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Reconfiguring the Canon of Twentieth Century Russian Poetry, 1991-2008

Russian Poetry Canon


From the collapse of the Soviet Union until the end of Putin’s second term as President, Russia has been through a transition process affecting all aspects of social, economic and cultural life. This project will examine one aspect of this transition: post-Soviet revisions to the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry. Key issues for discussion will be the changing position of figures and groups who have either been 'canonised' or 'de-canonised', including those thought to represent the heritage of ‘classic’ Soviet poetry and the variety and experimentation of the Silver Age. Those poets who have no strong affiliation either to ‘official’ or ‘unofficial’ Soviet culture will also be considered.

The project will explore issues of canonicity in relationship to the prominent role that continues to be ascribed to high literary culture as a focus for educated values and national identity, while also assessing the extent to which the very idea of a canon has become contested. The project will examine the relationship between changes to the canon and the search for a post-Soviet identity, at a time when Russian nationalism started to make itself more widely felt in the cultural, as well as in the political sphere. Through its investigations of the extent and nature of changes to the canon, the project will provide a new, post-Soviet perspective on twentieth-century Russian literary history, and explore the relationship between cultural memory as expressed through the canon, and post-Soviet Russian identity.

The project will develop methods for establishing the nature and composition of the current canon, and examine the ways in which the canon proposed by anthologies, textbooks, literary histories and other sources published between 1991 and 2008 differs from the canon presented by comparable material published in the early-to-mid 1980s. It will assess the relative prominence in the canon of poets closely associated with the Soviet ‘official’ canon; poets and literary movements linked with the counter-canon of ‘underground’ and émigré literature; poets who do not belong to either category.

This project will investigate ways in which the contemporary Russian literary world has reshaped the canon of twentieth-century poetry, and aims to do the following:

  1. To assess the extent to which the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry, represented in print publications since 1991, has changed in comparison with the canon of the late Soviet period.
  2. To analyse, through an investigation of published materials, the ways in which Russian publishers, educational institutions, and literary journals have contributed to the process of canon formation.
  3. To assess which theoretical and methodological approaches to literary canon formation are most productive in the post-Soviet context of political, economic, and social change.
  4. To bring together researchers in the field of Russian literature and culture through a series of collaborative workshops leading to the creation of an edited volume of essays.
  5. To explore, in a co-authored volume, the relationship between post-Soviet revision of the twentieth-century poetry canon and post-Soviet Russian national identity.
  6. To supervise and bring to completion two PhD theses: one on the position of the canonical Soviet poet Vladimir Maiakovskii in the post-Soviet canon; the other on the process of the canonization of Joseph Brodsky, an émigré excluded from the Soviet-era canon.

Katharine Hodgson is responsible for the overall management of the project, and is researching the place in the canon of poets associated with official Soviet literature by examining post-Soviet anthologies and journal publications. 

Alexandra Smith is researching the integration of émigré poets into the post-Soviet canon, with reference to the canon-forming influence of documentary film and TV broadcasts, and exploring the role of memoir literature in the canonization of selected figures.

Joanne Shelton is conducting research into educational institutions’ role in canon formation process, and the canon-forming role of publishers and development of market-driven publishing. She is responsible for collating and interpreting information for entry in the searchable bibliographical database, which will show quantitative changes in the prominence of a given poet in post-1991 publications, and the extent of her/his treatment in textbooks and literary histories.

Natalia Karakulina is examining the position in the post-Soviet canon now held by the most canonical of official Soviet poets, Vladimir Maiakovskii. Her thesis will assemble evidence from post-1991 publications of his work in Russia to show how Maiakovskii's position has been affected by the wide-ranging rejection of writers strongly identified as part of official Soviet culture, and examine the extent to which he has nevertheless retained his canonical status.

Aaron Hodgson is working on Nobel Prize winner, and former American poet laureate, Joseph Brodsky. His work seeks to demonstrate not only that Brodsky can be considered to be a part of the canon in its various forms, but also to reveal the specific combination of literary and extra-literary factors at play within his canonization, comparing the relative importance of these factors in the different settings. Underpinning Aaron's analysis is the hypothesis that Brodsky was a part of the Western canon before becoming a part of the Russian canons (the Petersburg-specific canon and the wider Russian canon), and that his place within these canons is due to wider changes within the Russian cultural narrative in the form of iconoclasm, cultural memory, and museumification.


Professor Katharine Hodgson

Associate Professor in Russian
University of Exeter

Dr. Alexandra Smith

Reader in Russian
University of Edinburgh

Joanne Shelton

Associate Research Fellow
University of Exeter

Aaron Hodgson

PhD candidate
University of Edinburgh

Natalia Karakulina

PhD candidate
University of Exeter


5:00pm - 7:00pm, Thursday 10 October 2013. Queen's Building, LT4.2.

'Three Ways of Being a Soviet Poet: Vladimir Maiakovskii, Boris Slutskii, and Bella Akhmadulina'. Natalia Karakulina, Katharine Hodgson and Alexandra Smith will introduce three poets who, at different stages in the USSR’s history, found their own ways of being a Soviet poet.

We tend to imagine poets in the Soviet Union as being either obedient ‘artists in uniform’, or heroic figures whose defiance of censorship and Socialist Realism exposes them to persecution. For Vladimir Maiakovskii, a Futurist, the October Revolution embodied the overthrow of restrictive tradition he sought in his art, and called it ‘my revolution’. Boris Slutskii came of age in the Stalin years, fought in the war, and left a huge legacy of unpublished poetry which charted his response to the catastrophes of the time including the Terror and the Holocaust. Bella Akhmadulina belonged to the generation of the post-Stalin Thaw period, but still had to negotiate demands for politically committed poetry, and managed to do so while creating a poetic persona with links to other cultures and other times.

Translation Workshop

4:00pm - 6:00pm, Wednesday 16 October 2013. Queen's Building, MR1.

'Translating Russian Poetry: A Workshop'. This workshop is for anyone who is interested in having a go at working with others on translating a Russian poem: no knowledge of Russian required – Russian speakers will be on hand to help, and you will have a line-by-line literal translation to work from as well as the original text. Poems for translation will be made available online in advance, or you can collect your copy of the texts on the day. We will be offering three different texts for translation, one by each of the following: Vladimir Maiakovskii, Boris Slutskii, Bella Akhmadulina. You can find out more about each poet at our earlier event, ‘Three Ways of Being a Soviet Poet’.

During the course of the project, we are running a series of collaborative workshops which will bring together specialists in twentieth-century Russian culture to discuss the process of canon formation. Each participant will contribute a paper on a different aspect of twentieth-century Russian poetry and the canon. The workshops will provide a forum for collaboration which will enhance the development of these papers.

Workshop participants

In addition to the project team, the following specialists will be participating in the series of workshops:

  • Robin Aizlewood (SSEES)
  • Denis Akhapkin (St Petersburg)
  • Alexandra Harrington (Durham)
  • Andrew Kahn (Oxford)
  • Emily Lygo (Exeter)
  • Polly McMichael (Nottingham)
  • Maria Rubins (UCL)
  • Stephanie Sandler (Harvard)
  • Olga Sobolev (LSE)
  • Josephine von Zitzewitz (Oxford)

A Journey in Five Postcards

Produced with the support of Academia Rossica, the poetry anthology A Journey in Five Postcards (Academia Rossica: UK. 2011) was the first publication from the project. Six contributors, G. S. Smith, Ilya Kukulin, Stephanie Sandler, Alexandra Smith, Andrei Zorin, and the editor, Katharine Hodgson, selected five twentieth-century poems. What they have chosen offers a showcase for the twentieth century's poetry and provides a selection of works that continue to hold meaning for today's readers. Many of the translations in the anthology are new, produced specially for this publication, by a team of translators including some of the contributors.

"This anthology, a special edition of Rossica: International Review of Russian Culture, contains only thirty translated poems, but is resonant beyond its modest size."

"The translations of often complex poems by some of the twentieth century's most complex poets are accurate and in general serve to make the reader wish there were more of them."

"It might seem facetious to call this journal - beautifully edited, handsomely printed, illustrated with Boris Smirnov's evocative photographs of empty balconies and frozen rivers - a mere "taster", but it certainly whets the appetite for any further publications in connection with the editor's research project."

Review by James Womack, TLS, 28 October 2011, p. 30.

Poetry websites

Russkaia virtual’naia biblioteka - 

Vavilon: Sovremennaia Russkaia literatura - - -

Open Space project on contemporary poetry "Stikhi vzhivuiu" -

New Literary Map of Russia -

Poets’ websites

Timur Kibirov -

Dmitry Prigov -

Olga Sedakova -

Elena Shvarts -

Television and media links

Television programmes on Russian rock music

programme on Arkadii Severnyi (Russian samizdat poet and singer)

Dmitrii Bykov's lectures on Boris Pasternak and Nikolai Gumilev

Poetry and translation prizes

The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize - Judged by Sasha Dugdale, Catriona Kelly and Glyn Maxwell, this new prize celebrates the long friendship between Joseph Brodsky and Stephen Spender, as well as the rich tradition of Russian poetry. The prizes are: £1,500 (first), £1,000 (second) and £500 (third). The deadline is 31 August 2012 and the competition is open to entrants wordwide. Enter online or download an entry form at


Kolbas, E. Dean, Critical Theory and the Literary Canon (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001).

Kermode, Frank, Pleasure and Change: the Aesthetics of Canon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Canons, edited by Robert von Hallberg (Chicago; London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984)

Guillory, John, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)

Studies of canon formation in a particular context

Benedict, Barbara M., Making the Modern Reader: Cultural Mediation in Early Modern Literary Anthologies (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1996).

Donoghue, Frank, The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-century Literary Careers (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Alan Golding, From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

Hammond, Paul, The Making of Restoration Poetry (Cambridge; Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2006).

Kramnick, J. B., Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Pas, 1700-1770 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Moeller-Sally, Stephen, Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2002).

The Popular and the Canonical: Debating Twentieth-century Literature 1940-2000, edited by David Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).

Terry, Richard, Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past 1660-1781 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Database of Twentieth Century Russian Poetry

We have compiled a database of poems and poets published between 1991 and 2008. Please feel free to browse our database of Russian poetry, which is free-to-access and fully searchable.