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Russian Literature of the Second Half of the 20th Century (1953-1990) as a Sociocultural Phenomenon

Priority areas of development: humanitarian
The project has been carried out as part of the HSE Program of Fundamental Studies.

The crucial feature of the 20th century Russian literature as a system is its heterogeneity and manifoldness of its elements. They can be regarded as interacting literary and ideological subsystems constituting cultural polyglottism. This multilingualism gives way to the emergence, diversity, and competition of various literary traditions. They can coexist simultaneously in the cultural space and operate as universal mechanisms of the reevaluation of classical heritage, or the reinforcement of cultural roots while maintaining the visibility of total consensus and like-mindedness.

In 2014, the group of researches studied the texts by Boris Pasternak, David Samoilov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which were conceptualized in receptive terms of how they perceived and transformed the previous literary tradition.

The aim of the study was to identify the general properties and features of the opposing literary subsystems and to determine the specificity of “literary evolution” and internal inconsistency of late Soviet literature as a key factor of its quick crash in the early 1990s.

In 2014, the project participants identified the fundamental features of the internal organization and functioning of the late Soviet literature.

First, researches described the transformations of the relevant “registers” of the Soviet literature. It is noteworthy that the shift of the focus defining the conditional center and periphery of the system strongly triggered the dialogue of the late Soviet literature with the literature of the 1930s. The participants of the project explored this phenomenon on the example of the so-called “Arctic text”, analyzed in the project. A study of the narrative strategies in fiction about the Arctic is based on the “narrative triad” that consists of three types of discourse: geographical, diachronic and transformative. The researches reconstructed alternative and peripheral types of Arctic discourse based on the analysis of 2753 texts of artistic, journalistic, memoir and epistolary nature, both published and archival. The Arctic theme enshrined in the cultural and political practice since the end of the 1920s, and then passed its climax in the 1930s and 1940s. The peak of popularity in the development of the Arctic plots fell in the second half of the 1950s, and then this theme declined sharply. The “Arctic text” is characterized by merging of genres and by competition of topoi of “micro” and “macro” Arctic. Mosaic narrative components in the sociocultural perspective of the 1930-1950s were distributed as a not-uniformed and mixed genres ranging from absurdity and parody to detective stories.

Second, the project demonstrated how the literary system of the time experienced the constant increase of themes/plots and the repertoire of artistic techniques. Thus, the refraction of the national theme in Boris Pasternak’s novel “Doctor Zhivago” allowed to characterize the specificity of images of history and destiny and to reconstruct the principles according to which Pasternak modeled the variants of historical discourse in the his text. These principles dated back to the neo-kantian idea of shift and merging of borders of events and circumstances. The proposed interpretation of Pasternak’s novel is opposed to various simplistic interpretations of the theme of revolution in his works.

Third, the participants determined and described the relationship of the studied texts with the previous literary tradition (folklore, classical works, avant-garde). In this regard, the researches offered an in-depth description of the poetics of David Samoilov’s and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s texts, their motif, metric, and lexical connections and allusions with different pretexts and contexts.

Fourth, the researches formulated the principles, which determined the speech and metalinguistic strategies of the major writers at different stages of the late Soviet period. Pasternak tended to preserve traditional natural language; Solzhenitsyn resurrected the “classical” language; Samoilov tried to interbreed the poetic languages of the past, combining “self” with “other”.

Fifth, the project described the literary paradigm of the late Soviet era in terms of linguistic behavior of the studied authors.

Sixth, the participants demonstrated that apart from the self-reflection inside the literary system itself there was the process of reinterpretation of the classical heritage in literary criticism, publishing practice, and school and university teaching.

The research group stresses the concrete results of the project as follows.

The newly discovered document – allegedly lost Pasternak’s letter to Zinaida Nikolaevna Neugauz written in 1931 – enables to see the relationship between crucial Pasternak’s themes of creativity, death and suicide and the specific events in his life.

The participants of the project discovered 49 letters and postcards from Dmitri Maksimov to literary scholar Anna Zhuravleva in her personal archive (they are supposed to be gifted to the personal collection of Anna Zhuravleva and Vsevolod Nekrasov in Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, №3445; their copies – to the Manuscript Department of Russian National Library in St Petersburg, Maksimov Collection, №1136). The earliest letter dated 28 October 1964, 32 letters (till October 16, 1967) are numbered; the last letter is dated 21 October, 1985. In Maksimov collection, three letters from Anna Zhuravleva survived. Preparation of correspondence for publication has become an important component of the project.

The “refraction” of poetics of Solzhenitsyn’s story “Matryonin dvor” in the light of the writer’s view on the plot (the story is subtly autobiographical: the protagonist is undoubtedly writer) makes it possible to include the story in historical and literary context as the implementation of the invariant narrative “writing about writing” which requires the inclusion in the literary and linguistic tradition. Solzhenitsyn not only stresses important references and allusions to the literary texts of the Russian past but reminds us about the general – a single – the language of Russian literature, organically combining national and universal elements. This connection appears most clearly in the finals of the three chapters of the story.

Another results of the projects consists in well-documented exploration of the formation and evolution of the canon of Mikhail Lermontov’s works in literary curricula of the Soviet school, 1953–1991. Using the ministerial programs and official textbooks, the authors identify the corpus of Lermontov’s texts which were compulsory for reading, and trace its changes from the first to the latest Soviet curricula and educational standards. In addition, the article describes the evolution of interpretation of Lermontov’s life and works in different textbooks of the period, their connection with the ideological context and methodological discussions in school education. Also researches highlighted the most frequent texts and described the direction of expansion and contraction of the range of the studied sources.

  Ultimately, the patterns and trends, identified by researches, significantly change the usual understanding of the late Soviet literature, its interaction with humanities and its social dimension. The results of the project can be used in teaching literature, history, cultural studies (as well as a number of related disciplines) in any high school, in textological work, and commentary practice (esp. concerning the pivotal literary texts of the late Soviet era).

The participants of the project tried to combine the advantages of the traditional commentary practice (using the methodology ofthe classical works by Gustav Shpet, Boris Tomashevsky, Julian Oksman, Yuri Lotman) and modern techniques of semanticization and contextualization of the studied texts (these techniques were developed and actively used in works of Marietta Chudakova, Yuri Scheglov, Lazar Fleishman, Roman Timenchik). A significant component of the methodological basis was the preliminary discussions and principles developed and formulated by the research group in 2012-2013 in the early stages of the long-term project.

The results of the study are fully involved in the authors’ courses on history and theory of Russian literature participants of the project taught in 2014-2015 in secondary schools and and universities.




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