Review: Efim Kurganov, «Literaturnyi anekdot pushkinskoi epokhi»

Efim Kurganov. Literaturnyi anekdot pushkinskoi epokhi. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1995. 278 pp.


Efim Kurganov's monograph on the role of the anecdote in Russian literary culture at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries is a welcome addition to Pushkin studies and to the study of Russian literature and culture in general.

The book—a dissertation for the degree of doktor filosofii—consists of an introduction, five chapters, a conclusion, appendix, and bibliography. In the introduction Mr. Kurganov tackles the problem of "legitimizing" the anecdote as an object of literary and cultural study. His argument here is very convincing, especially as it relies not only on studies carried out by Iurii Lotman concerning the worthiness of oral literature (ustnaia literatura) for scholarly study and, indeed, the peculiarly "oral" nature of Russian culture, but on the words of one of Pushkin's most illustrious contemporaries, Prince Viazemskii. The latter's Staraia zapisnaia knizhka will figure largely in the final chapter as a primary source that also serves as a programmatic precedent for Mr. Kurganov's own methodology.

The first chapter contains an "introduction to the poetics of the anecdote" in which the author refers to more developed studies of the anecdote carred out by German scholars, then on this foundation identifies several characteristics of Russian "literary anecdotes." He shows that Russian anecdotes of the period in question were usually based on some real occurence from history, or had to do with some well-known historical or cultural figure. The "bite" of the anecdote is usually found in its conclusion, which leads the author to a discussion of the "puanta," or instant tone shift at the end of a story that could be termed the very "logic of the anecdote." During the PUshkin era the anecdote was no longer merely a folkloric genre, but became a part of "high" literary culture as well. As Mr. Kurganov demonstrates, the literary anecdote characterizes the daily life, mores, psychology, and habits of the class to which Pushkin's contemporaries belonged. Moreover, literary anecdotes of the period had much in common with the classical genre of the apophtegm—a short story about a witty, instructive retort or action of a great person usually based on Greek or Roman sources—made popular in eighteenth century Russia through published collections. New anecdotes based on homegrown sources would circulate in society and be written down by those interested in capturing a sense of the era.

Chapter 2 disucsses the origins of the literary anecdote genre in Russia specifically. It is demonstrated that certain archetypes from folklore blended with the classical apophtegm to establish certain character types and models for behavior such as the rogue (plut), joker (shut) and fool (durak). These character masks could be adopted even by aristocrats. For example, Count Rostopchin (according to his biographer A. Ia. Bulgakov) not only loved to tell witty anecdotes in the tradition of the Paris salons, but frequently adopted the mask of the joker, usually considered a "low culture" persona. It was this role that allowed Rostopchin to speak frankly even with Paul I, and their relationship spawned many an anecdote savored by Pushkin's generation.

In the third chapter Mr. Kurganov moves from the identification of general characteristics of the literary anecdote to a very rich examination of plot structures found in anecdotes based ont eh exploits of men of the late eighteenth century. These anecdotes expanded on the low culture archetypes and crystallized the behavior of certain aristocrats who played the roles of fool (durak), boaster (khvastun) or simpleton (prostak). This chapter does not merely catalogue the subjects and heroes of the literary anecdote, but leads up to a discussion of the role of the anecdote in the literary process of the day.

Chapter 4 traces the emergence of the "Russian Munchausen" Prince Dmitri Tsitsianov as a hero, collector and creator of literary anecdotes based on the folk genre of the "cock-and-bull story" (nebylitsa). The case of Prince Tsitsianov is an example of "biography creation" through the invention of fabulous stories and the perpetuation of a fantastic image by the man himself. However, according to the author, the oral tradition founded by Tsitsianov deserves further scholarly attention, especially since this tradition is refracted in works by such authors as Pushkin and Shakhovskoi. This is an example of how the folklore aspects of the anecdote were transformed and the genre itself, having developed its own poeticss, was "projected" into literature.

In chapter 5 Mr. Kurganov delves further into the realm of the literary anecdote by elaborating on the polemics engaged in by Prince Viazemskii and N. V. Kukol´nik. Whereas the object of Viazemskii's Staraia zapisnaia knizhka could be seen as somewhat reactionary in its attempt to preserve the past, images and mores of the golden age of Russian culture acted out by the aristocratic cultural elite, Kukol´nik's unpublished <Zapisnaia Knizhka> also had the goal of collecting anecdotes of the 1830s and 40s while opposing the very aristocratic milieu of Viazemskii and Pushkin. Important here for the author's arugment, however, is the very fact that both Viazemskii and Kukol´nik, representatives of early nineteenth century literary culture, recognized the significance of the anecdote as a historical document, as a form in which history, culture and the daily life of people from one era could e preserved for the edification and entertainment of future generations.

Clearly, Efim Kurganov's Literaturnyi anekdot pushkinskoi epokhi is not only the culmination of years of work on the subject, but a plan for future investigations. While the first part of the Appendix contains Nestor Kukol´nik's <Zapisnaia Knizhka>, the second part—a collection of anecdotes preserved by Zhukovskii, Pushkin and their contemporaries—is labeled "k proektu antologii." Thus the reader can look forward to further observations by this author on the oral tradition of the Pushkin era.


Vanessa Bittner
George Washington University



Bittner, Vanessa. Rev. of Efim Kurganov, Literaturnyi anekdot pushkinskoi epokhiPushkin Review 1 (1998): 164-66.


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Vol. 01 (1998)