"Mixing Memory and Desire" -- Re-presenting Russian Silver Age in the 1920s and 1930s

Galina Rylkova, Ohio State University

In this paper I explore the creation of cultural memory about the Russian Silver Age (1890-1917) with particular emphasis on the first twenty years after its close. I intend to view the Silver Age as a cohesive "cultural text" and describe the ways in which this text has been "re-written" and "re-structured" within subsequent cultural contexts. To do so I discuss various modes in which cultural memory about this period manifested itself. These include works of fiction, memoirs, diaries, letters and newspaper coverage of events.

What makes the Silver Age so interesting from the perspective of cultural memory is its extraordinary temporal frame. In contrast to the Russian Golden Age (the first third of the nineteenth century), the Silver Age has very distinct historical and political boundaries as well as cultural confines. Hence, attitudes to the Silver Age--both in the Soviet Union and abroad--became highly politicized and laden with ethical and moral overtones. As will be demonstrated, the perceptions of the Silver Age and its legacy have been neither uniform nor constant. This period went through various stages of being rejected, then re-evaluated and upgraded to the status of the Silver Age in Russian literature and culture. (Even to-day the Silver Age is still perceived as a kind of pariah, as an enigmatic "other" in Russian cultural tradition, attracting either unreserved sympathy or unqualified contempt.) The perceived contribution of the Silver Age to political developments in twentieth-century Russia was particularly crucial and depended on whether one saw the Silver Age as paving the road to the 1917 revolution, the subsequent totalitarian regime and its consequences, or as having been brutally interrupted by them. Contrary to general belief, these different perceptions of the Silver Age were confined neither to Russia (Soviet Union), nor to the Russian diaspora.

The inclusion of the legacy of the Silver Age into succeeding cultural phases was (and has been!) a complicated process. However, despite a lasting and widespread assumption that the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent political and cultural developments brutally interrupted the normal course of literary and cultural evolution and thus consigned the Silver Age heritage to oblivion, the present study suggests otherwise in regard to the effects of the rupture. It is shown that the "abysmal" rift between pre- and post-revolutionary cultures was, in fact, beneficial in creating an entire cultural apparatus (or even "institution") that was seriously engaged in the re-production of the Silver Age's legacy for a contemporary audience, thus securing its vitality during later periods. It is true that its legacy was both overtly rejected (viz. the cases of Aleksej Tolstoj, Terapiano, Ocup and Xodasevich, and various representatives of the Soviet establishment--that I am going to discuss in detail) and ridiculed and "misinterpreted" (e.g. Belyj and Georgij Ivanov). However, paradoxically, even these negative statements attest to their authors' dependence on their cultural past, serving to re-instate its significance.