(Post-)Soviet Cosmopolis: The Soviet Project of World Literature and its Legacies
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.
Bild oben: Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, Titelseite des Schutzumschlags des ersten Bandes. Verlag: Schöngeistige Literatur 1967 (UdSSR). [Библиотека Всемирной Литературы, лицевая сторона суперобложки первого тома. Издательство "Художественная литература" 1967 (СССР)]. Ausschnitt. Quelle: Wikimedia