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Maximization in Russian literary avant-garde draws attention from Chinese scholars

MI HUI | 2019-01-03 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Wang Zonghu (Left) is a professor from the College of Foreign Languages at Capital Normal University.
Vera Nikolaevna Terekhina (Right) is chief researcher from the Gorky Institute of World Literature at the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Russian avant-garde literature of the 20th century is an important phenomenon in the history of Russian literature and has increasingly become a new hot topic in literary research. On October 27th, the Beijing Slavic Research Center and the Beijing Branch of Pushkin House, jointly with Capital Normal University and the Russian Literary Association of China, organized an international conference on the 20th-Century Russian Avant-Garde Literature. It was the first international conference on this topic in China. Mi Hui, a lecturer from Beijing Language and Culture University, interviewed Wang Zonghu and Vera Nikolaevna Terekhina about the study of the Russian literary avant-garde in China and their insights into the root cause of this literary phenomenon.


Major phenomenon
Vera Nikolaevna Terekhina: When talking about the Russian avant-garde, we first need to clarify two concepts. Avant-garde in a narrow sense refers to the historical phenomenon that appeared in the field of Russian-Soviet literature and art from the early 20th century to the 1930s, mainly represented by Futurism. In a broad sense, avant-garde generally refers to works and styles that break traditional norms and dare to be unconventional. This avant-garde covers postmodernism and other schools extending throughout the 20th century. Western researchers sometimes use the term “avant-gardism” to refer to the latter, however, we Russian researchers rarely use it because the suffix “-ism” strengthens the political significance of the word and reminds people of utopia, anarchism, revolution and other meanings.

Wang Zonghu: Although Russian avant-garde literature has been influenced by French Cubism and Fauvism, Italian Futurism, and German Expressionism, it has greatly surpassed the vanguardism of Western Europe in terms of its scale and effects, and has in turn produced huge, even decisive influences on the whole of modernism and avant-garde art. From the perspective of Russian literature’s development, the avant-garde between the 1910s and 1930s was the most fruitful movement in modern literature, especially the Futurist groups and the Association for Real Art (OBERIU), which had a direct impact on the rise of Moscow conceptualism in the 1960s, and even Russian postmodernism. I think the greatest contribution of the Russian avant-garde was to break free from the classical realist model, to endow literature with profound modernity and rich philosophical implications. Through a series of positive language experiments and formal explorations, the avant-garde schools expanded the potential of language and the reach of literature, and they constructed a magnificent modern literary landscape, different from that of the 19th century.


Vera Nikolaevna Terekhina: In the 1990s, with the opening of archives, a large number of avant-garde works came into the view of researchers and attracted some enthusiasts and publishers. At the time, educational publishers were not allowed to mention Futurism. Later, the publishing market gradually opened up, and avant-garde literatures such as expressionism and futuristic poetry were introduced to common readers.

At the same time, many of the larger avant-garde art exhibitions in the 1990s also promoted its revival, for example, the exhibition of Kandinsky’s and Malevich’s works, after which the latter’s poetic “Window of the Rosetta” became a design symbol. These exhibitions combined a variety of artistic media such as literature, painting, music, and drama, presenting the whole of Russian avant-garde literature.

Wang Zonghu: In China, Russian Literary Classics have been widely read and deeply studied. In the 1990s, when the literature of the Silver Age was translated and introduced, we suddenly saw another completely different literature, one that was not based on the theme of the laboring masses and moral teachings, not based on the style of realistic imitation, but one that was unique, in a formalistic sense. This type of Russian literature, seeming to belong to another context, soon attracted the attention of researchers.


Academic Turn
Wang Zonghu: In the 1980s and 1990s, with the prosperous research on the Silver Age in Russia, Chinese scholars began to introduce Symbolism, Acmeism and Futurism to China. Among them, Futurism was regarded as most representative of the Russian vanguard movement with its high-profile and radical anti-traditional attitude. As research has deepened, Chinese scholars have conducted more detailed studies on the Silver Age. Some researchers have focused on the extreme trends of modern literature: the avant-garde. Futurism and Surrealism (1994), edited by Zhang Bingzhen and Huang Jinkai, introduces such poets as Kamensky, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, Pasternak and Guro, along with their works. The book became a resource for early related studies. In-depth research started in the early 21st century.

As I myself have noticed, there is a strong expressionist tendency in early-20th century literature. From Leonid Andreyev to the early Yevgeny Zamyatin, from the Futurists to OBERIU, all their works show a strong avant-garde art style. That was why I wrote my doctoral thesis on this phenomenon. Later, with Professor Zhang Jianhua from Beijing Foreign Studies University, I wrote 20th-Century Russian Literature: Schools and Streams of Thought, including theoretical articles, declarations of groups, and a comprehensive introduction to the creation and artistic concepts of 20th-century modern literature. At the same time, my colleagues have contributed several research papers in this field, for example, Liu Yinkui’s doctoral thesis “Art is Concept: Aesthetics of Moscow Conceptualism,” Mi Hui’s doctoral thesis “‘Subversion and Reconstruction: Poetics of Daniil Kharms’ Prose,” Zhang Meng’s “D. Kharms in the Postmodern Context,” and Qi Lincai’s “On the Absurdity in D. Kharms’ Creation.”

At the dawn of the 21st century, the study of Russian postmodern literature and contemporary literature was also thriving, thus Chinese scholars have studied the full picture of the Russian avant-garde. From the Futurism of the early 20th century to the present postmodernism, almost every main trend and its representatives have been studied, including even contemporary avant-garde drama and film art. The results are gratifying though still in the basic research phase. We believe that we will greatly benefit from this conference.


Root cause
Vera Nikolaevna Terekhina: There is a view that Russian avant-garde literature is influenced by utopianism and cosmology. I agree with this. Berdyaev and Lotsky did discuss the national character and culture of Russia from different perspectives. But as a literary historian, I prefer to find answers in the texts. Mayakovsky’s first play “Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy” (1913) was based on the Russian folk burlesque “Tsar Maximilian.” After the revolution, Mayakovsky tended to use expressive Russian consonants (e.g. trills and hushing sounds) in poetry. For example, her lines written after the February Revolution “Eat your pineapples, chew your grouse/ The end is nearing, you bourgeois louse” were the manifestation of an avant-garde literary experiment. In addition, many avant-garde literary works can also find their prototypes in traditional culture or literature, such as folk jokes and religious texts.

Wang Zonghu: Indeed, the reason Russian avant-garde literature has been able to prevail in Russia with a scale and influence greater than that in any European country, is mainly due to the national cultural psychology and national character. I attribute it to three aspects: the extremism, contradiction and uncertainty of character. These are also the three most important aspects of the Russian nationality mentioned by the great thinker Berdyev in the 20th century in The Russian Idea (1946).

Extremism here can be described as maximization. It means that the Russians dislike choosing partially, but prefer to pursue the ultimate state of maximization: either all or zero. This is manifested in two aspects of the avant-garde, namely, the maximization of negation of tradition and the pursuit of the maximization of artistic expression. The contradiction of character is the deep duality of the Russians: cruel and violent but kind and gentle; faithful to religion but seeking the truth; a strong sense of individuality but subordinate to collectivism; reveling in nationalism but advocating universalism; absolutely tame but absolutely rebellious. This diametrical polarity is a peculiar phenomenon of Russian culture. We can see this paradoxical manifestation in Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the 19th century, with his exceptionally strong sense of flesh and body paired with an equally powerful spirituality. We can also see the polarization between Pushkin and Tolstoy in Russian literature—the aesthetic model and the ethical model of art, and the two writers come from the same source—their inherent power of introspectiveness. In Russian avant-garde literature, these contradictions have two manifestations: the progressive and revolutionary versus the retrospective and traditional, the advocating of the individualized inner experience versus a concentration on the collective and art for the public.

As for the uncertainty of character, or the ambiguity in the definition of national psychology, these also are distinctive Russian features. This character manifests itself in the fact that the Russian avant-garde groups and styles are always changeable and difficult to unify. Therefore, in my opinion, the reason why the avant-garde movement flourished in Russia is that it is in accord with the Russian national character and cultural psychology.


​(edited by MA YUHONG)