth-century poetry canon has been revised in recent years. This book is the fruit of this productive collaboration. Email:

Reader in Russian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include literary and film theory, critical theory, Russian literature of the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries, and the history of ideas and the interaction between literary and visual modes of artistic expression. Alexandra is the author of The Song of the Mockingbird: Pushkin in the Works of Marina Tsvetaeva (1994) and Montaging Pushkin: Pushkin and Visions of Modernity in Russian Twentieth-Century Poetry (2006). She has also written numerous articles on Russian literature and culture, as well as European and American literature. Currently she is working on several publications related to the AHRC project ‘Reconfiguring the Canon of Russian Twentieth-Century Poetry, 1991–2008’, in which she participated as Co-Investigator. Email: