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  • Bakhtin in his Own Voice:Interview by Victor Duvakin
  • Mikhail Bakhtin (bio)


On March 15, 2013, Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) broadcast a recording of selections from a series of interviews with Mikhail Bakhtin conducted in 1973 by philologist and dissident Victor Duvakin (Komardenkov 1972, 18).1 At this key moment in the Soviet era, Professor Duvakin, who had been dismissed from his position at Moscow State University, decided to create a phono-history of the epoch (Timofeev-Resovsky 1995, 384). Among the three hundred people whom Duvakin interviewed was Mikhail Bakhtin (Bocharova and Radzishevsky1996, 123), the seventy-eight-year-old retired professor of literature who was known familiarly by many as “chudak.”2 Bakhtin had continued to write about Dostoevsky, the theory of the novel, and “the great time” (большого времени) of the historicity of meaning. After a number of weeks spent with Bakhtin (see Bakhtin 2002, 12), Duvakin left us an enormous archive of “Bakhtin in his own voice”—eighteen hours’ worth of conversations with the philosopher, of which the broadcast portions are translated here.

In these interviews Bakhtin discusses literature and poets, and talks very personally as if he is lecturing at the university to his students. He mentions some of the most important figures of [End Page 592] the literary movement in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century—figures like Fyodor Sologub, Valery Bryusov, Maxim Gorky Vladimir Mayakovsky Velimir Khebnikov, and Alexander Blok.

The interview has never been translated into English and, consequently has been inaccessible to English-speaking audiences interested in the life and works of Mikhail Bakhtin. This annotated translation attempts to fill the gap and to bring Bakhtin to the Western audience in “his own voice” (Gratchev and Gyulamiryan 2014, 2). Brief notes are included to identify important Russian literary figures and historical events in order to help Western readers contextualize Bakhtin’s observations.3


“I would say that of all poets who were decadents and symbolists, including those like [Valery] Bryusov5 and Viatcheslav Ivanov,6 Sologub was the least decadent, and from him it was not possible to expect anything extravagant. He was a very respectable man; as a person, he was not a decadent at all. He was a teacher and the supervisor of a very big school; in the ballroom of that school he often held literary evenings and invited all his friends.

His poetry was real poetry, it was pure poetry! I, as a theorist and historian, I do not accept this term—decadence—altogether. This term was not important for major poets but more so for other little “poetikov,”7 for whom the very word “decadence” was understood as a fashionable pose, enigmatic and interesting to others. Some of them, like [Alexander] Dovrolubov,8 would wear black gloves all the time. He wore these gloves even while sitting in the living room. But the great poet would never become a decadent of this sort, and this term cannot be attached to them. For me this term smells of this fashionable pose, these black gloves. . . .”

Then Bakhtin recited emotionally the verse of Innokenty Annensky,9 a verse that he seemed to be enjoying thoroughly:

“I am an apostate of the Roman era.As long as my house is quiet and free from massacre,In a slow style I write a golden verseIn which dies the purple color of the last sunset.”(Я—бледный римлянин эпохи Апостата.Покуда портик мой от гула бойни тих,Я стилем золотым слагаю акростих,Где умирает блеск пурпурного заката.)10 [End Page 593]

Bakhtin continues:

“This is a real representative of decadence, if you will, but it has nothing to do with Dobrolubov or with Sologub. One of our composers once said: ‘Do you know any happy music? I do not know any happy music.’ And there is no such thing as happy poetry, and there should not be. If there is no element of death in it, if there is no element of the end, or some presentiment of death, then it is not poetry, it is a stupid rapture, an ecstasy. . . .

For instance, Blok. . . . He knew very well what life is about:

‘And I look, and hostility measure,Hating, cursing, and loving:For the torment, for the death—I...


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