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Volynskii, Akim L’vovich

(Pseudonym of Ḥayim Leibovich Flekser, 1861–1926), literary critic, historian, editor, and art theoretician (especially of ballet). Born in Zhitomir, Akim Volynskii was the son of a bookseller. He studied in a Russian high school in Zhitomir, but was expelled because of a conflict with a teacher, so that he did his matriculation exams as an extern. His first publication was a letter to the Jewish Russian newspaper Razsvet about an orphanage in Saint Petersburg (published in 1880). During the 1880s, he wrote articles on Jewish themes for the Jewish Russian periodicals Razsvet, Russkie evrei, and Voskhod. In 1884, he served as an editor of the Russian-language anthology Palestina, in which he published a review of Lev Pinsker’s Autoemancipation. In 1885, Volynskii published his essay “Teologo-politicheskoe uchenie Spinozy” (Spinoza’s Theological-Political Teaching) in Voskhod, and also wrote articles on the poet Shimen Frug and on the Bible in Russian poetry.

In 1881–1886, Volynskii studied law at Saint Petersburg University, where he became friendly with Simon Dubnow. He rejected social pressures to convert to Christianity. Beginning in 1892, he wrote for the Russian literary monthly Severny vestnik, eventually becoming its editor. This journal took on the task of bridging Russian culture and Western early modernism. Volynskii supported the writers Nikolai Minskii (Vilenkin), Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, Zinaida Gippius, and Fyodor Sologub, and published pieces, translations, and articles in the vein of European decadence and symbolism.

In his writing (especially in the series “Bor’ba za idealism” [A Battle for Idealism], published in Severny vestnik in the early 1890s and then in book form in 1900), Volynskii allied himself with the Russian religious–philosophical movement, using neo-Kantian terminology to fight a sociopolitical approach to life and literature. His battle for the independence of literary criticism from social and political criteria provoked the opposition of both liberal and conservative Russian thinkers.

Between 1892 and 1896, Volynskii composed a series of articles on contemporary Russian literary criticism (collected in the book Russkie kritiki [Russian Critics]; 1896), in which he attacked the Russian tradition of utilitarian literary criticism. In 1896, he traveled to Italy, the country that he considered to be the source of the modern symbolist movement. His book Leonardo da Vinci (1900, translated into Hebrew by Leah Goldberg in 1955) was enthusiastically received in Russia and Italy. Volynskii changed his attitude toward Russian symbolists in the early 1900s, and criticized all contemporary Russian writers except Leo Tolstoy. Volynskii’s extreme ideas in Kniga velikogo gneva (Book of Great Anger; 1904) provoked a scandal and isolated him.

From the mid-1890s, Volynskii focused on religious questions, especially the idea of uniting Judaism and Christianity. In 1899, he went to Mount Athos and studied icons. In his book Tsarstvo Karamazovyh (In the Kingdom of the Karamazovs; 1901) he analyzed Fyodor Dostoevsky’s characters according to their religious attitudes—God lovers and God haters. Here and in his F. M. Dostoevskii (1906), Volynskii formulated a utopian vision of redemption as a synthesis of Dostoevsky’s metaphysical energies and Tolstoy’s moral clarity. In 1905–1906 he directed the Komisarzhevskii Theater in Saint Petersburg.

In the early 1900s, Volynskii published a series of articles on the history and theory of ballet, which he understood as a form of religious expression (the articles were collected in Kniga likovanii [The Book of Exultation]; 1925). After the revolution, he was loyal to the Bolshevik regime, worked in the Italian department of the Vsemirnaia Literature (World Literature) publishing house, directed a ballet academy in Petrograd, and published articles on the Jewish sources of Christianity. In 1926, he published one book on choreography and another on Rembrandt.

Volynskii’s ideas and personality were not popular among his modernist colleagues, who considered his polemical style as lacking “political sensitivity.” Although he was one of the founders of Russian modernism, his tendency toward abstract thinking and his search for classical sources of modernism were alien to his contemporaries.

Suggested Reading

P. V. Kuprianovskii, “Volynskii: Kritik,” in Tvorchestvo pisatelia i literaturny protsess (Ivanovo, 1978); Elena Tolstaia, Poetika razdrazhenia: Chekhov v kontse 1880–kh–nachale 1890–kh godov (Moscow, 2002), chaps. 5–6; Elena Tolstaia, Mirposlekontsa: Raboty o russkoi literature 20 veka (Moscow, 2002), pt. 1; Akim Volynsky, Ballet’s Magic Kingdom: Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925, ed. and trans. Stanley J. Rabinowitz (New Haven, 2008).