The Birth and Death of Literary Theory
Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond
Galin Tihanov




Regimes of Relevance in Émigré Criticism and Theory

The previous chapters have explored different ideas about the relevance of literature, discussing a range of theoretical positions during the interwar decades. In this chapter I want to return to the importance of exile for how we reflect on literature and its significance in a multilingual and multicultural environment, renewing questions of its relevance and its canon in the diaspora (and thus also, from a different angle, the question of the classic posed in the chapter on Bakhtin). The discussion here goes beyond what has been established in the preceding chapters, not least because it considers literary theory not per se, but in its interactions with another distinct discourse, that of literary criticism, which had its own dynamic and its own conventions. The symbiosis of literary theory and criticism was a palpable feature of literary life in the diaspora, encouraged, in no small measure, by the social and professional makeup of the new intelligentsia. What follows is an examination of the ways in which émigré literary criticism between the world wars essayed to extend an inherited regime of relevance that conceived of literature as speaking directly to the traditional collective concerns of its creators and readers—in contrast to a radically different perspective that sought to endorse a regime of relevance in which literature would be denationalized in order to address the private concerns of the exile. The importance of transnational mobility, exile, and estrangement for thinking theoretically about literature is a theme I have already established in the Introduction to this book; I will revisit this theme once again in the Epilogue.

Setting the Agenda

Writing the history of Russian émigré literary criticism and theory between World Wars I and II presents a set of challenges. We still know relatively little about the ways in which émigré writing began, over time, to interact with the various host cultures, and what implications this interaction had for how émigré literature and criticism related to cultural and political processes in Soviet Russia. Earlier historians of Russian émigré culture, notably Marc Raeff, believed that “Russian literature in emigration remained as isolated from Western literatures as it had been in prerevolutionary Russia, perhaps even more so.”1 More recent research, foremost by Leonid Livak and Maria Rubins, has persuasively demonstrated the intensive appropriation of French culture and, more widely, of the European modernist novel by the Paris émigrés, as well as their participation in French cultural life, not least as regular reviewers and critics writing for French periodicals (Yuliya Sazonova, Gleb Struve, Vladimir Veidle).2 The rich stock of émigré memoirs gives a sense of this integrationist drive. In Elysian Fields: A Book of Memory, Vasily Yanovsky relates an episode in which he and his fellow émigré writer Iurii Fel'zen had gone to the offices of a Paris publishing house to enquire of Gabriel Marcel about the fate of their manuscripts; there, they bumped into Vladimir Nabokov (Sirin), who was leaving, having tried to interest Marcel in publishing his novel Despair in French.3 Generational change was an important factor in this reorientation of the creative energy of émigré literature; even more significant, however, appears to have been the multicultural dynamism of metropolitan European cities, such as Berlin (which had hosted the first outburst of Russian émigré creativity in the late 1910s and the early 1920s, when Russian writers and artists became an integral part of the European avant-garde) and Paris (where Russian writers of both the younger and the older generations became involved in a Franco-Russian literary dialogue, particularly from the mid-1920s on).4 With this new approach to émigré writing in mind, I focus in this chapter—among other key issues—on how a freshly formed European modernist canon (above all Proust’s writing) contributed to attempts by a younger generation of émigré writers and critics in Paris to rearrange the Russian literary canon of the nineteenth century.

A second difficulty stems from the fact that we still know very little about what specific impact émigré literature and criticism actually had in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union. This is a vastly underresearched area, and here I can only state, with some urgency, the need to explore it. The dynamics of this impact differed. It was stronger during the more relaxed regime of loyalty of the early 1920s, when travel was easier and the difference between living abroad and being an émigré was still not set in stone.5 As early as April 1921, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) decreed that twenty copies of all the leading émigré newspapers should be subscribed to, so as to be available to Party policy makers and administrators in Soviet Russia; an estimated 160 to 200 copies of the journal Volia Rossii (which was not unsympathetic to developments in Soviet Russia) were bought by the Soviet authorities.6 Control over the importation of émigré literature did not commence until 1923.7 Especially during this initial period (until 1923), competition with the émigré literary press was taken very seriously, as the case of establishing Krasnaia nov' in 1921 as the first Soviet “thick” literary journal—a tacit response to the foundation of Sovremennye zapiski in Paris in 1920—demonstrates.8 The impact of émigré culture was still perceptible in the mid-to-late 1920s, when surveys of Russian émigré literature kept appearing in some of the major Moscow periodicals, although reviews of individual works of émigré literature and criticism were less common.9 Through the prism of Soviet literary criticism of the 1920s, émigré writing was increasingly interpreted as flight from Symbolism, toward a healthy adoption of realism. The “high standard” of this resilient émigré realism was set by Ivan Bunin (who was to become the first writer writing in Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature). In the eyes of his Soviet critics, notably Dmitrii Gorbov, a prominent member of the Pereval (“Pass”) group of postrevolutionary writers, Bunin was both an example of commitment to realism and proof of the terminal decline of bourgeois writing. Measured by Bunin’s standard, the younger generation of émigré writers were often accused of succumbing to less desirable versions of realism—excessive attention to the everyday aspects of life (bytovizm)—or to old-style “symbolist abstraction.”10 Attention to émigré writing and the polemics in émigré criticism faded away after the 1920s (although major émigré newspapers, such as Pavel Milyukov’s Poslednye novosti, continued to claim the attention of the Soviet political elite),11 not to reappear again in full measure until the late 1960s. Significantly, by 1930, references to émigré criticism had begun to function as little more than a weapon in settling domestic scores; in the journal Na literaturnom postu (On the Literary Guard), for example, Demian Bedny (Efim Pridvorov) distorted arguments drawn from émigré literary criticism to denounce the prose writers close to Pereval.12

A third difficulty flows from another knowledge deficit: we need a more accurate picture of how literary criticism worked in the émigré environment: who wrote it, what were its institutions, mechanisms, and status? An insight—perhaps somewhat biased but nevertheless welcome—is afforded in a series of articles by the prominent Prague-based émigré literary critic Alfred Bem published in April–May 1931 in the Berlin Russian-language newspaper Rul'. Bem draws attention to the following features of émigré criticism:

* It was concentrated in the newspapers rather than the journals; the book review acquired “permanent residence” in the newspaper, as did the literary feuilleton (no doubt a somewhat partisan diagnosis by Bem, himself a prominent newspaper critic; as we shall see, journals played an indispensable role in the major debates of émigré criticism).

* Literary criticism in emigration was no longer in the hands of professional critics: except for Iulii Aikhenval'd (Berlin; Aikhenval'd had passed away in 1928), Petr Pil'skii (Riga), and Mark Slonim and Bem himself (both in Prague), most of the prominent literary critics were actually writers, predominantly poets (such as the two antagonists and most significant critics on the Paris scene, Vladislav Khodasevich and Georgii Adamovich, along with many others).

* Émigré literary journals relied on a thin editorial core sharing the same political views; the writers and critics were peripheral to it, with no expectation of loyalty to the journal’s political agenda (we will see later that Mikhail Osorgin contradicted Bem’s judgment on this point). This meant that the literary sections of the journals lacked “proper guidance”; literary critics were left to their own devices, feeling free to express their own taste and views but deprived of the homogeneity that would constitute a “literary trend.”13

Bem’s diagnosis of the adverse conditions in which émigré literary criticism operated emphasized the often ephemeral status of publications in the periodicals. As a matter of fact, only three interwar émigrés managed to publish books of critical essays and reviews written in emigration (not counting the genre of the critical monograph: e.g., Vladimir Veidle’s short book on Khodasevich [Paris, 1928], Konstantin Mochul'skii’s book on Gogol [Paris, 1934], or Kirill Zaitsev’s monograph on Bunin [Berlin, 1934]).14 Bem himself was hoping to collect his “Letters on Literature” in a book but inclement economic conditions stood in the way. This may, at least in part, explain the desire of émigré critics to anchor their own efforts in the work of their predecessors, spinning out a longer tradition and constructing a superior canon of Russian literary criticism. In a unique collection published in Russian in Shanghai (1941), suitably titled Masterpieces of Russian Literary Criticism, the editor Kirill Zaitsev justified his decision to include solely essays written in the nineteenth century by the need to foreground that which had stood the test of time and steer clear of partisan, and thus also short-lived, criticism. To ensure his volume’s longevity, Zaitsev selected pieces written not by “professional critics”—whose bias and subjectivity would generally rule out judgments of lasting value—but by intellectuals who were also writers, philosophers, or historians; the anthology thus republished essays by Pushkin, Belinsky, Gogol, Zhukovsky, Turgenev, Girgor'ev, Khomyakov, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Leont'ev, Klyuchevsky, Rozanov, and Vladimir Solovyov.15

A fourth difficulty has to do with the fact that émigré literary criticism and literary theory, while of necessity linked, did not display the same dynamics and followed dissimilar trajectories. While literary criticism felt increasingly committed to, but also constrained by, the need to engage with events in the Soviet Union and take a clear stance, theory was freer from this expectation, and thus also enjoying more flexibility in articulating its own agenda. Exile, rather than acting as an impeding factor, was right at the heart of developments in literary theory during the interwar period; it was part and parcel of a renewed cultural cosmopolitanism that transcended local encapsulation and monoglossia. As we have seen in the Introduction, for a number of years the activities of the Russian Formalists were taking place in a climate of enhanced mobility and exchange of ideas between the metropolitan and émigré streams of Russian culture. The most gifted ambassadors of the Formalists abroad were Viktor Shklovsky, during the time he spent as an émigré in Berlin, and Roman Jakobson while in Czechoslovakia (where he arrived as a Soviet citizen, but decided eventually not to return to Moscow).16 Jakobson is a particularly important example; his subsequent cooperation with Piotr Bogatyrev17 and with the Vienna-based émigré scholar Nikolai Trubetzkoy, as well as his connections with Yuri Tynianov (who stayed in Russia but was involved in the work of his Prague colleagues),18 were crucial in attempts to revive Opoiaz (the Society for the Study of Poetic Language) in the Soviet Union. These attempts, while unsuccessful, yielded an important document in the history of literary theory, a brief set of theses titled “Problems in the Study of Literature and Language,” written in Prague jointly by Jakobson and Tynianov and signaling the urgent need to revise the supremacy of “pure synchronism” and promote an analysis of the “correlation between the literary series and other historical series.”19 Thus, the work of Russian Formalism in its concluding stages, and later the formation and flourishing of the Prague Linguistic Circle, became possible through intellectual exchanges that benefited from the crossing of national boundaries, often under the duress of exile.20 The work of Jakobson, Trubetzkoy, Shklovsky, and Bogatyrev came to embody the potential of what Edward Said was later to term “travelling theory”: “The point of theory is . . . to travel, always to move beyond its confinements, to emigrate, to remain in a sense in exile.”21

In Prague, in particular, one could observe in a nutshell the stupendous diversity of methodological approaches marking émigré literary scholarship between the world wars. Along with Jakobson’s post-Formalism and Bogatyrev’s early functionalist Structuralism (developed, recent Russian research would claim, independently of Malinovsky’s),22 we can also see the unfolding of fruitful historico-philological research (centered around the 1925–33 Dostoevsky Seminar founded by Alfred Bem)23 and psychoanalytic literary scholarship, the main exponent of which was Nikolai Osipov (1877–1934), who had made Freud’s acquaintance in Vienna in 1910 and had propagated his ideas in Russia, before emigrating in 1919 and arriving in Czechoslovakia in 1921.24 To this one should add the Prague wing of Eurasianism, led by Piotr Savitsky, who had set himself the task of establishing “Eurasian literary studies” in which Russian literary history, both before and after 1917, was to be reexamined from the point of view of its potential to assert Russia’s special geopolitical and cultural status. Savitsky eventually acknowledged his failure in this task, but he did succeed in persuading a number of followers in Prague (Konstantin Chkheidze, Leontii Kopetskii, G. I. Rubanov) to embrace Eurasianism as an interpretative prism through which to comment on the Soviet literary scene of the 1920s–30s.25 Importantly, Prague was the place where some of these currents intersected, most noticeably in Jakobson’s attempt to lend legitimacy to Eurasian linguistics (encouraged in part by Savitsky), in Savitsky’s efforts to found a linguistic geography with Structuralist ambitions, and in Bogatyrev’s (later abandoned) idea of a specifically Eurasian Russian folkloristics.26

This peaceful coexistence of approaches practiced in Prague should not, however, obscure the larger dissimilarities in the inner dynamics of émigré theory and criticism. Jakobson, who participated in both discourses, was rather exceptional in a landscape where these two discursive formations remained estranged in their cohabitation. To illustrate this point, let me deal briefly with the divergent positions of Jakobson and Vladislav Khodasevich, undoubtedly two of the most distinguished émigré commentators on literature, and draw attention to the prevalent hostility among émigré literary critics toward Russian Formalism.

Jakobson’s large-scale project of literary theory, in which notions such as the differentiation and competition between literature and the series of everyday life (byt), the fundamental distinction between metaphor and metonymy, and the systemic nature of the evolution of literature and its generic repertoire played a central role, can be seen at work in his émigré texts that merge literary criticism and theory, notably in his “On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets,” written in May–June 1930 and published in 1931, and in “Randbemerkungen zur Prosa des Dichters Pasternak” (trans. in 1969 as” The Prose of the Poet Pasternak”), written in a Bulgarian Black Sea resort in 1935 and published the same year in Slavische Rundschau.27 While elaborating on his theoretical principles embraced and developed in the late 1910s and during the 1920s, these texts are also a remarkable testimony to Jakobson’s prowess as a literary critic. They are marked by sustained loyalty to Futurism and especially to Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky; the poetry of the latter, in particular, functions as an implicit model to which Jakobson remains beholden in these and several other articles of the 1920s and 1930s. By contrast, Khodasevich who (unlike Jakobson) had not directly participated in the debates on theory immediately before and after 1917 and had been writing exclusively within the discursive space of literary criticism, failed to recognize Mayakovsky’s gift and stature. Characteristically, he also sought to reject the innovative theoretical charge of Russian Formalism (and was equally dismissive of psychoanalytic literary studies).28

There is, of course, more to all this than Khodasevich’s personal dislike of Mayakovsky’s poetry or his disagreement with Formalism. Not just Khodasevich but almost the whole of émigré literary criticism remained remarkably conservative in its reaction to Russian Formalism, Georgii Adamovich being another strong exponent of this attitude. Adamovich shared this stance with Nabokov, notwithstanding the fact that he failed to appreciate the latter’s prose. When it came to their rejection of Russian Formalism, personal taste for literature proved immaterial, as did the critic’s ability or inability to spot individual talent.29 Among the émigré critics, the activist symbiosis between Formalism and the Left Front of the Arts (LEF) seems to have been appreciated solely by the left-wing of the Eurasians, whose political orientation facilitated a more sympathetic treatment of Formalism (I have dwelled on this in some detail in the chapter on Russian Formalism).

The trajectories of émigré literary theory and criticism were thus undoubtedly entangled yet far from identical; each had its own dynamics of promoting or rejecting the new methodological principles worked out since the start of World War I. In what follows I concentrate on literary criticism as an inherently polemical discourse, tracing the pivotal points of debate in emigration and examining their significance for articulating a range of conflicting views on how literature could claim relevance in and through its diasporic existence.30


1. Raeff, Russia Abroad, 115.

2. See Livak, How It Was Done in Paris; Rubins, Russian Montparnasse. These books, while not focusing specifically on émigré criticism, manage to break the inertia of looking at Russian exilic literary culture as self-enclosed and autistic, refusing to cultivate any productive ties with the new home cultures. See also Livak, “K izucheniiu,” where he mentions the names of Sazonova, Struve, and Veidle as regular reviewers and critics contributing to French periodicals (208); for an exhaustive bibliography, see Livak, Russian Émigrés, in which Livak extends the list to include other Russian émigré critics writing—sometimes anonymously—for the French press (4, 26).

3. Ianovskii (V. S. Yanovsky), Polia Eliseiskie, 254–55 (trans. Isabella Yanovsky and the author as Elysian Fields: A Book of Memory,1987). Nabokov’s novel, translated into French from his own English translation, was published by Gallimard in 1939 (see Davydov, “Despair,” 99n1).

4. This dialogue is partly documented in Livak and Tassis, eds., Studio.

5. On the porous boundaries between home and émigré literature at that juncture, see Slobin, “‘Homecoming.’

6. For VTsIK’s decree, see Agurskii, Ideologiia, 163; on the Soviet interest in Volya Rossii, see Aucouturier, “Marc Slonim,” 25; and Slonim, “‘Volia Rossii,’” 299.

7. See Blium, “Pechat'.”

8. See Maguire, Red Virgin Soil, 21. On the history of Sovremennye zapiski, see Vishniak, “Sovremennye zapiski” and the materials (including correspondence and thorough studies and bibliographies of the contemporary reception of the journal) in Korostelev and Schruba, eds., Vokrug redaktsionnogo arkhiva “Sovremennykh zapisok” (Parizh, 1920–1940), and Korostelev and Schruba, eds., “Sovremennye zapiski” (2 vols.).

9. See, e.g., Smirnov, “Na tom beregu” (I am grateful to Oleg Korestelev for drawing this article to my attention); Gorbov, “10 let.” See also Gorbov’s collection of articles, U nas.

10. See Gorbov, U nas, 32 (for the charge of bytovizm) and 76 (on the dangers of “symbolist abstraction”).

11. See Nil'sen, “P. Miliukov,” 131.

12. Cf. Boiko, “Russkoe,” 236–37.

13. All references are to Bem’s series of articles “O kritike i kritikakh” (“On Criticism and the Critics”), reprinted in A. L. Bem, Pis'ma o literature (Prague: Slovanský ústav; Euroslavica, 1996), esp. 36–37, 43.

14. In chronological order: Pil'skii, Zatumanivshiisia mir; Slonim, Portrety sovetskikh pisatelei (there is an earlier, 1931, Belgrade edition under the title Portreti savremenih ruskih pisaca); and Mandel'shtam, Iskateli.

15. See Zaitsev, ed., Shedevry; Zaitsev’s “Predislovie” (5–9) makes the points about the importance of including work by nonprofessional critics (5) and the need to limit the selection to the nineteenth century (9).

16. On the complex semantics of nostalgia and estrangement in Shklovsky’s exilic texts, see Boym, “Estrangement as a Lifestyle” and “Poetics”; on Russian émigré literary criticism in Berlin, see Sorokina, Literaturnaia kritika.

17. Bogatyrev lived in Prague for nearly two decades and in Münster for about two years, but remained a Soviet citizen, cooperating closely with his colleagues in the Soviet Union. He returned to Moscow in December 1938. On his close contacts with Soviet folkloristics and ethnography, see Reshetov, “Pis'ma.”

18. See Jakobson, “Yuri Tynianov.”

19. Quoted here from the English translation in Russian Poetics in Translation (vol. 4: Formalist Theory), ed. L. M. O’Toole and Ann Shukman (Colchester, England: University of Essex, 1977), 49–51, here 49; written in December 1928 and first published in Russian in Novyi LEF 12 (1928)—actually in early 1929.

20. In a different context and with different tasks in mind, Stephen Greenblatt forcefully asserts that in order to write cultural history, we must “understand colonization, exile, emigration, wandering, contamination . . . , for it is these disruptive forces that principally shape the history and diffusion of languages, and not a rooted sense of cultural legitimacy” (Greenblatt, “Racial Memory,” 61).

21. Said, “Travelling Theory,” 264.

22. On Bogatyrev’s functionalist Structuralism and his Prague period, see Ivanova, Istoriia, 748–72; Sorokina, “Funktsional'no-struktural'nyi metod P. G. Bogatyreva.”

23. The most important papers read at the Dostoevsky Seminar were published in three volumes, O Dostoevskom (Prague, 1929; 1933; 1936), while a fourth volume, conceived but left in manuscript form, appeared only in 1972. The third and fourth volumes were made up entirely of Bem’s own studies of Dostoevsky. For more on the Prague scene of Dostoevsky studies and Bem’s contributions, see Markovich, “Obshchestvo,” 166–67; Pletnev, “Vospominaniia,” esp. 14–19; Bubenikova and Goriainov, “O nevospolnimykh,” 27–29; and Bocharov and Surat, “Al'fred Liudvigovich Bem,” esp. 15–22.

24. The correspondence between Freud and Osipov is documented in Freud and Ossipow, Briefwechsel.

25. Savitsky’s admission of failure can be found in Lubenskii (Savitsky), “Evraziiskaia bibliografiia,” 288. Savitsky’s writings on literature, including a brief but very telling article on Pushkin, are listed in Beisswenger, Petr Nikloaevich Savitskii. On Chkheidze, see in English Gacheva, “Unknown Pages”; see also his 1932 paper, Chkheidze, “O sovremennoi.” On Kopetskii (1894–1976), see Lilich, “L. V. Kopetskii.” G. I. Rubanov’s brief surveys of recent Soviet literature were published in Evraziiskaia khronika 8 (1927): 52–53; Evraziiskaia khronika 9 (1927): 82–83. For an overview, see Reviakina, “Russkaia literatura.”

26. See Jakobson, K kharakteristike; the last section bears the telling subtitle “The Next Tasks of Eurasian Linguistics;” see also Savitsky and Jakobson’s joint brochure (each contributing a short article), Evraziia v svete iazykoznaniia (Prague: Izdanie Evraziitsev, 1931). Jakobson generously praised Savitsky as a “talented forebear of structuralist geography” (Jakobson and Pomorska, Dialogues, 68). Bogatyrev’s blueprint for a distinctly Eurasian Russian folkloristics was published under a pseudonym (Savel'ev, “Svoeobychnoe v russkoi fol'kloristike”). Arguably the best account of the intersections between Eurasianism and interwar Structuralism is Sériot, Structure; see also Ram, “Spatializing the Sign,” which is duly critical of Jakobson’s Eurasianism, noting that Jakobson never renounced “K kharakteristike” and defended its theses toward the end of his life (245n30).

27. Both articles are reprinted in Jakobson, Selected Writings, 5: 355–81 and 416–32, respectively.

28. See Khodasevich, “O Maiakovskom.” On Khodasevich and Formalism, see Malmstad, “Khodasevich and Formalism”; for Khodasevich’s skepticism about psychoanalytic literary studies, see his “Kur'ezy psikhoanaliza,” Vozrozhdenie (15 July 1938).

29. Adamovich’s reviews and short essays on the Formalists are collected in Adamovich, Kriticheskaia proza; see also Adamovich, “Stat'i Iu. Tynianova,” in which Adamovich, while recognizing the Formalists’ role in challenging impressionistic criticism and its fellow travelers, finds Formalism—exemplified here by Tynianov’s Arkhaisty i novatory—to be deeply flawed as a method of literary studies (the article was first published in Poslednye novosti, 3 October 1929).

30. The polemical nature of émigré literary life has been noted before; see Demidova, Metamorfozy, chap. 3.