Just before the American New Critics, another formalism developed in the work of a group of Russian literary scholars in the early 20th century.
The group included Viktor Shklovsky (1893—1984), Yury Tynyanov (1894—1943), Roman Jakobson (1896—1982) and Boris Eichenbaum (1886—1959), who were influenced by the phenomenology* of Edmund Husserl (1859—1938), a German philosopher of science. Husserl’s phenomenology was a hermeneutical* method that tried to identify the objects of knowledge as “unmixed essences”.
Russian formalism flourished in the years immediately after the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, but was silenced by the rise of Stalinism in the later 1920s, when so-called “socialist realism” was imposed as cultural policy. This led to a suppression of avant-garde and experimental currents in culture and criticism.
Formalism arose as part of a polemical engagement with symbolist critics, who viewed poetry as an embodiment of spiritual and religious meanings. The Formalists, by contrast, severed this figurative and referential link, looking instead at the mechanics of textual composition and modes of operation (for example, ways in which Dostoevsky’s [1821—81] Brothers Karamazov  used devices from the detective novel to subvert prevailing conventions of novelistic realism).
This significantly reduced the importance of the author, anticipating the intentional fallacy argument of the New Critics. The author was viewed less as a creative genius, in the Romantic mould, and more as a manipulator of the various literary conventions and devices. The Formalists were primarily interested in the internal functioning of a literary text, rather than the external contextual or biographical material that might give rise to a text.
The object of study of literary science is not literature but “literariness”, that is, what makes a given work a literary work.
The Formalists sought to shift the focus of literary study away from the representational, or mimetic, aspects of literature as a reflection of social reality and set out to determine the specificity of literary language that could be examined as literary language.
Formalist critical vocabulary is often scientific, concerned with art as a device or function for achieving certain effects. Poetic language exists separately from everyday speech insofar as its primary aim is not necessarily to communicate, but operates instead according to its own laws, creating effects through the manipulation of particular devices (e.g. rhythm, repetition, alliteration).
Poetry is organized violence committed on ordinary speech.
One function of literary language, then, is to defamiliarize readers from everyday, habitual patterns of thought by exposing them to the shock of the new. Shklovsky elaborated the concept of defamiliarization, or making strange (ostranenie), in his essay “Art as Technique” (1917):
The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception … Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.
Shklovsky’s statement echoes the aestheticism of Pater and Wilde. Other important statements of the Formalists’ theory include Eichenbaum’s essay “The Theory of the Formal Method” (1926) and the essays collected in Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose (1925).