Tipping The Scales? Valerij Brjusov and the Marketing of Modernism: The Case of Stanisław Przybyszewski

Michael Johnson, University of Kansas


The works of Polish decadent novelist, essayist, and dramatist Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927), although largely forgotten today by English language literary scholars and Russianists, were extremely popular in pre-revolutionary Russia and the object of much controversy there. Przybyszewski’s aesthetic theories, synthesized from many ideas and themes then current in Scandinavia and Western Europe, found support among the early Russian modernists, while the “extreme individualism,” Nietzschean views, and morality of characters in his novels and plays provoked outrage among social conservatives. Excerpts of his works were published in the leading periodicals of the time, including the Moscow newspaper Kur’er (1898), Vestnik inostrannoj literatury (1901, 1905), Mir iskusstva (1902), Vesy (1904, 1906), and Zolotoe runo (1909)(Kurant 1985: 89–113).

Valerij Brjusov, in his double role as editor and de facto director of Skorpion, the Moscow publishing concern, had an active role in the early popularization and reception of Przybyszewski in Russia. Brjusov’s personal advocacy of Przybyszewski as a noteworthy modernist culminated in his own collection Zemnaja os', in which Brjusov acknowledges imitating the style of Przybyszewski in the short story “Sestry” (Brjusov 1907: viii). Although many editions of Przybyszewski’s works appeared between 1901 and 1918, Skorpion made the first attempt to publish a complete edition of collected works beginning in 1903/1904. Skorpion published the novel Homo sapiens as its first volume, which M. Semenov had begun translating in late 1901 (Kotrelev 1985: 94). However, the novel ran into problems with the censors and did not appear until several years later. Although four books eventually appeared, the Skorpion edition was never completed. Meanwhile, rival publisher Sablin of Moscow found great success in publishing four editions of a collected works in ten volumes from 1905–1912.

This historical–descriptive paper will explore the image of Przybyszewski and his works as presented by Brjusov and other Skorpionisty in the pages of Vesy both within the context of other criticism of the period and the development of a specialized book market for the growing modernist audience (Brooks 1978, 1985). It will compare and contrast this created image with that image presented in reviews of the Skorpion editions that appeared in other journals from 1903-1907. In this way we may better understand how Skorpion promoted Stanisław Przybyszewski as a leading example of European modernism, and, at the same time, created a demand for its own products in the emerging Russian book market.