Russian formalism: A school of literary criticism that originated in Moscow and Petrograd (St. Petersburg) during World War I, that flourished in the 1920s in the former Soviet Union, and whose practitioners emphasized literariness and focused on the form (rather than the content) of literary works. The two groups chiefly responsible for its theoretical development were the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded in 1915 and led by Roman Jakobson, and OPOJAZ (the Society for the Study of Poetic Language), founded in 1916 and led by Victor Shklovsky. The school met with a great deal of opposition, particularly at its inception, and the term formalism was actually used by critics of the school to deride its elevation of form over content.
Russian formalists argued that literary language has a special function: to reinvigorate language and to redeem it from the insipid and vapid state into which it sinks under the weight of everyday usage. They believed that literariness, by virtue of its capacity to overturn common and expected patterns (e.g., of grammar or story line), could rejuvenate language and thus free readers to experience not only words, but even the world, in an entirely new way. They also believed that literary devices, which they viewed as “deviations” from everyday speech, make the foregrounding of language possible and thus studied the special rhythmic patterns, syntax, structure, imagery, and so forth that distinguish a literary work from other written or spoken discourse. That which was different or even strange was prized, for such devices triggered what Victor Shklovsky, in “Art as Device” (1917), called ostranenie (“defamiliarization” or “estrangement”), a dislocating experience that wrenched readers from the banality of everyday language, freeing them to contemplate the world afresh.
By privileging form, literariness, and literary devices, Russian formalists de- emphasized the author’s status as a unique and independent creator. They saw the author as the manipulator of various styles, motifs, and conventions and understood the text to be a freestanding entity, an assemblage of devices and conventions.
Russian formalists made a number of contributions to literary criticism that have become widely accepted by critics of diverse theoretical orientations. For instance, they distinguished syuzhet (plot) from fabula (story), defining the first as how events are actually presented in a narrative and the second as how those events would be recounted chronologically. The literary devices employed by the author in converting a story into a plot fundamentally transform the story, making it a work of literature that has the capacity to provoke ostranenie and thus bring a fresh view of language and the world to the reader. Russian formalists also pointed out that metrical patterns and sound patterns developed through alliteration and rhyme serve to reorganize language itself rather than simply serving as window-dressing.
Influential practitioners of Russian formalism included Boris Eichenbaum, Jakobson, Jan Mukařovský, Boris Tomashevsky, and Yuri Tynyanov. The movement was suppressed in the Soviet Union in 1930 by the Stalinist regime, but it spread to other areas, flourishing first in the former Czechoslovakia under the aegis of the Prague Linguistic Circle and then influencing American literary criticism when Jakobson and Prague Linguistic Circle critic René Wellek came to the United States in the 1940s. Russian formalism has chiefly affected American theories of stylistics and narratology. American formalism, primarily associated with the New Criticism, shares many characteristics with Russian formalism but arose independent of the Russian school.