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Unmasking the Invisible: Russian and Japanese Cultural Exchanges from 1890 to 1917

  • Author(s): Sosnak, Kathryn Marie
  • Advisor(s): Paperno, Irina
  • et al.

Focusing on the symbolic and ideological meanings of Japan in the Russian cultural imagination from 1890 to 1917, this dissertation seeks to define Russian literary japonisme and to explore the presence of Japanese art and aesthetics in Russian Modernist literature. In this study, modernism is divided into four distinct stages: the 1890s, the period of the rise of japonisme in Russian literature; 1904-05, the cataclysmic years of the Russo-Japanese War; 1906-09, the period in which writers described the war's lingering effects; the 1910s, a decade that not only offered a retrospective account of the war, but that also reclaimed the pre-war Russian fascination with Japanese themes and motifs. While historical events serve as a backdrop to my study and help to shape its direction, this dissertation deals expressly with culture. It points to the images, metaphors and symbolic language that were used to describe Russian and Japanese relations at both the beginning and height of Russian Modernism. Even as this study draws from the rich body of scholarship that explores Russia's relationship to Japan and examines many of the same issues--the war, Russian japonisme, Russia's constantly shifting perception of Japan--its primary emphasis remains the aesthetic collision between the East and West.

The chapters are chronologically arranged and provide a glimpse into the role that Japan played in the literature and images produced by the Russian cultural imagination. Chapter One points to the symbolic image of the geisha in both Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with a Little Dog" and Fedor Sologub's The Petty Demon to illustrate Russia's fin-de-siècle aesthetic fascination with Japan. In the second chapter, I offer a "panoramic" view of the phantasmagoric Russo-Japanese War, highlighting the common symbolic language that appeared in various visual and verbal representations of the event. Chapter Three focuses on the war's aftermath and the collective trauma, or "wound," that was articulated in the post-war essays and literature of Aleksandr Blok, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius. The final chapter of this dissertation offers an analysis of Russia's literary return to japonisme in the decade following the Russo-Japanese War. I argue that, as the war faded into the past, writers like Andrei Bely, Konstantin Bal'mont and Mikhail Kuzmin began to reengage with Japanese art, even adopting Japanese aesthetic principles into their writing.

In 1905, Bely famously compared Japan to a mask, and the aim of this dissertation is to "unmask" Russia's Japan--that is, to explore the shifting symbolic meanings of the image of Japan in the Russian cultural imagination between 1890 and 1917.

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