The Literal Symbolist: Vladimir Solov’ev and the Initial Reception of Russian Symbolism

Jonathan Stone, University of California, Berkeley

Despite their focus on an audience unequipped to understand the basic precepts and vocabulary of a new aesthetic, the venerable thick journals of the 1890s were precisely the locale in which the foundation was laid for the appearance of Symbolism in Russia. As a central figure in both spheres, Vladimir Solov'ev (1853-1900) was able to mediate between the small and exclusive group of Symbolists and the wider reading public accustomed to a nineteenth century literary tradition and hostile to the new art. He was an ally of both, yet he also elusively and intentionally remained a compassionate outsider to both. I will read his three reviews of the Russkie simvolisty collections (1894-5) as demonstrative of the deft maneuvers necessary for constructing the role of a critic who simultaneously admonishes and advocates Symbolism. I will argue for Solov’ev’s relevance as a Symbolist who professes not to understand Symbolism. Solov’ev’s reviews, published in Vestnik Evropy in 1895, are some of the most articulate expressions of the difficulties the Russian Symbolists confronted in fostering a modernist worldview amongst a readership thoroughly enmeshed in nineteenth century aesthetics. The polemics Solov’ev provoked were fundamental in establishing a theoretical stance of how the Symbolist must interact with his or her reader.

The creation of a reader indoctrinated into a poetry of symbols was a crucial task of the early Russian Symbolists. My paper will focus on Solov’ev’s distinctly literal and unsympathetic reading of the Russkie simvolisty collections. In his unwillingness to understand these poems Solov’ev plays the part of the typical confused reader. Yet Solov’ev was the author of mystical poetry and an acknowledged influence on the early Symbolists. Thus, his assuming such a critical role is indicative of the poets’ own anxiety that such an aesthetics would be lost on the majority of the Russian literary sphere. By examining the guise in which Solov’ev reviews these collections, I will discuss critical aspects of the context in which Symbolism was developed and initially received in Russia. By the turn of the century Symbolism had retreated into its own journals and almanacs meant for those already sympathetic to a poetry of symbols. But its brief and paradoxical cohabitation with the widely read thick journals of the previous decade exposed Symbolism to a far broader audience and imbued the Symbolists with an understanding of the need for a reader indoctrinated into their own novel worldview. Solov’ev most dramatically demonstrates the pitfalls of a reader blind to Symbolism’s hints and symbols. I will show how in doing so he fostered a better comprehension of the need for a distinctly Symbolist reader who encounters the new art in a distinctly Symbolist context.