Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry, 1991-2008

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Modern Languages Russian

Abstract

The cultural changes that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union created an opportunity to reassess Russian culture of the twentieth century. This project aims to explore how the century's literary culture has been reassessed in the context of institutional changes in Russian education, publishing, and scholarship. In particular, it will investigate ways in which this process of reassessment has affected the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry from 1991 to the end of Vladimir Putin's second term as Russian President in 2008. It will explore issues of canonicity in relationship to the prominent role that continues to be ascribed to high literary culture as a focus for educated values and national identity, while also assessing the extent to which the very idea of a canon has become contested. The project will examine the relationship between changes to the canon and the search for a post-Soviet identity, at a time when Russian nationalism started to make itself more widely felt in the cultural, as well as in the political sphere.

The process of canon revision to be investigated came after several decades during which the Soviet state played a dominant role in determining the composition of the canon, prescribing certain themes and styles, controlling what could be published, and what was to be studied in schools and universities. By the early 1970s an underground culture of self-published books (samizdat) and 'informal' associations of writers and artists existed alongside officially sanctioned culture, giving rise to the development of a parallel underground canon, and the impression that the literary world was split between two mutually hostile entities. In fact, the boundaries between establishment and 'underground' were not absolute, and many writers existed on the margins, outside both establishment and 'underground' canons. Moreover, the state-authorized canon should be seen less as a monolith than as a work in progress, discontinuous rather than purely linear in its development. Starting with the destalinization process of the mid-1950s, the canon underwent gradual but significant revisions until the late 1980s when numerous works by émigré poets and poets suppressed by the state were published. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave new impetus to this process of revision.

This project will investigate what became of the canon following the breakdown of the institutions that shaped both official and 'underground' canons, the development of a free market, and the rapid expansion of poetry publications on the internet. It will examine how various canon-forming institutions, such as publishing, literary scholarship, and educational curricula combined to reshape contemporary Russian understanding of the twentieth-century poetic canon. It will assess the extent to which current views on the canon suggest that a broad consensus on its nature and composition has been reached, or whether such a consensus is even seen as desirable.

The emphasis will be on determining how the canon represented in official publications of the early- to mid-1980s has changed, exploring the mechanisms involved in canon revision, and examining critical responses to these changes. Key issues for discussion will be the changing position of figures and groups who have either been 'canonized' or 'de-canonized', including those thought to represent the heritage of 'classic' Soviet poetry and the variety and experimentation of the Silver Age; also to be considered will be those poets with no strong affiliation either to 'official' or 'unofficial' Soviet culture, who have tended to be excluded by perceptions of Russian twentieth-century literary history shaped by binary division rather than a continuum.

Planned Impact

The beneficiaries of this research are likely to be members of the general public in the UK with an interest in Russian culture and in poetry. Other beneficiaries may include Russian listeners to the BBC Russian Service, students of literature at Russian HEIs, and both Russian- and English-speaking members of the public in the US and beyond. There is potential benefit for poetry publishers in the UK, and for publishers of Russian-language university textbooks.

The main area of impact is likely to be in the cultural sphere, as the project will offer a wide audience a number of outputs and events that will foster awareness and knowledge of twentieth-century Russian poetry, and enhance understanding of the complexities and richness to be found through engaging with a different culture.

To ensure that the project benefits those groups listed above, the project will seek to engage a wider audience through:
1. the project website, which will include short, user-friendly articles and/or podcasts on poets and their historical and cultural context;
2. presentations at poetry festivals, introducing audiences to less widely-known twentieth-century poets and to the broader findings of the project;
3. print publications, such as the arts journal Rossica, a translated and adapted version of either the co-authored or co-edited volume for Russian students, and a possible anthology of twentieth-century Russian poetry;
4. internet publications, in particular the bilingual (Russian/ English) US-based literary journal Storony sveta / Cardinal Points;
5. radio broadcasts, both in English and in Russian.

An important element in ensuring impact will be partnership with Academia Rossica, which aims to foster cultural relations between Russia and the West, and to promote Russian literature in the English-speaking world. This partnership will involve two routes to impact by participating in Academia Rossica's activities: a guest-edited issue of the journal Rossica, and a session at the annual Russian Literature Week.

A significant proportion of these activities are likely to have impact during the lifetime of the project, stimulating interest in and enjoyment of Russian culture. Publications such as the anthology and Russian textbook may not begin to benefit their intended audiences until after the project is finished.

All members of the project team are likely to be involved in impact activity: the ARF will play a major role in supporting impact through the website, with involvement from project students, and will also engage directly with the public at events and through print publications, alongside the PI and CI. The PI has some experience of both writing for and contributing to radio broadcasts for a wider non-academic public. Training and support will be made available to the project team, including media training from the University of Exeter Press Office, and support from the press officer for arts and humanities at Exeter.
 
Description This project has explored the ways in which the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry, as represented in anthologies, school textbooks, literary histories etc., has altered since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and looked at the mechanisms which have been involved in bringing about changes to the canon. We have found that the composition of the post-Soviet canon has become more diverse, as previously excluded figures, for example emigre poets like Joseph Brodsky, have been incorporated. There are clear signs of a move from a centrally controlled and unified canon to something far looser, perhaps even a multiplicity of competing canons. Whle there was some appetite for questioning the need for cultural canons at all, particularly in view of the way that the internet has enabled people to share texts and discuss their preferences, nevertheless initial attempts to bring about radical changes have been followed by signs of a more conservative approach, and some attempts to set up a canon in which tradition is valued over innovation, and émigré groups are being reclaimed as part of a single Russian literary culture.
In relation to the role of institutions in canon formation, the part played by education, through the curriculum and assessment, has shown initial departures from the traditional canon have been gradually reduced. Since the early 2000s there have been signs of a more confident state signalling the value of canonical literature in the education of young people. The emergence of rival literary groupings with competing cultural agendas informed 1990s discussions on revisions to the literary canon, but the cultural environment has since then seen the parallel existence of rival groups which are increasingly unlikely to engage with other groups, but promote their own versions of the poetic canon. In the field of publishing there are signs that the market, a relatively new phenomenon which emerged in the early 1990s, has had an effect on the selection of poets whose work is published, but particularly on the kinds of publications that have emerged: biography and memoir accounts reflect readers' interests in poets' lives and personalities; their texts are less prominent, though it is clear that fears voiced in the early 1990s about the demise of poetry publishing have not been fully realised. Works by previously little known figures who avoided contact with professional published literature during the Soviet period have emerged, if in small print runs, and the internet has made available an enormous and diverse range of poets' work.
Collaborative workshops were an effective way of developing ideas through dialogue and responding to important overarching questions. The interactive database has made it possible to trace the frequency of publications by and about poets, and opened the way for further investigation of the relationships between poets (e.g. which are published together), leading to plans for more work on the activity and influence of poetic groups in Soviet Russia. Members of the project team have presented their work at international conferences and successfully shown the value of using the canon as a way to interrogate post-Soviet cultural change.
Exploitation Route Project findings have enabled the team to evaluate the state of the post-Soviet canon of twentieth-century poetry, particularly the ways it has changed since 1991. These findings would be of use to publishers considering an anthology of twentieth-century Russian poetry. The project has made it possible to put forward a new version of the twentieth-century canon which reflects recent Russian views of the canon, rather than taking outdated Anglophone versions as a point of departure.
Sectors Creative Economy
URL http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/modernlanguages/russian/research/russianpoetrycanon/
 
Title Russian poetry database 
Description The database brings together information on publications in Russian, 1991-2008, of works by, and works about Russian twentieth-century poets. It includes data about Russian poets and their poems: biographical data; publication of poems in anthologies and other works; references to poets and their work in literary criticism. The database is searchable in a number of different ways, i.e. to obtain bibliographical information or visualisations, and users may also download data for their own use. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Work on the database has opened up interesting lines for future research, as it is possible to use the data to map out the relationships between individual poets (e.g. whether one poet has dedicated a poem to a fellow poet). Some initial work has already been done to explore how networks of poets can be expressed through visualisations. 
URL http://humanities-research.exeter.ac.uk/russianpoetry/public/
 
Description 'Three Ways of being a Soviet Poet' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A small group, including undergraduate students, postgraduates, and academic staff attended a talk which introduced them to three Russian poets of the twentieth century who deserve to be better known to English-speaking audiences. CI (Smith) spoke about the poet Bella Akhmadulina, PI (Hodgson) spoke about Boris Slutskii, and project PhD student (Karakulina) spoke about Vladimir Maiakovskii.

Increased awareness of twentieth-century Russian poetry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Durham talk 2012 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact talk by Hodgson (PI), 'Russian Poetry in a Changing State: the twentieth-century canon after 1991', was followed by questions from audience and discussion.

Raised awareness of canon formation and revision as important area of Russian 20th-century literary studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Exeter talk 2012 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Talk on canon revision in post-Soviet poetry led to discussion with literary and area studies specialists on broader topics of post-Soviet cultural change.

Promoted awareness of canon formation and revision as an important post-Soviet issue for exploration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012
 
Description Presentation at Tsvetaeva Conference, Elabuga 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Project CI (Smith) presented paper 'The Reception of Tsvetaeva in the UK' and engaged in Q & A with participants.

Informing Russian audience about reception of Russian emigre poet in the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007,2011,2012
 
Description Reading of Russian poetry translations 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Three translators of the work of major twentieth-century Russian poets (Elaine Feinstein, Peter Daniels, Peter France) spoke about their work as translators and read some examples of their translations; project PI (Hodgson) and CI (Smith) also spoke briefly about their own translations and read an example.

Discussion of twentieth-century poets who feature in the project's research was brought to an Edinburgh audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Translators' Coven: Fresh Approaches to Literary Translation from Russian (Oxford) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact c. 125 people, including many practitioners in the field of literary translation, as well as academic researchers, postgraduate students, publishers, attended a two-day workshop. PI and CI, together with one of the participants in the project workshop (Dr Emily Lygo), presented a panel entitled 'Censorship, intertextuality and political context in the translation of twentieth-century poetry', discussing the selection of twentieth-century Russian poets for translation and ways it might be broadened to give readers a fuller understanding of poetry in the Soviet period. Questions and discussion followed the panel. The event was organised by Dr Oliver Ready of St Antony's College, Oxford.

Interaction between people involved in translation as practitioners, theoreticians and scholars, and publishers - not a common occurrence.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2008,2013
 
Description contribution to Max Hayward Seminar Series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Talk on canon formation/revision in the post-Soviet period (PI (Hodgson), title 'Preservation versus selection: revising the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry since 1991') sparked discussion.

Peers showed interest in questions of broad relevance to many of their own specialist research areas.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description poetry translation workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact A group of undergraduates, postgraduates (including students on the MA in Translation), and others, including a literary translator, participated in a workshop; in small groups, working from a Russian text and a literal translation of a poem, with the assistance of a Russian speaker in each group, they explored the challenges that each poem might offer at translator, and possible approaches to solving these challenges. Points for discussion from each sub-group were shared with the whole group.

Participants reported that their (in many cases first) encounter with Russian poetry in the original had been stimulating and more accessible than they had expected.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description project workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact A group of researchers met three times. At the first workshop, each participant presented a short account of her/his proposed topic; at the second, full versions of draft papers were presented; the final workshop followed with discussion of how papers had developed from the drafts. Each workshop allowed plenty of opportunity for discussion and exchange of ideas; draft papers were shared via a 'wiki' site.

Stimulating discussion and exchange of ideas.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013