Communities of Dialogue Russian and Ukrainian Émigrés in Modernist Prague


The project addresses a significant gap in our knowledge of both Prague modernism and emigration from Russia by reassessing the systematic participation of Prague’s Russian and Ukrainian intellectual émigré communities in the networked space of the Czechoslovak capital. In particular, it highlights and analyses the concrete dialogical mechanisms and interactions that were instrumental to the production in modernist Prague of works, theories and ideas of universal or European significance by what were competing, nationally oriented intellectual communities whose members were otherwise often obsessed with defining or defending their particular identity in adverse or challenging political and social circumstances (exile for Russian émigrés, marginalisation for Germans and Jews, nation-building against dominant neighbours for Czechs, exile and nation-building for Ukrainians).

Methodologically, the project builds upon the framework developed by Weinberg, Höhne, or Wutsdorff (see above) for the study of Prague German literature and Czech modernism. By critically foregrounding notions of plurality, interculturality, entanglement and dialogical openness, as well as by defining culture as a space of communication (cf. also Csaky 2010 ; Mascher 2021), it provides an excellent conceptual toolkit for our own approach. To a certain extent, the project can be considered as a straightforward extension of this framework and research programme to Russian and Ukrainian actors and institutions. That said, because Weinberg et al. are primarily concerned with the study of literature and with problems such as symbolic representation and imaginaries or the construction of territories and identities through creative semiotic processes, and because conversely the major contributions of Russian and Ukrainian émigrés were of a critical, theoretical nature rather than literary, this model also needs to be significantly adapted.

The main limitation of Weinberg et al.’s model, in our perspective, is that while it includes a reflexion on the relation between symbolic representations or semiotic spaces and the shaping power of communities, it does so by mobilising theories (Anderson’s imagined communities, Castoriadis’s social imaginary, Lotman’s semiosphere) that are concerned primarily with the inherent constitution of shared representations and meanings within or for a community. As such, this approach would be perfectly suited, for example, for analysing Cvetaeva’s Prague poems as a testimony of Russian exile in Czechoslovakia. Most Ukrainians and Russians in Prague, however, were not interested so much in reflecting upon exile or in giving expression to their sense of self as émigrés, than in using their position “abroad” to intervene critically and historiographically, i.e. in explicit and theoretical fashion, on the intellectual foundations or definition of their culture. The Eurasianist movement is an obvious example of such a theoretical attempt at redefining the scope of Russian culture, but one can also mention the various attempts at “reformulating Russia” (Mjor 2011) carried out by Nikolaj Berdjaev (The Russian Idea) or Boris Zenkovskij (History of Russian Philosophy). As such, the crucial question of the entanglements of Russian and Ukrainian émigré communities is not so much that of the influence of intercultural Prague on their self-image and representations qua émigrés, than of the concrete affordances provided to their project of refounding their intellectual culture by their participation in Prague’s diverse, dynamic intellectual milieu.

The circumstances of Prague’s Russian émigrés and of their contribution to Prague modernism require an approach that goes beyond the intercultural reconstruction of shared or contested imaginaries and representations, and takes fully into account the objective context, concrete processes and social patterns that framed, nourished and structured the activities and work of Prague’s Russian and Ukrainian émigrés. Such a focus on the objective social conditions of the production of knowledge cannot be an end in itself (aiming for example at an exhaustive reconstruction of the networks of modernist Prague), nor should it be reduced to a purely factographic and deterministic sociological level of analysis. Rather, our perspective here, following in the footsteps of Geertz (1973), Bourdieu (1991) or more generally of the spatial turn (cf. Döring & Thielmann 2015) is to consider the social activities and the institutional and personal dynamics of the local context of Russian émigrés in Prague as a relevant, structuring parameter in the analysis of the genesis and development of their theories. We will further take inspiration from the foundational work of Kusch on the sociology of philosophical knowledge (Kusch 1995; 2000), and of Benetka and Friedrich’s work on the importance of the “local” conditions of the production of knowledge (Friedrich 2021, Friedrich & Benetka 2021).

Given the highly diverse and fragmented nature of the landscape of modernist Prague’s institutions and communities, moreover, one needs to complement this focus on the structuring effects of individual groups, discourses and traditions with a specific attention to the intersections, triangulations, or indirect interferences between them. The institutions and groups of modernist Prague are not only involved in direct dialogues, but in a complex, triangulated web of parallel exchanges that fundamentally shapes the global context of modernist Prague. In this sense, theories of cultural and intellectual transfers (Espagne & Werner 1988; Werner & Zimmerman 2002) need to be mobilised and applied at a “microscopic” or “local” level (instead of the level of national or linguistic spheres) to identify and analyse this non-contiguous, indirect, sometimes even unconscious or unthematised circulation of ideas between institutions, groups or research communities. Espagne’s notion of “triangular” exchange between France, Russia, and Germany (cf. Espagne & Dmitrieva 1996; Espagne 2014), where German ideas are received in France only after their transformation in Russia is particularly well adapted to the description of similar mechanisms in Prague: Austrian Herbartism is received in Europe after its Czech transformation, or the “German” (Rickertian, Schelerian) notion of value appears in Mukařovský’s “Czech” aesthetics transformed by Jakobson’s “Russian” formalist linguistics, etc.

In order to demonstrate the relevance of such an analysis of the Russian and Ukrainian émigré communities through the prism of a localised transfer of ideas across national communities facilitated by the specific structures of the entangled space of modernist Prague, the project will focus on three related case studies, which all display the characteristic feature of modernist Prague of combining national traditions in multilateral dialogues.

A) Discourses on Titanism will explore a constellation of literary critical discourses put forward by leading Russian, Ukrainian and Czechoslovak intellectuals (Masaryk, Černý, Patočka, Čyževs'kij, Bem, Jakovenko, and others), in which they explore the limits of individual and national identity in the myths of Faust and the utopianism of the titanic “superman”.

B) Dialogues of Value will highlight the ubiquitous presence of the concept of value in various traditions present in Prague (Neo-Kantianism, Brentano School, phenomenology, structuralism) and highlight its transformations across what were both national and intercultural research groups.

C) Ukrainian Prague, will question the nationalist orientation of Ukrainian émigrés in Prague, underlining the fundamental role of cultural history, intellectual transfers and the quest for “place” to that project.

The connection between these three strands of research is beautifully anticipated by one of their common actors, Sergej Gessen: “Violent utopianism is a u-topos, without its own place. Cultural history, pursued with constant reference to values, helps against utopianism. Culture consists in making a connection between place and value” (Gessen 1995 [1923], 114, our translation).

Further, these three overlapping research modules will be underpinned by a documentary module, in which a systematic exploration of existing ties and interactions will be carried out and interactions carefully documented. This module will be subordinated mostly to the needs of the thematic modules, but will also include prospective work in search of new, overlooked connections of these clusters to the wider Prague context.

Finally, both the thematic modules and the documentary module will be placed under the umbrella of a contextual module, which will seek to place their findings in broader interpretative contexts such as Prague modernism, the Russian emigration and the European human sciences.