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Tynianov, Iurii Nikolaevich

(1894–1943), literary scholar and fiction writer. Born in the town of Rezhitsa in Vitsebsk province (mod. Rēzekne, Latvia), Iurii Tynianov studied at the University of Petersburg from 1912 to 1918. From 1921 to 1930 he lectured on Russian poetry at the division of literary history of the Petrograd Institute of Art History. In 1918 he joined Obshchestvo Izucheniia Poeticheskogo Iazyka (Society for the Study of Poetic Language; Opoiaz), and soon became one of the most influential and articulate exponents of the Formalist position.

Tynianov’s magisterial studies on the Pushkin period—most notably “Arkhaisty i Pushkin” (The Archaists and Pushkin, 1926), which presents the great poet’s achievement against the backdrop of the literary crosscurrents of his time—challenged traditional notions about Pushkin’s place in the history of Russian literature. The seminal Dostoevskii i Gogol’ (Dostoevsky and Gogol; 1921), an amply documented reinterpretation of a Dostoevsky novel as a parody of Nikolai Gogol’s controversial moral tract, serves as a springboard for generalizations about the uses of parody.

While most of Tynianov’s literary–historical studies have broad methodological implications, some of his writings in the 1920s address themselves directly to the problems of literary theory. The essays “Literaturnyi fakt” (Literary Fact; 1924) and “O literaturnoi evoliutsii” (On Literary Evolution; 1927) probe the nature of the boundary between literature and life, and the mechanics of literary change. Problema stikhotvornogo iazyka (The Problems of Verse Language; 1924) inquires into the “semantic dynamics of the poetic text”; it remains one of the most authoritative treatments of the subject in the language.

No less important was Tynianov’s role as an alert monitor of the Russian literary scene in the 1920s. His assessments of the state of Russian lyric poetry (“Promezhutok” [The Interlude]; 1924) and of the Russian artistic prose (“Literaturnoe segodnia” [Literature Today]; 1924) were invariably perceptive and often prescient. Toward the end of the decade he drafted, with Roman Jakobson, a major methodological statement, “Problemy izucheniia literatury i iazyka” (Problems in the Study of Literature and Language; 1928), which pointed toward a more balanced and judicious perspective on the relationship between literature and society than the one provided by early formalism. Yet this pithy and cogent statement could not avert the imminent demise of the formalist movement.

As the Soviet intellectual climate grew increasingly hostile to the formalist brand of criticism, Tynianov’s considerable resources, especially his prodigious knowledge of the Pushkin era, were channeled into historical fiction. Kiukhlia (1925), a vivid and affectionate novel about Pushkin’s friend and associate, the brave libertarian poet Vil’gelm Kiukhel’beker (Wilhelm Küchelbecker), was followed by Smert’ Vazir-Mukhtara (The Death of Vazir Mukhtar; 1929), a master recreation of the tragic plight of Aleksandr Griboedov, a brilliant playwright–poet turned diplomat. Both novels sound the theme of the creative intellectual’s predicament under an autocratic regime.

The wanton arbitrariness of tsarist bureaucracy is satirized in “Podporuchik Kizhe” (Lieutenant Kizhe; 1927), the first of Tynianov’s shorter historical narratives, which include “Voskovaia persona” (The Wax Person; 1930) and “Maloletnii Vytushishnikov” (The Minor Vitushishnikov; 1933). In the mid-1930s he began a voluminous novel about Pushkin. Protracted illness and his own death in 1943 prevented him from completing this long-cherished project. Pushkin (1936–1943) blends meticulous scholarship with narrative skill, but lacks the incisiveness of Tynianov’s early fiction.

Tynianov’s untimely death denied him the chance of a scholarly comeback, which was vouchsafed to his associates Boris Eikhenbaum and Viktor Shklovskii. But his legacy, a felicitous synthesis of a richly textured historical sense with structural sophistication, has been treasured and kept alive by three generations of Russian literary scholars.

Suggested Reading

Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (New Haven, 1981); Iurii Nikolaevich Tynianov, Arkhaisty i novatory (Leningrad, 1929).