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Erotic Utopia

The Decadent Imagination in Russia's Fin de Siecle

Olga Matich

Publication Year: 2005

The first generation of Russian modernists experienced a profound sense of anxiety resulting from the belief that they were living in an age of decline. What made them unique was their utopian prescription for overcoming the inevitability of decline and death both by metaphysical and physical means. They intertwined their mystical erotic discourse with European degeneration theory and its obsession with the destabilization of gender. In Erotic Utopia, Olga Matich suggests that same-sex desire underlay their most radical utopian proposal of abolishing the traditional procreative family in favor of erotically induced abstinence.


2006 Winner, CHOICE Award for Outstanding Academic Titles, Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
Honorable Mention, Aldo and Jean Scaglione Prize for Studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures, Modern Language Association

“Offers a fresh perspective and a wealth of new information on early Russian modernism. . . . It is required reading for anyone interested in fin-de-siècle Russia and in the history of sexuality in general.”—Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Slavic and East European Journal

“Thoroughly entertaining.”—Avril Pyman, Slavic Review

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book has been a long time in the writing. The first impetus came at a Russian literature conference held in Berkeley in 1987 (“From the Golden Age to the Silver Age”), where my claim that symbolist life creation emerged in part from Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? was...

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A Note on Transliteration and Abbreviations

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pp. xiii

Transliteration of Russian names and words follows a modified version of the Library of Congress system, with -ii and -oi in personal names rendered as -y and -oy, respectively, except in instances where a different spelling has been accepted in English. Unless indicated otherwise...

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pp. 3-26

In 1921 the symbolist poet Viacheslav Ivanov described decadence posthumously as “the sense both oppressive and exalting of being the last of a series.”1 He was referring to a sensibility prevalent among early Russian modernists, who, like their European counterparts of the last decades...

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1. Lev Tolstoy as Early Modernist: Fragmenting and Dissecting the Body

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pp. 27-56

Viktor Shklovsky, the formalist critic who derived his theory of defamiliarization from Tolstoy’s fiction, began his 1963 biography of the author with a chapter titled “About the Green Sofa which Was Later Upholstered in Black Oilcloth.” The centerpiece of the chapter is a Moroccan...

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2. The Meaning of The Meaning of Love: What Is Erotic about Vladimir Solov’ev’s Utopia?

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pp. 57-88

The future Russian philosopher Vladimir S. Solov’ev arrived in Cairo on November 11, 1875, having abandoned his studies of the kabala and Gnosticism at the British Museum in London. We learn from a letter to his mother that he visited the standard tourist sites in and around Cairo, ...

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3. The Case of Alexander Blok: Marriage, Genealogy, Degeneration

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pp. 89-125

Alexander Blok and Liubov’ Dmitrievna Mendeleeva were married on August 17, 1903, in an eighteenth-century church in Tarakanovo that stood on a green meadow overlooking a ravine near Blok’s family estate. Coming from high-ranking Petersburg academic families, young Blok...

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4. Blok’s Femme Fatale: History as Palimpsest

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pp. 126

One of the originators of the Russian symbolist movement and author of numerous historical novels widely read all over Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, Dmitrii Merezhkovsky perceived history as a palimpsest. In seeing himself as a writer-archeologist who penetrates...

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5. Transcending Gender: The Case of Zinaida Gippius

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pp. 162-211

Zinaida Gippius (1869–1945) met Dmitrii Merezhkovsky (1865–1941) in the Caucasus resort town of Borzhom in 1888. A capricious, provincial young woman of eighteen, she was surrounded by local admirers and at first seemed indifferent to Merezhkovsky’s attentions. If anything,...

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6. Religious-Philosophical Meetings: Celibacy contra Marriage

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pp. 212-235

On October 8, 1901, Dmitrii Merezhkovsky, Dmitrii Filosofov, Vasilii Rozanov, Vladimir Miroliubov, and Valentin Ternavtsev had a private audience with the general procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, at which they requested permission to have public gatherings...

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7. Vasilii Rozanov: The Case of an Amoral Procreationist

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pp. 236-273

Having sat down on a stool in front of Gippius [whom he called Zinochka,] Rozanov quietly sprayed out—together with a flying stream of spittle—brief, shaky little phrases, which leaped out of his mouth quickly in chaotic, lisping hops. . . . The conversation...

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pp. 274-278

Grand Duke Alexei, heir to the Russian throne, suffered from a hereditary blood disease. The perception was that the Romanov dynasty was doomed by hemophilia, which is transmitted through the female bloodline, but infects only men. Rhetorically, it could be described as a decadent...


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pp. 281-327


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pp. 329-340

E-ISBN-13: 9780299208837
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299208844

Publication Year: 2005