Literary Kroujok on the 19th century

Literary Kroujok on the 19th century

The Russian literature of the 19th century has undergone constant heritagization and holds to this day an eminent place in cultural consciousness, both in Russia and abroad. However, this enduring popularity is no antidote to a degree of academic fatigue: in France, Russian literature PhD theses dedicated to the period have become rare, and the field has been largely side-lined from the new research perspectives that have shaken up literary historiography and renewed the study of other centuries, such as the various types of studies, world literature, reception theory, fiction theory and the linkages between literature and cultural history, literature and social history, and literature and material history. And so we come to the following paradox: the canonical century of Russian literature is that on which the most has been written, but also the century of which our knowledge is patchiest, in the light of its diversity.

One reason why these new paradigms of literary criticism have had little impact in French Slavistics and studies of classic Russian literature is the compartmentalization of the academic field. In response to this specific state of affairs, the Kroujok, a circle bringing together specialists in 19th century Russian literature and comparatists, aims to contribute to a renaissance and reinvigoration of literary studies of the Russian grand siècle by organizing regular academic events in the form of workshops. These events will contribute to three objectives:

  • Providing training in new paradigms for literary studies and history, for Master’s and PhD students;
  • Disseminating research specific to the literature of the 19thcentury (and thus the specific theoretical and conceptual tools it requires) to the research, teaching and academic communities.
  • Gathering and uniting specialists in 19thcentury Russian literature, with a view to developing joint projects and refining study perspectives on our respective subjects.

Leadership of the Kroujok: Laetitia Decourt (Sorbonne University), Victoire Feuillebois (University of Strasbourg), Catherine Géry (INALCO)


Laure Troubetzkoy (ed.), Le Monde des objets dans l’œuvre de Tolstoï, Cahiers Léon Tolstoï no. 27, Paris, Institut d’Études Slaves, 2019.

            The latest volume of Cahiers Léon Tolstoï, edited by Laure Troubetzkoy, compiles the papers of a workshop held in 2016 on the subject of Le Monde des objets dans l’œuvre de Tolstoï (The World of Objects in the Works of Tolstoy). A singular object, and a choice that may seem paradoxical in that the volume’s six contributors agree on the scarcity of objects in Tolstoy’s universe: Laure Troubetzkoy notes their limited quantity; Leonid Heller underlines their relative neutrality, including in the vast world of War and Peace, where there is little detail on the material life of soldiers and where Tolstoy never drifts into technical descriptions; and Alla Polosina stresses the Spartan nature of the objects that surrounded the author in his own home – apart from the famous sofa which he had covered with green faux leather at the end of his life, in a very expensive choice for the time. Anne Coldefy-Faucard draws three wider conclusions from these intuitions: firstly, like Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé and Yury Tynyanov in their times, she suggests that Russian literature is actually, with a few exceptions, less interested in the “world of objects” than other European literatures, having taken the path of an “English-style” realism, focused on action, rather than a “French-style” realism full of detailed descriptions and still life. Secondly, caught between Plyushkinian plenty and the Silver Age’s novels in miniature, the Russian literature of the second half of the 19th century appears particularly lacking in its depiction of material life. Thirdly, even for the period, Tolstoy appears to have been particularly resistant to objects, his works containing no totemic objects that represent the whole work and are erected as symbols, like Oblomov’s khalat or Raskolnikov’s axe, but merely simple motifs woven more finely into the narrative.

            However, what this volume does show brilliantly is that the paradox is not so much the choice of a subject that appears very restrictive when it comes to Tolstoy. On the contrary, what is striking is that this scarcity is matched by a sense of “object density”, as Heller puts it (p. 39), expanding Tolstoy’s world of objects far beyond what one might find when counting or surveying the diversity of the realia to be found in his work. The volume also highlights how Tolstoy’s objects form a world, rather than reconstructing their detail. From this perspective, two fundamental traits emerge from the analysis here: firstly, the object is important because of its qualitative, and not its quantitative, dimension in the author’s world; and secondly, these objects take on their meaning when considered as a mesh, joined both together and within the action and story of the characters, shedding light on new functions of objects in Tolstoy’s universe.

            This analysis takes shape at the crossroads of several approaches that converge despite differences; Firstly, there is a “heritage” perspective that opens the volume, with the article by Alla Polosina looking at the circulation of objects between Tolstoy’s life and works. As a fine connoisseur of Yasnaya Polyana’s furniture, she has systematically sought out equivalents in his works to demonstrate how the Tolstoyan world is filled with tangible objects with a singular aura. This system of correspondences could be considered a philological or even positivist approach, but it perfectly reveals Tolstoy’s desire to focus on small numbers of objects at little cost that are however particularly significant and could form a link to the history of a family or an individual. Building on the hypothesis put forward by Viktor Shklovsky, who talked of the sofa on which Tolstoy was born as the “the raft on which he would sail through life, from birth till death” (p. 12), Alla Polosina also validates two ideas found in more narrative approaches to the author’s work: firstly, the lack of “things” in Tolstoy destined to remain mere decorative objects, rejected in favour of objects which always correspond to a narrative need; and secondly, the systematic linkage between the object and the story, whether it is understood as narration or as the existence of a character.

            Paradoxically, the same conclusion emerges from the second, technical and statistical approach developed by Leonid Heller in his article, where he exploits the data gathered on War and Peace using digital processing of the text. His article questions the methodological relevance of the tool for the subject at hand, precisely because Tolstoy’s objects are rarely mentioned “in themselves” and therefore difficult to lemmatize (convert to the form in which the words may be found in a dictionary) without denaturing them: the object is always somebody’s, playing a specific role in the story. The critical analysis of this material in War and Peace demonstrates the difficulty and the scale of the subject there: Tolstoy aimed to reconstruct not a world of objects, but rather a world through objects, where the latter are an gateway to the universe, inner life and values of the characters. That explains the gaps in this world: Heller cites an example which emerges several times in the work: the dinner in honour of Bagration, where Pierre Bezukhov at last smiles, seizing the first of the four crystal glasses placed before him to come to hand, to be served a drink. Mentioning these marks of wealth does not seek to show the luxury of the occasion, but rather the character’s personality (his disdain or ignorance of conventions whereby the glass is chosen depending on the type of wine), his perception of the situation (he is at last enjoying the evening), his destiny (his already pronounced taste for drink, which is to grow dangerously as the novel progresses). However, these four glasses cannot be used to reconstruct the material culture of the aristocracy in the early 19th century: that is quite simply not the author’s objective.

            The volume’s four remaining articles develop a more narrative approach to the subject, but all support this idea: there is no “decoration” in Tolstoy, there are no “things”, in a sort of Barthesian realism: objects serve rather as a “signpost”, either towards action or towards a character’s life. That is the conclusion of what is no doubt the volume’s most moving text: the pages Michel Aucouturier dedicates to the “Decembrists’ skis” in what was to be the last workshop of the Amis de Léo Tolstoï (Friends of Lev Tolstoy). He compared two contemporary descriptions (from 1863): one from The Cossacks and the other from The Decembrists, a study for War and Peace. In the description from The Cossacks, there is a picturesque, folkloric dimension that is actually very localized in Tolstoy’s work, whereas the place of the object in the scene studied by Michel Aucouturier in The Decembrists, where Pierre Labazov and his family return to Moscow from their Siberian exile, is a powerful matrix of how this narrative instrument works in Tolstoy’s writing. The scene is striking in its array of – invisible – objects. The family are moving, so the room is full of packages, but they are treated as an indistinct burden, just as the Rostov house will be later when they must pack up to flee Moscow. Only objects with a direct diegetic function stand out: the son Serge’s short coat, which saves him from being taken for a servant and, above all, the famous skis which, in the middle of the chaos, fall twice, attracting the reader’s attention. They symbolize both the moment of the action and the course of the character’s life: the hero’s daily life during his exile in Siberia, and a disruptive, incongruous item in Moscow where they keep falling with a significant crash. The skis stand out profoundly from the other objects of the move, in a dense signification of the whole life of the character, a powerful symbol of his turns and accidents.

            Tolstoy’s objects exist only in relation to the perception of his characters, the action they are engaged in, their history and their values. Laure Troubetzkoy notes for example that the objects associated with Natasha Rostova are very clear markers of her existential story (p. 50): the doll she has Boris Drubetskoy kiss in the conservatory at the beginning of the novel represents the end of her childhood and the detailed description of her pear-shaped ruby earrings symbolizes her newfound womanhood, while her mother’s bed, one of the few objects described at length in the novel, is a symbol of maternal protection and the advice she will lack when she faces the experience of passion: the sphinx’s heads that decorate it take on in a way their primary mythological sense, far from the Empire taste for Egyptian style.

Conversely, Tolstoy has an aversion to objects “in themselves” which might have a singular value, practical or monetary, without referring the matter to the diegesis and clarifying it. This dislike of decor is perceptible in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Anne Coldefy-Faucard shows us that the famous curtains (which will cause the death of the hero, manifesting his cancer after he falls trying to hang them, as he makes the final touches to a whole apartment designed to impress his colleagues) are part of a dense network of objects associated with veiling. Yet the path Tolstoy organizes for his character is precisely that of an unveiling: Ivan Ilyich suffers the bitter realization of the vanity of his relationship with the world of the careerist judge, driving him to accumulate objects to consolidate his social standing; only when he abandons these material objects in favour of intangible truths about life and death does he find grace in the author’s eyes. Similarly, in Anna Karenina, Anna’s veil serves to hide the turpitudes of passion, in direct contrast with the naked breast of a peasant glimpsed by Levin as she worked with her husband in the fields: far from being immodest, her lack of attention to clothing reveals to Levin the wealth of this universe of peasant values based on something other than accumulation and trickery.

As such, while an object may have a value in Tolstoy’s work, that value is negative: the object is “guilty” (Luba Jurgenson) or “incongruous” (Laure Troubetzkoy), like the falling skis that nobody knows where to put, but stands out all the more because it has lost its practical value and can therefore signify the spiritual and moral values of the characters. This is true of the Rostov furniture, for example, loaded with difficulty onto three carts and hurriedly unloaded so that the latter may serve to transport the injured; of Nikolai Rostov’s ring, broken in an angry outburst but which he keeps on his finger to remind himself of the virtues of temperance; and of Pierre Bezukhov’s dagger, supposed to help him fulfil his great destiny but which is merely a poor, useless knife that does not work and causes his arrest by the French. It is when they cease their direct function as objects that these objects take on their use, firstly drawing the reader’s attention, and then developing meaning in the general economy of the novel.

All told, the volume very eloquently takes stock of the place of objects in Tolstoy’s writing, as well as the profound singularities with which he dealt with this material so abundant in Russian literature. Drawing on Vladimir Toporov’s analysis of the systems of objects in Gogol’s works, itself inspired by Propp’s theories, Luba Jurgenson’s article paints a picture of a Tolstoy with a totally separate role in this tradition, reversing the traditional status of objects in diegesis between morphology (type of object) and syntax (the place of the object in the actantial model). In Gogol’s writing, whatever object the character is seeking, be it a nose, a coat, an artefact from a dubious collection, or a long-departed soul, that object is always the subject of the search: its role in the fiction is never questioned. The opposite is true in Tolstoy’s writing: the object is not anodyne. It cannot be chosen randomly, and its own nature counts because of its meaning in the story of the character and often in Tolstoy’s personal history. But the role of the object changes radically in the organization of the fiction: firstly presented as the subject of a search, like Ivan Illitch’s curtains, it is diminished and organizes a new storyline where, in extremis, the character gives up on a false material quest to seek what really matters.


Place-objects: literature in indoor spaces

Laetitia Decourt (Sorbonne Université)

In a modest contribution to the research that has occupied our Kroujok since its creation – the study of objects and then place-objects in literature – my paper sought to study certain indoor spaces where literature was practiced in the first half of the 19th century. As the notion of the place-object has no fixed definition, my aim here is to clarify it with tangible examples. The first notion close to the place-object is that of the Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope in the Bakhtinian sense. Indeed, the role played by the chronotope in the formation of the literary genre is a common point with the idea of the place-object. However, it differs in the leading role Bakhtin gave the category of time in the relationship between time and space within the chronotope. The place-object idea also recalls the term of topoi: not in the sense of a catalogue of clichés, but rather as a repertoire of common places and recurrent spaces. However, literary criticism takes this topical approach rather rarely, at least with a systematic aim. The place-object is thus both a usual object of literary representation (object in the figurative sense) and a familiar place in daily life that the reader (the writer or critic) appropriates through practice (object in the metaphorical sense). Not just any place represented in literature is therefore a place-object insofar as a place-object enjoys a singular symbolic, semiological, intertextual and historical investment that puts it in an almost generic position as a matrix.

At a time, from the 1820s to the 1840s, when literary practices evolved fast, knowing where literature was practiced can help better apprehend the notion of the place-object. From the point of view of the literaturnyj byt, the three decades saw several important changes: society salons lost their precedence in determining literary taste and were replaced both by literary salons and evenings and, in other social milieus, by circles (like Belinskij-Stankevič). Meanwhile, the novel gained many new readers in its rise, including from outside the categories that traditionally had libraries, and new places emerged for reading and socialization – Smirdin’s library-bookshop on Nevsky Prospekt is but the most famous example. Insofar as these practices and their venues are represented in literature, it is legitimate to consider them from a literary perspective. However, the widening readership, the increasing number of new places of reading, and the transition from an economic model dominated by patronage to another, led by the publishers of the “great magazines” and more directly part of a market economy, have already been studied at length.[1] I propose a more restricted subject, that has also been addressed less often: places of reading. The places where literature is produced are also very well and very often represented in texts, and some are in themselves place-objects, but including them here would add nothing to what I have to say. I would like to approach the specificity of the representations of the new individual, indoor reading practices[2] through the treatment of the spaces where they took place. My hypothesis is that changing practices and readership corresponded to a transgressive representation of reading in places of which appropriation is problematic.

Rather than drawing up a long, fastidious inventory of doubtful use, I will seek to classify these place-objects on the basis of their various characteristics, such as private or public places, feminine, masculine or mixed spaces, socially homogeneous or heterogeneous spaces, open and closed places, and places specifically dedicated to reading or, on the contrary, literary only when used as such when literary events are held. A few preliminary remarks are however needed. Firstly, reading in non-“noble” spaces is less well documented for the period of interest, as is its representation in fiction. We will therefore see fewer readers in the shared rooms of modest homes, inns and taverns, in the девичья of noble houses and in the светлица of peasant homes than in private libraries, bookshops, salons, windows, boudoirs, “corners” or studies. Moreover, I have focused on certain examples that stress the reflexive dimension of the situation depicted as, in general, the whole period is distinguished by a greater tendency of authors to write the process of reading, its terms and their own judgments and didactic comments on the matter into the very text of their works, which themselves then become place-objects. Lastly, my selection of excerpts obviously remains subjective, although I have sought to cover a wide selection, ranging from famous texts through to bibliographical rarities, in order to document a phenomenon without limiting myself to the literary “canon”. Even so, the subject remains vast, and this study therefore seeks only to present a few examples of place-objects of individual reading in order to lay some foundations.

At the very beginning of the 1820s, what seems to be an epigone, entitled A Sentimental Journey on Nevsky Prospect (“Чувствительное путешествие по Невскому проспекту”) was published anonymously in the magazine The Well-Meant (“Благонамеренный”). Its author parodies a sentimental tour in which its character visits all the literary places of the avenue: two tea-rooms (лавка Лареды and кандитерская [sic] лавка Амбиеля) where he can listen to and observe other customers at leisure while hiding beyond the latest issue of a magazine or newspaper; his Club (Большое Танцевальное Собрание) where there is a “newspaper” room (газетная), which attracts men of all ages seeking to escape the decorum of the city’s society evenings; and a bookshop (книжная лавка) which is at the same time a place to shop, to meet and to read. The narrator encounters strange individuals who skim collections and copy out passages for their own research, or who note down factual mistakes in Russian novels. Once more, he himself merely hides behind a newspaper to better observe others, less occupied by reading than by his sociological curiosity. The narrator also visits other places: a tavern (кухмистерский стол), where he listens to a group of mercenary literary critics share out their roles in the coming campaign to support a publication by one of their own; and the salon of one of his friends, where he reads out his newly written sentimental journey, that nobody listens to or understands but that, following the example of the lady of the house, everybody showers with praise.

Pavel Jakovlev, the author of this ironic journey, thus shows that Nevsky Prospekt has become the new centre of the capital’s literary activity, at the cost of a domination of appearances and of commercial or personal interests, in both professional criticism and in criticism within a circle of friends. Indeed, one of the striking aspects of the representation of reading in the text is that it is done openly in public, in the window of a tea room or the public room of a bookshop. The display of customers reading “in the window” of a tea room or bookshop no doubt serves as a commercial argument, a sort of encouragement to consume: publicity in the modern sense. It is also very significant that the narrator immediately gives up on leading his reader to the place dedicated to reading par excellence on Nevsky Prospekt, the imperial library: it is a place where reading is a serious activity and an end in itself. It is not suited to “sentimental” exploitation under the narrator’s ironic criteria, as it can serve only to highlight the “touching” personality, “noble” sentiments or “romantic” appearance of the reader-character. Moreover, the few texts genuinely read in these places are newspaper articles and novels (except the two cases of oral readings), but they are not read for their own sake, for aesthetic pleasure or from thirst for knowledge: they serve as a pretext and a screen, aligned with the physical positions of the readers. Whether they are behind a window giving directly onto the street, right in the middle of the shared room of the Club, or in a corner of the bookshop, the readers show themselves in a situation where they can hide nothing: neither the nature of what they read, nor their reactions, nor their silent manner of reading, nor their physical position. In this reign of transparency that announces the “century of windows”,[3] readers must therefore find strategies to preserve their own privacy and only show what they are aware of. While Nevsky Prospekt was therefore truly the literary centre of the capital, that came at the price of a transformation of literary activities in the sense of showing and appearances.

The second milestone in this tour of places of reading is Eugene Onegin’s library, visited by Tatyana in chapter 7. The opposition with the places of reading in A Sentimental Journey on Nevsky Prospekt is total. This is not only a visit to a private place, but a discovery of the character’s private life: this study with chosen objects (the portrait of Lord Byron, the selection of books that Tatyana initially finds strange) is a sort of outer layer and integral part of the character. That said, as elements of his personality that he projects outwards, this picture, this library (and the iron figure) are clues deliberately set out by the character to display his social status, and by the narrator to illustrate his role as a Byronian dandy. Other aspects of this place-object indicate that the characters do not necessarily read sitting, but also lying down: serious, pragmatic reading takes place at the desk with its lamp, even if it is dark in Onegin’s absence. But reading for pleasure, as practiced by Tatyana, takes place in the resting bed, covered with a carpet and placed under the window. That allows Tatyana to alternate between reading and dreaming, her glance drifting between the close book (the intimacy she forges mentally with Onegin through his notes in the margins of the books) and the distant horizon (the real position of Onegin as she reads). That is no doubt why the narrator concludes that a new world opens before her when she starts to read Onegin’s books. This private place of reading has a particularly important place in the repertoire of place-objects because it combines the divergent characteristics of opposing spaces: initially, it is a space dedicated to intellectual work, a wholly masculine space in which the character has invested emotionally through the care he has paid in its decoration. Yet Tatyana enters in the absence of the library’s owner, giving her transgression an erotic nature, as she thus enters the hidden private life of the man she loves and admires. If, in sentimentalism, the exchange of books between young people is used as a code within the language of love, here, on the contrary, love is unilateral and the secret reading of Onegin’s books is a transgression that makes Tatyana role that of a voyeur. Moreover, this room is actually a double space, both study and library, and therefore a place of reading; and Tatyana, while she is no doubt interested in the contents of the desk, chooses the least gendered space: the reading bed placed under the window. That position both accentuates the erotic dimension of the act of reading (the bed) and updates the image of Tatyana as a romantic dreamer (at the window), making the image a real painting, as demonstrated by the abundant illustrations of this particular scene.

One of the texts contributed to Housewarming (“Новоселье”) by Osip Senkovsky in 1833 for the inauguration of Alexander Smirdin’s new bookshop and library on Nevsky Prospekt is called The Stranger (“Незнакомка”). The story’s heroine, a Russian satire from the time of Peter I, narrates her own destiny from birth through to the text’s publication, which also involves detailing the forms in which she circulated and the spaces she passed through. She spent six years in the entrance to a great lord’s palace, in the hands of the house’s servants and visitors waiting to be received by the lord. She was placed on the window sill, between a bottle of kvas and a candlestick, as a commodity and accessory of daily life. She felt more appreciated there, among those readers who included nobles, commoners and servants, than throughout her earlier life, until she was closed away in a private library by a collector then, thanks to friends who borrowed her to copy passages then forgot to return her to her owner, lived a nomadic life for forty years, taking her everywhere, from palaces to stables, from kitchens to academies. Her journey ended in a “Library for Reading”, one of those new lending libraries that took off in Russia from the 1820s. By means of metalepsis, a favoured technique of Senkovsky, the character-narrator introduces the reader to the place that gave its name to the publication that ran the story: in the space of the fiction, the narrator opens the door to Smirdin’s library but, in the (both fictional and tangible) space opened by the reading, we find ourselves thrust into the very anthology itself where the text we read is found. The “Library for Reading” thus becomes a place-object in itself, simultaneously fictional, tangible and at the frontier between the two.[4] The reader enters the bookshop not as a human character and potential customer of Smirdin, but through books: meaning by adopting the opposite perspective, that of the objects to be acquired and the goods on sale. Potential customers are many and varied: lords and servants, men and women, soldiers and civilians, the old and the young, the well-read and the uncultivated, those with or without shopping lists, with or without money. From this reversed perspective, the objects appear inert during the day, but live their own life during the night and, following a story of this type of night, the heroine ends her text by recording, as in a stenographic transcription, all the words the books might hear over the course of a day.

The places of reading depicted in this story by Senkovsky cover diverse physical, sociological and temporal spaces. At two points in the narration, spaces are stressed in which the heroine felt the joy of being read, appreciated and recognized as useful and true to reality: in the entrance to the great lord’s house (where she was pleased to serve to ridicule him in the eyes of his visitors) and at Smirdin’s (where she might complain of her forced companionship with “bandits” and “captives”). The nature of this story in the first person, somewhere between a fiction and a testimonial, makes it a hybrid object to be handled with caution when it comes to historical reality. That said, it does provide historical and sociological depth of field for our study of place-objects of reading, a reminder that waiting rooms where pleasurable things are read to pass time are not an invention of the 20th century. After 1827, if our heroine is to be believed, novels became better and more widely accepted in society, taking the place satire held during the previous century (she dates its arrival in the “library for reading” to the 1780s).

To conclude our study, I will add one last, well-known text to our corpus. At the beginning of Dead Souls, the narrator describes the habits of hero Chichikov’s servants, and particularly Petrushka, the valet, who has a noble interest in reading – not that he cares what his readings contain. What fascinates him is the process transforming letters into words, of which he often does not know the meaning. Yet this mysterious process, which flatters Petrushka’s ego by putting him in the position of a modern wizard, requires him to be lying down. Most often, therefore, Petrushka lies in the entrance, either on his camp bed or on a tjufjak (тюфяк), a large mattress used by nomads, that his usage has flattened like a pancake. Given that Chichikov travels constantly and that Petrushka has the particularity of carrying an incredibly strong odour with him wherever he goes, it could almost be said that Petrushka thus creates a domestic universe of his own around him, wherever he is, with which he can travel anywhere. This place-object cannot be reduced to a simple object of furniture, as the olfactory dimension must be included. Moreover, the object’s eminently nomadic and transportable nature is an essential quality. In that, it differs from Oblomov’s sofa in that the latter is absolutely immobile and is only occasionally used for reading. However, the magical, mysterious and (al)chemical dimension of the processes of reading is a sort of commonplace across a whole series of publications from the 1830s, like Senkovsky’s “The Transformation of Heads into Books and of Books into Heads” (“Превращение голов в книги и книг в головы”), published in 1839 in the first volume of the 100 Russian Literati (“Сто русских литераторов”), or Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky’s first collection, Motley Tales (“Пестрые сказки”), published between 1832 and 1833. That echoes the Prince’s contemporaries who described his study, in which he received men of letters. The Odoyevskys’ home was split into two distinct spaces during these “Saturdays”: the salon was dedicated to society guests, men and women with little interest in literature and science. Men of letters and science invited by the man of the house, without care for rank or even noblesse, first had to cross that room before reaching the “lion’s den” or “Faust’s study”: Odoyevsky’s work space. Great attention was paid to the setting, the decoration and the details, something clear from the memoirists’ descriptions. They note original tables with secret cavities and shelves, books everywhere, including on the floor, and more surprising objects like skulls, vials and retorts. It goes without saying that Odoyevsky played on these collections and his image as a modern wizard (even appearing before his guests dressed as a medieval astrologer, right down to the pointed hat), while having a genuine interest in the occult and alchemy in particular. Such a study, a sort of distorted echo of Onegin’s, placed his contemporaries before a deliberately studied image of himself, one made for public representation.

These few representations of places of reading, despite their heterogeneity, emphasize the potentially public nature of the activity of reading, as such introducing a regime of appearances where it is apparently least expected. Here, reading is practiced in public places which, on the one hand, subject it to the optical regime of transparency, leading in turn to a drift from active individual reading to the social pretext of the newspaper as a screen, while on the other, producing specific strategies to deflect the gaze of others (Petrushka’s olfactory universe) or at least present a facade satisfying one’s voyeuristic compulsions (Odoyevsky’s Faust’s study, Onegin’s Byronian objects). These representations forge place-objects of reading of a new kind, raising the question of the ambiguity of outward transparency and the ambition of making an individual activity public for, lest we forget, the place-objects in which newspapers and satire (social reading) are read, and the behaviour of the readers, should have nothing in common with the place-objects where novels or, better still, works which do not constitute leisure, are read. By bringing together these two types of places of reading and establishing a new sort of reading paradigm, the texts analysed enable us to envisage the literary appropriation of a contemporary sociological phenomenon which in return influenced the themes of the works produced.

Place-objects of Russian culture: patriarchal versus matriarchal heritage

Catherine Géry – INALCO

My comparative presentation of two collective works, the first volume of Les Sites de la mémoire russe (Sites of Russian Memory), edited by Georges Nivat (2007)[5] and Russia – Women – Culture, edited by Helena Goscilo and Beth Holmgren (1996)[6] is part of the reflection we have launched into place-objects and object-places in the Russian literature of the 19th century, which saw intense reconfiguration of material culture from the 1830s. These object-places wink to the object-times conceptualized by Marta Caraion,[7] and our approach’s methodology overlaps with that of sociological criticism: it considers the object and its uses from perspectives within and without the text or, in other words, links the sociology of literature to the study of categories of the imagination. In this paper I will focus on the object-places that make up the cultural field, and above all the field’s memory. The issue of historiography and its processes of symbolic museumification will be central to my presentation. As for the cultural field itself, it should be understood here in the wider sense as the systems of symbolic representation and, more anthropologically, the modes and places of life and creation.

We will address two diverging discursive constructions around object-places: a “patriarchal” and “heritage” discourse (that of the work edited by Georges Nivat, in which the mapping of Russian memorial geography aims above all to highlight the transhistorical characteristics that contribute to shaping and perpetuating the national culture) and a “matriarchal” and “deconstructive” discourse, that of Helena Goscilo and Beth Holmgren, which supposes that the introduction of place-objects of so-called “feminine” culture into the great narrative of Russian culture, one largely considered through the prism of literature, cannot be achieved while leaving intact the categories, hierarchies and tools of existing historical narratives. The aim here is to make the concepts of the historical narrative respond by introducing them into new contexts.

Lastly, in this presentation I will return to the architectural metaphor of the building used by Goscilo and Holmgren, whereby Russian culture is considered as a museum or a family house with rooms with multiple functions that are not always clearly identified or differentiated.

I will now start this presentation with a few observations that came to me in reading the copious and very erudite preface Georges Nivat wrote to Les Sites de la mémoire russe, in which he sets out his “geography” of that memory at length. The first objects mentioned by Nivat are Palekh’s famous lacquer boxes, as object-signs of the creation and transmission of the national consciousness. Despite this opening reference with its overtones of tradition and folk crafts, Georges Nivat is also driven by a care for modernity, mentioning in his preface both the Internet (the term “sites” in the title is a direct reference to it) and to the inevitable Pierre Nora and his “places of memory”. But while Pierre Nora sought to explore the heterogeneity of memories and the objects that embody them (speaking of Frances, in the plural), Les Sites de la mémoire russe aims to bring about a unity that is always problematic in the case of a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional and multi-lingual empire. We will see that in this attempt to map a homogeneous national territory of memory, the work will exclude a large number of components (places and objects) that make up the territory’s diversity. It presents as yet another attempt to reduce the multiple down to the singular and yet another quest to identify the cultural and spiritual foundations of the Russian space. The equivalent of the conflicts of memory and of places of memory that are to be seen in the European postcolonial space, for example, are not to be found in Les Sites de la mémoire russe. To come back to Pierre Nora, his devastating 2017 article on L’Histoire mondiale de la France by Patrick Boucheron[8] should not distract us from the fact that what brought us Lieux de mémoire was, as I have already said, the variety of approaches and the many uses of memory. It is also rigorous historicization and even deconstruction of the phenomena that have made from diverse fragments a homogeneous composition in space and time, cemented by globalizing structures (the Republic, the Nation and their attributes).

That is why Georges Nivat’s use of Pierre Nora in his preface did, on occasion, remind me of how Soviet researchers would refer to Marx and Lenin in their work, to then develop, safely behind their ideological shield, theories a far cry from the principles of historical materialism. We all use our shields, of course, be they ideological or conceptual. Mine is provided by Marta Caraion in her recent Comment la littérature pense les objets (How Literature Conceives Objects).

In Les Sites de la mémoire russe, Georges Nivat and his colleagues see object-places as object-times, to borrow the words of Marta Caraion, meaning a means “to communicate memory and pass it on, [… a means] to restore to the past, reactivated subjectively, the objectivity and sensation of the present” (p. 14). Without going into the details of the terms of this process of subjectivation/objectivation, we will note that the object-time is an eminently mythopoeic object (it produces fables and narration). To further cite Marta Caraion, once it “has a memorial function, the object is […] withdrawn from the utilitarian circuit […] to be no more than the trace of a bygone past and the spark of a retrospective narration” (p. 29). But what type of story and narrative construction do we have here? What is the story told by the place-objects in Les Sites de la mémoire russe? With a few rare exceptions, it is clear that we have here an institutional history underpinned with collective emotions, as the great institutions that, as Nivat puts it, “forged Russian memory scientifically” (p. 48), on the one hand, and the places from which essentially patriotic feeling is passed on, on the other, are favoured.

With a view to a history that is both institutional and patriotic/heritagized, the venue par excellence for object-times and memorial objects is the museum. Russian museums, and particularly the literary museums which we all know well, are traditionally built around cultural “great objects” – honouring the memory of a “great man” or presenting “little” material objects for the curiosity of visitors – objects which, in the orbit of the great man, have become both fetishes and relics, maintaining the illusion of a physical and emotional link with the past. Pushkin’s sofa is an excellent example of this retrospective consciousness that can be rather morbid.

But museums, as we know, are generally not the most democratic places, any more than Les Sites de la mémoire russe, a book (or object) that I would unhesitatingly describe as a “museum of cultural monuments”. For the most part, these are “spiritual” monuments, more specifically attached to the Orthodox religion, the weight of which is literally crushing in the work. More than 100 pages discuss churches, monasteries, religious schools and other ecclesiastical establishments, in addition to 27 more pages in chapters on “Russian necropolises” and the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois “Russian Cemetery” in the part on “places for walking and memory”. Some 20 pages are dedicated to “pagan memory” (title of a chapter), with no link made between the places and objects of this pagan memory and those of Orthodox memory. Cities and museums hold second place in terms of volume, and the only museums or literary museums to be graced with a chapter to themselves are of course “Pushkinian places”, thanks to the symbolic centrality of Pushkin as the national totem and emblem since the beginnings of Russian literary historiography in the second half of the 19th century. As a “place of memory apart”, Siberia occupies 16 pages but, contrary to what the title might suggest, the Gulag is mentioned only once (an omission partly corrected in the second volume). A “memory of Russian arms”, which is fascinating but absolutely in-line with official history, occupies 33 pages. Some 50 pages discuss places of memory of nobility, but those of revolutionary memory are almost totally ignored, with only scarce references scattered across parts that are not specifically dedicated to them. “Places of teaching” (64 pages), “places of reading” (46 pages) and “places of spectacle” (essentially theatres; 26 pages) form a last theme centred on intellectual culture. Lastly, the conclusion is dedicated to “Russia from abroad”, forged from a Russian memory in the singular (only “Russian Prague” has its own chapter).

This patchy cartography presents a series of deliberate and/or involuntary omissions, in a sort of justification after the fact of the preface’s title: “Russian memory, Russian forgetting” (the title could not have been better chosen). Here, places of memory are also lapses of memory, and the work suffers as many omissions as those it condemns precisely as the result of a Soviet rupture in the transmission of memory and “historical uprooting” that the pressure of contemporary memory seeks to repair.

Of course, all historical narratives have a legitimacy of sorts, but while the role of historians is to configure and tell them, must they not also and above all clearly set out the processes of configuration and narration they apply? At no point, however, does the work clearly or sufficiently convincingly set out its selection system, although it is not difficult to see that the many deliberate omissions, and overly stressed points, differ little from those of Russian official memory as it has been (re)constructed over more than two decades now, in all its complexity. As I have already noted, they are also the marks of an ahistorical memory, taken out of the context of historical time, formed around a rather abstract notion: Russian identity, a contemporary substitute for the “Russian idea” of the 19th century, functioning similarly by enshrining a series of invariables (the word “identity” appears moreover many times in the preface by Georges Nivat, who notes two main vectors: land(scape) and language).

In its very terminology, the work repeatedly exalts the stereotypes of this identity, with each page carrying generalizations like “Russia, a country with a rich historic past” (p. 270) or “the passionate attachment of Russians to their writers” (p. 275). The object-place, now an object-time, is therefore also a fully-fledged object-sign: the materialization of an intellectual construction or, as Marta Caraion says, “the living mental representation of a reality that is forever absent” (p. 14), fuelling both desire and melancholy in a process of unending grief that sometimes is expressed in long lamentation (see the chapter on country houses, many of which were burnt down in 1917, or, in the preface, the list of Soviet depravations, eradications and destructions). Implicitely, the work therefore raises a question which appears important: in Russia, what is part of a heritage consciousness, and what is nostalgia?

In Les Sites de la mémoire russe, the “Russian cultural home” is therefore a museum to maintain and safeguard the intangible and immemorial values of a certain Russia. Lastly, the work illustrates that women are very much absent from the heritage narrative and the processes that produce heritage objects.

Russia – Women – Culture, edited by Helena Goscilo and Beth Holmgren, is as far as one can get from the conservatory or museum: here, the aim is not to conjure up and transmit a memory linked essentially to rituals of sovereignty and to give object-places a symbolic and emotional overload that, paradoxically, dematerializes them. Rather, the work seeks to tell us of objects and places neglected by memory and disqualified by literature, while breaking down the hierarchy of cultural values. I happened to discover these two works at about the same time, which gave me the idea of making a comparative presentation, especially as Russia – Women – Culture received only very limited attention in France.

Its authors seek to “widen the lens”, as they put it, to analyse Russian culture through object-places that have been on the very edges of our sightline. Here, Russian culture is not represented as a “museum of cultural monuments”, but rather as an amorphous, intricate, many-layered and much-lived-in place, a rambling house of countless private and public rooms with limitless street access” (p. ix), as opposed to the wide, single entrance to the interior of a museum.

From their perspective, “all the spaces of this house are vital to the making of Russian culture: the boudoir, bath, linen closet, kitchen, pantry, garden, and even the overdecorated parlor are invested with the same creative potential as the poet’s garret and the ‘master’s’ book-lined library” (p.ix-x). The images invariably associated with these various object-places (the poet’s garret on the one hand and the toilets on the other, or the library and the kitchen garden) form a striking contrast, with a whole range of stereotypical representations: the noble versus the trivial, creativity versus domesticity and dignity versus indignity – heritagization being the key path of an object’s accession to dignity.

The aim of the materialist approach, understood in the sense of the cultural materialism of Raymond Williams (meaning the materialist analysis of symbolic objects)[9] in the cross-disciplinary and horizontal work of Helena Goscilo and Beth Holmgren, which gives the marginalized spaces of the cultural “home” their full place, is to prove that women have never been “behind, but always on the [material] stage of Russian culture” (p. ix).

The work offers an expanded definition of Russian critical approaches and socio-cultural and socio-literary practices in the 19th century, when literature was considered by many as an extension of life and a form of “service” to society (I have in mind here the notion of literature as “unofficial government” as proposed in 2018 by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman and Stephanie Sandler in A History of Russian Literature[10]). It is the very issue of social experience and the places or objects of that experience, which we know is essential for 19th century Russian literature, that is reexamined here through the introduction in the literary field of the topoi of the “feminine” space. This experience-defined space appears necessarily more limited (above all more informed and more intricate), as the independence of women was itself more limited. But highlighting another type of place and other places of experience is a path often taken by researchers working on women, either in Russia or elsewhere. Catriona Kelly and Stephanie Sandler, moreover, have shown in their work that, contrary to received ideas, writing was often, for 19th century women, a means of addressing socio-political issues, and that they took part, like their male counterparts, in drawing up a performative conception of writing as a moral and social action (Geogesandism, emancipation, etc.). Above all, the very considerable place afforded to the byt in women’s writing, including in poetry, was a way of acting in the social field (that said, why should poetry be free of the objects of daily life? One need only consider the enumerations throughout Eugene Onegin). The expansion and reassessment via women of the notion of social engagement in the 19th century went hand-in-hand with a sort of positive resemanticization or resignification, with new value given to cultural places attributed to women. Resignification is also a widely-used tool in gender studies. It is a means of overcoming the issue that, in most contexts, the feminine gender not only refers to an absence of symbolic capital, but actually represents a negative symbolic capital (Pierre Bourdieu).

In the context of 19th century culture, that of the ideology of separate spheres, this resignification is of course more than necessary. But it is also relevant for the epistemology of the Soviet 20th century. While Russian formalists and then semioticians drew up a genuine “poetics of daily behaviour”, and while they paid full attention to the meaningful materiality of the literaturnyj byt and to object-signs as organic extensions of the successive states and codes of culture (think of Juri Lotman and his anthropologization of the text of culture), their andro-centric conception of facts, experiences and behaviours often led them to consider matters only from the male perspective. The same applies to Aleksander Chudakov, said to be “fascinated by materiality”, in his work Слово – вещь – мир: от Пушкина до Толстого[11]. As Beth Holmgren and Helena Goscilo put it in their introduction, while Russian research has looked at the poet in his home, it has failed to look at the cook in her kitchen.

Russia – Women – Culture therefore invites us to explore the Russian cultural “home” in an unprecedented way (or at least unprecedented at the end of the 20th century) which, while segregationist and not exhaustive, clearly sets out its selection criteria. The contributors analyse the various types of female creativity (cultural creations, performances, collaborative exchanges) through various objects (textiles, private albums, literary productions, etc.) and in various spaces, ranging from the bathroom to the ballroom to literary salons, pantries and kitchens and, in the Soviet period, from beauty salons and hairdressers to camps and prisons, and to the queues in front of food shops.

In addition to desanctifying the cultural space by restoring a materiality that bridges the gap between the reality of practices and the memory handed down to us, the place-objects in Russia – Women – Culture are functional in the Barthesian sense of the term (the object is a function of culture, just as the author is a function of literature): more than just objects signifying cultural permanence, as is the case in Les Sites de la mémoire russe, these are performative object-functions subject to variability: objects with great creative potential and drivers of action which also push us to “examine the subject-object relationship as being genuinely reciprocal in its effects” (Caraion, p. 15).

One of the great merits of this approach is of course that it breaks down walls between cultural categories (to extend the “home” metaphor) and dismantles hierarchies, in the wake of gender studies, cultural studies and the “material turn” that remain so little and so poorly represented in French Slavistics, 25 years on from the publication of Russia – Women – Culture.

Objects in the 1937 Pouchkine et son époque exhibition in Paris

Anastasia Kozyreva (Inalco)

The 1937 Pouchkine et son époque (Pushkin and His Time) exhibition held in Paris by ballet dancer Serge Lifar to celebrate the centenary of Alexander Pushkin’s death had, according to its guide, two goals: “throwing a little light on the genius [of Pushkin] and on his time, and […] making them closer and more accessible” (Lifar, 1937, p. 9). However, the organization of the exhibition, centred on objects – relics of the “Pushkinian era” – seems to have produced the opposite effect: the sanctification of objects supposed to represent the poet objectified him, consolidating his memory in a way that allows no active dialogue with his work.

            The essentially memorial and conservative nature of Lifar’s exhibition showed through in two ways: the discourse around the exhibition and its scenography. The discourse around the exhibition was marked by a vocabulary tied in with both Christianity and classical mythology. In the foreword to the exhibition guide, Serge Lifar wrote:

Religion is a formal exteriorization of this supreme instant. Each of us has his god and his idols, and that is why they are so many. Around God – alone and invisible – man erects a whole Pantheon of divinities. […] No-one has created so many gods as the Greeks, the wisest of the wise. The most beautiful, the fairest, the most luminous of Olympus is Apollo, leader of the ethereal Muses, Musagete protector of the Arts. Russia has its God, its Apollo: Pushkin who, more inspired than any other, has impassioned the hearts of the people. I venerate Pushkin, the leader of my life. […] More and more generations are impassioned by Pushkin and we are overjoyed to see that our faith has spread across the Universe. Thanks to Pushkin, the Russians have their Parnassianism. (Lifar, 1937, p. 7)

The comparison of Pushkin with Apollo and Greek gods is significant, for this is a matter of cult and adoration. Moreover, in his book My Pushkinian Across the Border [Моя зарубежная пушкиниана], Serge Lifar himself claims to “serve the cult of Pushkin with all [his] soul” (Lifar, 1966, p. 152). Further into the foreword to the exhibition guide, written by Lifar with Modeste Hoffman, expressions including “divine lines”, “resurrection of Pushkin and his time” and “relics” are to be found, referring to the exhibition’s objects. This vocabulary contributes not only to the processes launched since the second half of the 19th century to sanctify the figure of Pushkin, but also to revealing the lost paradise that “Pushkin’s time” represented for Russian émigrés.

            Several categories can be distinguished among the exhibits: the first, objects concerning Pushkin directly and indirectly (manuscripts, editions of some of his works, his passports, a pair of pistols probably used in the 1837 duel, portraits of members of his family, landscapes depicting places Pushkin had visited and “sung” in his work, and portraits of his “masters and inspirations”); the second, artworks created on the eve of and during the “Pushkinian era”, including works by Vladimir Borovikovsky, Karl Bryullov, Alexey Venetsianov and Orest Kiprensky; and the third, everyday objects which, according to the organizers, “recreate[d] the atmosphere of the time”, such as almanachs, porcelain, glassware, shawls and furniture. These “object-times” underwent a remarkable metamorphosis as to their function, artistic value and role in the exhibition. Exhibited as “relics”, they acted as what Marta Caraion calls “medium[s] of a history”. They were “defunctionalized and decontextualized, but enriched with a strong meaning, transcending the limits of [their] own existence” (Caraion, 2007, p. 15). Karl Bryullov’s Portrait of Countess Samoilova and the “charming draped curtains” are seen in the same way, as their function in the exhibition is the same: introducing the spectator to the “artistic atmosphere of the time” and “giving the appearance of a celebration” (Hoffman, 1937, p. 115). Similarly, the poet’s manuscripts are exhibited as testimony to his existence rather than as objects of real study. The exhibits are made equal in the context of the idealization of the period presented at the exhibition: “Pushkin’s era is characterized by perfect, impeccable taste, a genuine cult of beauty that made everything it touched a work of art, even a table or a chair. And at the same time, nothing transports us better into the atmosphere of the time than these porcelain figurines that sometimes recreate complete scenes from the life of the time” (Lifar, 1937, p. 14). The main characteristic of all the exhibits that Lifar highlights in his words is that they are bearers of memory and “materialize an abstraction” (Caraion, p. 14) of the idealized past and poet.

            Marta Caraion also notes the “object of individual memory” which is “both a fetish and a relic: it substitutes for the lost being, giving their absence the form of a presence” (Caraion, p. 15). A pair of pistols displayed at the exhibition is a perfect illustration:

These are the pistols used in the duel where Pushkin was to meet his end. They lie in their box, horrible to see. Everything is there – the two pistols, loading rod, hammer, powder flask, still filled with the same powder, and large lead bullets… […] These pistols were lent by the son of Count de Barante, Ambassador of France to Russia, to l’Archiac, second to d’Anthès in the fateful duel. Another pair of pistols, which are in Russia, was brought by Danzas, Pushkin’s second. It is impossible to say for certain which of these two pairs was used in the duel. However, one can state that Pushkin held one of the weapons exhibited here… (Lifar, p. 28).

In this narrative, whether or not the pistols exhibited were used in the duel is of little importance, and such a possibility even horrified Modeste Hoffman. What is important is that Pushkin probably held one of them in his hands – the main value this fact lies in its testifying to the poet’s existence. Here, as Marta Caraion says, “the object fills a gap, distracts attention and stands in for the person of which it is a souvenir, while signifying the irreparable loss. It helps sustain a constant grief […] that physically prolongs the existence of the lost being through the material objects he knew intimately” (Caraion, p. 15). The exhibits perpetuated the grief not only for Pushkin and the time in which he lived, but also for the Russia Lifar and other émigrés left in the early 20th century. Grief here is a conservation process that seeks to immortalize lost beings and things.

Lifar’s words on the translation of Pushkin’s works provide another example of the aim of conserving rather than studying: “Living abroad, I have observed that here, the name of Pushkin is far from being surrounded by the same radiating aura that it has in Russia and that it deserves. The main reason for that is the limited knowledge on the part of foreign society of the true greatness of Pushkin, caused in turn by the insurmountable difficulty of translating the power and charm of Pushkinian poetry into a foreign language” (Lifar, 1966, p. 23). Lifar’s ambition, as expressed through his exhibition and in his writing, thus aimed to impose Pushkin’s authority in a society which, according to Lifar himself, did not have access to his texts.

This activity of commemoration, “resurrection” and celebration of Alexander Pushkin and of the period (“the lost paradise”) in which he lived appears correlated with what Svetlana Boym described as “restorative nostalgia” (Boym, 2001). Boym wrote that restorative nostalgia was expressed not as a nostalgia as such, but as a tradition, attempting a “transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home” (Boym, p. xviii). Reviving the “Pushkinian era”, described by Lifar as “the most beautiful, the most pure, the most miraculous page of all Russian history” (Lifar, 1937, p. 10) comes down in the mind of the author to reviving Russia. Such revival is both spatial – rebuilding abroad the Russia whose territory Russian émigrés had to leave – and temporal: the exhibition attempts through objects to reconstruct an imagined fantasy Russia from before the Bolshevik revolution.

            The exhibition’s double aim is thus overturned: rather than “throwing a little light on the genius and on his time”, its scenography created a temple dedicated to the “divinity of Pushkin”. Pushkin as represented by objects is himself objectified as the exhibition allows no dialogue with his writing. Consequently, the exhibition’s second aim, of making “making [Pushkin and “his time”] closer and more accessible” was compromised: idolizing the poet inevitably distances him from the process of active reception, which can only be achieved through the reading of his work.


Yermolova and Komissarzhevskaya, the Russian stage’s two Joan of Arcs in the late 19th century

Lucie Kempf (Université de Lorraine)

What is Joan d’Arc doing in a seminar on 19th century Russian literature? Quite simply, by the end of that period, she had without a doubt become a Russian heroine.

That is less surprising than it might seem on the face of things, as the figure of Joan of Arc had generated genuine enthusiasm well beyond France’s borders by the early 19th century. There was something mythical about her fabulous destiny: a peasant who galvanized a king, a woman who fought at the head of an army of men, and a laywoman who prophesized. The character could be interpreted in many ways. In France, she was seen both as the embodiment of the people and the nation, by Michelet for example, and as she who, by “driving the English out of France”, had protected the latter’s purity. This latter reading, far more rooted in identity, set in after the stinging defeat by Prussia in 1871 and during the Dreyfus affair. And beyond the frontiers of her native country, throughout that century in which nationalities awoke, Joan of Arc was a model of identification for societies in need of heroes. In other words, from one end of Europe to the other, the different peoples sought a “Joan” in a process to assert themselves as nations.

Theatre and then opera swiftly seized on this heroic figure. The great Friedrich Schiller opened the century in 1801 with The Maid of Orleans, a tragedy which proved immensely successful on most European stages for a good century. The play had a lot going for it: it was a genuine feat of bravery for the actress in the leading role, as the playwright took liberties with history: instead of dying at stake, Joan saves her king in a last battle, during which she is mortally wounded. The work was adopted on the musical stage, firstly with Verdi’s opera in 1845, then Tchaikovsky’s in 1881.

Many great actresses would play the character, in Schiller’s or in other versions. In 1890, for example, Sarah Bernhardt played Jules Barbier’s Joan at the playwrights’s Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, before assuming the role again 19 years later in another version, Émile Moreau’s The Trial of Joan of Arc. Russia was no exception from this theatre trend, although the young French warrior-woman was of course not perceived in the same way as in Paris. Joan had become a heroic model in female form, embodied by stars.

The pre-eminence of actresses on European stages in the late 19th century is another point I would like to stress: between 1870 and 1910, from the Atlantic to the Urals, a number of them achieved unprecedented fame, including Sarah Bernhardt in France, Eleonora Duse in Italy, and Maria Savina, Polina Strepetova, Maria Yermolova and Vera Komissarzhevskaya in Russia.[12] It appears clear that this “star” phenomenon around these artists is a common thread that can be used to apprehend some of the specificities of the period. In this respect, Komissarzhevskaya is particularly interesting, as she embodied a time of transition in the history of Russian theatre. Her career was at once the completion and crystallization of a theatre tradition that made the actress a heroic model, and the defeat of that model, supplanted by the advent of symbolism through theatre where heroes lost their place.

My contribution will therefore be centred on the question of heroism, based firstly on a 2018 paper on “Jeanne (d’Arc), héroïne de la scène russe prérévolutionnaire[13] (Joan (of Arc), Heroine of the Pre-Revolutionary Russian Stage), and secondly on my thoughts on a collective work entitled Les héroïsmes de l’acteur au XIXe siècle[14] (The Heroisms of Actors in the 19th Century).

  1. The actress as a heroic model

In the second half of the 18th century, Western culture was clutched by a two-fold phenomenon. Firstly, the advent and swift rise of celebrity as a social phenomenon linked at the same time to urbanization, the development of the media and the gradual emergence of mass culture.[15] In this respect, theatre played a key role in the late 18th century as the “principle arena of the new culture of celebrity, in which actors and actresses were, despite their lack of social standing, the leading protagonists.”[16] The term “star” was born long before cinema, referring to the stars of the stage in 18th century England.[17]

Secondly, the 19th century saw a profound shift in the heroes chosen by Western societies: while, before the French Revolution, they embodied aristocratic and warrior roles, they would be democratized from the late 18th century, with military virtues gradually supplanted by individual sacrifice for a cause. This phenomenon would be fuelled and amplified in the first half of the century by the romantic myth of the creative genius. In this context, actors became the very model of the creative individual, as works of art themselves in the performance on the stage. Heroes thus went from life to the stage, and actors themselves were now often assimilated with the characters they played. The 19th century made heroes of its actors. In Russia, as in the West, society was “prepared to see modern-day heroes in its artists, and more specifically actors”.[18] In this respect, the phenomenon of actors’ funerals, which often attracted massive crowds, is striking: 80,000 people attended Talma’s funeral in France in 1810, and 100,000 Komissarzhevskaya’s in Russia 100 years later.

As the introduction to the book by Olivier Bara, Mireille Losco-Lena and Anne Pellois suggests, the 19th century saw a genuine transfer of sanctity: “in a society on the path of secularization, the sacred was thrust upon the figure of the actor and the profane art of theatre”, and actors and actresses became the “demi-gods of a society increasingly hungry for crystallizing figures”.[19]

Concerning Talma, Florence Filippi writes that this heroism of the actor is one “[…] of modernity distinguished no longer by glorious acts but by its sacrificial nature”.[20] In this cult of the public for its actors, a genuine heroism of vocation was seen: actors are great, because they are capable of sacrificing everything for their vocation, to make, ultimately, their own life their greatest work. This sacrificial dimension was particularly marked when it came to Komissarzhevskaya.

In the 19th century, actors – and actresses perhaps even more so – thus became the heroes of changing societies. The phenomenon did have a gendered dimension, which would become increasingly marked over the course of the second half of the century. The stage gave women unprecedented visibility, as their only opportunity to assert themselves in the public sphere. In the 1830s, ballerinas, female opera singers and actresses became the centre of genuine personality cults. European, then American cultural capitals fought over the most famous actresses by means of eye-watering contracts negotiated by impresarios. It should however be noted that while these actresses received more media attention than their male counterparts, that only applied in performance: women danced, sung and acted, but did not lead orchestras or direct stage productions. Between 1870 and 1910, there was however a golden age of “mythical actresses”, just before men took back the limelight with the triumph of stage directors.

If these women attracted so much public attention, that is no doubt because women’s emancipation was progressing across Western societies. In Russia, the “woman question”[21] became a major issue from the 1860s. As Catherine Schuler suggests in her work on Silver Age actresses,[22] the emancipation of serfs had by ricochet effectively raised the issue of that of women in a general context of challenges to patriarchal models. Theatre did, of course, mirror the air of the times, repeatedly creating increasingly provocative female characters who challenged the traditional vision of the family. It is in this context that Maria Yermolova and then Vera Komissarzhevskaya would make Joan of Arc the ultimate female model of heroism in Russia.

  1. Maria Yermolova and Vera Komissarzhevskaya: play Joan, or become Joan?

We therefore propose to discuss two Russian Joan of Arcs, with two different sets of playwrights, actresses and scenic eras. The first version, Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, played by tragic actress Maria Yermolova, saw massive success in the aftermath of Tchaikovsky’s opera[23] and was played continuously for 18 years, from 1884 to 1902, whereas the second, Annenkova-Bernard’s Daughter of the People, would go down as an aborted project for actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya.

While both Yermolova and Komissarzhevskaya were acting giants in their own ways, the quality of the writing was very different. Schiller was a leading playwright with broad European renown, while Annenkova-Bernard’s writing reputation stretched no further than Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and would be irretrievably tarnished by Daughter of the People which essentially attracted ironic criticism.[24] It is however interesting to note that Yermolova stopped playing Joan in 1902, a few months after the publication of Annenkova-Bernard’s play which was dedicated to Komissarzhevskaya, suggesting that the Russian playwright had conceived her work as an update of the Schiller-Yermolova pair.

Both actresses were extremely keen to play the character and really fought to convince the management of their respective theatres to let them do so. While Komissarzhevskaya failed, Yermolova enjoyed a particularly receptive audience which immediately, unanimously and constantly acclaimed her throughout her 18 years playing Schiller’s Joan. However, the Russian context could not be further from that in which the playwright had created The Maid of Orleans: throughout the 19th century, Russia was one of the few European countries not to see an awakening of nationalities comparable to that of Germany at the beginning of the century. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that it was not the patriotic component, although it was very strong in Schiller’s work, that electrified Yermolova’s audience, and to consider Komissarzhevskaya to be the “Joan of Arc” of the Russian stage. In this context, how could the French heroine, a fantasy figure from another time and place, represent a heroic model for the spectators of pre-revolutionary Russia?

Yermolova / Schiller, a triumphant history (1884-1902)

Over the course of her long career, exclusively at Maly Theatre, Maria Yermolova played hundreds of different roles from the Russian and European repertoires. However, it was her tragic performances that most marked her contemporaries. To name but two, she played Laurencia in Fuente Ovejuna, by Lope de Vega, at her first benefit performance in 1879, and Joan in The Maid of Orleans, at her second in 1884. She imposed the latter work on the management of Maly Theatre, because she considered Joan to be “the most pure and luminous character in global history.”[25]

The play was a triumph and thrilled the audience, even though it had been staged in haste. The actors, especially those in supporting roles, barely knew their lines and gave underwhelming performances. For costumes and stage design, Yermolova and her colleagues had to make do with what they found in the wardrobes of the Bolshoi Theatre.[26] Yet against all odds, the play was popular with audiences and ran for almost two decades. Demand was such that, in 1893, performances moved to the Bolshoi, which could seat far more people than the Maly.

It is difficult to gain an idea of Yermolova’s acting, given that no recordings exist. Nor is that our purpose here. We will simply say that the play’s success was entirely due to the actress’s talent in tragic roles: her contralto voice was masterfully modulated, her body language was dynamic, she set the stage alight along with her partners and audience, and she contrasted the role’s heroic passages with periods when Joan was silent and thoughtful but nevertheless drew all eyes.

It is clear that, with Joan and her earlier major roles, Yermolova sought to incarnate a heroic figure. She had already done so in Fuente Ovejuna, where she played a young woman who was prepared to sacrifice her life for her convictions and refused to accept the established order. Indeed, Fuente Ovejuna is the name of a Spanish village whose inhabitants refuse to satisfy a prince’s caprices, notably first night rights; in the end, they kill him. When a commission charged with finding out the name of the killer tortures them one by one, they all reply: “Fuente Ovejuna”. Yermolova played Laurencia, a young woman whose impassioned speeches played a key role in triggering the villagers’ revolt.

In rebelling against the established order, both Laurencia and Joan embodied an ideal of faithfulness to themselves and to their own convictions. Both were ready to give their lives to do so, even if Lope de Vega’s play ended happily for the heroine. In other words, it was probably not so much the flamboyant patriotism of The Maid of Orleans that appealed to the actress and her audience, but Joan’s aspiration for freedom. The poem of an anonymous admirer, quoted by Sergei Durylin, one of Yermolova’s first biographers, is revealing in this regard:

Within us resonates your noble,

Your warlike call for freedom!


From the shadows and slavery of evil

You drive us, o liberator,

To the land of freedom and beauty![27]

Thus, when Schiller’s play travelled to Russia, there was a shift in emphasis: the motif of defending the homeland became almost secondary, while that of the individual rising up against an unfair order took centre stage. In the political context of a declining Tsarist regime, clinging harder than ever to its prerogatives and upholding the established order, the question of Joan’s moral conscience naturally struck a strong chord in the 1880s and 1890s, whether through Tchaikovsky’s opera or Schiller’s play starring Yermolova. Lev Tolstoy even compared Joan of Arc to Sophia Perovskaya, one of the instigators of the terrorist attack that cost Tsar Alexander II his life in 1881, three years before the premiere of The Maid of Orleans. In some ways, Joan of Arc evoked the young female militants who unhesitatingly turned to terrorism: whether on stage or in the streets, they were prepared to die for their convictions.

Both Joan and Laurencia were active characters, shaping rather than submitting to history and forging their own destiny. They were both “daughters of the people” – a people that they incarnated and transcended. It was precisely their popular origins that enabled them to mobilize and unite their fellow citizens against the enemy, whether the English or a corrupt prince. In Russia, where the populist movement of the 1870s had left a deep impression, this type of character could only please the public. Neither the Hundred Years’ War nor the conflict between the kings of Castile and Portugal were particularly important: what was essential was the people’s awareness of themselves and their power, through and thanks to these heroines.

In the case of Fuente Ovejuna, the Tsarist police were not fooled. They quickly realized that the enthusiasm of Yermolova’s public, most of whom were students, was inspired by the actress’s strong portrayal of Laurencia’s subversive power. They therefore swiftly stopped performances. Joan of Arc, meanwhile, escaped censorship, no doubt due to its patriotic dimension: the French heroine fought a foreign foe, while low-born Laurencia led an uprising of the people against the representatives of another social class.

Komissarzhevskaya and Annenkova-Bernard, a failed project

Komissarzhevskaya’s case was different: ultimately, she never played Joan of Arc, but was compared to her after her death by Mandelstam, who asked: “What did Komissarzhevskaya’s charm consist of? Why was she a guide, a sort of Joan of Arc?”[28] In the space of a decade, the heroic model had shifted from the character to the actress herself: while some of Yermolova’s contemporaries considered that she closely resembled the character of Joan of Arc,[29] none of them confused the two. However, Komissarzhevskaya was identified with her greatest roles throughout her career, as seen in an article comparing the performances of both actresses by the philosopher Stepun.[30] With Komissarzhevskaya, the heroine was the actress herself, and no longer just the character she played.

The overlapping dates are no less interesting: it was in 1901, the second-to-last year that Yermolova played Joan, that Annenkova-Bernard wrote Daughter of the People, which she dedicated to Komissarzhevskaya in the hope that the actress would make the role. Komissarzhevskaya was enthusiastic about the text, but she was alone in that. She tried hard to convince the management of the Alexandra Theatre to put on the play, but met with a firm and definitive refusal. A few months later, during the summer of 1902, she quit the Imperial Theatres and began a two-year tour of the provinces in order to raise enough funds to open her own theatre.

During this time, the Joan of Arc project was one she held dear, although she was aware of the play’s weaknesses from the literary point of view. This was clear in her correspondence with friends; she tried to get support from the director Karpov, explaining: “It is perhaps the role that I have been waiting so long for, which will give me back my faith in myself.”[31] Similarly, she said to the actor Khodotov: “Everything must be decided now. Even if the play were a hundred times worse than it is, it would still be a touchstone for me, because with it I will or will not have my say […].”[32]

Nevertheless, when she managed to open her theatre in autumn 1904, she gave up the idea of putting on Daughter of the People of her own accord, arguing a lack of time and availability, as well as material difficulties. Yet, as Julija Rybakova explains in her biography of the actress,[33] material considerations had never before prevented her from launching a project when she was really convinced of its necessity. The question must therefore be asked: why was she so committed to staging Annenkova-Bernard’s play in 1902, before giving up on it two years later?

The heroine in Daughter of the People was very different from Schiller’s heroine. The play was very static and not very scenic because, throughout the text, Annenkova-Bernard emphasized Joan’s mystical visions, doubts and premonitions, rather than the epic action. The character appeared particularly fragile, prey to recurring hallucinations. This Joan was much more passive and introspective than Schiller’s, focusing on what was happening inside her rather than the outside world.

Nevertheless, she highlighted a theme already present in the work of the German playwright: the expectation of the miracle that would save the French. This febrile hope of an impending miracle was not only one of the leitmotivs of Komissarzhevskaya’s acting, but also a constant in Russian Symbolist poetry in the years preceding the 1905 Revolution, and especially the work of Alexander Blok. Komissarzhevskaya, who stood out for her ability to understand and stoke the concerns of her contemporaries, accentuated the hopes of her characters while always seeming to go beyond the text. It was only natural that the modernity of Annenkova-Bernard’s play, in which the emphasis in The Maid of Orleans shifted to Joan’s mystical expectations, appealed to the actress.

It would appear that, in wanting to play Joan, Komissarzhevskaya did not seek to compare herself to Yermolova, but to follow in the footsteps of the Moscow actress by reinventing and modernizing the character of Joan. Like Yermolova, she saw Joan as a heroine revolting against the established order in favour of an ideal. This was the other underlying thread connecting all of her biggest roles, as Mandelstam noted immediately after comparing her to Joan of Arc: “Ultimately, it is the spirit of revolt of the Russian intelligentsia that expressed itself in Komissarzhevskaya.”[34] However, unlike Yermolova, she expressed this revolt through non-tragic roles, in the melodramas and moral plays of Sudermann, and in certain works by Ostrovsky,[35] Chekhov[36] and, later, Ibsen.[37]

Only the contemporary repertoire suited Komissarzhevskaya: her attempts at older plays almost always led to semi-failures. She was aware of this and would only consider donning armour in a contemporary play, but by this time in her career she was nevertheless looking to change register, in order to access tragic roles.

In addition, between 1902 and 1905, Russia saw growing social unrest. Komissarzhevskaya had to not only keep step with her audience, but also contribute to this change in her own way, to play her role as a citizen by offering up a heroic model in phase with this unique period in Russian history.

Staging Daughter of the People was not an option during the two years she was on tour. She got around the problem by playing, in 1903, another tragic role written by a contemporary author, Monna Vanna by Maeterlinck (1902). This play tells the story of a princess from Pisa who, in a Renaissance of convention, offers herself to the enemy to save her fellow citizens from death. However, the performance did not meet with the desired success. One critic wrote: “Komissarzhevskaya’s Giovanna is just as beautiful as Desdemona […], but she is missing some of the traits essential to Vanna, the heroine and patriot, traits that would bring Monna Vanna closer to Joan of Arc. [38] After this failure, she no doubt understood that she was not cut out for the role of Joan – or, more accurately, that Joan was no longer the role she should be playing at that time.

Between 1902 and 1904, the actress performed two of her greatest roles: Magda in Sudermann’s play Heimat[39] (or Magda), and above all Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.[40] Both characters were modern women who rebelled against the hypocrisy of their family milieu and walked out at the end of the play.

In this way, Komissarzhevskaya’s revolt meant playing characters confronted with 20th century problems, whose heroism did not involve them sacrificing themselves for their convictions, but rather leaving for another kind of existence. Beyond these roles, beyond the threshold these women crossed at the conclusion of the plays, there was always the hope of a possible miracle: the instant when they would transform from within, to emerge as themselves. Julija Rybakova considers that Nora was Komissarzhevskaya’s Joan of Arc.[41] While not going so far, we can reiterate the analysis of Meyerhold, who stated that the audience wished to see a Joan of Arc in her, even though her appeal was due to the fact that she played heroines without being one herself. Or perhaps we could say that the epic dimension had ceased to be necessary for female heroism.

In conclusion, the fabulous destiny of Joan of Arc in Russia was shaped by actresses who were both queens of the stage and models of self-identification for the women of the Russian intelligentsia. The pre-revolutionary context of the country led to a change in the character’s image: the dominant focus of Joan’s history shifted from patriotism to her revolt for an ideal, then to the expectation of a redeeming miracle. Lastly, it appears that, in the early 20th century, the character played by Yermolova became, along with Komissarzhevskaya, a metaphor for heroism, at a time when the qualities of the character had definitively been attributed to the figure of the actress.


[1] See for example the works of V. Vacuro and W.M. Todd on this subject.

[2] It seems to me that outdoor reading (individually or collectively) does not make for such a rich topical approach.

[3] To use the very astute expression chosen by Andrea del Lungo in his excellent work La fenêtre. Sémiologie et histoire de la représentation littéraire (Windows: Semiology and History of Literary Representation), Paris, Seuil, 2014, p. 12.

[4] On this subject, see Melissa Frazier, Romantic encounters. Writers, readers and the “Library for Reading”, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2007, p. 126.

[5] Georges Nivat (ed.), Les Sites de la mémoire russe, volume 1: “Géographie de la mémoire russe”, Fayard, 2007.

[6] Helena Goscilo, Beth Holmgren (ed.), Russia-Women-Culture, Indiana University, 1996.

[7] Marta Caraion, Comment la littérature pense les objets, Ceyzérieu, Champ Vallon, Détours collection, 2020.

[8] L’OBS, no. 2734, 2017, pp. 68-69

[9] Raymond Williams, Culture and Materialism, London, Verso, 2005.

[10] Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman and Stephanie Sandler, A History of Russian Literature, Oxford University Press, 2018.

[11] Александр Чудаков, Слово – вещь – мир: от Пушкина до Толстого, М., Современный писатель, 1992.

[12] See Hoffert, Yannick, Kempf, Lucie (eds.), Actrices mythiques et mythe de l’actrice sur les scènes occidentales (1870-1910), Nancy: PUN – Éditions Universitaires de Lorraine, 2020.

[13] Kempf, Lucie, “Jeanne, héroïne de la scène russe prérévolutionnaire”, in Chvedova, Lioudmila; Wittmann, Jean-Michel (eds.), L’image de Jeanne d’Arc dans les littératures européennes des XIXe et XXe siècles : de la sainte nationale à la figure européenne, Nancy: PUN – Éditions Universitaires de Lorraine, 2020, pp. 229-242.

[14] Bara, Olivier; Losco-Lena, Mireille; Pellois, Anne (eds.), Les héroïsmes de l’acteur au XIXe siècle, Lyon: PUL, 2014.

[15] See Antoine Lilti, Figures publiques. L’invention de la célébrité 1750-1850, Paris: Fayard, 2014.

[16] Ibid., p. 26.

[17] Ibid., p. 317.

[18] Thomas, François, “Le comédien chez Simmel : figure sociale et modèle conceptuel”, in Bara, Olivier; Losco-Lena, Mireille; Pellois, Anne (eds.), Les héroïsmes de l’acteur…, op. cit., p. 310.

[19] Bara, Olivier, Losco-Lena, Mireille, Pellois, Anne, “Introduction”, in ibid., p. 18.

[20] Filippi, Florence, “François-Joseph Talma ou l’émergence de l’héroïsme théâtral”, in ibid., p. 46.

[21] In Russian: ženskij vopros.

[22] Schuler, Catherine, Women in Russian Theatre. The Actress in the Silver Age, New York: Routledge, 1996.

[23] Tchaikovsky’s opera was first played in February 1881 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.

[24] Nina Annenkova-Bernard (1859? – 1933) was an actress who tried her hand at writing. She played the provincial circuit (Vilno, Kazan, Samara, etc.), then at E. N. Goreva’s theatre in Saint Petersburg and, lastly, Alexandrinsky Theatre in the same city from 1890 to 1893. She had played Schiller’s Joan of Arc herself.

[25] Ščepkina-Kupernik, Tat’jana, Yermolova, Moscow: “Ikusstvo”, 1983, p. 57.

[26] The actors used opera costumes. See ibid., p. 78.

[27] Durylin, S. N., Maria Nikolaevna Yermolova, quoted by Bulanin, D. M., Žanna d’Ark v Rossii. Istoričeskij obraz meždu literaturoj i propagandoj, Moscow – Saint Petersburg: Al’jans-Arxeo, 2016 [our translation].

[28] Mandelštam, Osip, “Ona byla svobodna”, in Rudnickij, K. (ed.), O Komissarževskoj. Zabytoe i novoe.Vospominanija. Stat’i. Pis’ma, Moscow: VTO, 1965, p. 79 [our translation].[28] See Ščepkina-Kupernik, Tat’jana, op. cit., p. 58.

[30] Stepun, F. A., “V. F. Komissarževskja i M. N Ermolova”, in Portrety, Saint Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo Russkogo Xristianskogo gumanitarnogo instituta, 1999, pp. 103-110.

[31] Letter to E. P. Karpov, early January 1902, in Al’tšuller, A. Ja. (ed.), Vera Fedorovna Komissarževskaja. Pis’ma aktrisy. Vospominanija o nej. Materialy, Leningrad-Moscow: “Iskusstvo”, 1964, p. 133 [our translation].

[32] Letter to N. N. Xodotov, April 1902, in ibid., p. 116 [our translation].

[33] Rybakova, Julija, Komissarževskaja, Leningrad: “Iskusstvo”, 1971, p. 81.

[34] Mandelštam, Osip, op. cit., p. 79.

[35] The characters of Larisa in Without a Dowry and Varia in The Storm.

[36] Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull (she was the first to play this role in Russia, in 1896) and Sonya in Uncle Vanya.

[37] Nora in A Doll’s House and Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder.

[38] Russkij vestnik, 7 January 1903, quoted by Julija Rybakova: V. F. Komissarževskaja. Letopis’ žizni i tvorčestva, Saint Petersburg: Rossijskij Institut Istorij Iskusstv, 1994, p. 217 [our translation].

[39] It premiered on 23 September 1902 in Kharkov.

[40] It premiered on 20 February 1904 in Moscow.

[41] Rybakova, Julija, Komissarževskaja, op. cit., p. 83.