The Intricacies of Russian Formalism

What is formalism? Formalism is a term used to refer to the arts and is a strict following of rules, methods and traditions. It is also a theory of art based on the organization of forms as opposed to content.

Russian formalism was a school of literary criticism between the 1910s and 1930s. Russian formalists included several very influential scholars from Russia. In their works these scholars brought about a whole new era of literary criticism and created the autonomy and specificity of literature and poetic language. This theory of formalism in Russia had an extensive influence on Russian literature and was considered elitist art.

Although Russian formalism set out a series of rules and traditions in literature, it was a very diverse movement. Interestingly Russian formalists were unable to develop unity in doctrine. Actually, the term of “formalism” was given to the movements by those who disagreed with it. Russian formalism places emphasis on the function of literary devices. Formalists were focused on more “scientific” methods of study when it came to poetic language and ignored cultural, psychological or historical perspectives. To meet the objectives of formalist study a number of models were developed.

Mechanistic Formalism was introduced by Viktor Shklovsky. This method of study saw literature as a combination of techniques and devices with no psychological or philosophical element. Essentially this form of study removes the author, background and reader from the equation. However, this model was not comprehensive enough and required some tweaking. Organic Formalism moved the focus to a more hierarchically structured whole. The next model was Systematic Formalism. Systematic Formalists bring in the social dimension as literature forms part of a country's cultural system. Linguistic Formalism took a deeper look at poetic language. This school of thought recognized the distinct difference between practical language (day-to-day speech) and poetic language. Interestingly Russian formalists were the first individuals to do in-depth study into the sound patterns of poetry and their function which was a great step in scholarship.

As Russian formalism encompassed many different theoreticians with varying views on methodology, the movement was by no means uniform. Despite this, the basic principles of Russian formalism was shared by scholars and exerted a great influence on the future of literature both in Russia and around the world.


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