Research article
Issue: № 3 (7), 2016


The first time publication of the unknown letter by the outstanding twentieth century linguist R. Jacobson from the archive of the famous Russian émigré historian A.Florovsky is to show the ways of the everyday scientific activityof the Prague Linguistic Circle, different formsand means of R. Jacobson’s dialogue with the representatives of the other spheres of the humanities in Prague. The publication contains the introductory note and the commentaries.



The history of the Prague Linguistic Circle (hereinafter PLC) has attracted the attention of numerous researchers. Over the past decade a series of documents has been issued in Czech Republic and the USA, as well as the Russian edition of letters and notes of N. Trubetskoy, part of the epistolary intercourse of R. Jacobson, S. Kartsevsky and others. [see Havránková, 2015; Havránková, 2008; Vachek, 1983; Letters, 2004; Dostal, 1995; Luelsdorff, 1994; Toman, 1994; Toman, 1995; Steiner, 2012; Roman Jacobson, 1999; Baran, 1998; Baran, 2000]. PLC was created in 1926 and became an example of successful integration of the represantatives of the Russian philological thought of 1910-20s into the European scientific process. It let them take leading positions in the process of creating a fundamentally new direction in linguistics – structural linguistics, which served as the basis of the European structuralism. Let us recall that after decades the contribution of PLC was described by R. Jacobson the following way: “It is well known that this Prague Community <...> gave a powerful and longstanding impulse to the development of linguistic thought in Europe and elsewhere” [18, p. 349]. Remembering the details of the organization of the circle, he wrote: “In March 1925 the leading Czech scientist, both in English studies and in general linguistics, Vilém Mathesius along with his faithful younger companion, also an expert in these areas, Bohumil Trnka, invited Sergei Kartsevsky and me for a consultative meeting. Mathesius began with the announcement of two events. The first event was the tenth anniversary of the Moscow Linguistic Circle <...>; the creation of this circle in 1915 and its heavy activity has been stimulating the development of Russian and international linguistics and poetics for a long time. When I came to Prague in 1920, Mathesius asked me about the structure and work of the Moscow circle. Then he said: “We need the same circle here <...>” [18, p. 348-349]. The fact that R. Jacobson was elected the Vice-Chairman of the circle, adequately reflects the balance of intellectual forces in this scientific association even from a formal point of view.

By now the “Russian trace” in the European structuralism has been studied in sufficient detail [4], [14], [23], while the attempts to “close” structuralism mostly end in productive dialogue and rethinking of the key concepts and principles in this area [6].

Letter of R. Jacobson and A. Florovsky in the context of the history of PLC

The letter written by R. Jacobson to a well-known historian A. Florovsky presented in the artcile allows us to see the other side of PLC history, which can be described as the history of everyday academic life. Living in Czechoslovakia, for various reasons, Russian émigrés found themselves in several scientific spaces simultaneously. On the one hand, there was an intense intellectual life of the “Russian Prague” of 1920s-early 30s, financially supported by the “Russian Action” of President Masaryk of the Czechoslovakian Republic, which led to the creation of a number of secondary and higher educational establishments of the Russian emigration. It helped a significant part of scientists and teachers who had left the country to fund their research and the publication of their projects. The second important point was the interaction of Russian scientists-emigrants with other national diasporas of Prague, in particular, Ukrainian and German; cooperation with Prague intelligentsia, Ukrainian and German universities. Thus, many Russian scientists read lecture courses and defended theses at the Prague German University, actively cooperated with the Ukrainian People's University and the Ukrainian Pedagogical Institute, and sometimes felt and declared their affiliation with both diasporas – Russian and Ukrainian as, for example, D.Chizhevsky, or Russian and German like A. Bem. And the third, seemingly, the most important aspect was the emergence of the dialogue between the parties in 1920s and its continuation in the 30s. It was a dialogue with the Czechoslovakian colleagues, the experience of Russian researchers integration into the scientific community of the Czechoslovakian Republic, active cooperation with scientific and educational institutions, publications in journals. We have to add that the dialogue with foreign counterparts was not limited to Czechoslovakia only. Thus, the addressee of R. Jacobson A. Florovsky had supported intensive contacts with the representatives of the British, French, German science, with his colleagues in exile in Poland, Yugoslavia, France, Great Britain for many years. Among the latter, special attention should be given to N. Ganz, a close friend and co-author of S.Hessen, who became one of the leading European experts in the field of comparative pedagogics, the correspondence with whom can be considered the most important document of the intellectual history of the Russian emigration [8], [9]. Note that the range of scientific interests of any great scientist humanitarian is much wider than his original specialty. The reason for such “interdisciplinarity” is obvious: it is the desire to overcome the narrowness of the range of professional communication, the complete or almost complete absence of “narrowly themed” areas for scientific discussions and publications as wide range of interests is characteristic for the majority of the humanitarians.

A special place in this context is taken by PLC, which equally represents Czech and Russian scientists. The latter ones were given the role of the main generator of new ideas. Along the way, it should be noted that the Russian-Czech dialogue both inside and outside the circle was accompanied by sometimes quite sharp criticizm of Czech linguists on behalf of their Russian colleagues, especially by N. Trubetskoy, who was particularly high-toned, probably due to his international authority and life outside Prague which allowed him to be more frank in his opinions. So, in a letter dated August 2, 1937, talking about the preparation for the future semester which was supposed to be both “Czech and Russian” N. Trubetskoy writes: “I have read Trávníček and Havránek. Pavel Trávníček is weak and unconvincing and his course can be hardly enriching. But Havránek is excellent. His work is, indeed, the first real history of the Czech language. Yes, I think we can say that it is generally the first real history of the Slavic literary language; there is no such equivalent in Polish or Russian. “Essays on the Hist. of Rus. Lit. Lang.” by Vinogradov covers only a relatively short period of time and fails to speak of evolution in the versatile manner” [Letters, 2004, p. 396]. In turn, a number of Czech publications of R. Jacobson about the state of modern Czech literary language and the general direction of language policy in the Czechoslovak Republic caused sharp antagonism on the part of some of his future university colleagues at the Masaryk University in Brno and complicated the process of his assignemnt on a professorial position in early 1930 [19, p. 134-143], [24, p. 2012].

N. Troubetskoy imagined all the complexities associated with the interest of Russian researchers-immigrants in the problems of the Czech language and literature quite clearly. Even in 1925, in a letter to R. Jacobson in connection with the collection conceived in cooperation with N. Durnovo called “Russian Linguists on Bohemistics” he suggested a subtle and ingenious scheme of “appeasement” of both Czech researchers, and representatives of the older generation of the Russian scientists: “In this matter there is a sensitive, i.e. diplomatic side, or I’d better say two sides – one facing the Czechs, the other one facing the Russians. If the article will contain several noncommittal compliments to recognized authorities of Bohemistics, I believe that Czech scientists will be satisfied. But imagine just how offended might be those Russian Checz scholars who would not be invited to participate in the collection! I can imagine it very clearly – Frantsev for example… Insults will turn into intrigues and they will surely involve Czechs. Perhaps, therefore, it is better to come up with some other name for the collection itself, and if the collection is prefaced, this preface should be purely diplomatic, referring not only to the Czechs, but also to the Russians. <…> In general, for diplomatic reasons I find it necessary to engage some elderly scholars in the collection, the one that would be be known to the Czechs and the one will have a certain counter-revolutionary reputation –be sure that if there is a campaign against the collection, it will involve a part of the offended Russians. The major role will certainly be played by the statements declaring that all of those Russian philologusts who diminish the prestige of the recognized authorities of the Czechs, study Bohemistics a very short time and all of them are hate Czechs and are antislavic…” [Letters, 2004, p. 76-77].

R. Jacobson's Letter to A. Florovsky as an Important Document in the History of PLC

R. Jacobson's letter to A. Florovsky takes in the whole complex of these problems, clearly reflecting the nature of PLC everyday life with its regular reports, the desire to engage like-minded scientists or scientists with similar interests in a range of scientific problems of the community. It is noteworthy that meetings were attended, papers and reports were presented not only by the members of the group, but also by the people far from the structural approach, and from linguistics in general.

A. Florovsky, a historian by profession, was like this – for many years, among other things, he had been engaged in Russian-Czech relations in the economic, political, cultural and literary fields [1]. For Trubetskoy and Jacobson he represented the oldest generation of the Russian humanitarians. Close relationship of his younger brother Father Florovsky, philosopher and theologian, one of the ideologists of Eurasianism, with Trubetskoi left its mark on the perception of A. Florovsky by Jacobson and his circle. A. Florovsky archive contains the letter of another ideologist of Eurasianism – P. Savitsky. This letter indicates that his connection to PLC had had a long history – he received numerous invitations to different events: Savitsky’s speech [13, p. 4] and Jacobson’s reports. February 17, 1931 Savitsky wrote: “Dear Anthony Vasilievich, in case you are free, let me invite you to the report, which, I dare say, is of great general cultural and historical interest, namely to the report of R. Jacobson “Eurasian Linguistic Alliance”, which will take place the day after tomorrow, Thursday, 19.II, at 6:15 in a cafe “Union” <...>” [12, p. 3]. Taking into account those friendly relations of Savitskiy with Jacobson, the godfather of which he became when the latter one converted into orthodox in 1938 [19, p. 103], we can assume that the initiative to invite him belonged to the speaker himself.

Czech studies of A. Florovsky had seriously interested R.Jacobson since early 20s. He was dealing with the problems of old Czech literature [7]. Florovsky’s name is mentioned in Trubetskoy’s letter to Jacobson: apparently, in the previous letter Jacobson discussed the possibility of asking Florovsky to contribute to the edition which was not issued. May 26, 1935 Jacobson published a generally positive review called “Czech-Russian Contacts in the Past” for the monograph of A. Florovsky “Czechs and the Eastern Slavs” [see Jacobson 1935] in one of the Prague's leading newspapers “Lidové noviny”.

On-going research and contacts of Jacobson and Florovskii are confirmed by a letter sent by Jacobson to the secretary of PLC B. Trnka. In this letter Jacobson asked Trnka to send Florovsky an invitation to the circle meeting 24 February 1936, where B. Halupetsky will present his report “On the Church Slavonic Tradition in Bohemia” [28, p. 170-171].

The text of R. Jacobson's letter clearly reflects the practice preserved throughout the pre-war history of PLC to invite  major researchers in related fields to cooperate with the circle. It is noteworthy that Jacobson accompanied his letter by explicit instructions of purely organizational nature, recommending the rapporteur, if necessary, to remind B. Trnka about the invitation of interested listeners for the purpose of timely dispatch of traditional notifications. Here is the full text:

«12.XII [1937]

Dear colleague, Peter Nick. [Savitskiy. – O.O, V.K.] informed me that your report for Pr. Ling. C. is ready. I look forward to it with lively interest. Havránek and I can come to Prague on Monday 20th. I hope that this day will suit you. I will also write to the Secretary of the circle – prof. Dr B. Trnka (Karl. Univ., Smetanovo n. [Nábřeží] 55, Pr. I) with a request to call a meeting on December 20th., 19 ½ hr., Cafe Zlatá Husa, Václ. [Václavské] n. [Náměstí] and send out the notifications as soon as he receives the exact title of the report. If you want to invite someone, please do. Write to prof. Dr B. Trnka immediately for the notifications to be sent out in a timely manner. Do not forget about writing to me so that I and Havránek are able to plan our time in advance and visit Prague on 20th.

Sincerely yours Jacobson” [Jacobson, 1938, p. 1].

December 20, 1937 a meeting took place, and the report “České prvky v staroruské literatuře” ( «Czech Elements in Ancient Literature") was read by Florovsky, as is clear from the message in PLC bulletin – a journal called “Slovo a slovesnost”, one and a half months later, – February 14, 1938 [25, p. 191].

The fate of the text read by Florovsky is quite fascinating. As a chairman of the Russian Historical Society in Prague in 1939, he was elected a delegate to the III International Congress of Slavists along with A. Bem, A. Grigoriev and E. Latsky. R.Jacobson was also supposed to take part on behalf of the Brno University. Due to the outbreak of World War II, the congress scheduled for 18-25 September 1939 did not take place, but its basic materials were printed. As pointed out by B. Stankovic” “A. Florovsky presented a text published in the second issue (“Saopshteњa and Essays”), which addresses the interaction between Czech and Russian literature during X-XVII centuries: “Czech Elements in the Old Russian Literary Tradition”” [15, p. 63-65].

In 1958, a revised and considerably expanded version of the report entitled “Czech Traces in the History of Russian Literary Development” was published in the collection dedicated to the IV International Congress of Slavists “Slavic Philology” [16].


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