The Mentor Figure in Twentieth-Century Russian Intellectual Autobiography

In the autobiographical writings of many twentieth-century Russian intellectuals, we find considerable attention—often extended passages, chapters, or essays—devoted to the writer’s intellectual mentor, often a university professor. This is true not only for writers who studied under members of famous “schools” like Lidija Ginzburg and Venjamin Kaverin, but also for less well known but intellectually active figures such as P. P. Blonskij (pedagogue and philosopher, 1884–1941) and N. P. Anciferov (historian, 1889–1958). The inclusion of these passages seems to be characteristic and significant in the construction of the autobiographer’s own identity. Building on recent theoretical and critical work on Russian autobiography (esp. Jane Gary Harris) as well as drawing on Western autobiographical theory and studies of twentieth-century Russian culture (e.g., Shepherd and Kelly), this paper will analyze the “tribute to the mentor” in the autobiographical works of the intellectuals mentioned above. The importance accorded to the mentor figure has several aspects. First, it performs the structural (generic) function of linking the documentary memoir with the private exploration of the self, two strains of autobiographical writing which have tended to merge in the twentieth century. Second, it situates the writer explicitly in both an intellectual and an institutional context, and as such contributes to the continuation of intellectual history. At the same time, the selection of the mentor differentiates each writer from others writing in the same genre. Third, it serves a cultural purpose: by investing the mentor figure with positive cultural and moral values as well as intellectual authority, the autobiographer makes a statement about the importance of the intellectual in Russian culture, while also placing him or herself as the heir to these values and that tradition. In this sense the mentor passage is a reflection of the cultural value of “ličnost′” and “intelligentnost′” for the autobiographer. The mentor tribute is thus a culturally specific as well as individual response to some of the generic demands of intellectual autobiography.