Poetic Canons, Cultural Memory and Russian National Identity after 1991

by Katharine Hodgson (Author) Alexandra Smith (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 520 Pages


The collapse of the Soviet Union forced Russia to engage in a process of nation building. This involved a reassessment of the past, both historical and cultural, and how it should be remembered. The publication of previously barely known underground and émigré literary works presented an opportunity to reappraise «official» Soviet literature and re-evaluate twentieth-century Russian literature as a whole.
This book explores changes to the poetry canon – an instrument for maintaining individual and collective memory – to show how cultural memory has informed the evolution of post-Soviet Russian identity. It examines how concerns over identity are shaping the canon, and in which directions, and analyses the interrelationship between national identity (whether ethnic, imperial, or civic) and attempts to revise the canon. This study situates the discussion of national identity within the cultural field and in the context of canon formation as a complex expression of aesthetic, political, and institutional factors. It encompasses a period of far-reaching upheaval in Russia and reveals the tension between a desire for change and a longing for stability that was expressed by attempts to reshape the literary canon and, by doing so, to create a new twentieth-century past and the foundations of a new identity for the nation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Transliteration and Translations
  • Introduction: The Post-Soviet Poetic Canon/s, Cultural Memory and Russian Identity
  • 1 The Appeal of Empire and the Attempt to Propose a New Nationalist Canon
  • 2 The Canon of War Poetry and Commemoration, 1995–2010
  • 3 Village Poetry: Reinventing a Lost World
  • 4 Russian Gulag Poetry and its Reception: Marginalizing National Trauma
  • 5 Rediscovering the Religious and Elegiac Roots of Russian Lyric Poetry: Soviet Underground Poets as Anna Akhmatova’s Heirs
  • 6 The Pushkin Myth in New Contexts: Post-Soviet Rewriting of the Tradition
  • 7 Post-Soviet Parody, Ironic Musings, and a New Poetic Canon
  • Conclusion: Russian National Identity between Triumphant and Traumatic Memory
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The research for this book was supported by a project grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which the authors would like to acknowledge with gratitude.

We would also like to express our gratitude for the Moray Endowment Award from the University of Edinburgh, which funded invaluable editorial assistance from Dr Georgina Barker.

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Note on Transliteration and Translations

Russian names, with the exception of place names, such as Moscow, which have a commonly used English form, and titles of books, journals, etc., have been transliterated in accordance with the modified Library of Congress system.

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations into English are by the authors.

Alexandra Smith and Katharine Hodgson

Introduction: The Post-Soviet Poetic Canon/s, Cultural Memory and Russian Identity

The appearance of works by forgotten or suppressed Russian poets in Soviet journals, books and newspapers from the mid-1980s was already starting to open up the question of how to reshape the twentieth-century poetry canon when the events of 1991 left Russia facing the problem of devising a new identity for itself as a nation rather than as the central and dominant element in a large multinational state. Historically, Russia’s literary canon and national identity have been seen as connected, but at the start of the 1990s circumstances meant that the relationship between the two, while both were in a state of uncertainty and change, was foregrounded. This study explores what changes to the Russian twentieth-century poetry canon since 1991 can tell us about the shifting ground of Russian identity, and investigates the ways in which concerns over identity are shaping the canon. This introduction begins with a brief exploration of the problems associated with defining Russia’s national identity that became critically important in the 1990s as the various republics that made up the Soviet Union went their separate ways, and considers the role that has been assigned to literature in constructing Russian identity. It then considers in greater detail what literary canons are, how they are formed, and which views of canon formation are most appropriate for an understanding of the making of the Russian canon. The final section explores the context of ideas in which the post-Soviet poetic canon has been shaped and interpreted, and sets out the concerns that are to be addressed in the chapters that follow.

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Creating a National Identity, Constructing a National Literature

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 confronted the Russian Federation with the task of defining itself as a nation. In her 2001 study of Russian identity and nation-building Vera Tolz lists the five main ways in which the Russian nation was being defined in discussions during the 1990s. They include a ‘union identity’ which defines Russians as an imperial people or a people whose mission is to create a supranational state; a nation of all eastern Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians) who share a common origin and culture; a community of Russian speakers, united by language, whatever their ethnicity might be; a nation defined racially through blood ties; a civic nation whose members of all ethnicities are citizens of the Russian Federation loyal to the constitution.1 For many late twentieth-century western scholars, national identity is understood as the collective identity of an ‘imagined political community’, made up of elements such as a shared language, traditions, and rituals which bind the members of that community together.2 The versions of Russian identity listed by Tolz present an ‘imagined community’ in which varying emphasis is placed on certain elements such as language or ethnicity; her analysis highlights the constructed nature of national identity. This Introduction will return to consider these five definitions of Russia as a nation in relation to views about the literary canon when outlining the topics to be explored in the chapters that follow.

There are differing views on whether national consciousness pre-dates the establishment of a nation. Ernest Gellner understands nations as the product of nationalism, and nationalism as a product of modernity, ←2 | 3→arising once a society reaches a certain level of development.3 Education, literacy, urban culture, an emerging civil society all help to create the environment in which nations emerge, providing a forum in which the elements which go to form a collective identity can be circulated and discussed. In Russia the idea of the nation did indeed become prominent as part of a process of modernization, though one that was patchy and imposed from above. Anthony D. Smith points to the limitations of modernist views of the nation such as Gellner’s, which, in his view, fail to take into account ‘pre-modern identities and legacies that continue to form the bedrock of many modern nations and exert a powerful influence today’.4 Smith argues that ‘modern nations and nationalism are grounded in pre-existing ethnic ties and their political mobilization, and are formed by this legacy’, citing both France and Russia as examples.5 The idea of the nation as a construct would come to Russia with Marxist thought, but the idea of the primordial and organic nation influenced thinkers across the ideological spectrum, emerging powerfully even in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and exercising considerable appeal in post-Soviet Russia.

When the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Russian Federation became the largest of its many successor states there was a distinct problem in formulating a specifically Russian national identity. For post-Soviet Russians, in the opinion of Boris Groys, there was, rather, ‘a non-identity’.6 Compared with other newly independent states that emerged from the USSR, Russia was perhaps in a uniquely difficult situation. It could not easily build a sense of national identity by referring to its emancipation from the control of some outside entity with a different language and culture. Like the other former Soviet republics, however, the Russian Federation experienced the shock of seeing ←3 | 4→the rapid collapse of the grand narrative of an inexorable movement towards Communism, which had been assiduously maintained over decades. Its sudden demise confirmed that Soviet ideology had been, as was widely but tacitly acknowledged, little more than a façade, and left some with a suspicion of any kind of grand narratives, others with a desire to discover a more enduring system of beliefs. In 1996 President Boris El′tsin convened a commission which had the task of formulating a ‘national idea’: the results of a questionnaire, completed by 1,521 respondents, showed which values received the most approval. Full support was given by most respondents for values such as the rule of law and human rights; yet close behind in terms of popularity were attributes linked with authoritarian rule. The poll suggested that opinions were split, or, indeed, contradictory. It also suggested that plenty of the respondents had little interest in politics or the direction Russia should take, as did a poll of young Russians in 1998.7

Indifference was not, however, universal: Russian nationalists, who had been suppressed during the Soviet era, could now promote their views freely.8 A more nationalist tinge became increasingly evident during Vladimir Putin’s second term as president, manifesting itself, for example, in the way history textbooks and teachers’ manuals have treated the nation’s past.9 Russia’s history was mined for versions of Russian identity, drawing on pre-revolutionary sources from the Slavophiles of the 1840s to the Eurasianist movement which developed among Russian émigrés in ←4 | 5→the 1920s, as well as early twentieth-century philosophers such as Nikolai Berdiaev.10 At the same time, as Tolz points out, the West retained its role, dating back to the time of Peter the Great’s reforms, as the ‘constituting other’ against which contemporary Russian identity is formed.11 After a brief period during the late 1980s and early 1990s when there were expectations that models borrowed from the West might offer a way of transforming Russia into a modern democratic market economy there was a turn towards the view that such models are simply inappropriate and damaging. Perceptions of the present day as chaotic and fragmented, claims Lev Gudkov, gave rise to yearnings for some kind of ideology that would offer wholeness, and the only things which could meet that desire were ‘the fiction of “the people” [narod] and its past’, which inspired neotraditionalism (nostalgia for Soviet times, minus Marxism-Leninism, but saturated with ideas of Russia’s great-power or imperial status). Gudkov counts among aspects of neotraditionalism the idea of Russia’s renewal (nostalgia for Russia’s imperial or superpower role), and anti-western and isolationist views.12

It is perhaps no surprise, given the complex nature of the task of creating a ‘real world’ national identity, that the idea of Russia’s national identity being expressed in a body of literary texts was eagerly embraced at an early stage in the development of a mature Russian literature. Many ←5 | 6→scholars would agree that the connection between a canon of texts and national identity was not made until the late eighteenth century, when the idea of the nation state was starting to emerge. It was during this period that efforts were made, as Hans-Joachim Backe shows, to create a canon of German literary works which would promote the formation of a common cultural identity and so help to create a German nation state. Although in the initial phase of canon formation there was a place for texts not originally written in German, such as the works of Shakespeare, the Romantic-inspired canon was superseded in the nineteenth century by a more ‘singular, homogeneous, and static institution’.13 In the course of the nineteenth century the idea that a nation’s identity could be expressed in a body of literary works became widespread in places which aspired to independent nationhood as well as in new nations such as the United States. Nation building and literary canon formation may be seen as parallel processes which feed into one another. Galin Tihanov notes the particular ingredients that Romanticism brought to the creation of national literary canons: ‘No other movement was able to institute a better diet of local pride, national enthusiasm, and universalist human values’. Tihanov adds: ‘the process of canonization results from practices that are often consonant with, and modelled on, the construction of nation-states’.14

Given that ideas about the development of the modern nation state, such as those put forward by Gellner, explain the emergence of nations as a process which can begin only when a society has reached a certain level of modernization, with widespread literacy, circulation of printed texts, and the growth of a reading public among the conditions necessary for nationhood, it is clear that printed literature can play a pivotal role in the construction of national consciousness.15 A shared identity based on a common language, history and tradition is fostered by a developing print ←6 | 7→culture, but may also be stimulated by circumstances which mean that previous cultural sources of identity are no longer effective. This was the case, as Andrew Hadfield argues in his study of sixteenth-century English literature and national identity, when the Reformation in Europe prompted a turn to vernacular languages and cultures in order to replace the Latin-based medieval culture with something that was identifiably national.16

In the case of Russia, victory in the war against Napoleon provided a significant stimulus for early nineteenth-century engagement with national identity. After having conquered the French and asserted Russia’s great power status in Europe there was every reason for educated Russians to seek to assert a distinct and independent cultural identity, to show that European models could be discarded or adapted so as to endow them with a Russian flavour.17 As the Russian literary language evolved under the influence of Nikolai Karamzin (1766–1826) and then Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837), so did a culture of literary salons, almanacs and journals, which enabled members of the ‘imagined community’ of the nation, in Benedict Anderson’s term, to become aware of a common heritage and character, expressed in what they read and discussed. As Stephen Lovell says ‘a readership, in fact, is one of the best forms of an “imagined community”’, though the early nineteenth-century readership was small, concentrated in St Petersburg and Moscow, and drawn from the aristocracy and the growing class of ‘other ranks’ (raznochintsy).18 Here, in literary salons, the intelligentsia could discuss the idea of a nation, which, in Hadfield’s view, ‘is predicated upon the existence of a public space – geographical and conceptual – which will always include competing voices desiring to speak for the “nation” and ←7 | 8→fashion it according to their particular designs’.19 It is a commonplace that in Russia discussions of literature acted as a proxy for debates on social and political matters. Such ‘public space’ as there was operated under constraints of censorship and the activity of the Third Section. The connection between literary canon creation and national identity did, however, provide a powerful impetus for the high status that was accorded to literature: Tihanov notes that the first professor of Russian literature was appointed in 1835, a long time before comparable appointments were made in universities such as Harvard, University College London, or Oxford and Cambridge.20

In the first few decades of the nineteenth century Russian literature was seen largely in terms of its potential, or its deficiencies. No critic could overlook the fact that modern Russian literature had developed by drawing on models from outside Russia, and remained heavily dependent on borrowed material. At the same time, they subscribed to the view that literature had an essential role to play in helping the nation develop its identity.21 Ivan Kireevskii (1806–56) wrote in 1830: ‘a poet for the present is like a historian for the past: a conductor of national self-awareness’.22 His survey of the literature of 1829 identifies most writers as belonging either to a French or a German school. When he comes to considering Russian literature alongside the literature of Europe, he imagines an ‘enlightened European’ who, having displayed the treasures of his own nation’s literature, then asks: ‘Where is your literature? What works do you have of which you can be proud before Europe?’23 ←8 | 9→Kireevskii supplies his own list: Karamzin’s History of the Russian State, some poems by Gavrila Derzhavin (1743–1816), Vasilii Zhukovskii (1783–1852), Pushkin, fables by Ivan Krylov (1769–1844), scenes from the plays of Denis Fonvizin (1745–92) and Aleksandr Griboedov (1795–1829). He announces: ‘Let us be impartial and admit that we do not yet have a full reflection of the people’s intellectual life [umstvennoi zhizni naroda], we do not yet have a literature’.24 For Kireevskii, however, there is hope to be found in Russia’s youthfulness: as a ‘younger sister in a large, harmonious family’, Russia can enter society with the benefit of the experience of older siblings. And while he declares that France and England, having reached the peak of their development, can no longer play a leading role in Europe, which is in a state of torpor, there are two young nations, America and Russia, which have avoided this condition. It is on Russia that Europe’s hopes must rest.

In the case of Russia, it was above all the critic Vissarion Belinskii (1811–48) who pursued the idea of nation as something that Russian authors should be expressing in their works. In 1833 Education Minister Sergei Uvarov announced the defining features of the Russian nation as autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality. Belinskii did not subscribe to the first two elements in this doctrine of ‘official nationality’, but gave intense consideration to the third. The word used for nationality, narodnost′, was ambiguous, open to interpretation as pertaining only to the peasantry, the narod. Belinskii, however, understood the national in broader terms. Narodnost′, understood as folk culture, was only a precursor to a more universal form of nationality.25 Belinskii’s thinking on Russia as a nation was shaped by German Romantic philosophy, according to which all nations ←9 | 10→had their own unique contributions to make to the development of mankind as a whole. The critic believed that Russia was making progress towards becoming a ‘historical nation’, a term applied to such nations ‘that have developed substantial national traits, that can boast original national achievements in one area of human endeavour or another, and that stand for a specific “idea” of life which is of some import with regard to the general movement of mankind toward its ultimate goal’.26 It was Belinskii’s view that Russian literature would achieve universal significance as Russia developed further as a nation. While Russian writers continued to imitate foreign models they would not be able to express what was original and unique to Russia. As Victor Terras explains: ‘Belinskij always believed in national originality and individuality as a pre-condition of genuine artistic creativity. Therefore, all attempts of eighteenth-century poets and writers to create a Russian literature by imitating Western examples were bound to fail’.27

Belinskii was one of many Russian literary critics to call for ‘a national poetry’. Such appeals had been voiced by, among others, Admiral Shishkov (1754–1841) and his circle in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and Orest Somov (1793–1833), who in 1823 demanded a national literature that would be ‘independent of alien traditions’.28 Belinskii saw that the ‘national spirit’ was expressed in English literature, declaring in 1846 that ‘any work, however great in artistic merits, which does not bear the sharp imprint of nationality, loses its chief merit in the eyes of Europeans. You will find in Marryat, Bulwer-Lytton, or any of the lesser English novelists the same Englishman that you will find in Shakespeare, ←10 | 11→Byron, or Walter Scott’.29 The same could not yet be said of Russian literature. Belinskii observed that Russians were able to ‘imitate any nationality in their literary works’, which showed their ‘broadness and many-sidedness’, but concluded that such qualities could be seen as a sign of a certain ‘incompleteness and indefiniteness’ of the basic principle of Russian nationality.30 Nevertheless, Belinskii was confident that Russian literature could express a sense of identity by writing about Russian everyday life, and create works which would be of national and universal significance. The authors who might create such works would need more than mere talent. Their nation had its own part to play: ‘The poet receives his substance from the life of his nation, consequently, the merits, depth, scope, and importance of that substance depend directly and immediately upon the historical importance of his nation’s life and not upon the poet himself or his talent’.31 Belinskii took important steps towards constructing a national literary canon, identifying Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–65), Derzhavin, Zhukovskii, Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol′ (1809–52) and Mikhail Lermontov (1814–41) with their particular historical roles as writers who contributed to the development of Russian literature but also of national consciousness.32 As the nation matured and grew in world-historical importance, so too did its literature.

Terras sums up Belinskii’s legacy as follows:

Russian literary criticism inherited from Belinskij a Hegelian tendency to think of literature as an organic whole rather than as an aggregate of individual works. ←11 | 12→Conversely, the individual work would be seen largely in terms of its synchronic and diachronic relationships with Russian social and national life at large rather than in terms of its own structure and artistic merits. It would give Russian literature, and art in general, more secular power that it had in any society of the Western world; it would make the writer a public figure and literature a matter of public concern.33

Although nineteenth-century literature may have enjoyed great secular power, there was a distinctly religious tinge to the way in which the roles of literary texts, and their authors, were imagined. The quest for Russian national identity became infused with messianic hopes that Russia would emerge from its obscurity to take a leading role in transforming the future of the whole of humanity. In 1880 Fedor Dostoevskii (1821–81) put forward a vision of Russians’ unique ability to empathize with those from any other culture, their ‘all-humanity’ that was yoked to dreams of conquest and spiritual transformation of the entire world.34 When it comes to the canon, there is a precedent for such thinking which pre-dates secular literature: the canon of religious texts of both Judaism and Christianity embody a sacred narrative which establishes the communal history and destiny of a group.35 A literary canon which was shaped by a preoccupation with national identity had the potential to acquire quasi-scriptural status. The religious element was woven into Russian thinking about secular literature not just in messianic evocations of the nation’s destiny, but also in the way that authors were endowed with the status of prophet and preacher, whose role was to guide and inspire the people. The canon that was being made in the nineteenth century was therefore touched with almost divine significance as a repository of texts that would help Russia realize its true place in the history of humanity. As Svetlana Boym puts it: ‘Literature in Russia ←12 | 13→was not merely one of the branches of general education but a guide to life, a sort of nineteenth-century liberation theology. Some claim that the country of Russia was born out of Russian classical literature’.36 The literary canon evolved alongside expectations that writers should serve as the nation’s conscience and moral arbiter, producing works which demonstrated their country’s spiritual superiority over the West, which was imagined as being obsessed with individual rights and commercial advantage. Alan Golding identifies a similar tendency in literature’s contribution to nation-building in his study of American poetry and the canon. Golding divides anthologies into two categories: those that demonstrate the development of a national literature by presenting a historical range of poetry, and those that exhibit the kinds of moral attitudes that are seen as the opposite to perceived European decadence. For Americans intent on asserting their national identity, poetry was represented in ways that promoted the idea that ‘moral purity’ was a ‘distinctive national characteristic’.37

After the October Revolution led to the establishment of the Soviet Union it was class, rather than nation, that initially defined the identity of the new state. The canon of nineteenth-century literature was refashioned to construct a teleological narrative that led inexorably to revolution and international socialism. The new socialist state appropriated messianic and quasi-religious aspects of Russia’s pre-revolutionary identity, promising to create a new and just society which would be a model for others. Internationalism combined with anxiety over the threat posed by ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ to the Soviet project to make engagement with a specifically Russian identity a cause for suspicion, as became very clear in the years of collectivization, when numerous writers were arrested because of their alleged ‘kulak’ sympathies.38 Admittedly, the internationalist aspect ←13 | 14→started to fade somewhat as the 1930s progressed.39 The war years saw a re-emergence of Russia as an acceptable theme for writers, both in its imperial guise as well as in evocations of more intimate links with home, family, and the natural world. Starting with the Thaw years after Stalin, there was a rediscovery of rural Russia by the writers of what was termed ‘village prose’. What they portrayed was far from the propaganda image of the countryside; their fiction depicted villages in apparently fatal decline. Russian nationalist views began to surface among like-minded writers involved in certain publishing houses and journals, within the Writers’ Union as well as structures of the Communist Party, and, indeed, in the dissident movement.40 A discussion was held at the Writers’ Union in December 1977 under the heading: ‘Klassika i my’ [The Classics and Us], and set out as a discussion on recent theatrical productions of classic plays.41 A published record of what was said did not appear until 1990.42 The title of the event, which was not officially publicized, seemed to signal a discussion of the literary canon. The activities of writers who associated themselves with Russian nationalist views did not, however, result in any significant change in attitude among the broader Soviet Russian population.

When Russia experienced the profound shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying political, social and economic turmoil, it was no surprise that in a culture which understood itself as exceptionally literaturocentric, Russia’s literature was seen as one of the important resources which might contribute to a usable sense of identity. The literary canon expresses some degree of continuity, connecting, as ←14 | 15→it does, the present and the past through a set of familiar names, works, as well as through a repertoire of allusions, expectations, and traditions. While elements that make up a canon may become more or less prominent, while some disappear and others arrive, wholesale, sudden revision is rare, even during periods of considerable social upheaval. A literary canon makes it possible to imagine a community united by a body of texts written in a common language and acknowledged as ‘classics’ that its members had some acquaintance with, if only from their schooldays.

Models of Canon Formation in the Context of Russian Literature

This section will discuss a variety of approaches to understanding the creation and function of a literary canon, and suggest which are most useful as a way of gaining some insight into how canons work in the Russian literary system. To begin with, however, the term ‘literary canon’ requires definition. In this study the term ‘canon’ will be used in two senses. Most of the discussion will use ‘canon’ to designate the repertoire of literary texts that are accorded exemplary status within a culture. When ‘canon’ is used to refer instead to a set of rules against which texts are measured and evaluated, this will be clearly signalled to readers. Unless otherwise indicated, then, this study understands canon as a body of texts that is given exemplary status by being widely reproduced and circulated, used as the subject of scholarly commentary and analysis, and featured in educational curricula as well as anthologies and literary histories. Canons are subject to change; they exist in the plural.43 There are several schools of thought about how canons are formed, the ←15 | 16→identity and role of the agents involved in this process, about the function of the literary canon, and about the attributes of texts and authors that find a place within it. Nevertheless, speaking in broad terms, there are two dominant ways of understanding how literary canons are made and what they are for. One emphasizes a canon’s role as an instrument which performs certain social functions, selecting texts which promote ideas and values that help to perpetuate the status quo. The other enshrines aesthetic value as the key criterion in determining the contents of a canon.

Scholarly accounts of the canon which adhere to the first approach pay particular attention to the role of institutions and focus attention on questions of power and social control. Arnold Krupat explains this approach to the canon as a pragmatic and instrumental one. In its more extreme versions it tends to see the canon ‘as formed exclusively by power relations’.44 Understood in this way, a canon is a body of texts that legitimizes the prevailing social order. ‘To understand their content’, maintains Krupat, ‘is largely to accept the world view of the socially dominant class’. He explains how such books affect the reader: ‘Sympathetic contact with these texts tends mostly – although not always or exclusively – to contribute to that ideological conditioning, the production of that consciousness, necessary to conform one willingly to one’s – usually subordinate – class position in society’.45 Historically, views of the literary canon in Russia have tended to be concentrated towards the institutional end of the spectrum. The idea of literature as an autonomous field of human activity has had limited traction in Russia, where literature has often been assigned the role of a forum for social and political discussion, and the writer cast as prophet or teacher. In the Soviet period literature, like the other arts, was conscripted to serve the political requirements of the authorities. Modernist writers’ assertions of art’s autonomy was not tolerated in a state which developed a number of inter-related institutions ←16 | 17→with the aim of selecting and perpetuating texts that contributed to the project of forming the ‘new Soviet man’. The Writers’ Union guided and instructed its members; in publishing houses editors mediated between authors and censors to ensure that works being offered to Soviet readers were acceptable; literary critics explained works in ways that guided readers towards appropriate reading matter, and showed authors by example how they should deal with a particular topic. The educational system provided schoolchildren and university students with approved texts and interpretations. None of this ensured that the state-sponsored canon was the only one available, although during the most repressive years it did mean that it was the only one that a majority of readers could access. The extensive reach of this institutional network did mean, however, that when periods of ideological change arrived, such as the post-Stalin Thaw and the final years under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, it was possible to introduce changes to the canon of permitted literature in a short time, especially through its most agile sector, the ‘thick’ journals which carried considerable prestige and played a major role in the late Soviet recovery of many twentieth-century authors and works. Other institutions, particularly education, were less able to respond quickly to changes in the political climate. The effort that was put into official operations relating to literature helped to convey the message that literary culture was important and should be valued.

At the same time as the Soviet official canon was being extended to the point of completely overspilling what had once been its boundaries, during the 1980s and 1990s the Western canon was being denounced, particularly in the United States, as an instrument of exclusion and the perpetuation of an unjust status quo. The canon was understood by critics of the status quo as an instrument that had the power to shape society; making the canon more inclusive by ‘opening it up’ to marginalized authors offered the possibility of creating a fairer society. In 1983 Charles Altieri argued against this view of cultural history as ‘a tawdry melodrama of interests pursued and ideologies produced’, and in favour of bringing into the debate ‘classical ideals of a canon’ which might provide a more adequate explanation for ‘the manifest power of various canonical works ←17 | 18→to transcend any single structure of social interest’.46 Altieri’s calls for a move beyond what he terms ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’ to consider matters of value and human agency were indeed followed by more nuanced examinations of the role of institutions in canon formation.47 John Guillory’s influential 1993 study investigates the canon as a body of texts put together by educational institutions to serve as a measure for ‘cultural capital’. Guillory’s approach develops ideas from Pierre Bourdieu to highlight the role of institutions in regulating access to ‘linguistic capital’ – ‘the valued speech of standard English’ – and ‘symbolic capital’ – the qualities to be displayed by an educated person to demonstrate an entitlement to reward.48 Educational institutions, argues Guillory, perpetuate the illusion of a fixed and exclusive canon, and control access to these as a means of imposing social distinctions. The canonical status of texts depends not on their intrinsic qualities, but on ‘the limit of their dissemination, their relative exclusivity’.49 In Guillory’s view, the principal point of contention in the ‘canon wars’ over the idea that the literary canon as represented in educational curricula should be more representative of the gender and ethnic composition of its readership showed that the cultural capital of literature was in decline. The capital represented by literature had been valued by the old bourgeoisie but was now marginal ‘to the social function of the present educational system’.50

Guillory’s study aimed to ‘make visible the relative absence of class as a working category of analysis in the canon debate’.51 In the Russian, rather than the English or North American social context, there are other forms of social differentiation, but the idea that the literary canon ←18 | 19→represents cultural capital is still relevant. The category of the intelligentsia is most relevant for discussing the symbolic capital attached to literature in Russia.52 Symbolic capital was acquired both by those whose education provided them with knowledge of the official Soviet literary canon, and by those whose knowledge extended beyond it. In the latter instance, negative symbolic capital was attached to recognition of works and writers from the official canon. During the later Soviet period members of the intelligentsia could acquire greater esteem from their peers according to the extent to which they were familiar with, or had access to literary texts that were not available through official channels. The literary underground had its own institutional gatekeepers who decided, for instance, who was able to publish in samizdat journals. It could be argued that the late Soviet ‘underground canon’ depended on restricted access to it, just as the canon of the educated Western bourgeoisie did, in Guillory’s view. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not just call the official Soviet canon into question; once the formerly ‘forbidden’ works were freely available in print, their aura was diminished too.

During the 1990s the social structures which had persisted through the Soviet period were disrupted by a shift in what was considered culturally valuable. The value ascribed to literature in general, and to literary education, fell significantly. The role of the intelligentsia as an arbiter of taste in literary matters was significantly reduced, while the role of the market increased. The sociologist Boris Dubin explored ways in which the changing situation in Russia affected the behaviour of members of the intelligentsia whose symbolic capital, in the form of education, was acquired in the Soviet system, but who now found themselves in a market economy which assigned value differently. Where literature had once been seen as most culturally and socially significant, it was now fields such as politics, economics, advertising, and fashion that ←19 | 20→were endowed with greater importance.53 Dubin found an intelligentsia which, by 1998, had lost its sense of its own social significance because classic literature, which they had been educated to believe represented the best in Russian culture and the highest human values, had lost its prestige and readers had turned either to mass-market fiction, or to television. Dubin concluded that the Soviet intelligentsia had turned out to be a short-lived historical phenomenon: ‘It is disappearing as a system of opinions and taste, as a way of life, along with the generation that introduced and maintained them, and along with the social framework of the closed society in which it developed and to which it was accustomed’.54 As Dubin points out, members of social groups who had lost their authoritative position in society tended to reject the products of the new commercialized mass literary culture, either by ignoring them or condemning them as manifestations of the power of capital which were alien to Russian tradition.55 The post-Soviet intelligentsia’s unease about the intrusion of commerce into the cultural sphere mirrors attitudes among educated readers when confronted by the rise of commercial literature in pre-revolutionary Russia, which Jeffery Brooks explains by: ‘their reluctance to allow the market to arbitrate or influence cultural life’.56 The Soviet intelligentsia upheld their predecessors’ anti-commercial convictions, and did not relinquish them easily in the 1990s, even as the actual market and the market of symbolic value marginalized cultural institutions such as the ‘thick’ journals which had shaped literary culture since the nineteenth century.

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What did remain as an authoritative source for statements on the canon were Russia’s educational institutions, even as the value placed on literature itself was diminished. Karin Sarsenov discusses literary education in schools in the post-Soviet period with a view to discovering what the authorities were aiming to do by giving so much classroom time to the study of literature, and how literature was supposed to achieve those aims. By looking at the national curriculum for literature of 2004, and its revised version of 2010, she concludes that the main purpose of teaching Russian literature was fundamentally the same as it had been in Soviet schools: to provide ‘a means of moral, social and patriotic up-bringing [vospitanie], rather than an introduction into a sphere of knowledge’. The only significant shift she observed was that Marxist-Leninist terminology had been replaced by an increasing emphasis on cultural nationalism.57 Sarsenov’s views are supported by Evgenii Ponomarev, who found that even when Soviet textbooks were rejected, Soviet teaching methods continued to be used in schools because of a failure to realize how far these methods were saturated by Soviet ideology.58 Extending the literary canon to include texts from outside the repertoire of the discarded textbooks would, arguably, make little difference if literary education retained its focus on literature as a vehicle for communicating prescribed values.

At the other end of the spectrum are understandings of canonicity founded not in the role played by institutions but rooted in the view that literature is an autonomous sphere of human activity. Canonicity is the result of qualities inherent in certain literary texts, rather than being derived from the pronouncements of experts or officials. Krupat characterizes this broad approach to the canon as a ‘transcendental-theoretical conception of the canon’ because it presupposes an act of faith and a canonical authority ‘maintained only by rigidly separating literary value ←21 | 22→from value of other kinds’. Understanding a literary canon in this way casts canonical texts as ‘a body of texts having the authority of perennial classics’, which express ‘timeless wisdom’ and enable readers ‘to experience the beautiful’ and ‘to perceive a significant order’. Sympathetic contacts with canonical texts are supposed to make one a better and more human person.59 Prominent among advocates of this view is Harold Bloom, for whom aesthetic quality is the primary criterion for canonization: ‘One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction’.60 Bloom assigns agency in the process of canon formation to authors alone, who are engaged in a competition for the prize of literary immortality: ‘The deepest truth about secular canon-formation is that it is performed by neither critics, nor academics, let alone politicians. Writers, artists, composers themselves determine canons, by bridging between strong precursors and strong successors’.61 Other scholars situate canonicity within the text, which, independent of authorial involvement, is able to generate new and multiple interpretations in different contexts. Dean Kolbas argues for canonicity as a dynamic process of change, in which works from the past ‘become canonical only to the extent that they become modern, or bear modern characteristics, no matter when they first appeared in chronological history’.62 This view of canonicity is potentially relevant to the case of Russian twentieth-century poetry, where so many texts first appeared long after the point where they were written, and so could not be evaluated in their original literary context, or written into literary history without considerable difficulty.

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Before going on to a section which will explore questions of literary canon and Russian identity, this Introduction will discuss two more ways of understanding canon formation which are particularly relevant to the case of Russia in the late twentieth century. The first relates to the role of memory, while the second takes account of the countless uncoordinated actions, including those of participants in a market economy, which contribute to the making of a canon. In a study that explores the role of both cultural memory and memorization Mikhail Gronas defines canonicity as ‘the measure of how often a text is read, reread, mentioned, cited and analysed over a significant slice of time’ and ‘a measure of textual recurrence or reproducibility within a culture’.63 Central to Gronas’s view of canonicity is the capacity of a text to promote its own memorization. He understands canon as a mnemonic system, a mechanism of individual or collective cultural memories, in which the memorization of poetry plays a part alongside the reproduction, reading, and discussion of written texts. Gronas points out the persistence in Russia of a culture of memorizing poetry, which he explains as a response to strict censorship but also as part of cultural practices in areas such as education and interactions with friends and family.64 Writing in the context of a different culture. Bloom too assigns central importance to memory in relation to literary canons drawing distinctions between this function of the canon and both the educational and religious ones: ‘The canon, once we view it as the relation of an individual reader and writer to what has been preserved out of what has been written, and forget the canon as a list of books for required study, will be seen as identical with the literary art of Memory, not with the religious sense of canon’.65 In the case of the evolving Russian twentieth-century poetry canon, memory is a central concern. Much of the effort put into recovering texts and authors from the mid-1980s onwards can be seen as driven by the need to preserve them from oblivion, while other works were being set aside. Disagreements over the canon ←23 | 24→have hinged on what is considered worth remembering, with opinions divided along lines which reflect political and aesthetic faultlines, and an emphasis not so much on what should be remembered by individuals, but on what should take its place in collective memory.

An alternative approach to understanding canon formation in relation to both individual and institutional activity is to think of a canon as the result of the actions of multiple agents with different roles within a literary system. Hans-Joachim Backe describes canon as ‘an intrinsic element within the complex, independent system of the production, distribution, reception, and evaluation of literary texts’.66 Simone Winko puts forward a model of canon formation which departs from the widespread view of a canon as a corpus of texts which a society or culture wishes to transmit for its own interests. Winko’s view of the canon is that it is not simply something that is ‘made’, and it cannot be seen as a natural phenomenon. She borrows from Adam Smith the metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’, which he used to describe the effects of uncoordinated actions in an economy, to describe a model of canon formation involving micro-level acts of evaluation by large numbers of individuals who are not themselves consciously aiming to construct a canon, but are making judgements for all kinds of reasons according to a scale of values (a gesture towards the early meaning in ancient Greece of ‘canon’ as a measure). It is on this level of multiple individual judgements that the characteristics of individual texts play an important role. On the macro-level Winko’s model does allow for agents to display conscious canonizing intentions. Groups can put forward their own canons, based on an accumulation of judgements, to institutions within the literary system which aim, deliberately, to foster and maintain the canon.67 On this macro-level canonized texts then serve as a point of reference which will influence future value judgements; the canon does therefore have a prescriptive and normative ←24 | 25→aspect, and is not a randomly assembled collection of texts. The metaphor drawn from Adam Smith is revealing: this is a view of canon as the outcome of numerous individual actions which are not centrally directed or manipulated for the purposes of any one of the parties involved. No single agent can determine the outcome of the process. Even when it comes to the actions of institutions, the actions of a single agent will not be decisive. In this model, the canon is not an instrument to be put to social use, rather, it is part of a continuous self-regulating system that appears together with a complex literary culture.

An investigation of literary canon formation in Russia requires due consideration of the models outlined above. The role of institutions has historically been prominent, and may be seen as a cultural norm without which judgements on a literary work’s aesthetic and ethical value are felt to be unreliable. Often there is an assumption that aesthetic judgements are closely associated with a social or political agenda. The post-Soviet reality may be moving towards some kind of ‘invisible hand’ process; it certainly involves a large number of actors engaged in evaluation and decision making. Yet the involvement of a market in literature may be seen as a threat to the autonomy of art, only just released from state ideological control.

The Evolving Twentieth-Century Poetry Canon and its Role in Shaping Russian Identity

The literary canon is associated with notions of hierarchy, authority, and prescriptiveness, and is often understood as a statement of cultural continuity and tradition. However, in the postmodern world some critics and writers have tended to ‘dispense with belief in the continuity and commonality of a tradition of excellence (moral, political, aesthetic) embodied in some form of canon’ in favour of establishing the culture ←25 | 26→of the ‘metabook’.68 The metabook is ‘made up of those texts that (perhaps against the functional intentions of those who compose and propose them) fill the residual (but dying) book function in our society’.69 Fredric Jameson contrasts the metabook with ‘monumental works of the modernist type’: the metabook, which ‘ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production’ challenges the hierarchy and apparent permanence of a canon by recycling and repurposing earlier texts.70 In Russia, the tendency to see contemporary culture as a manifestation of the metabook is exemplified by the prominent writer, poet and critic Dmitrii Bykov (1967–) whose popular television programme Grazhdanin Poet [Citizen Poet] was launched in 2011. It offers parodic performances of Russian nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetic texts, including epic poems, lyric poems, civic poems and poems for children. While Bykov’s vision of the past is highly ambivalent and nostalgic in places, his treatment of the present day is unmistakably satirical.71 When the poems written by Bykov for the project are analysed in relation to the origin of the texts and authors selected for parody, it can be seen that most of them allude to works which belonged to the Soviet poetic canon. This is not surprising, given that Soviet rule lasted from 1917 till 1991. Bearing in mind that Soviet literary output was subordinated to the legitimization of the values and ideological concerns of the Communist party that redefined the pre-revolutionary vision of Russian national identity to suit its own goals, it is understandable that Bykov uses the entertaining aspects of parody in order to create a safe distance from the poetry shaped by Soviet ideological concerns.

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Yet as Bykov’s successful and popular parodies of canonical Soviet poetry show, poets from the pre-1991 canon remain part of cultural memory, their image and writing style readily recognized by viewers. Many Soviet-era poets have retained their place in the canon, alongside new or previously little-known figures from unofficial or émigré culture. This expansion and diversification is apparent in many of the types of canon defined by Alastair Fowler. Starting from the potential canon that encompasses the entire corpus of texts together with the oral tradition that might be available for consumption in a particular country, region or community, Fowler identifies the accessible canon that represents a portion of the potential canon actually available to readers at any given time; the selective canon that pertains to texts and authors mentioned in magazines, anthologies and educational syllabi; the official canon that blends the selective and the accessible canons; the personal canon that represents the taste and values of individual readers; and the critical canon linked to those books and works that are repeatedly discussed in scholarly studies.72 By looking at different anthologies published in the post-Soviet period, it is possible to see evidence of a pluralizing tendency. Russian women’s poetry, Silver Age poetry, Soviet underground poetry, religious poetry and gulag poetry have all received considerable attention as sub-genres of Russian and Soviet poetry.73 Yet, since pluralization has its limits, post-Soviet educationalists are eager to propose selective canons which preserve some books for children from the Soviet period that are considered to be essential for the maintaining the concept of a shared past and the preservation of memory. The existence of a corpus of exemplary texts makes it possible for an interpretative community to form, and to ←27 | 28→develop its own ways of interpreting those texts. As Wendell V. Harris points out, ‘all interpretation of texts depends on a community’s sharing interpretative strategies’.74

The present state of the official literary canon in Russia is oriented towards the notion of Russianness based on imagined common cultural and spiritual values. The construction of Russian national identity is an ongoing process of reassessment of the past that makes literature reflect and create a new national identity simultaneously. It is not surprising that some literary critics and educationalists feel some need to be prescriptive in the way they approach the contemporary readership. Their offers to help readers orientate themselves in a changing literary landscape acknowledge the fact that literary canons operate not as freestanding lists of texts but as bodies of texts with which readers interact. As Wendell V. Harris points out, whatever functions are at play in governing the selection of canonical texts, in real life a canon ‘is made up not of texts in themselves but of texts as read’.75 It is possible, for example, to obtain advice from the prestigious internet journal Arzamas, specializing in art, literature, anthropology and history, on how to read famous poems by prominent twentieth-century authors including Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941), Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), Vladimir Maiakovskii (1893–1930), Sergei Mikhalkov (1913–2009), Agniia Barto (1906–81) and Oleg Grigor′ev (1943–92).76 As the section offering the best examples of twentieth-century children’s literature, compiled by authoritative literary critic Oleg Lekmanov, shows, moves toward the expansion and pluralization of the official canon are inseparable from the desire to defamilarize the texts in order to call existing pedagogical and critical canons into question. Lekmanov offers readers an interesting blend of poems written ←28 | 29→by Soviet, Silver Age poets, dissident poets and underground poets of the 1960s–70s such as Genrikh Sapgir (1928–99) and Iosif Brodskii (1940–96). The defamiliarizing effect created by Lekmanov’s unconventional choices may prompt readers to create their own personal canons comprising their favourite poems. At the same time, Lekmanov’s selection teaches the reader to recognize the co-existence of different, parallel canons: while Brodskii is usually seen either as Russian-American émigré poet or as a vivid representative of Leningrad Underground poetry, in Lekmanov’s mini-anthology he is portrayed as a poet for children. In contrast, Maiakovskii’s poetry for children is excluded from Lekmanov’s anthology altogether, implying that he should be seen either as a Futurist poet or an accomplished author of Soviet propaganda poetry. As an anti-elitist critic, Lekmanov appears to be continuing the efforts of late Soviet experimental poets and critics to dismantle the Soviet canon that promoted Maiakovskii as the most important Soviet poet. Clearly, like Bykov in his parodic reworking of Soviet poetry, Lekmanov does not wish the political context that inspired such propaganda poetry to be seen today as being valuable for the construction of a post-Soviet identity.

In Russia, the tendency to historicize literary texts and use them as a tool for understanding the periods in which they were written continues to play a significant role in the construction of selective and pedagogical canons. The much acclaimed 1994 anthology of Russian twentieth-century poetry by Evgenii Evtushenko (1932–2017) Strofy veka [Stanzas of the Century] is a good example of this approach.77 The popularity of poetry written during and about the 1941–5 war since the beginning of the new century can also be largely associated with this tendency. At the same time, it is reflective of the trend towards promoting a new vision of Russian national identity founded in patriotic values through televized recitals of war poetry and through new publications of war poetry in ←29 | 30→anthologies, newspapers and textbooks. It should be noted here that in the 2000s the emphasis on patriotic education, as advocated by Putin and his government, has influenced the emergence of an inclusive war poetry canon that commemorates the lives not only the heroes of the Second World War but also of the Napoleonic wars.78 One indication that efforts made to establish a national identity based on patriotic values and the memory of past military triumphs have been effective may be seen in the fact that Tsvetaeva’s 1913 poem ‘Generalam dvenadtsatogo goda’ [To the Generals of 1812] – which appears as a song in Eldar Riazanov’s film O bednom gusare zamolvite slovo [Remember to Praise a Poor Hussar] has become very popular among post-Soviet readers and television audiences. In 2015 it was performed on Moscow’s Red Square by two famous singers and actors (Dmitrii Pevtsov and Zara) as part of the festivities to mark the Day of Moscow. The singers were dressed in costumes that identify them as characters from Lev Tolstoi’s (1828–1910) novel Voina i mir [War and Peace]: Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei. In addition to the original television broadcast transmitted all over the country, the youtube recording of this performance has attracted almost 112,000 viewers.79 Likewise, many contemporary souvenirs promote Russian twentieth-century poets and their works with the view not only to make a profit but also to reinforce patriotic sentiments at the same time. One can easily buy online, for example, a coffee mug featuring the portrait of Sergei Esenin (1895–1925) and a few lines from his poem asserting the superiority of Russia to any imaginable paradise; a teeshirt ‘Rebel Poetry’ that features a boxing match between Maiakovskii and Esenin, together with the phrase ‘Мother-Russia’ written in English; and a box of chocolates created by the famous chocolate factory Krasnyi oktiabr′ [The Red October] called ‘Rus′ eseninskaia’ [Esenin’s Russia].80

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During the Soviet period, particularly from the mid-1930s onwards, writers were encouraged to express a sense of national identity through the quality of narodnost′ [nationalness]. As Lauren Leighton notes, narodnost′ is a slippery concept that comprises several things, including nationalness, popularness, nativeness, folkness, autochthony, and indigenousness.81 While socialist realist poetry had a strong orientation towards epic genres, some Soviet lyric poets were eager to borrow ‘archetypal’ images of Russian landscapes and ordinary people from Russian realist poetry and folk songs, too. The link with national traditions and folk culture remained important for canonizing poets in the Soviet period even after the death of Stalin. The Soviet educational canon usually included poets who wrote in an accessible way and whose patriotic images would appeal to a mass readership. Such poets’ works were often written in response to official cultural and social policies. G. S. Smith elucidates: ‘The canonical poets of the USSR created a huge body of verse in response to the shifting requirements of Party policy. Some of it promoted widely shared myths such as the superiority of Russian spirituality and humanism over Western commercialism and materialism, and the moral superiority of women over men’.82

After the death of Stalin in March 1953, Soviet writers began to dismantle socialist realism as the officially approved artistic method of expression. As Katerina Clark observes, in the post-Stalin period most literary practice had strayed a long way from the Stalinist version of socialist realism created in the 1930s and 1940s. Clark identifies at least three types of Soviet literary works, ranging from those that exemplify socialist realism, ‘those that are read as non- or anti-Soviet but which happened to be published in the Soviet Union’ and ‘those that are ←31 | 32→representative of Soviet literature’ despite not conforming to socialist realist convention.83


X, 520
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (March)
twentieth-century Russian poetry literary canon Russian national identity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. X, 520 pp

Biographical notes

Katharine Hodgson (Author) Alexandra Smith (Author)

Katharine Hodgson is Professor in Russian at the University of Exeter. Her research focuses on poetry of the Soviet era, including the work of Leningrad poet Ol'ga Berggol'ts and poetry of the Second World War. Alexandra Smith is 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, intermediality and the history of ideas. She 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). This book is the result of a project led by the authors and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which explored the way attitudes towards the cultural legacy of the USSR have evolved since 1991. A co-edited book (with Joanne Shelton), Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry: Reinventing the Canon, appeared in 2017.


Title: Poetic Canons, Cultural Memory and Russian National Identity after 1991
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532 pages