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Explanation/Understanding as a problem of Russian Theory

Sergey Zenkin

pp. 95-110

The German conceptual opposition of erklären/verstehen had a very consequent but not always easily detectable influence on the Russian literary theory of the 1920s. The most problematic point of its use proved to be the relationship between two kinds of conceptual objects: acts and texts. The Russian theorists tended either to reduce texts to acts or deeds (through a general philosophical decision, in Bachtin’s case, or through a particular choice of material, in Vinokur’s theory of biography as active life), or on the contrary to expand the domain of explanation (in Tynjanov’s case) by inventing new forms and means for this operation—functional explanation, energetical explanation—which inconspicuously came close to the opposite operation of understanding and in so doing “sublimated” in the Hegelian sense the initial opposition towards a new conceptual paradigm.

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Full citation:

Zenkin, S. (2022)., Explanation/Understanding as a problem of Russian Theory, in E. Martin, M. Mrugalski & P. Flack (eds.), Neo-Kantianism as an entanglement of intellectual cultures in Central and Eastern Europe, Genève-Lausanne, sdvig press, pp. 95-110.


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1 | Introduction

1The distinction between two different cognitive operations, explanation and understanding, was firmly established in 19th century German philosophy, although it was elaborated already much earlier—from Aristotle’s distinction of “efficient” and “final” causes (the former having to be explained and the latter, to be understood), to Kant’s idea of “teleological judgement” and Schleiermacher’s opposition between a “grammatical” (external) and a “psychological” (internal) hermeneutical interpretation of texts. The two terms of the explanation/understanding opposition were first explicitly articulated by the historian Johann Gustav Droysen, who in fact distinguished between three, not two, cognitive methods: philosophical, physical and historical, each serving respectively to “know” [erkennen], to “explain” [erklären] and to “understand” [verstehen] their objects (cf. Droysen 1858). The opposition was then taken up by the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, who founded his famous division of “Natur-” and “Geisteswissenschaften” upon it: “We explain nature but we understand the life of the soul”.1 After Dilthey, the evolution of this methodological couple met the history of Neo-Kantianism: Heinrich Rickert discussed the two notions in his article On the Notion of Philosophy [Vom Begriff der Philosophie, 1910], first published in the international annual edition of the journal Logos, including in its Russian edition and therefore well known in Russia. Like Droysen, Rickert formulated not a binary opposition but a ternary one. He distinguished between three objects of cognition: “reality” [Wirklichkeit], “values” [Werte], and “sense” [Sinn], as well as, respectively, between three cognitive operations: “explaining” [das Erklären], “understanding” [das Verstehen] and “interpreting” [das Deuten] (Rickert 1910–1911, 27), the last of these being supposed to achieve a philosophical cognition of the world as a whole. This third way of notion-making, the “interpretation of sense” [Sinndeutung] implies an act that brings together objective causes and subjective values; as such, “the word act, irrespective of its possible objectifications, takes a specific meaning only when it signifies nothing else than a behaviour towards a value”.2 Rickert hereby intended to specify and to point out the actional nature of the objects of interpretation; we will see how the same problem was treated by his Russian followers.

2On the whole, the conceptual trajectory of the opposition between explanation and understanding in German culture proves to have been rich and complex. We find many variations of the definition of its terms and structure—e.g. through the notions of causality/finality, externality/internality, nature/mind, reality/values—, which thus allow for a considerable diversity of interpretations and applications. In 20th century epistemology, this opposition was criticized and relativised, especially in respect to hard sciences; a case in point is the analytical treatise Explanation and Understanding (1971) by the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright. The explanation/understand|ing dichotomy conserved its relevance, however, in the domain of the social sciences and the humanities, and it was explicitly or implicitly discussed in the “Russian theory” of the 1920s.3 In what follows, I will analyse certain episodes and traces of its impact on Russian literary theory, leaving aside its properly philosophical interpretations, namely in the works of Semen Frank or Aleksandr Meier,4 as well as its possible uses in the social sciences (linguistics, psychology, and history). The main problem I will attempt to elucidate is the heterogeneity of conceptual objects that may be researched through explanatory and understanding operations; their variety roughly corresponds to the difference between the cognition of texts and of acts.

2 | Michail Bachtin

3The first and most obvious Russian theorist to be examined is Michail Bachtin . He was well aware of the German philosophical tradition; he often refers, among others, to Heinrich Rickert and he was also an attentive reader of Ernst Cassirer. As to the couple explanation/understanding itself, it is found in his late notes of 1959–1960, first published under the title The Problem of Text: “In explanation, there is only one consciousness, one subject; in understanding, there are two consciousnesses, two subjects”.5 Here Bachtin revises the idea of externality, traditionally considered as a characteristic trait of scientific explanation: instead, he now claims, understanding itself is also external, given that the cognitive subject recognises the presence of another subject in what he is interpreting.

4Bachtin’s two-subjects, interactionist idea of cognition in the humanities, which opposes the “cognition of things” to the “cognition of persons”, appeared as early as the 1920s, in his first philosophical texts. For instance, in an aesthetical treatise on the author and the hero, he blames the “gnoseologism” of 19th and 20th century philosophical culture: “The theory of cognition became a model for the theories of all the other domains of culture”.6 This domination of the cognitive attitude implies the domination of a single consciousness:

This single consciousness creates and forms its theme only as an object, and not as a subject; to it, the subject is merely an object. The subject is known and understood always as an object—only an evaluation can turn it into a subject, the bearer of a self-legislating life, living out his own destiny.7

5The synonymy of cognition and understanding in this passage (“The subject is known and understood”) makes clear that Bachtin criticises here a “bad” type of understanding, which explains as an object human beings who in fact deserve to be recognised as a subject. He calls instead for a “participatory understanding” [učastnoe poni|manie] of the literary hero by an external [vnenachodimyj] author that engages his or her own personal intentions in the cognitive process.

6In the text quoted above, Bachtin does not speak yet of literary analysts but only of “authors”, not of scholarly but only of creative interpretational activities. He does explore a more general conception in another early work, Toward a Philosophy of the Act [K filosofii postupka, 1919–1921]. The final object of philosophical understanding, he claims there, is the act, more precisely the “answerable act or deed” [otvetstvennyj postupok] (Bachtin 1993 [1986], 3).8 Joining together the subject’s different intentions—cognitive, moral, and aesthetical—, such an act can be understood only in relation to those intentions and cannot be reduced to a causal explanation (this latter term is absent from Bachtin’s text). By emphasising that the “answerable deed” is a hermeneutic object, Bachtin follows the German literary and philosophical tradition founded by Goethe’s Faust (“In the beginning was the deed” [Am Anfang war die Tat]), in which the notion of understanding served primarily to account for human behavior, in history and psychology.

7Literary theory, however, normally has to deal not with deeds but with texts, whose ontological status is quite different. Deeds and acts are immediate, they can be observed, interpreted and “answered” in the very moment of their production. Texts, on the contrary are by definition mediated by writing and we often read them elsewhere and long after they have been produced. Their understanding takes place in other conditions and requires other modalities. Bachtin’s later works in literary criticism tend to resolve—or to avoid—this problem through a specific choice of materials. For instance, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Work [Problemy tvorčestva Dostoevskogo, 1928] Bachtin focuses on the “dialogic” structures of novels, drawing the author (and the reader) into the verbal interaction of characters; likewise in Rabelais [1965], the carnival produces the same effect through a close verbal and corporeal communication between its participants. On the conceptual level, it is less Bachtin himself than his friend Valentin Vološinov who expressed, perhaps with Bachtin’s assistance, in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language [Marksism i filosofija jazyka, 1929], their common aim to provide a close, rather than a distant, examination of our understanding of verbal activity. On the one hand, Vološinov criticises the “philological” attention to distant research, accounting for foreign and dead languages and texts: “the philologist always and everywhere is an exegete of alien ‘secret’ scriptures and words, and a teacher, transmitter of things divined or received through tradition”.9 On the other hand, he outlines the definition of a new object of research, neglected in traditional linguistics: the utterance, whose elements are determined “by the real conditions of a given utterance, and first of all by the nearest social situation ”.10 The words nearest social situation”, stressed by the author, show his conviction that a live understanding of a sentence is possible only at a short distance, involving the interpreter into the communicational situation, into the interlocutors’ intentions; a remote “philological” inquiry can only explain the sentence as a dead object.

3 | Grigorij Vinokur

8Another Russian scholar that explored the idea of explanation / understanding was the linguist Grigorij Vinokur (1896–1947), who published in his youth, in 1927, a non-linguistic essay Biography and Culture [ Biografija i kultura] . He was a disciple of the Russian phenomenologist Gustav Špet (1879–1937) and knew the German philosophical tradition; in his book, he quotes Dilthey, Husserl and above all Eduard Spranger’s Types of Men [Lebensformen, 1922]; traces of Ri|ckert’s work can be also found in his book, as we will see.

9Vinokur intends to define “biography” or “personal life” as a specific structure of lived experience, distinct from “activity”. According to him, one can say that a person “did little but lived much”:

…along with art, science, politics, philosophy, and other forms of our cultural life, there obviously exists in the structure of the mind a particular domain, a kind of delimited and specific sphere of creation, the substance of which is nothing else but one’s personal life.11

10This specific creative experience—“the personal life in history”12—cannot be reduced, Vinokur claims, either to aesthetic activity or to philosophical or moral speculation. It constitutes the very being of individuals, prior to the events of their life. Its elements are real facts related to personality, events lived through [perežitye] by the individual. Vinokur defines this relationship in apparently “formalist” terms: “the current social reality is an external matter of biography, and personality in its development—the objective form to which the matter is co-related” (my italics).13 But he immediately supplements this terminology with a third term, which was both particularly important to his philosophical teacher Špet and alien to formalist theory, i.e. “inner form”: “lived experience is the inner form of a biographical structure and, in that capacity, the bearer of the specifically biographical meaning and substance”.14

11Thus defined as a phenomenological object, biography requires a specific attitude from its researcher. Vinokur seems to use Rickert’s ternary explaining/understanding/interpreting distinction, although these terms never appear together and are instead disseminated in his text. He disapproves of the “causal explanation” [kauzal'noe ob'jasnenie] of one’s biography—for example, explaining biographical facts by the “character” of an individual—since “those generalisations substitute the ideal as a substance of law with the typical as an index of style”.15 The exposition of biographical experience must be linked, he claims, “to the problem of understanding”, elaborated by “Dilthey’s school” (Vinokur 1997 [1927], 25). Similarly, the final, synthesising cognition of one’s biography, which is linked to one’s worldview [mirosozercanie], can be realised only through a specific act of interpretation [interpretacija]. This latter term might have been borrowed from the Russian translation of Rickert’s article The Notion of Philosophy where it corresponded to the German word “Deutung”. Interpretation, according to Vinokur, does not imply judgement: “The ‘mistakes’, ‘errors’, ‘contradictions’ and so on, thus disclosed [in one’s biography], are for us only a mean of understanding and interpreting, and not the sentence of a court or of public opinion”.16 In the final account, the interpretation of one’s bio|graphy reveals the sense of an individual’s destiny (Vinokur 1997, 65), the ideal logic of his or her behavior: “the ultimate sense of all things the hero has lived through and done. What then appears here, finally, is nothing else than destiny”.17

12At this stage of research, the study of biography joins the study of poetry. Indeed, a variety of biographical act [postupok] may be the writing of a poem, an act which obeys the same laws of natural “style” and artificial, intentional “stylization” as the non-literary behavior of its author.18 It also possesses an inner form and may be read as the expression of lived experience [pereživanie]; the only difference is the predominance in literary acts not of the “predicative function” that rules experience, but of the “expressive function” that produces an external manifestation of one’s worldview. Vinokur thus suggests a phenomenologically founded method of reducing literary texts (poems) to the biographical narratives of their authors: the life of a man of letters does not “explain” his work (it is not a cause of that work) but it must be “understood” in the same way as his deeds and “interpreted” under the same categories as his ideal destiny. The object of interpretative understanding should be a biographical personality, i.e.a human being in his or her meaningful interactions with the historical world. This method can be employed in various fields of culture, as well as in scholarly and literary biographies.

4 | Jurij Tynjanov

13A third author to be considered here is Jurij Tynjanov (1894–1943). I will mainly focus on a single text by him, the article On Literary Evolution [O literaturnoj evoljucii ], first published in 1927. Tynjanov seems to have been more aware of German psychology than of German philosophy (cf. Svetlikova 2005), and the methodo|logical opposition explanation/understanding is thus not part of his terminology; nevertheless, he treats it implicitly by proposing original intellectual tools for literary studies.

14Tynjanov discerns, more or less clearly, four cognitive operations applicable to literature.

15First, he mentions the “causal explanation” of literary facts through their psychological, historical and socio-political background. He is skeptical of such explanations:

…an oversimplified, causal approach to the literary series brings about a rift between the viewpoint from which literature is being analyzed (and this is always the primary social series, as well as those more remote) and the literary series itself (Tynjanov 2019, 455).19

16Expressing his idea more precisely, he makes his famous distinction between the “genesis” of single literary phenomena and the “evolution” of literary series, the former closely corresponding to the causal explanation of isolated texts and the latter to a kind of understanding, not of single texts but of “literary series” (genres, tendencies, and so on) as dynamic functional structures.

17Second (and this is his main idea in his article on literary evolution), Tynjanov develops in detail a theory of “functions” whose redistribution determine literary evolution; he analyses distinctly the “constructive function” of an element in literary evolution (divided in turn in “syn-function” and “auto-function”), 20 its “literary function” and its “speech [rečevaja] function”:

The constructive function, the interrelations of elements within a literary work, converts “authorial intention” into a catalyst, nothing more. “Creative freedom” is an optimistic slogan, but it does not correspond to reality, and ultimately yields to “creative necessity”.
The literary function – the interrelations of an individual work with various literary series – makes this process final. 
Let’s remove the teleological, goal-oriented connotation – the “intention” – from the word “orientation.” What do we get? The “orientation” of a literary work (or of a series) is actually its speech function, its interrelations with everyday life (Tynjanov 2019, 467).21

18Tynjanov thus proposes a complex “functional explanation”, abstracting from the “authorial intention” and considering only structural relationships between literary facts. Not only a single text but the whole process of evolution can be conceived of as a structure where functions determine each other. Georg Henrik von Wright named such functional determinism a “quasi-teleological” structure, a teleology appearing “by itself”, without intentional subject; it must be explained, but not in terms of linear causality.

19Third, in certain points of Tynjanov’s analysis, an “energetical explanation” can be detected, for instance when he focuses upon the size of a text as its constructive factor: “The size of a work, its verbal space, is a meaningful characteristic” of its genre (Tynjanov 2019, 464).22 He had expressed this idea more clearly in his earlier article The Literary Fact [Literaturnyj fakt], where he was explicitly accounting for the same particular problem, i.e. the identity of literary genres, in terms of energy:

At the outset, the concept of “size” is an energy-based con|cept: we tend to say “large form” about one whose construction requires a greater amount of energy (Tynjanov 2019, 272).23

20This sentence (literally “…the one for the construction of which we have expended more energy”) means that we cannot know such processes without having (re)produced them in our own mind, without having “lived” through them. In other words, a lived experience can be accounted for by understanding, not by explanation. In their energetical insights, the Russian Formalists went beyond their own externalist and explanatory method and implicitly adopted a new form of understanding that lead them to study “systems of non-concentrated sense”, which have no focal point and no subject responsible for them.24

21Fourth, in his article on literary evolution, Tynjanov shares a common idea of the formalist school: that of automatization and de-automatization [ostranenie] in literary perception. The former notion occurs for example in the following statement:

This is why it matters when a particular element is “hackneyed” or “worn-out.” What makes a verse line, meter, or plot “hackneyed” or “worn-out”? In other words, what is meant by the “automatization” of a particular element? (Tynjanov 2019, 460).25

22In 1927, outlining his new structuralist method, Tynjanov tends to explain such phenomena through the interplay of functions: one function fades, another becomes dominant. But, initially, in formalist theory, automatisation and estrangement were treated as psychological effects of aesthetic perception; they implied the presence of a perceiving subject. They should be thus described in terms of understanding, albeit an unusual understanding, opposed no longer to explanation but to “recognition”. We simply recognise and identify an automatised object or word, but we understand the intention and the creative action of an artist who has succeeded in estranging them for us. This new conceptual opposition of recognition and understanding, only implicitly contained in the Formalists’ theoretical texts, was to be explicitly formulated later in linguistics, by Émile Benveniste (in his article Sémiologie de la langue [The Semiology of Language, 1969]), and after him in the theory of speech acts. Both intellectual operations, recognition and understanding, are produced not only by the aesthetical subject (a reader, a listener) but also by the scholar that intends to account for a subject’s experience.

23It is worth noticing that among our three (or four, if one counts Vološinov) authors, Tynjanov is the only one to realise and to stress the dynamic and temporal nature of the objects of literary research. While Bachtin considers culture within a panchronic framework (a “great time” without progress) and Vinokur, strangely enough, never refers to the temporal process of one’s personal life (he longs rather to seize its immobile essence), Tynjanov accounts for a literature in evolution, for the dynamic interplay of functions and energies that determine its historical movement. Understanding this impersonal movement still remains a challenge for the humanities.

5 | Conclusion

24To conclude, the German conceptual opposition of erklären/verstehen had a very consequent but not always easily detectable influence on the Russian literary theory of the 1920s. The most problematic point of its use proved to be the relationship between two kinds of conceptual objects: acts and texts. The Russian theorists tended either to reduce texts to acts or deeds (through a general philosophical decision, in Bachtin’s case, or through a particular choice of material, in Vinokur’sM theory of biography as active life), or on the contrary to expand the domain of explanation (in Tynjanov’s case) by inventing new forms and means for this operation—functional explanation, energetical explanation—which inconspicuously came close to the opposite operation of understanding and in so doing “sublated” in the Hegelian sense the initial opposition towards a new conceptual paradigm. The latter tendency anticipated the philosophical gesture of Paul Ricœur who proclaimed in the 1970s, precisely in view of the interpretation of intentional action as a text, his famous slogan: “more explaining for better understanding”.26 A theoretical elaboration of this problem—which should constitute the object of another study—might be found also in the structuralist poetics of the 1960–70s, combining a positivist reification of the artistic forms with an implicit phenomenology of the work of art. In such a conception, literary form is co-produced by the author and the reader and appears to be on the one hand an explainable manifestation of impersonal structures of language and culture and on the other hand an understandable act of communication.


  • 1 «Die Natur erklären wir, das Seenleben verstehen wir» (Dilthey 1924 [1895], 144).
  • 2 «Das Wort Akt, abgesehen von jeder möglichen Objektivierung, eine bestimmte Bedeutung nur erhält, wenn es nichts anderes als das Verhalten zu einem Wert bezeichnet.» (Rickert 1910–1911, 24; unless indicated otherwise, translations are mine, S.Z.)
  • 3 For a definition of “Russian theory”, cf. Zenkin (2012).
  • 4 See Ljudmila Gogotišvili’s comments on Michail Bachtin’s late text Towards the Philosophical Foundations of the Humanities (Bachtin 2002, 389–390).
  • 5 «При объяснении—только одно сознание, один субъект; при понимании—два сознания, два субъектa.» (Bachtin 1996, 318)
  • 6 «Теория познания стала образцом для теорий всех остальных областей культуры.» (Bachtin 2003, 160)
  • 7 «Это единое сознание творит, формирует свой предмет лишь как объект, но не как субъект, и субъект для него является лишь объектом. Понимается, познается субъект лишь как объект—только оценка может сделать его субъектом, носителем своей самозаконной жизни, переживающим свою судьбу» (Bachtin 2003, 161).
  • 8 The expression otvetstvennyi postupok occurs several times in Bachtin’s Russian text; the English translation seems to hesitate between two terms, act and deed. Cf. the translator’s comments in his foreword: “This individually answerable deed of mine Bachtin calls postupok (etymologically, the noun means ‘a step taken’ or ‘the taking of a step’) in distinction to the more general akt (the Russian equivalent of the Latin actus and actum )” (Bachtin 1993 [1986], XIX). And earlier: “The act is a deed, and not a mere happening [...] only if the subject of such a postupok, from within his own radical uniqueness, weaves a relation to it in his accounting for it” (Bachtin 1993 [1986], XII).
  • 9 «филолог всегда и всюду—разгадчик чужих „тайных“ письмен и слов и учитель, передатчик разгаданного или полученного по традиции» (Vološinov 1993 [1929], 81).
  • 10 «реальными условиями данного высказывания, прежде всего ближайшей социальной ситуацией» (Vološinov 1993 [1929], 93).
  • 11 «…наряду с искусством, наукой, политикой, философией и прочими формами нашей культурной жизни существует, очевидно, в структуре духа некая особая область, как бы отграниченная, специфическая сфера творчества, содержание которой составляет не что иное, как личная жизнь человекa» (Vinokur 1997, 18).
  • 12 «личная жизнь в истории» (Vinokur 1997, 30)
  • 13 «текущая социальная действительность есть внешний матерьял биографии, а личность в ее развитии—та предметная форма, к которой этот матерьял соотносится…» (Vinokur 1997, 43–44).
  • 14 «переживание есть внутренняя форма биографической структуры и в этом качестве—носитель специфически биографического значения и содержания» (Vinokur 1997, 44–45). Vinokur refers to a “linguistic tradition” for this notion, but it is easy to detect here also the influence of Gustav Shpet’s philosophical book The Inner Form of the Word [Vnutrennjaja forma slova 1927] which might have been known to Vinokur before its publication.
  • 15 «Идеальное как содержание закона подменяется в этих обобщениях типическим как признаком стиля» (Vinokur 1997, 71).
  • 16 «Открываемые нами тогда „ошибки“, „заблуждения“, „противоречия“ и пр. суть для нас только средство понимания и истолкования, а не судебное постановление или общественный приговор» (Vinokur 1997, 62).
  • 17 «конечный смысл всего пережитого и содеянного его героем. То, что здесь прозревается, есть в конце-концов не что иное, как судьба» (Vinokur 1997, 65).
  • 18 In this parallel between current behavior and literary text, Vinokur prefigures the “poetics of behavior” proposed in the 1970s by Jurij Lotman and Boris Uspenskij.
  • 19 «…упрощенный каузальный подход к литературному ряду приводит к разрыву между тем пунктом, с которого наблюдается литературный ряд, —а им всегда оказываются главные, но и дальнейшие социальные ряды, —и самым литературным рядом» (Tynjanov 1977, 270).
  • 20 Both terms could have been borrowed from a German tradition. The former means the relationships of an element with similar elements in other series—for example in other genres,—and the latter its relationships with other elements of the same series: an opposition which seems to project onto the process of literary evolution the Saussurian couple of paradigm/syntagm, initially accounting for the verbal discourse.
  • 21 «Конструктивная функция, соотнесенность элементов внутри произведения обращает „авторское намерение“ в фермент, но не более. „Творческая свобода“ оказывается лозунгом оптимистическим, но не соответствует действительности и уступает место „творческой необходимости“. Литературная функция, соотнесенность произведения с литературными рядами довершает дело. Вычеркнем телеологический, целевой оттенок, „намерение“ из слова „установка“. Что получится? „Установка“ литературного произведения (ряда) окажется его речевой функцией, его соотнесенностью с бытом» (Tynjanov 1977, 278).
  • 22 «величина вещи, речевое пространство—не безразличный признак» (Tynjanov 1977, 275).
  • 23 «Понятие „величины„ есть вначале энергетическое: мы склонны называть „большою формою» ту, на конструирование которой затрачиваем больше энергии» (Tynjanov 1977, 256).
  • 24 See my two articles: (Zenkin 2012, Zenkin 2017).
  • 25 «Поэтому не безразлично, „стерт“ ли, „бледен“ ли такой-то элемент или же нет. Что такое „стертость“, „бледность“ стиха, метра, сюжета и т.д.? Иными словами, что такое „автоматизация“ того или иного элемента?» (Tynjanov 1977, 274).
  • 26 Ricœur’s exact motto is Expliquer plus, c’est comprendre mieux, more explaining means better understanding (Ricœur 1986, 22).


Toward a philosophy of the act


Michail Bachtin

Austin, University of Texas Press

Vom Begriff der Philosophie


Heinrich Rickert

Logos. Internationale Zeitschrift für Philosophie der Kultur 1



Eduard Spranger

Halle (Saale), Niemeyer

Explanation and understanding


Georg Henrik Von Wright

London, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Social'nyj fakt i vešč': K probleme smysla v gumanitarnych naukach


Sergey Zenkin

in: Raboty o teorii, Moskva : Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie

Energetičeskie intuicii russkogo formalizma


Sergey Zenkin

in: Epocha "ostranenija", Moskva : Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie

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