Literary Theory: Russian Formalism (1914 – 1930)


One of the Kremlin stars.

[Almost] every new school of literary theorists in Europe takes its cue from the “Formalist” tradition, emphasizing different trends in that tradition and trying to establish its own interpretation of Formalism as the only correct one.

Douwe Fokkema.

Russian Formalism arose around 1914 in St. Petersburg with the founding of Opayaz (Society for the Study of Poetic Language) and was suppressed by Trotsky and the Soviet Commissar for Education by 1930 for ignoring “the dynamics of development” (this will make sense later).

These critics aimed to devise a general ‘science of literature’ by looking at structures and systematics of literary forms. According to René Wellek, the movement

sharply emphasizes the difference between literature and life, it rejects the usual biographical, psychological, and sociological explanations for literature. It develops highly ingenious methods for analyzing works of literature and for tracing the history of literature in its own terms.

The Russian Formalists pushed back against the nineteenth-century notion amongst Russian critics that art was something mysterious, full of symbolism and poetic parables waiting to be deciphered. This Symbolist trend was brutally undermined by the Futurists, who saw literature as “a matter of technology rather than theology,” and with the rise of Futurism came a need for a new, more scientific way of literary criticism: Russian Formalism. This was not appreciated by Trotsky, who claimed that “art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian.” Russian Formalists stripped art of its halo, and thus, according to Trotsky, their methods were harmful to the political message. By 1930, censorship had made it almost impossible for Formalist works to be published, and the movement died.

One of the most important examples of their ‘highly ingenious methods’ was introduced by Viktor Shklovsky: the distinction between fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot), or, the events of the story and the way the story is told.

Take, for example, a restaurant menu: the actual meal (fabula) may differ from the way it is presented on the menu (syuzhet). That “succulent North Sea cod, coating in a layer of light golden batter” may turn out to be something greyish that tastes like cardboard.

In the same way, there is a distinction between the actual sequence of a story’s event as they happen and the way they are presented in the narrative. For example, the fabula is always chronological, moving from beginning to end, whereas the syuzhet may start in the middle (in media res) and then jump back and forth within the chain of events.

It might seem strange that a movement that only lasted little over fifteen years was so incredibly influential, but we must always remember that the impact of a critical movement cannot be measured by its lifespan, but by how well it utilized its time. The Russian Formalists introduced a new way of looking at literature, and their work paved the way for the field of narratology, New Criticism, and structuralism.


Propp, Vladimir. The Morphology of the Folktale (1928).

Propp aimed to find a ‘grammar of narrative’ in Russian folktales. Read my post on his work here!

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1979).

Genette was a French structuralist theorist who used his own terminology based on Shklovsky’s original concepts when discussing the syntax of narratives (histoire and récit).

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