Sergey Fofanov
Totem and Taboo of the “Russian Avant-garde” in the Twentieth Century

V–A–C Sreda online magazine presents a new issue dedicated to the avant–garde and timed to coincide with the Square and Space. From Malevich to GES-2 exhibition, which will open on June 20 at GES-2 House of Culture. The exhibition presents the main artistic concepts and trends of Russian and international art of the twentieth century, many of which are still relevant today.

In this issue, we publish the first part of an article by the art historian Sergei Fofanov. The article outlines the problem of the “Russian avant-garde” not just as a term, but as an artistic process. Fofanov examines the role of Leo Tolstoy in the development of both an international avant-garde and of a myth of the “mysterious Russian soul.” The article also draws upon the Austrian poet and thinker Rainer Maria Rilke’s recollections about his two journeys to Russia and fateful meetings with the great Russian writer.

A continuation of Sergey Fofanov’s article will follow. Stay tuned and subscribe to V–A–C Sreda online magazine’s newsletter.

Borrowing lines from the song addressed to the hero of Sergei Alexandrovich Solovyov’s unforgettable 1987 film Assa, we salute our hero: “Greetings, boy of the avant-garde!” How many myths and legends have accumulated around you, how many of your images have been smashed by art critics, by art historians, by other representatives of the artistic community in their polemics against the avant-garde. And, to this day, the same slippery yet sensible question continues to arise: “but was there a boy?” [1].

In this short essay, we will trouble neither ourselves nor the reader with a polemic against the legitimacy of the use of the term “avant-garde, ” still less will we venture into the territory of arguments and quarrels flaring up around the very vital question of distinguishing the national borders of the avant-garde. It would, of course, not just be impossible but absurd to confine the artistic processes that took place in the Russian Empire at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the present-day borders of the Russian Federation or of other states that received independence after the collapse of the Russian and Soviet empires. This subject must, undoubtedly, be thought through, but, for this, circumstances allowing for the carrying out of expert analysis from all angles are necessary. And, alas, right now, this is not possible. What then to write about?

We will dedicate this exercise, which in no way pretends to academic or scientific status, to an analysis of two extremes in the history of the study, or, rather, of the artistic reception of the so-called “Russian avant-garde” in the West in the twentieth century. Even with only the most superficial acquaintance with the history of the interpretation of the “Russian avant-garde” in the twentieth century—not only of the term, but of the artistic process that is commonly understood by it—a very clear division arises between two main yet mutually exclusive approaches: exaltation and defamation. Borrowing Freud’s terminology, we will call these two extremes totem and taboo [3], where “totem” stands for the history of the hyper-heroisation of the avant-garde, which laid the foundations for the formation of a successful international art brand, an extremely profitable and scandalous export art-product, and “taboo” stands for those historical and political processes due to which, willingly or unwillingly, the “Russian avant-garde” fell out of the general history of twentieth century world art.

“The Eternal Russian”

In 1899, the Russo-German writer, philosopher, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé set off for Russia, escorted by the young Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. For both, this journey would prove truly fateful—Rilke literally fell ill with Russia, calling it his “spiritual homeland.” In itself, the idea of a journey to a mysterious northern country was symptomatic of and entirely in accordance with the spirit of that age. Fin de siècle European society was full of eschatological expectations, and sought salvation in various pseudo-philosophical and mystical teachings. Faith in the renewal and salvation of a decrepit Europe (German— Abendland, land of evening) [4] was related to a spiritual light meant to come from the East. It was at this time that the Old World discovered the works of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy [5], and that an avalanche of Russian literature literally covered European culture—and that that proverbial myth of the “mysterious Russian soul” began to take shape. The author of this myth might be called the collective European reader of Russian novels, and philosophical and religious treatises, however, one of the most important creators and faithful ministers of this cult was the Austrian poet and spiritual thinker Rainer Maria Rilke.

As I have already noted, in 1899, the twenty-four-year-old poet accepted, with great enthusiasm, the invitation of his beloved Lou Andreas-Salomé to visit Russia. Preparations for this pilgrimage to the Promised Land of his Idols—Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy—were carried out with great diligence: Rilke set down to the study of the Russian language so that he might read the books in the original. On his first visit, Rilke had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Tolstoy [6]. More than anything, the young poet was troubled by thoughts about What is Art? (1897) [7], the old count’s new literary manifesto, in which, as it seemed to Rilke, the great writer demeaned all the previous attainments of Russian literature and art. Rilke, however, seems not to have been able to bring himself to put these questions to Tolstoy directly. Later, in her memoirs, Lou Andreas-Salomé would call Tolstoy the “entrance gate into Russia” (German—Eingangstor zu Russland) [8], while Rilke went as far as to christen the stooping old man “the Eternal Russian” (German—Der ewige Russe) [9].

A year later, Lou Andreas-Salomé once again took hold of her young favourite Rilke and once again set off for Russia—this time, for the Holy of Holies, Yasnaya Polyana. There, the venerable count courteously agreed to give time to his importunate guests and take a stroll through his estate—he graciously heard their questions, and made it appear that the conversation was of interest to him [10]. These two hours, however, would change the life of Rilke forever, and, after him, that of all of Europe. Many years later, in an interview given to a French acquaintance, Rilke shared the impression this fateful meeting had made on him. Remembering the most minute details, the poet recounted the nature of the conversation with Tolstoy, and gave a very colourful description of the outward appearance of the celebrated inhabitant of Yasnaya Polyana—the ruler of the minds of that generation:

“He spoke in Russian, expressing his thought brightly and with vivacity, in such a way that I was not always able to understand his words. But elemental power, force, and majesty were present in everything he said. From time to time, I was able to cast a sidelong glance at his wide face and prominent cheekbones, his large ears, above which the wind stirred grey strands, his widened nostrils, inhaling the spring with a kind of sensual pleasure. Resembling a prophet, he strode about in his peasant’s shirt with his long flowing beard, gesticulated freely, but his gaze remained terrible, acute, and all-seeing. Here is his image, as I have preserved it, and it is of greater significance than his words.”

It was along with these “big ears” and “grey strands” that Rilke dragged the aforementioned myth of a redemptive and mysterious “Russian soul” into Western culture—a myth that was largely the fruit of his excited fantasy and that would be taken up by exalted poets and other dreamers of the Old World on the eve of its end. Ultimately, Rilke himself would recognise that the image of the prophet with the “long flowing beard” he had imagined proved, for him, of “greater significance than his words, ” which he “was not always able to understand.”

An absolutely different characterisation—and, it must be said, in places a more caustic and accurate one—of Tolstoy was provided by a talented publicist and political figure of that time, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (who later came to fame under the pseudonym “Lenin”). In his article “Leo Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution” [14], the provincial intellectual and intransigent fighter of tsarism writes of the “glaring contradictions” [15] in the teachings of his great contemporary. On the one hand, he flogs Tolstoy, declaring him a “landlord obsessed with Christ” and a “jaded, hysterical sniveller.” Vladimir Ilyich derisively remarks that “Tolstoy is absurd as a prophet who has discovered new nostrums for the salvation of mankind” and disparages the Russian and foreign “Tolstoyans” who wish “to convert the weakest side of his doctrine into a dogma.” Mocking the consequences of his teachings, Lenin introduces the image of the Russian intellectual who “publicly beats his breast and wails” that “I am a bad wicked man, but I am practising moral self-perfection; I don’t eat meat any more, I now eat rice cutlets.”

On the other hand, defending Tolstoy against the attacks of “venal hacks, ” the author of this ardent article recognises the writer as a “great artist, ” a “genius who has not only drawn incomparable pictures of Russian life but has made first-class contributions to world literature.” He likes the Tolstoyan criticism of capitalist exploitation and exposure of “government outrages, the farcical courts and the state administration.” He praises the writer for the “unmasking of the profound contradictions between the growth of wealth and achievements of civilisation” and the rise in poverty that leads the people to run wild. The final verdict of the future leader of the world proletariat in relation to Tolstoy is simple and entirely as one would expect: “the sum total of his views, taken as a whole, happens to express the specific features of our revolution as a peasant bourgeois revolution.”

Rilke, Lenin, Tolstovites, underground revolutionaries, exalted mystics, religious philosophers and others, others, and others searched for a new path—a path to renewal and reconstruction of the world. And Tolstoy became for them the embodiment of that creator of the new type—the superhuman, true modernist, located in the avant-garde not just in relation to the cultures of previous epochs, but to modernity.

To be continued.


The presence of quotation marks in the title of this essay is the consequence of many years of academic polemic around the term “avant-garde,” which is commonly used to denote a wide range of artistic trends in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century and their further development on the territories of Soviet republics and beyond after the October Revolution of 1917. The question of the appropriateness of the term has been considered in many academic and art-critical articles published in Russia and abroad. For example: A. A. Kovalev, “Sushhestvoval li «russkij avangard»? Tezisy po povodu terminologii” [Did a “Russian avant-garde” exist? Theses on terminology], Voprosy iskusstvoznanija, no. 1: pp. 123–130; G. G. Pospelov, “Eshhe raz o «russkom avangarde»” [Once again on the “avant-garde”], Iskusstvoznanie, no. 1 (1998): pp. 482–489; M. A. Bessonova, “Mozhno li obojtis' bez termina «avangard»?” [Can we do without the term “avant-garde”?], Iskusstvoznanie, no. 2 (1998): pp. 478–483.

Even in Entsiklopediya russkogo avangarda [Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde], a foundational academic work compiled by the main specialists on the subject, the article dedicated to providing a clear definition of the term “Avant-Garde” emphasises the conditional character of this definition.

[1] A widespread expression that dates from Maxim Gorky’s unfinished novel The Life of Klim Samgin.

[2] In addition to Russian artists, a number of Ukrainian, Latvian, and Jewish artists are generally held to have been a part of the avant-garde— their names are inextricably linked to the development of new art in Russia during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

[3] Sigmund Freud „Totem und Tabu Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker“, Leipzig und Wien, Hugo Heller & Cie., 1913.

See further in English: Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (London: Routledge, 2001). doi:

[4] This was how the German philosopher Oswald Spengler termed Europe and the West. Spengler’s sensational 1918 work The Decline of the West had a colossal influence on his contemporaries. In German, the book was titled: «Der Untergang des Abendlandes. Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte», Wien: Braumüller, 1918. In the book, Spengler predicted the decline and death of European culture and its replacement by the next great civilisation, which would come—according to the the German academic’s argument—from Russia. Spengler’s work was printed in Russian translation in Moscow in 1922.

[5] Lou Andreas-Salomé, L. Leo Tolstoi, unser Zeitgenosse, Neue deutsche Rundschau, Jahrgang 9, (1898), Nr. 3. und 4, S. 1145 – 1155.

[6] For further details on Rilke’s trip to Russia and his relationship with Leo Tolstoy, see: E. M. Butler, “Rilke and Tolstoy,” The Modem Language Review, vol. XXXV, no. 3 (1940): pp. 494–505.

[7] A theoretical work by Leo Tolstoy that sharply criticises the aesthetic teachings of his day and proposes a reconsideration of the meaning and purpose of art. In this essay, Tolstoy sets himself the task of defining the criteria of true art freed from the influence of cultural traditions and religious, social, and other limitations. This said, according to the argument of the author, a radical reconsideration must take place not only in contemporary works of art but also, necessarily, in acknowledged masterpieces of the previous epoch. The great legacy of world culture—Raphael, Shakespeare, Goethe, Beethoven, and so on—requires the same strict and unremitting critical analysis as the strivings of contemporary innovators. The German translation of What is Art? was published by the Hugo Steinitz publishing house as a pamphlet in Berlin in 1898 (Graf Leo Tolstoi, Gegen die moderne Kunst. Deutsch von Wilhelm Thal; Verlag: Berlin. Hugo Steinitz. 1898.).

[8] L. Andreas-Salome, Lebensrückblick. Grundriss einiger Lebenserinnerungen. Aus dem Nachlass herausgegeben von Ernst Pfeiffer. Frankfurt a. M., 1968. S. 117.

[9] This is how Rilke characterised Tolstoy in a letter to the Parisian writer Hugo Salus, sharing with him his impression of his first meeting with the great writer, which took place during his first trip to Moscow.

[10] In the memoirs of L. N. Tolstoy himself no detailed reference to this visit has remained. Most likely, the arrival of yet more importunate guests was for him an inconsequential, even unpleasant episode about which he tried to forget as soon as possible. A year before his death, answering a question in an interview about whether he was acquainted with the work of contemporary Austrian and German writers—George, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, and so on—the elderly count answered that he did not know a single of the listed names. [11] In different years in different letters, notes, conversations, and interviews, Rilke more than once returned to this meeting. And each time, he concentrated his attention not on the subject of conversation with Tolstoy, but on the outward appearance of the elderly count, and invariably underlined the peculiarities of the anatomical structure of his ears.

[12] Joachim Storck, Rayner Mariya Ril'ke v Yasnoy Polyane [Rainer Maria Rilke in Yasnaya Polyana], Marbacher Magazine special edition, 92/2000, (Stuttgart: German Schiller Society, 2000), p. 64.

[13] Feeling the full depth of the terrible tragedy of the start of the First World War, Rilke wrote: “Only now do I understand the two powerful elders, Tolstoy and Cézanne, wandering endlessly and pouring out warnings and threats, like prophets of some ancient union about to fall apart—and they did not want to be present at this collapse.”

The figure of the prophet arose more than once in Rilke’s philosophical meditations—by turns, this figure took the form of August Rodin, to whom Rilke dedicated a separate book, and Michelangelo, who was for Rilke the embodiment of the artistic soul par excellence. A characteristic feature of all these new prophets of modernity—Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Wilhelm Röntgen, Rabindranath Tagore, and, indeed, Lenin—was a beard. Understandably, Rilke could not resist the temptation, and grew a small beard himself. A beard, or, at worst, a Nietzschean moustache such as the one worn by Nietzsche himself and Maxim Gorky was a kind of indispensable attribute for a genius, that is, for person at a transitional stage of evolution between Faust and the Übermensch. Under the impression of his trip, Rilke developed a new formula according to which an individual is not the creator of future eras but its personification, as, for example, Tolstoy, who he saw as the embodiment of the Russian people—“the people as artist,” and Russia, the country that gave birth to him, the “country of the future.”

[14] This article, timed to coincide with the 80th birthday of L. N. Tolstoy, was first published in the underground Bolshevik newspaper Proletariat in Geneva. The article was positioned on the front page of the newspaper, though the name of the author was not given.

[15] This and all further references to “Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution” are to the translation published in 1973 by Progress Publishers. Lenin Collected Works, vol. 15 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), pp. 202–209. The English translation of the article can also be accessed at:

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