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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Veronika Ambros

A Suticase Full of Manuscripts:
Petr Bogatyrev and his legacy

Solntseva, L.P., ed. Petr Grigor'evich Bogatyrev: Vospominaniia. Dokumenty. Stat'i. [Petr Grigor'evich Bogatyrev: Memoirs, Documents, Articles] St. Petersburg: Aleteia, 2002

In his Zoo; or, Letters not about Love a whimsical epistolary novel cum theoretical essay, the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovskii writes about his fellow travelers Roman Jakobson (1895-1981) and Petr Bogatyrev (1893-1971): "When Roman left for Prague, he wrote for Bogatyrev to come. Bogatyrev went, with his pants short, his shoes unlaced and his suitcase filled with manuscripts and torn papers."[1]

In 1923 OPOJAZ,[2] the sister organization of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded by Jakobson and Bogatyrev in 1915, published the book Czech Puppet and Russian Folk Theater..[3] Here Bogatyrev connects the research of Russian folklore that he conducted together with Jakobson in Russia and his investigation into Czech puppet theater and contributes to the topical discussion about the role of the word in contemporary theatre. Furthermore, typical of the formalist approach, Bogatyrev explores some verbal means used in Russian folk theater and Czech puppet theater (oxymoron, metathesis, synonyms, homonyms, metaphor, repetitions, zaum) as well as aspects of theater performance, such as the setting and the audience.

Bogatyrev's later works especially those written in Prague in the thirties increasingly show the semiotic tendency of the so-called Prague School, i.e., the Prague Linguistic Circle founded in 1926. In fact, as the semiotician Keir Elam claims: " It was above all the folklorist Petr Bogatyrev….who undertook to chart the elementary principles of theatrical semiosis."[4] According to Bogatyrev "theatre uses only those signs of costume and construction which are necessary for the given dramatic situation. …on the stage we find not only signs of as sign of a material object but also signs of the material object itself : for instance, on the stage the actor playing a hungry person can denote that he eats bread as such, and not bread as a sign of, let us say, poverty."[5]

Unfortunately, political events disrupted Bogatyrev's work in Prague. In 1939 he returned to Moscow where he worked not only as an ethnographer, but was also instrumental in developing the study of West Slavic literatures. In addition, he drew attention to Czech literature by translating Czech and Slovak literary works into Russian, such as Czech and Slovak folktales, the Czech romantic poet K.J. Erben, and, most importantly, Jaroslav Hašek's novel The Fortunes of the Good Soldier Švejk.[6] Initially persecuted and deprived of his teaching position, Bogatyrev returned to the university and co-operated with many prominent Russian scholars, Iu. Lotman and other members of the Tartu School among them.

In 1993, a conference commemorated the 100th anniversary of Bogatyrev's birth and initiated a continuation of Bogatyrev Readings [Bogatyrevskie Chteniia], events organized a year after his death. A selection from these contributions is now available in a book edited by L.P. Solntseva, titled Petr Grigor'evich Bogatyrev: Vospominaniia, dokumenty, stat'i [Petr Grigor'evich Bogatyrev: Memoirs, Documents, Articles].

The volume consists of three parts. The first, introduced by the theorist of the Prague Linguistic Circle, Jan Mukařovský, is devoted to the memories of Bogatyrev's friends and colleagues from different periods of his life. In the second part several authors present miscellaneous facets of Bogatyrev's scholarly work, while in the third part some of his colleagues and students apply his ideas to their respective area of study.

The first part offers testimony to a life spent in Czechoslovakia, i.e., not just in Prague (V.Ron, J. Kolár), or Brno (B. Beneš), but also traveling and teaching in Slovakia (M.Gavazzi). An interview with Bogatyrev about his relationship to Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine that two Slovak ethnographers M. Leščak and S. Švedlík conducted in 1968 is also included. Similarly, Bogatyrev's Russia (V. Krestovskii, S.V. Nikolskii, N.M.Vedernikova, I. Inov) encompasses the many regions he visited during his field trips, where he collected material about various aspects of Russian folklore.

For scholars of theatre the article in the second part by Larisa Solntseva, the editor of the whole volume, is of particular interest because it summarizes Bogatyrev's connection with the Czech stage. The Russian formalists as well as their colleagues in the Prague Linguistic Circle were active participants in the cultural life of the places they lived in. Bogatyrev, in fact is an excellent example of such a synergy since his work on Czech folklore inspired one of the foremost Czech theater directors E.F. Burian to present folk plays in his two Lidová suita [Folk Suite, 1938,1939]. Some of his most seminal articles appeared in the theatre journal founded by E.F. Burian. In the documents attached to Solntseva's study a letter by the Czech theater specialist Jan Kopecký who ressurected some of Czech folk plays in the 1960s expresses his gratitude to Bogatyrev for the inspiration he derived from his work.

The third part devoted to articles developing Bogatyrev's legacy demonstrates the wide scope of his interests mostly in folklore and ethnography only V.V. Usacheva focuses on the "Theatralical Elements in the Structure of Slavic Ritual Text." (300-307)

The present volume shows that the man in the short pants wore several hats: that of an ethnographer, the "most gifted expert of folklore in the world" of his time,[7] a translator, a scholar of theater, in short, as Jakobson puts it, Bogatyrev was "an expert in transfiguration."[8] Considered a "forerunner of structural ethnography,"[9] he carried over "the concept of language phenomena to art."[10] Yet, not much has changed since Jakobson stated: "In the Western world he is practically unknown."(300) The most detailed bibliography of his work, which was collected by B. Beneš over thirty years ago, is included in the Czech collection of Bogatyrev's work edited by Jaroslav Kolár.[11] There is another compilation available in Russian but none in English.[12] Hence, it is about time to open the suitcase, sort the manuscripts, and make them available especially to the English-speaking audience interested in folklore and theater. The three parts of the present book are showing the direction: biography, selected writings and analysis of Bogatyrev's legacy.


  1. Viktor Shklovskii, Zoo; or, Letters not about Love, trans. and ed. Richard Sheldon, (Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1971) 42.
  2. Obshchestvo po izucheniiu poeticheskogo iazyka [The society for the study of poetic language] was founded in 1916 in St Petersburg.
  3. P. Bogatyrev, Cheshskii kukol'nyi i russkii narodnyi teatr, (St. Petersburg: Opojaz, 1923).
  4. Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, (London: Methuen, 1983) 7.
  5. P, Bogatyrev "Semiotics in the Folk Theater ," trans. B. Kochis, ed. L.Matejka and I.Titunik, Semiotics of Art, (Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1976) 33. The English translation of the title is misleading. The original "Znaky divadelní" translates to "Theater Signs." The article was originally published in Slovo a Slovesnost, 4 (1938): 138-149.
  6. The impact of this book on Russian literature would deserve a special study, it is obvious for instance in the works of A.Tvardovskii and V.Voinovich.
  7. Lucien Levy-Bruhl qtd. in Jan Mukařovský, "O Bogatyreve," Petr Grigor'evich Bogatyrev: Vospominaniia. Dokumenty. Stat'i, ed. L.P. Solntseva, (St. Petersburg: Aleteia, 2002) 17.
  8. Roman Jakobson, "Petr Bogatyrev Expert in Transfiguration," Roman Jakobson: Selected Writings, Vol. 7, (Amsterdam: Mouton, 1985) 293-4.
  9. Milada Součková, "The Prague Linguistic Circle: A Collage," Sound, Sign and Meaning. Quinquagenary of the Prague Linguistic Circle, ed. Ladislav Matejka, (Ann Arbor: Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 1978) 4.
  10. Deák, František. "Structuralism in Theatre: The Prague School Contribution." The Drama Review 20.4 (1976): 90
  11. P. Bogatyrev Souvislosti tvorby, ed. Jan Kolár (Prague: Odeon, 1971).
  12. P. Bogatyrev Voprosy teorii narodnogo iskusstva, (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1971).

    1. Works Cited

      Bogatyrev, P. Cheshskii kukol'nyi i russkii narodnyi teatr. St. Petersburg: Opojaz, 1923

      ---. "Semiotics in the Folk Theater" Semiotics of Art. Ed. L. Matejka and I.Titunik. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1976. 33-50.

      ---. "Znaky divadelní" in Slovo a Slovesnost 4 (1938): 138-149.

      ---. Voprosy teorii narodnogo iskusstva. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1971.

      ---. Souvislosti tvorby. Ed. Jan Kolár. Prague: Odeon,1971

      Deák, František. "Structuralism in Theatre: The Prague School Contribution." The Drama Review 20.4 (1976): 83-94.

      Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen, 1983.

      Jakobson Roman "Petr Bogatyrev: Expert in Transfiguration" in Roman Jakobson: Selected Writings. Vol. 7. Amsterdam: Mouton, 1985: 293-4.

      Mukařovský, Jan. "O Bogatyreve." Petr Grigor'evich Bogatyrev: Vospominaniia. Dokumenty. Stat'i. ed. L.P. Solntseva. St. Petersburg: Aleteia, 2002. 16-18.

      Shklovskii, Viktor Zoo; or, Letters not about Love. Trans. and ed. Richard Sheldon. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1971.

      Součková, Milada. "The Prague Linguistic Circle: A Collage." Sound, Sign and Meaning. Quinquagenary of the Prague Linguistic Circle. Ed. Ladislav Matejka. Ann Arbor: Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 1978. 1-5.

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