Digital Conference
27 May 2021 – 29 May 2021

Inherit the World: Strategies of ‘translatio’ in the Soviet Literary Cosmopolis

Venue: Online
Organized by Zaal Andronikashvili (ZfL), Susanne Frank (HU Berlin/EXC 2020), Eugene Ostashevsky (NYU/EXC 2020)
Contact: Alisa Kuznetcova (
Research project(s): Literature in Georgia

A collaboration with the research project (Post-)Soviet Literary Cosmopolis at the Cluster of Excellence 2020 “Temporal Communities: Doing Literature in a Global Perspective”

Current debates over world literature/global literatures almost never pay attention to the project for world literature as conceived and developed in the USSR between 1917 and 1991, although it was the most ambitious, centralised, and best-resourced effort to date to transform the workings of literary production, circulation, and consumption both at home and worldwide. It is the task of our conference to examine the Soviet project for world literature—“Soviet multinational literature” being an important part of it—and thereby to contribute to the ongoing world literature debate. Current debates have increasingly substituted “the world” with “a global,” and “literature” is used almost exclusively in the plural to emphasize diversity. But does this new language eliminate the imperial origin of the notion? To lay claims on “the world”—even knowledge claims—has always been an imperial task. As an attempt to fashion a broad domestic and international community of writers and readers laying claim to world literary heritage, the Soviet project was certainly an imperial one. It needs to be studied as such and it needs to be put into a comparative perspective.

The conference will combine a historical approach with a contemporary focus. Together with studying Soviet multinational and world-literature paradigms, we will consider their effect on current literary developments in different regions of the former Soviet Union, including successor states where Russian is no longer the lingua franca, as well as on diasporic Russian-language communities.

To speak of the “(post)soviet cosmopolis” is to follow Sheldon Pollock’s comparison between the Sanskrit world and the Roman “Latinitas” in order to elaborate on the specifically Soviet strategies of claiming the “world” through the formation of a single, universal literary canon to be translated into Russian (and, to a lesser extent, the languages of the republics) and read according to specific interpretative criteria. Soviet strategies included establishing a huge institutional apparatus—extending to research, translation, publishing, international journals, and education—to bring under Soviet organizational and interpretive control whatever can be conceived of as world literature, its history, its multinational canon, its future development and its functioning as an instrument of education. To analyse Soviet strategies is to pave the way for a comparison with other, more contemporary claims on the “world,” such as that of the US, and their particular strategies of linguistic dominance and multinational representation.

Despite consequent and sustainable institutional implementation ‘from above,’ the emerging Soviet literary community was highly complex and also full of tensions between contradictory interests, e.g. those of the curators and party cadres on the one hand, and those of writers who, unable to publish their original work for any combination of political and aesthetic reasons, used the niches of the system to earn their living as translators. The Russian-language representation of multinational world literature their translations brought forward is the result of the official Soviet project, but it offers a picture that is quite different from the intentions of its founders and the party. The conference will consider the implementation strategies of the normative institutional apparatus, the sphere and scale of its impact in the country and worldwide, as well as the multilayered developments of the community itself, its networks, the practices of its actors, the concept and published canon of world literature, and also the unintended side effects, as e.g., a transnational soviet underground.

The legacy of the Soviet project of multinational and world literature is also an issue in the post-Soviet period. On the one hand, the new literary nationalisms in post-Soviet countries, for all their postcolonial attitudes, have to be evaluated—at least partially—as symptoms of the Soviet legacy. In the Russian literary sphere, on the other hand, there is a confrontation between two new literary communities: that of global authors and critics, who decentralise Russian as a literary language, detaching it from nation, territory and political belonging, and that of “Russkii Mir,” the official state-supported Russian organisation which lays claim on the Russian speaking populations and cultural products all over the world. Whereas “Russkii Mir” seeks to identify Russian literature with the Russian “nation” and state in order to enact a kind of neo-imperial Eurasia-building, those who decentralise Russian bring forward new modes of transnational and translingual writing that in the global context can be compared to other, minor, trans- and post-monolingual literary communities, such as those which function in English or German.


Fig. above: Library of world Literature, Cover of the first Volume. Publisher: Fiction 1967 (UdSSR) [Библиотека Всемирной Литературы, лицевая сторона суперобложки первого тома. Издательство “Художественная литература” 1967 (СССР)]. Detail. Source: Wikimedia


Thursday, 27 May 2021
Notions of Cosmopolis

Susanne Frank (HU): Heritage as a key to the Soviet Literary Cosmopolis

Zaal Andronikashvili (ZfL/Ilia State University Tbilisi): Tbilisi as Cosmopolis. A sound-portrait

Sona Mnatsakanyan (EXC “Temporal Communities”/Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies, FU): The literary text of Yerevan

Polina Barksova (Hampshire College): Tatiana Gnedich translates the Siege of Leningrad

Eugene Ostashevsky (EXC “Temporal Communities,” FU/NYU) and Maria Stepanova (Moscow): Ovid-Variations beyond (Un)translatability

Moderation: Galin Tihanov (Queen Mary University of London)


Friday, 28 May 2021
Concepts and Politics of Multinationality

Maria Khotimsky (MIT): Early Soviet approaches to defining world literature in comparative perspective

Samuel Hodgkin (Yale): Romantic Representation and the National Poet: Genealogies of Second-World Surrogacy

Galina Babak (Charles University Prague): Translation of Modernization: ‘World Literature” in 1920s Soviet Ukraine

Gulnaz Sibgatullina (Amsterdam School of Historical Studies): Is the translator a double-agent? Liron Khamidullin and the Making of Tatar Literary Canon

Gesine Drews-Sylla (Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg): African Literature and the Project of Soviet World Literature

Moderation: Rossen Djagalov (NYU)


Saturday, 29 May 2021
Translating the ‘World’ as translatio imperii

Thomas Lahusen (University of Toronto): Socialist in Form, National in Content? Tologon Kasymbekov’s Broken Sword and Nikolai Chekmenev’s Seven Rivers

Niovi Zampouka (EXC “Temporal Communities,” FU): From true Socrates to Maximus the Greek: Modern Greek literature in the Soviet translation project

Kevin Platt (University of Pennsylvania): From Howard Fast to John Cheever: American Literature in the Soviet Literary World

Ilya Kukulin (HSE Moscow): Poetic Translation as a Political-Aesthetic Performance in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture: from the 1970s to the 2010s

Moderation: Vera Faber (EXC “Temporal Communities”, FU)

Final discussion


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