Communities of Dialogue Russian and Ukrainian Émigrés in Modernist Prague


Communities of Dialogue

A major centre of European modernism that witnessed the creation of now canonical literary and artistic works (by Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Seifert, Toyen, Alfons Mucha, etc.) and that contributed to the rise of influential new methods in the human sciences (Gestalt psychology, phenomenology, structuralism), Prague is known as a multi-cultural city that was profoundly shaped by the polemical relations of its Czech, German, and Jewish communities. Omitted from this standard account of Prague as a “Tripolis”, a city of three cultures, is the presence there, during the interwar period, of strong Russian and Ukrainian diasporas, which were invited directly by the Czechoslovak president Tomáš Masaryk after the Russian Civil War in 1921 and featured outstanding figures (Marina Cvetaeva, Petr Struve, Sergej Bulgakov, Roman Jakobson; Dmytro Čyževs'kyj). Given the complex, networked organisation of modernist Prague into “national” or “political” communities, moreover, Russian and Ukrainian émigrés not only partook significantly in its scientific and artistic life, for instance through the Prague Linguistic Circle, but contributed to dynamise and reconfigure its entire intercultural communicative structures.

The present project explores the concrete intellectual entanglements of the Russian and Ukrainian émigré communities in Prague and clarifies the modalities of their participation in both Prague modernism and the European human sciences. Specifically, it investigates the forms of institutional and personal cooperation through which Russian and Ukrainian émigrés organised their own communities and shaped modernist Prague, focussing on the collaborative activities of key mediating figures such as the philosophers Boris Jakovenko (1884-1949), Sergej Gessen (1887-1950), and Nikolaj Alekseev (1879-1964), the literary scholars Al'fred Bem (1886-1945), Dmytro Čyževs'kyj (1894-1977) and Leonid Bilet'skij (1882-1955), the art historian Dmytro Antonovyč (1877-1945), as well as their main Czech interlocutors, Tomáš Masaryk (1850-1937) and Jan Patočka (1907-1977).

The project is organised into three research modules highlighting interrelated aspects of the collective intellectual activities of Prague’s émigrés : A) Discourses on Titanism explores a central literary and philosophical motive of interwar Czechoslovakia’s interrogation of cultural and political identity ; B) Dialogues of Value discusses the intermingled development of concepts of value in phenomenology, structuralism, Neo-Kantianism, and Brentanian psychology ; C) Ukrainian Prague questions Ukrainian efforts to establish a specific national intellectual culture in light of the European scope of modernist Prague. Further, a documentation module structures and preserves in digital form the information collected through archival research and in the research modules. Finally, a contextual module provides a forum to assess Prague’s émigré communities within the phenomena of Russian and Ukrainian emigration, Prague modernism, European human sciences, as well as their relevance to the tension between national and universalist intellectual cultures in interwar Europe.

The project delivers a new picture of interwar Prague, correcting its tripartite division and redefining the role of intercultural dialogue between specific traditions in its development as a European centre of modernism and human sciences. It provides a major contribution to research on Russian emigration in one of its least studied centres, as well as a new study of the intellectual impact of Ukrainian émigrés in Prague. It explores comparatively the links between exile, political identity and intellectual cultures in the interwar period. Further, the project specifically highlights how the Russian and Ukrainian presence in Prague contributed to a unique concentration of methods or traditions (formalist aesthetics and literary studies, religious philosophy, Brentanian psychology, Neo-Kantianism) whose interplay led to a fundamental expansion of the concept of value.