Russian literary criticism is of particular relevance for every student of criticism, for it provides far more than commentary on the history of Russian literature. Nowhere else have major critical positions been formulated so sharply and even extremely as in the Russia of the first quarter of this century. Nowhere else was the critical debate so lively, so acrimonious, so much a life-and-death matter (even literally so) as in the Russia of the second and third decade of our age.
Nineteenth-century Russian criticism was largely didactic, primarily a weapon of the liberal and, later, Revolutionary opposition to the tsarist regime. Even politically conservative critics, such as Apollon Grigoriev, were concerned with an interpretation of literature in the service of an ideal "nationality." In Tolstoy, who went his own way rejecting both the Utilitarianism of the radical democrats and the conservative ideology, we have a moralistic critic of the purest water and the boldest sincerity.
The change came in the 1890s: with the rise of Symbolism, with Dmitrii Merezhkovsky and Valerii Briusov.For the first time, criticism became partly aesthetic, even l'art pour l'art in the French manner, exalting the "music" of verse, the "suggestion" of words, the personal mood of poetic themes. Another strand of criticism or rather literary theory became "mystical," claiming supernatural knowledge for poetry, "miracle-working," "theurgia." The most coherent spokesman for this second view was Viacheslav Ivanov, who stated emphatically that art becomes religion by the magic of the symbol, that art is a revelation____________________