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Mikhail Bakhtin’s Comrades and Rivals

Your favorite critic has plenty of frenemies.


Bakhtin Circle

Early on in my career, the first "Bakhtin Circle" formed. So yeah, let it be known that I have a lot of homies. We all sit around and talk about the social and cultural issues in the Russian Revolution and Stalin's brutal dictatorship, but our subject of choice is language and all of its social allusions—yeah, I'm predictable like that.

The group's membership is always changing because it isn't one of those super strict schools of thought. We all have a (relatively) light-hearted attitude about life and contemporary culture—a tall order under an oppressive regime. Check out my "Cliques" for a little more dirt.

Matvei Isaevich Kagan

This guy really got the whole Bakhtin Circle started. Kagan is a Jewish intellectual and student of culture and literature—basically an all-around philosophical guy. He even earned the catchy nickname, "the Marburg philosopher." We wrote an essay together called "The Role of Personality," and he spread the gospel about my ideas through all sorts of different pieces of writing. He kind of became my surrogate brother and mentor after Nikolai took off for the Crimea, but we drifted after I got married in 1921. (You know how that goes…)

Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev

Pavel was wicked smart. He was a Russian literary scholar, social do-gooder, and editor for a newspaper in Vitebsk. We collaborated on a bunch of stuff; some people even think he published using my name so he could avoid being censored by "the man." We both totally loved Dostoevsky and had intense one-on-ones about dilemmas in moral philosophy. So many! He wrote a real barn burner called The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, in which he (we?) did nothing short of questioning the entire study of culture itself. When Joseph Stalin conducted purges in 1930, Pavel "disappeared" and was shot. :(

Lev Vasilievich Pumpianskii

Lev and I are tight. Together, we define the poetic and ideological scene in the Circle. He loves Symbolists, a group of folks reacting to the Realist movement. Symbolists were tired of all the effort involved in depicting reality and decided to enlist new artistic methods focused heavily on feelings. Lev wrote a bunch of articles about major figures of Symbolism and even cooked up the idea of a Symbolist poetic civilization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Plus, this guy is super cute—he authored a dictionary of Russian rhymes, for crying out loud.

Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinskii

Ah, the endless tea and discussions late into the night. Those were the dark but good ol' days. Our work has a lot in common; he's also really interested in Symbolism and sits in on all of Medvedev's lectures. (Yeah, we all support each other.) Ivan is a musicologist, and although he's cranked out a lot of important work about music, people in the West never really recognize him as a household name. Their loss.

Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov

Props to Valentin for popularizing my work in the United States—albeit indirectly. When his book Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (maybe available on Kindle?!) was published in translation in the U.S. in 1973, it really stirred up a hornet's nest. Valentin was my closest childhood friend and later became a lively members in the Circle. His big interests are linguistics and Marxist theory; he has this thing that language is always mixed up in ideology and that the skirmish over meaning (through language) goes hand-in-hand with the class struggle. Complex stuff.


Anonymous Enemies in the Government and the Academy

It's impossible for any thinking person in Soviet Russia not to have had rivals and enemies. That's just life in a police state! Often, I don't even know who my enemy is—by name; there are all of these invisible evil forces at work trying to block my ideas and writings from getting out into the world. Many of my manuscripts have even been censored or "lost" by majorly determined enemies. And it's not just Soviet agents trying to keep me down; plenty of academics just couldn't give me any love over my dissertation on Rabelais—Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

When I finally got the chance to defend it (waiting out World War II and whatnot), the dissertation split the Moscow scholarly world into two camps: it was embraced by officials appointed to sit for my defense, but other professors blocked its acceptance. (Weird, huh?) There were several stormy meetings—one lasting seven hours. Then the government got involved—and in the end, the State Accrediting Bureau denied me my doctorate. Womp womp.

Leo Tolstoy

This Christian anarchist is kind of a thorn in my ideological side. Look, I am for sure in Camp Dostoevsky and have just never liked the way Tolstoy steers readers toward one moralizing conclusion. Dostoevsky is all about polyphony, multiple voices, and rejecting authorial dominance. Tolstoy just isn't down with the people. He's a monologic author, meaning he is way into his own power as the designated voice in the story.

Check out the opening line of his so-called classic novel Anna Karenina: "All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It's like he has just made up his mind about the way it is and is telling us with this big Wizard of Oz voice of authority. My thoughts? Authors should always include counterstatements and not be such stinkin' know-it-alls.

Georgy Lukács

This rival is the prince of Marxist critics. We just cannot agree about the pecking order between the epic and the novel. He has a whole Hegelian riff in which he argues (very wrongly) that the epic is the result of whole world, and that the novel is the genre of "transcendental homelessness" and disintegration. I say that epics (and lyric poetry, for that matter) are all about an domineering author who takes it upon himself to go on and on about his vision of truth as though its the one and only vision of truth. The novel, I argue, was happily fragmented—and all of its fragmentation was optimistic. Lukács was such a downer about the novel. Boo!

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