In the European cultural imagination, Prague modernism (die Prager Moderne/Pražská moderna) figures as a quintessential expression of socio-political alienation and of the existential doubts of individuals beset by the loss of a stable sense of identity. This myth of modernist Prague as the site of a deep crisis of belonging has a clearly literary origin and is articulated paradigmatically in the works of Franz Kafka and other Prague German writers (Max Brod, Franz Werfel, etc.). At least since Pavel Eisner’s argument that “[Kafka] is explicable only in terms of his Prague, and thus only by means of an intimate knowledge of circumstances which are unique and will never recur again” (Eisner 1950, 6), it has moreover been customary to link this literary mythology with the concrete, historical context of 20th-century Prague. The “restless heart of Central Europe” (Wiener 1919), a “dramatic, aching centre of Western destiny” (Kundera 1980), an “ambiguous city that does not show its cards” (Ripellino 1993), both a “crossing of the old axes of the world” (Musil 2017) and a “triple ghetto” (Goldstücker 1967), Prague itself has been canonised as a contested space at the crossroads of conflicted identities.
This identification of Prague modernism with the political and cultural conditions of life in the Czechoslovak capital has traditionally been justified (cf. Eisner 1950; Goldstücker 1967; Johnston 1972) by the fact that the crisis of identity it expresses is specifically rooted in the lack of a shared sense of community that resulted from, or was exacerbated by, the particular circumstances of the uneasy coexistence in Prague of three distinct, increasingly antagonist cultures (Czech, German, Jewish) in a fluid political setting. More than an intimate, lyrical effusion of the self or a reaction to the sweeping cultural, technical, and social changes brought about by the revolutions of the early 20th century, Prague modernism is a product and reflection of the dislocations and tensions created by the intersection and changing relations of multiple, competing cultures in one space. As such, it obviously requires to be studied in a perspective that is attentive to the national, religious, and linguistic communities that underpinned and structured it historically.
A clear danger in approaching modernist Prague through the political logic of its “communities” or “territories” (cf. Spector 2002) is to overemphasise its fragmented, segregated nature and to preclude negatively (as alienation, ignorance, or competition) the interactions of its constituent elements. Indeed, the alienating, singularising nature of Kafka’s Prague has often been interpreted precisely as its most original aspect, as the most potent, direct factor of its undoubtedly universal significance: one can invoke here Sartre’s dictum that “Kafka’s testimony is all the more universal as it is profoundly singular” (Sartre 1962, 326). In this view, echoed also in Deleuze’s famous concept of a “minor literature” (Deleuze & Guattari 1975), modernist Prague appears as a theatre for the heroical self-affirmation or last-stand defense of estranged, tragic identities or cultures.
As recent scholarship has shown (Koeltzsch 2012; Becher et al. 2012 ; Höhne et al. 2016), however, Prague was also a genuinely plural space, structured by a multitude of informal groups and venues (cafés, salons, circles) that favoured sustained dialogues across linguistic, political, and religious divides. Much more, the intercultural communication processes, places of dialogue and shared forms of representation through which members of Prague’s communities interacted have been shown to be just as important to Prague modernism than the divisions of its communities and the alienation of its actors (Wutsdorff et al. 2014; Weinberg et al. 2018). While Prague modernism was indeed defined, on the one hand, by the competing attempts at self-definition and differentiation of its communities and their members, i.e. by their efforts to forge or defend particular identities and traditions, it was no less profoundly shaped, on the other hand, by a complex set of real-life dialogues and interactions that allowed these identities and traditions to be probed for their universal scope and significance through a radical confrontation with opposing views. The defining feature of the crisis of identity expressed by Prague modernism, in this sense, is to be found not in the singular form of alienation or “deterritorialisation” of its ghettoised actors and communities, but rather in the fact that each community’s project to define its own identity and formulate its traditions was constantly confronted with, and constitutively depended on, the parallel efforts of its rivals.
This image of modernist Prague as a constellation of dialogically intersecting (rather than fragmented) political or cultural spheres underpinned by a web of concrete social exchanges is particularly useful to describe Prague’s intellectual milieu. Academic Prague was indeed divided along national lines: it possessed rival Czech and German universities (Univerzita Karlova, Karl-Ferdinand Universität), whose members barely communicated, and to which further “national” Russian and Ukrainian universities (Russkij narodnyj universitet, Ukrains'kyj vil'nyj universytet) were added in the 1920s. These institutions contributed moreover to entrench national intellectual traditions: German-speaking scholars remained dedicated to Herbartism, the “official philosophy” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (cf. Maigné 2021), Czechs turned to Masaryk’s positivism (cf. Nový et al. 1994), while Russian émigrés brought their religious philosophy and brand of Neo-Kantianism (cf. Dmitrieva 2007).
At the same time, many Prague intellectuals engaged individually in forums and in a multiplicity of dialogues that transcended language, nationality, or discipline. One cannot but mention here the Prague Linguistic Circle, an institution presented, by its members (Mathesius 1936; Vachek 1966) and its historiographers alike (Chvatík 1970; Fontaine 1974; Raynaud 1990), as “symbiotic”, “intercultural” and “interdisciplinary”. By uniting Czech, German, Jewish, Russian, and Ukrainian scholars, “[it] ultimately succeeded in transcending the destructive character typical of a great number of East European multicultural communities” (Toman 1995, 133). And this was not the only such dialogue: research on formal aesthetics (Maigné & Trautmann-Waller 2009; Maigné 2013; Stöckmann 2022) has shown not only that it relied on close collaborations between German-speaking and Czech scholars, but that the mediating role of the latter was instrumental in transposing this “Austrian” Herbartian tradition into a wider European setting (Tchougounnikov 2014, 141).
In fact, examples of dialogues can be multiplied to the extent that the apparently segregated intellectual (and artistic) milieus of modernist Prague appear as a single network of mutual, criss-crossed exchanges. Both Kafka himself (briefly) and Brod attended the Brentano Circle [Brentano-Kreis], a group of followers of Franz Brentano and Anton Marty, as well as the Fanta Circle [Fanta-Kreis], the “soirées” of the feminist Berta Fanta (Spector 2002, 17); other guests of the Fanta Circle were Albert Einstein and Rudolf Steiner (Gordin 2020); in turn, core members of the Brentano Circle, in particular the philosophers Emil Utitz (a classmate of Kafka) and Oskar Kraus, along with Czech participants such as Jan Patočka, later founded the Prague Philosophical Circle [Cercle philosophique de Prague], a group of phenomenologists and brentanians that was itself modelled on the Prague Linguistic Circle (Sepp 1999); this patchwork of institutions extends back, in particular through Roman Jakobson, to Czech literary and artistic groups such as the Devětsil (Chvatík 1970; Fabian 2013).
One could be tempted to conclude from this reconstructed network that key figures of modernist Prague such as Kafka, Jakobson or Patočka were simply those who engaged most readily in intercultural dialogues and were thus most successful in transcending the limitations of their own traditions. This would be missing the crucial fact that most of the above dialogues did not happen as simple, bilateral exchanges between given individuals. They follow rather a pattern of indirect intersections between scholarly groups and research traditions, materialised by the triangular involvement of different members in different groups. Thus, for example, while one finds little trace of interest for Brentanian psychology (except for Marty) among the members of the Prague Linguistic Circle, the ideas of both traditions were brought into dialogue in the context of the Prague Philosophical Circle, and were then fed back to each of them through Patočka’s exchanges with Jakobson, Čyževs'kyj, or Utitz.
In short, the logic of the intercultural, interdisciplinary dialogues that characterise modernist Prague is not one of synthesis or even of hybridation, but one of Bachtinian polyphony, in which separate national traditions, artistic trends or disciplinary methods retain their distinctiveness and autonomy, and often radically recognise the alterity of the others. Even the singularly original work of given individuals (Kafka’s novels, Jakobson’s phonology) should not be understood as the expression of their author’s synthesising, monolythic viewpoint, but rather as intersections that reflect the diverse web of intellectual and cultural traditions that inform them. The interpretative potential of such a perspective – which accounts both for the structural importance of distinct, national communities and of their interactions in concrete dialogues – has been demonstrated in the case of Kafka and of his co-extensive debts to Prague German literature, Jewish culture, Czech modernism, etc. (Becher et al. 2012; Weinberg et al. 2018). It has rarely been applied to figures such as Jakobson or Patočka, however, and never (except Sériot 1999) in relation to their entanglements with Prague’s Russian or Ukrainian émigré communities.
One reason for the absence of a systematic analysis of Russian and Ukrainian émigrés as directly relevant to the context of modernist Prague is that they have often been interpreted as autarchic communities locked in a nostalgically tinged cultural and political exile. Mirroring initial research on Kafka and Prague German literature as ghettoised cultural spheres, investigations of the Russian emigration in particular have tended to privilege questions of community, cultural survival, and national identity (Raeff 1990; Struve 1984). And indeed, as the emblematic case of Cvetaeva illustrates, the positioning of Prague’s Russian émigré community was more than a little ambiguous. While professing, in a letter to one of her rare Czech acquaintances, that “I love Prague best after Moscow, and not because of its ‘kindred Slavic nature’, but because of my own kinship with it: for its heterogeneity and diversity of spirit” (Cvetaeva 1969, 26), Cvetaeva stayed only three years in the city (1922-1925), living mostly in poverty on its outskirts (in the Russian “colony” of Všenory) and involving herself socially with a limited number of other émigrés, in particular Mark Slonim and his journal Volja Rossii, or Al'fred Bem and the Hermitage of Poets [Skit poetov] (cf. Vanečková 2006). Many émigrés spent even less time in Prague, and some, such as Nina Berberova – “I could not genuinely appreciate Prague” (Berberova 1969) – or Alekseev – “I am alarmed by the dreadful boredom and poverty of life here” (Alekseev 1983, 157) – were upfront in expressing their sense of detachment. On top of the fleeting, detached nature of most Russian and Ukrainian émigrés’ involvement with Prague – few of whom “undertook an effort to bridge the gap dividing them from the local culture” (Chinyaeva 2001, 38) –, émigré communities also lacked cohesion, divided as they were by political rivalries (cf. Andreyev & Savický 2004, 29). Russian émigrés, moreover, were weakened in their efforts to organise by the hope of a swift return home (cf. Raeff 1990, 3). Compounding the irrelevance of Prague for its Russian émigrés is the fact that it played second fiddle first to Berlin (1920-1924, cf. Schlögel 1994) then to Paris (cf. Livak 2003) as the cultural and social centre of Russian emigration.
For all the evident limits to the notion that Russian and Ukrainian émigrés took part in significant fashion in Czechoslovakia’s cultural life, there is no doubting the lasting, cohesive role in Prague of their contributions in the intellectual sphere. This is true, first of all, because, surpassing even Berlin and Paris in this respect, Prague became the effective academic capital of “Russia Abroad” (cf. Raeff 1990, 64; Chinyayeva 2001, 185ss; Andreyev & Savický 2004, 80ss), and was also the main centre for Ukrainian intellectuals (Zavorotna 2020). Where cultural or social life might have been lacking, Russian émigrés succeeded through a concerted effort to establish a thriving intellectual community in Prague, a “Russian Oxford” (Sládek 1994; Savickij 2008, 133), which saw the creation of significant institutions of higher education such as the Seminarium Kondakovianum [1925-1945], the Russian National University [1923-1949], or the Russian Historical Archive Abroad [Russkij zagraničnyj istoričeskij archiv, 1924-1945]). Next to these Russian institutions, one also finds Ukrainian ones, such as the Ukrainian Free University [1921-] and the Ukrainian Higher Pedagogical Institute.
The dynamism and cohesion of the Russian academic community is visible not only in the number of prominent scholars (Aleksandr Kizevetter, Nikodim Kondakov, Nikolaj Losskij, Sergej Bulgakov, etc.) who were active in Prague, but also in the cristallisation of coherent research collectives. The presence of Russian scholars in the Prague Linguistic Circle (Jakobson, Nikolaj Trubeckoj, Petr Bogatyrev, Sergej Karcevskij; cf. Toman 1995), as well as the birth and growth of the Eurasianist movement (Jakobson, Trubeckoj, Alekseev, Savickij, Vernadskij; cf. Sériot 1999) are well-known examples. To these, one can add a concentration of Neo-Kantian philosophers (Alekseev, Pavel Novgorodcev, Ivan Lapšin, Boris Jakovenko, Sergius Gessen; cf. Nykl 2019), who structured their activities through the Philosophical Society of the Russian National University, or the development of original literary studies devoted in particular to Puškin and Dostoevskij (Bem, Čyževs'kyj, Jakobson), which crystallised in the Dostoevskij Society and the Hermitage of Poets. Thanks in particular to the efforts of Dmytro Antonovyč and Mykyta Šapoval, the Ukrainian community coallesced in a transversal institution, the Historico-philological society, whose project was to defend the specificity of Ukraine’s intellectual traditions.
If one considers, finally, that most of these institutions involved a strong participation of Czech and German intellectuals (Brod in the Dostoevskij Society; Masaryk and Patočka as interlocutors of Losskij, Čyževs'kyj, or Gessen ; Czech and German scholars in the Prague Linguistic Circle), one cannot but conclude that not only Russian and Ukrainian émigrés organised in informal “circles” [kružki] that closely ressembled the Central European tradition of the cafés and circles (cf. Timms 2013), but that they thereby integrated in typical fashion in the Prague context, namely as the bearers of specific, national traditions which, if they were indeed obsessed with questions of their own identity in a politically difficult and culturally alien context, nonetheless dialogically engaged with their milieu. Given the echoes of their political circumstances with the Czech-German-Jewish divisions of Prague, the quality of their most important interlocutors (Masaryk, Patočka, Brod) and the acknowledged role of figures such as Jakobson or Čyževs'kyj, it is evident that these Russian and Ukrainian voices resonated at the very heart of the intellectual networks and communities of dialogue of modernist Prague.