gallery of russian thinkers...

selected by Dmitry Olshansky

'An art and a life is not one and the same, but it could be in the outlook.'

Pavel Medvedev

Pavel Medvedev
Pavel Medvedev
Pavel Nikolaevich MEDVEDEV (4 January 1892, St. Petersburg — 17 July 1938, place of death unknown) — philologist, literary scholar and critic who viewed literary criticism as a philosophical discipline. Author of an original theory of sociological poetics affirming the ontological sociality of artistic phenomena and of the principles for their study, Medvedev was a key figure in the academic resistance to the Formal Method in Russia, advanced a number of the founding ideas of what would become semiotics, and worked on the elaboration of a theory of genre. He was a member of the 'Bakhtin Circle', which he assembled in Vitebsk and which continued its philosophical inquiries in informal (domestic) circumstances in Leningrad, though in close contact with the Institute for the Comparative History of the Literatures and Languages of the West and East, where Medvedev, together with V.F. Shishmarev, headed the sociological poetics group. In the view of Randall Collins, the Leningrad 'group of anti-Formalists', 'especially Mikhail Bakhtin and Pavel Medvedev', achieved 'a new level of reflexive sophistication'.

In 1917 Medvedev was the last mayor of Vitebsk, and a member of the Socialist Revolutionary party, which he subsequently left following a disagreement with the party leadership. Teaching in a number of higher education institutions and carrying out research into the problematic of artistic creativity, he was among those who inspired and led the famous 'Vitebsk Renaissance' of the 1910s and 1920s, associated with the work of Marc Chagall, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Konstantin Malevich and his school, Nikolay Malko and his orchestra, and the humanities circle of Medvedev and Mikhail Bakhtin.

The articles from Medvedev's early period, including those written at the front when he was in the army, are the work of a researcher into Russian Symbolism, the philosophy of Russian literature, and the ethical and philosophical principles of populism that brought them close to the ethical socialism of the neo-Kantians. He was an opponent of theological philosophical argumentation and a consistent critic of what is termed the 'material aesthetics' of the early twentieth century; later, in the 1920s, he continued and developed this critique in his best-known articles and books.

In the late 1910s Medvedev wrote a number of works on which he based lecture courses on the theory of literature and psychology of creativity (see Ken Hirschkop, Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy, Oxford, 1999, p. 146). Psychological and phenomenological approaches to creativity led him to an interpretation of the 'aesthetic object' and a 'theory of perception' that aligned his thought closely with Bakhtin's treatise on the aesthetics of verbal creativity, Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity, and with Vygotsky's Psychology of Art. As rector of Vitebsk Proletarian University from 1918 to 1919, Medvedev had ambitions to set up an Institute of Humanities and Arts that would inaugurate a new approach to the study of the theory and history of art. For ideological reasons the Institute was not established, but many of its principles became the basis of the aesthetic project pursued by the members of the Bakhtin Circle, who formulated what Bakhtin termed a shared conception of verbal artistic creation. This conception was to underpin the three monographs for which the Circle is known internationally: Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics (1928), Valentin Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), and Bakhtin's Problem's of Dostoevskii's Art (1929). The publication of the third of these books at a time when its author was already under arrest, and Bakhtin's subsequent employment at the Saransk Pedagogical Institute, were both arranged by Medvedev. The behavioural strategy displayed in saving his friend's life reflected the essence of his worldview, directed as it was to the achievement of outcomes that would make a difference in life. This ideology of life creation was also a distinguishing feature of the journal Notes of the Travelling Theatre of Gaideburov and Skarskaia, which Medvedev established in 1922 and edited until it was closed by the censor in 1924.

The publication in 1928 of the monograph The Dramas and Narrative Poems of Aleksandr Blok: From the History of their Creation, a work of genetic criticism, together with his annotated editions of Blok's Diary (1928-29) and Notebooks (1930), brought Medvedev fame in Russian and in the emigration. These publications brought a glimmer of the Silver Age into the scholarly and literary world of a new Russia that had thrown its culture 'overboard from the steamship of contemporary life', in the notorious words of the 1913 manifesto of Russian Futurism.

An advocate of scientific analysis of art, in the late 1920s Medvedev sought to enrich Marxist study of ideologies with new ideas and approaches, but in doing so attracted devastating criticism, finding himself labelled 'anti-Soviet', 'Kantian', and a 'destroyer of proletarian art'. His theoretical sequel to The Formal Method, Sociological Poetics. Vol. 1: Thematics, was confiscated when he was arrested.

Medvedev's final monographs, In the Writer's Laboratory (1933) and Formalism and Formalists (1934), although both substantial works, bear traces of their author's attempts to escape the noose of political criticism that was tightening around his neck by simplifying his text and using the ideological cliches that were the order of the day. In the words of Academicisn A. F. Koni, recorded by Kornei Chukovsky, 'Medvevev became a Marxist under duress'.

In 1938 the man described by A. Krasnov-Levitan (an advocate of human rights who was expelled from the Soviet Union) as 'the most popular of our lecturers', a Professor at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute, Leningrad University and Academy for the Study of Arts, was arrested and shot. His manuscripts were confiscated, and his published works removed from libraries.

Medvedev's surviving works have been and continue to be published in many languages.

However, in the 1980s and 1990s research on Medvedev's work took place overwhelmingly in the context of Bakhtin studies. The false hypothesis that Bakhtin was the sole author of works by the whole of the 'Bakhtin Circle' distorted research into this dialogical phenomenon. Despite Bakhtin's own objections, this false account led, after his death, to publication under his name of works written by his closest colleagues, most notoriously in the commercially-oriented series 'Bakhtin Masked'. Now, however, thanks to the publication of a range of materials and facts, the distorted account is losing currency, and these works are beginning to appear under the names of their true authors, as with the 2007 Finnish translation of The Formal Method, Pavel Medvedev, Formaali metodi kirjallisuustieteessa.


By Medvedev:

1. Medvedev P. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics. Trans. by A. Wehrle. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1978; [Cambridge-London: Harvard University Press, 1985]

2. Medvedev P. Formal'nyj metod v literaturovedenii in Documenta semiotica. Mit einem Nachwort von Hans Gunter. Hildesheim–N.Y.: Georg Olms Verlag, 1974.

3. Medvedev P. The formal (morphological) method, or scholarly Salieri-ism in Bakhtin School Papers, ed. Ann Shukman. Oxford, 1983, pp. 51–65.

4. Medvedev P. Sociologism without sociology. (On the methodological works of P.N.Sakulin) in Bakhtin School Papers, ed. Ann Shukman. Oxford, 1983, pp. 67–74.


On Medvedev:

1. Kaiser M. P.N.Medvedev's 'The Collapse Formalism' in Language and literary theory. Ed. by B.A. Stolz, I.R.Titunik, L.Dolezel. Ann Arbor, 1984, P. 405–442

2. Bakhtin and cultural theory. Ed. by Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd. Manchester and New York. 1989

3. Tihanov G. The Master and the Slave. Oxford. 2000, P. 8–9

4. Brandist C. Sociologocal poetics and Formalism: Medvedev's Formal method (1928) in The Bakhtin Circle. Philosophy, Culture and Politics. London, 2002

5. The Bakhtin Circle: A timeline in The Bakhtin Circle in the master's absence. Ed. by C. Brandist, D. Shepherd & G. Tikhanov. Manchester and New York, 2004, P. 251–275

6. Medvedev Yu., Medvedeva D. The scholarly legacy of Pavel Medvedev in the light of his dialogue with Bakhtin in The Bakhtin Circle in the Master's Absence. Ed. by Craig Brandist, David Shepherd and Galin Tihanov. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004.–P. 24–43

7. Medvedev Yu. An Encounter that was 'Intended to Be' in Dialogism. An international Journal of Bakhtin Studies. Issues 5&6, 2001, P.10–20

8. Medvedev Yu., Medvedeva D. Bakhtin Circle as a 'thought collective' in Journal 'Zvezda' (St. Petersburg), 2006, _ 7, P. 194–206

9. Medvedev Yu., Medvedeva D. Proceedings of the XII International Bakhtin Conference. Jyvaskyla, Finland, 18-22 July, 2005, P.19-22, P.31-33

10. Index of Works by Mikhail Bakhtin and the Bakhtin Circle: Medvedev, Pavel Nikolaevich (1891–1938) in The annotated Bakhtin Bibliograpy. Ed. by Carol Adlam and David Shepherd. Maney publishing for the Modern Humanities Research Association. 2000, p. 370–374.


Yury P. Medvedev, literary critic (St. Petersburg)
and Daria A. Medvedeva, research fellow at Russian Academy of Sciences (St. Petersburg)


Translation by David Shepherd, Ph.D., Prof., University of Sheffield (UK)



International Society for Philosophers