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Reviewed by:
  • Ukrainian Futurism, 1914–1930: A Historical and Critical Study
  • Malynne Sternstein
Ukrainian Futurism, 1914–1930: A Historical and Critical Study. Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. xviii + 413. $35.00 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).

A new challenge in the post-Soviet world is to reassess the richness of the national and ethnic perspectives that contributed to the culture of the Russian and Soviet empires. A decade after the fall of Soviet power, scholarship has not exactly raced to account for the vanguard art movements that were obliterated by the shadow of the Russian avant-garde. However, if scholars have been slow to revise the story of “Soviet” modernism, it is clearly due to the difficulty of parsing the history of the phenomena in the “Russian lands.” Oleh Ilnytzkyj offers us one of the first national rereadings of cultural contributions to the empire in his ambitious and meticulous study of Ukrainian Futurism.

In contrast to the success and popularity of Russian Futurism in the modern critical imagination, and even in its public reception (in Russia and elsewhere), Ukrainian Futurism has not shared the critical esteem granted to its Russian counterpart. The movement was all but banned from the revisionist history of Soviet literature, and not until the 1970s did Ukrainian Futurism and its outspoken front man Mykhail’ Semenko (1892–1937) receive any adequate official recognition in the annals of Soviet letters. Ilnytzkyj’s exhaustively researched book constitutes the single greatest step in the rehabilitation of a movement that, in the author’s account, has suffered from significant critical misunderstanding, even in Ukraine itself. If [End Page 157] “Ukrainian scholarship and criticism did not live up to the challenge of the avant-garde” (348), then western avant-garde criticism has not offered any remedies; practically ignored in the West, the movement has been swallowed up by a monolithically constructed Russian modernism.

As is clear from his bibliography, Ilnytzkyj has devoted his scholarly life to Ukrainian Futurism, producing articles, translations, and a dissertation on the topic. In his first full-length critical study, he demonstrates a deep acquaintance with the authors and texts of the movement and a profound sympathy with its practitioners. His clearly stated goal is to right the wrongs done to Ukrainian Futurism, and thus the critical attitude tends toward recuperation, not evaluation.

Ilnytzkyj avoids euphemism and jargon and, while this strategy has its merits, it also compromises the critical portion of his “critical history.” Contested terms and concepts like “avant-garde,” “modernity,”—even “Futurism” and “leftism”—are not called into question. Speculation on why young Ukranian writers and artists chose Futurism over any other of the plenitude of -isms they could have supported in the 1910s and why they held to it so strongly throughout the 1920s is curiously absent in Ilnytzkyj’s otherwise thorough research (except for a brief digression on Italian Futurism in the conclusion). This lack is strongly felt, especially since most of the nominally “Futurist” movements, such as Russian Futurism and the occasionally mislabeled Vorticist movement, struggled mightily with the implications of this designation.

The book is organized into large sections on the movement’s history, theoretical work, and literary legacy. It is noteworthy that more than half of the text is devoted to an internal history of the movement; clearly, a detailed account of the beginnings, development, and breakdown of Ukrainian Futurism is Ilnytzkyj’s primary task. This important work is likely to be the book’s primary contribution; still, the reader not generally conversant in Slavic modernism may lose his or her way among the many submovements, journals, and literary and historical figures that Ilnytzkyj takes up. The history section might be augmented in future editions with a glossary, or dramatis personae, of names and movements. The separation of theory from practice, and of both from history, makes the approach somewhat hermetic. It might have proved effective to integrate more fully the book’s parts, perhaps along thematic lines, that would allow the various elements of Ukrainian Futurism to speak to each other. I am particularly concerned with the complete separation of the movement’s “literary legacy” from the historical discussion. This section, further subdivided into poetry...

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pp. 157-159
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