Slot:       28D-3          Dec. 28, 3:45 p.m. – 5:45 p.m.                                                

Panel:     From the Center Out: The Space of Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry

Chair:     Sarah Pratt, University of Southern California


Title:       City Outskirts and the Moscow Avant-Garde

Author:   Sarah Valentine, Princeton University

From the Lianozovo group to Gennady Aigi, Moscow’s Soviet-era avant-garde produced its art not only outside dominant aesthetic and political ideologies, but on the city’s geographic periphery as well. As the Soviet Union’s capital and the seat of the government, Moscow was the hub of Soviet political, intellectual, and cultural life. Residence in the city required documentation and perennial housing shortages increased the location’s coveted status. Residence in Moscow was also reward for adherence to Soviet ideals. Conversely, banishment from the capital to the outskirts—or farther—was a common punishment for those who were perceived as less than exemplary Soviet citizens. Thus, for avant-garde artists whose work fundamentally opposed Socialist realist principles, residence on the outskirts was often a political necessity. However, distance from the cultural and intellectual center of Moscow, which may at first seem detrimental to artists seeking to engage with avant-garde concepts and forms, often provided these artists the creative space and freedom they needed to pursue their artistic endeavors. Thus, in the work of avant-garde artists residing in Moscow’s remote environs, the outskirts themselves become a frequent motif that carries varying, often conflicting associations. In the paintings of Oscar Rabine, such as Barrack in Lianozovo (1954), the motif of outskirts portrays the grim realities of the living conditions of the average Soviet citizen. In the film Okraina (Outskirts, 1933) by director Boris Barnet, the film’s setting dramatizes a sardonic statement about post-WWI Soviet life. For Gennady Aigi, in poems such as "Okraina: Zima bez liudei" (“Outskirts: Winter without People,” 1982), the outskirts represent a pure, creative space, close to nature and far from the contaminated city.


Title:       Poetry of the Periphery: City Outskirts in Brodsky and Shvarts

Author:   Dunja Popovic, Princeton University

The present paper focuses on two poems, Joseph Brodsky’s “Ot okrainy k tsentru” (1962) and Elena Shvarts’s “Detskii sad cherez tridtsat′ let” (mid-1980s), both of which set autobiographical lyrical reflections on memory and on the passage of time against the landscape of the city’s periphery. This paper explores the way in which choosing a marginal and blighted part of the city as the setting plays into the two poets’ explorations of the nature of remembrance, as well as into their metaphysical themes. The setting serves in both poems as a vehicle for understanding the nature of nostalgic memory. The grimy industrial cityscape these works describe could not be further from any commonly accepted idea of paradise; and yet, both poets toy with the conception of this space as a lost Eden, evoking it ironically, but also with a real sense of longing. In this way, they acknowledge their yearning for a past that they recognize was already taking place in a fallen world. The periphery also serves a symbolic function in the poems by virtue of its status as a liminal space, on the border between the city and the countryside beyond it. The edge of the city symbolically represents in these poems the edges of memory, where one’s earliest recollections – those connected with childhood and youth – reside. Furthermore, this space can also be interpreted as symbolizing the boundary between earthly life and a metaphysical “beyond,” and thus appears as a logical setting for both poets’ confrontation with mortality and, in Shvarts’s case, also with the divine.


Title:       Modes of Lyric Collision: The Urban Phantasms of Nikolai Zabolotskii

Author:   Benjamin Paloff, Harvard University

In the waning days of the New Economic Policy, many important Russian writers, including such luminaries as Andrei Platonov and Osip Mandel’shtam, undertook an exploration of how the rhetoric of societal transformation, which portended the end of history and the rise of a new homo soveticus, came into conflict with realities on the ground, where such transformations were barely consummated. This paper examines the philosophies of space-time and the word behind Nikolai Zabolotskii’s landmark collection Stolbtsy (Columns, 1929), which presents a vision of NEP-era urban space as a suspension of the past in the world of the future. In such poems as “Krasnaia Bavariia,” “Futbol,” and “Novyi byt” (where the poet remarks that “time dries out and yellows” at the same time as he declares himself “the militiaman of the new life”), Zabolotskii envisions Soviet urban space as a collision of the old and new, where transformation is inherently incomplete and lyric potential opens out onto historic catastrophe. By examining Zabolotskii’s early aesthetic and philosophical development, with special reference to the OBERIU manifesto and the technological idealism of Nikolai Fedorov and Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, this paper demonstrates how Zabolotskii reconfigures early Soviet society into a tragicomic hybrid of past and future. This preoccupation with underdevelopment also fosters Zabolotskii’s interest in immaturity, both as an existential concept and as a compositional principle in lyric poetry, as evidenced by such poems as “Nezrelost′.” Seen through this conceptual framework, Zabolotskii’s phantasmagoric distortion of urban space exposes not only a poet at play, but also Zabolotskii’s serious engagement with some of the most pressing historical and metaphysical problems of his era.


Title:       The Poetics of Space in Vladislav Khodasevich’s Evropeiskaia Noch

Author:   Maria Khotimsky, Harvard University

Evropeiskaia Noch′ (1929), the last collection of poems published by Vladislav Khodasevich, has generated diverse critical responses (Veidle 1974; Miller 1989).  However different the  interpretations might be, the notion of space set forth in the title of the collection calls for further scrutiny. While the imagery of Khodasevich’s earlier books, Putem Zerna and Tiazhelaia Lira, reflects the poet’s strong sense of place and incorporates multiple reference to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the poetics of Evropeiskaia Noch′ to a large extent seems to be defined by the sense of foreign cultural space. Many of the poems in this collection (e.g. “Berlinskoe,” “Pod zemlei”) include spatial characteristics in their titles, while other texts (“An Mariehen,” “Zvezdy”) present scenes from Berlin and Paris life in the twenties, and, thereby, create a new and challenging environment for the lyrical subject.

The goals of this paper are twofold: to analyze the innovative use of poetic space in Evropeiskaia noch′ in comparison with earlier collections of poetry, and to describe the emerging stylistic changes of Khodasevich’s later verse as development rather than decline of his poetic manner.  Special attention is devoted to such features of Evropeiskaia Noch′, as the use of precise biographical detail, montage, creation of grotesque images in the interpretation of “alien” space, many of which are characteristic of Russian literature in exile and are echoed in the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Georgii Ivanov, Joseph Brodsky.

The analysis will draw primarily on Khodasevich’s poetic works of Berlin period, as well as on his epistolary heritage and several prose essays.  Theoretical studies of post-symbolist subjectivity and problems of poetic space in Russian literature together with major scholarly works on Khodasevich’s poetics (Bethea, Bogomolov, Malmstad) will provide the methodological framework for the paper.



Bethea, David M. Vladislav Khodasevich: His Life and His Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Bogomolov, N. A. “Zhizn′ i poeziia Vladislava Khodasevicha.” Russkaia literatura pervoi treti XX veka. Portrety. Problemy. Razyskaniia. Tomsk, 1999.

Kirilcuk, Alexandra. “The Estranging Mirror: Poetics of Reflection in the Latter Poetry of Vladislav Khodasevich” Russian Review 61 (July, 2002).

Miller, Jane. “Xodasevich’s Gnostic Exile” Slavic and Eastern European Journal 28.2 (1984).

Veidle, Vladimir. “Khodasevich’s “Double-Edged” Ars PoeticaRussian Literature Triquarterly, 1974-2.