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Russian Symbolism

The symbolist movement in Russia is known as the Russian Silver Age (1892–1917). Although it was a widespread cosmopolitan movement encompassing often contradictory elements, certain general outlines can be drawn. In the 1890s a young generation of Russian writers was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. The writer Valeri Briusov was instrumental in introducing Western work to the Russian audience through his translations of Baudelaire and Poe as well as his editorship of the important symbolist journal Vesy (The scales), which was modeled on Le mercure de France and published the works of Russian writers alongside European symbolists, including Moréas, Verhaeren, and Rémy de Gourmont. In 1892 three collections of verse were published under the title The Russian Symbolists. Rejecting positivism and materialism as well as the classic approach to literature, these writers followed the example of their Western counterparts. Writers such as Briusov, Konstantin Balmont, Fyodor Sologub, Zinaida Gippius, and Dmitry Merezhkovsky experimented with literary form and valued suggestion, intuition, and musicality in their work. The poet, mystic, and theologian Vladimir Solovyev described "life's reverberating noise" as an "altered echo of transcendent harmonies." Like their French and Belgian counterparts, Russian symbolists rejected the didactic depiction of the empirical world and conceived of a truer reality hidden by phenomenal experience. They believed that intuition was more important than objective knowledge. This borrowing of ideas from further west was accompanied by an aesthetics of art for art's sake.

At the turn of the century Russian symbolism began to develop a much stronger character of its own, emphasizing a particularly Russian spiritual content. In 1901 Gippius and Merezhkovsky opened their Saint Petersburg Salon to contributors to Sergey Diaghilev's journal World of Art and in 1902 Merezhkovsky founded the Religious Philosophical Society. This led to a cross-fertilization of the literary, visual, and philosophical components of the movement in a forum focused on cosmic consciousness and the particular role of Russia as an intermediary between Eastern and Western spirituality, and on various forms of occult theorizing. The writers Vyacheslav Ivanov, Aleksandr Blok, and Andrey Bely were important participants in this later phase of the symbolist movement. Andrey Bely (1880–1934) described the new Russian poetry as apocalyptic and poets as prophets of the end of European civilization who foreshadow in their work a new, more highly evolved form of human consciousness. Solovyev described the poet as a possessor of secret knowledge. Aleksandr Blok (1880–1921) wrote poems drawn from mystic experiences and based on dreams. Bely is perhaps best known for his symbolist novels, the most famous of which is Saint Petersburg (1913). The novel, composed of experimental suggestive prose, combines descriptive narrative with mystical symbolism and can be read on many levels.

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