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Nikolai Zabolotskii's Stolbtsy and the aesthetics of OBERIU : an analysis of ten poems Fortune, Christopher Ronald


Nikolai Alekseevich Zabolotskii (1903-1958) published his first collection of poems, Stolbtsy, in Leningrad in 1929. This volume of twenty-two poems offers highly evocative and metaphorical descriptions of urban life in Leningrad during the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1922-1928. Even during this relatively liberal period the collection, which comprises a cycle of inter-related poems, created a sensation and was severely criticized for its satirical view of life and pessimistic tone. The composition of Stolbtsy was heavily influenced by Zabolotskii's membership in the short-lived avant-garde group known as OBERIU, an acronym for "Ob"edinenie real'nogo iskusstva" ("The Association of Real Art"). Zabolotskii helped write the group's manifesto, and it is the literary aesthetic set forth in this document that forms the basis of the critical criteria used to analyze ten poems from Stolbtsy. The primary objective of OBERIU was its striving towards an art that exhibited predmetnost' ("concreteness"). This was an attempt to clear away the conventional contextual associations of words and objects, and to reveal their absolute, fundamental meanings. Predmetnost' was used to emphasize the objective nature of art and its distance from abstraction. This meant the dissolution or segmentation of a depicted object, and the reliance on collisions between verbal units and objects to produce new semantic effects. Zabolotskii called this the "collision of verbal meanings" (stolknovenie slovesnykh smyslov). The ten poems selected for analysis are: "Krasnaia Bavariia," "Belaia noch'," "Ofort," "Leto," "Novyi byt," "Dvizhenie," "Ivanovy," "Pekarnia," "Obvodnyi kanal," and "Narodnyi Dom." These poems illustrate Zabolotskii's reaction to the social effects of NEP on the urban environment of Leningrad and on its citizens. The literary tenets of the OBERIU, especially the concept of predmetnost' ("concreteness"), form a basis from which it is possible to appreciate the structural and aesthetic originality of Zabolotskii's perception of this environment. The poems are examined from their thematic stand-point and from their structural composition in order to understand their meaning and to reveal the ways in which various devices function within a single poem and in relationship to others in the cycle. In these poems Zabolotskii loads his images with multiple associations so that they become distorted. Frequently these images are only visual and function exclusively at this level, rendering experiences more concrete; others have a metaphorical function that clearly represents a vision which has a philosophical level of understanding. Zabolotskii's grotesque perspective in Stolbtsy reflects the sense of alienation that he encountered in NEP-time Leningrad. Zabolotskii considered the excesses of NEP as a betrayal of the ideals of the Revolution; what he did to combat the alienation it engendered was to chronicle the effects of NEP in highly satirical terms and, in the process, to reject its false pretences. This combination forces the reader to attend closely to the themes of the poems and challenges him to re-think his usual definition of reality. Although these poems are not considered OBERIU poems, the literary tenets of the OBERIU Declaration offer the best possible clue to a comprehensive understanding of both the structural composition and thematic make-up of Zabolotskii's highly original volume of poetry.

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