Mikhail Bakhtin

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Article abstract: Bakhtin had an impact on literary theory, especially on point of view in the novel; on the philosophy and interrelatedness of language and society; on the extension of areas of linguistics and schools of literary theory; and on modern philosophy, presenting an alternative to systems based on Greek philosophers.

Early Life

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born November 16, 1895, in the provincial capital of Orel, Russia. Untitled and unpropertied, he came from a noble family who, like their city, dated back to the late Middle Ages. His father and grandfather were owner and manager, respectively, of state banks. The third of five children, Mikhail was closer to his elder brother Nikolai than to his three sisters or his parents. A German governess taught the boys Greek poetry in German translation.

When Bakhtin was nine years old, the family moved to Vilnius, the Russian-ruled capital of Lithuania. In this multiethnic center, his outlook was broadened even though the schools and church that he attended were Russian. He was influenced by new movements such as Symbolism and by the spirit of revolutionary change. A lifelong process of debate and dialogue was begun between Bakhtin and his brother and with others. Bakhtin’s extensive reading included among others Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Six years later, Bakhtin’s family moved to Odessa, a major city of the Ukraine. Bakhtin attended and finished the school known as the First Gymnasium; he then attended the University of Odessa for one year, studying with the philological faculty. At sixteen, he contracted osteomyelitis.

From 1914 to 1918, Bakhtin attended the University of St. Petersburg, rooming with his brother Nikolai. Of several professors, the most influential was Faddei F. Zelinsky, credited with laying the foundation for Bakhtin’s knowledge of philosophy and literature. Bakhtin’s graduation in 1918, following Nikolai’s departure for the White Army in 1917 and eventual self-exile to England, marked the end of the preparatory stage of his life.

Life’s Work

During the years 1918 through 1929, Bakhtin established lifelong friendships with artistic and intellectual people, developed and expressed his own ideas, did extensive work on his own writings, married, and saw his first works published. He became the center of a series of informal groups comprising people from a wide variety of backgrounds, areas of achievement, and political and ideological persuasions. At Nevel, where he and his family moved in 1918, members of the Bakhtin circle included Lev Vasilyevich Pumpiansky, Valentin Nikolayevich Voloshinov, and the musician Maria Veniaminova Yudina. Bakhtin maintained his personal and philosophical commitment to Christianity at a time when all religions were suppressed in the Soviet Union. His first known publication was a two-page article in a local periodical in 1919 entitled Iskusstvo i otvetstvennost (art and responsibility). The ideas he expressed in this article were later developed into those of his mature works.

In 1920, Bakhtin moved to nearby Vitebsk, where the circle re-formed and expanded to include new members such as Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky and Pavel Nikolayevich Medvedev. In addition to writing and keeping notebooks, Bakhtin taught at Vitebsk Higher Institute of Education and held several other positions. The worsening of his osteomyelitis was complicated by typhoid in 1921, and he was nursed by Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovich; their fifty-year marriage began later that year and ended with her death in 1971.

Bakhtin spent the years 1924 through 1929 in Leningrad, where he lived on a progressively reduced medical pension. His health prohibited public activity, but he was able to meet with members of his circle and to lecture in private apartments. Works published by his friends contained his ideas...

(This entire section contains 1939 words.)

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but their Marxist ideology, thus making them politically acceptable for publication. Opinion varies as to authorship of these collaborative works. Some scholars believe that Bakhtin wrote them in their entirety; some believe that he composed the bulk of these texts, with his friends adding the requisite ideology; others are convinced that the works were actually written by those under whose names they were published, and merely reflect the influence of Bakhtin. One work signed by the scientist Ivan Ivanovich Kanaev questions the claims of vitalism. Of the four works attributed to Medvedev, the best known isFormal’ nyi metod v literaturovedenii: Kriticheskoe vvedenie v sotsiologicheskuyu poetiku (1928; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, 1978). One of Voloshinov’s seven titles is Marksizm i filosofiya yazyka (1929; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1973). Only these twelve works are questioned; other books signed by these men are accepted as theirs, thus providing scholars with a basis for comparison.

The year 1929 was a turning point in Bakhtin’s life. He was arrested and sentenced to exile in Siberia for ten years for political and religious reasons (he was never tried). Also he published his first major work under his own name (and the first since 1919): Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (expanded to Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo, 1963; Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 1973, 1984). Bakhtin’s sentence in Siberia was reduced for reasons of health; a good review of his book by the minister of education and the fact that the questioners believed him to be the author of the disputed texts probably also helped his case.

He was allowed to go to Kustanai from 1930 to 1934, traveling without guard and choosing his own work. After a year of unemployment he was employed as an accountant for the local government, later teaching local workers his clerical skills. Here as elsewhere he was well liked. In 1934, he chose to remain for two more years; that same year he published an article based on his observations there.

In 1936, Bakhtin ended his self-exile by moving to Saransk and teaching in the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute. The next year, for political reasons, he moved to Savelovo, about one hundred kilometers from Moscow. In 1938, the first of a series of misfortunes overtook him: His right leg was amputated. An article on satire he was asked to contribute to a literary encyclopedia never appeared because the volume was canceled. As a result of the vicissitudes of wartime, several works by Bakhtin which had been accepted and were awaiting publication did not appear. In 1940, he lectured on the novel at the Gorky Institute in Moscow, writing a dissertation for that institution on François Rabelais, which was published in an expanded version as Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaya kul’tura srednevekov’ya i Renessansa (1965; Rabelais and His World, 1968), a work rivaling Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics in importance. In 1941, he began teaching German in the Savelovo schools while working on yet another important endeavor: articles about the novel, collected and translated in Voprosy literatury i estetiki (1975; The Dialogic Imagination, 1981), in which he expanded his ideas on polyphonic communication to dialogic communication, which included the self and others or the author, characters, and reader. From 1942 to 1945, he taught Russian in Savelovo.

In 1945, Bakhtin returned to Saransk, where he was promoted to the rank of docent and made department chairman. In 1946, he submitted his dissertation, defending it the following year. The committee compromised and granted him the lesser degree of candidate in 1951, precluding publication at that time. In 1957, he saw his institute become a university. The next year, he was promoted to chairman of the department of Russian and foreign literature at this newly formed institution.

Recognition came slowly. With few publications in his own name, Bakhtin was little known beyond his own circle of friends. Attention to the book on Fyodor Dostoevski marked a change: Vladimir Seduro, an American, mentioned the book in a published work in 1955; the next year, his old antagonist, the Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky, treated the Dostoevski book in a Soviet work; in 1958, the influential Slavicist Roman Jakobson, a pioneering figure in the application of linguistics to literary study, having mentioned Bakhtin to members of the International Conference of Slavists in 1956, shared preview copies of his review of Shklovsky’s book, publishing his review in 1959. Young intellectuals led by Vadim Valerianovich paid Bakhtin homage and pressed for publication of his works. The revised Dostoevski book and the revised dissertation, 1963 and 1965, established his reputation. Other works followed, some posthumously.

Poor health forced both of the Bakhtins to move to Moscow in 1969 and to nearby Grivno in 1970. Bakhtin’s wife died of a heart condition in 1971. Bakhtin then moved first to a hotel for writers and in 1972 to his own apartment at 21 Krasnoarmeyskaya Street in Moscow, where he lived and, in spite of osteomyelitis and emphysema, wrote until his death on March 7, 1975. His funeral ceremonies were both civil and religious.


For much of his life, Mikhail Bakhtin was a relatively obscure figure, though in his last years he attained a measure of fame among literary specialists in the Soviet Union and saw his work begin to appear in the West. In the decade following his death, as previously unpublished works became available and early works were reissued, there was an explosion of interest in Bakhtin, to the extent that he has become one of the most influential literary theorists of the twentieth century.

In part Bakhtin’s influence can be attributed to his appeal to critics and readers who value pluralism and cultural diversity. Most of the now widely used terms and concepts which Bakhtin introduced to critical discourse directly reflect his sense of literature as an interplay of voices, of meanings, of languages. “Dialogic” thinking recognizes this multiplicity (or “heteroglossia,” as Bakhtin termed it); “monologic” thinking attempts to suppress it. Bakhtin’s pluralism and his emphasis on the social context of meaning have made an impact not only on literary studies but also on linguistics, philosophy, theology, and the social sciences.


Berrong, Richard M. Rabelais and Bakhtin: Popular Culture in “Gargantua and Pantagruel.” Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Reexamines Bakhtin’s treatment against the backdrop of Soviet history.

Clark, Katerina, and Michael Holquist. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984. The standard biography and more, it traces the intellectual/political history of Russia and the Soviet Union, discusses primary works, and shares opinions about ideology and authorship. A valuable resource. The bibliography of primary works is helpful.

Kershner, R. B. Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Culture: Chronicles of Disorder. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Applies Bakhtin’s literary theories to the works of James Joyce. Discusses Bakhtin’s “dialogism” in a subchapter.

Lachmann, Renate. Bakhtin and Carnival: Culture as Counter-Culture. CHS Occasional Papers 14. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Treats the idea of carnival in Rabelais and His World against the unfolding of Russian history before, during, and since the revolution.

Morson, Gary Saul, ed. Bakhtin Essays and Dialogues on His Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Essays by the editor and others on two topics: language and literature. Extracts of two works by Bakhtin are included.

Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson, eds. Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1989. This introduction to Bakhtin treats his life situation, the publishing and republishing of his works, and the disputed texts, arriving at conclusions other than those of Clark and Holquist. Essays by the editors and others develop ideas set forth in the introduction. Translations of Bakhtin’s two prefaces to Tolstoy’s works are included. A valuable counterpart to Clark and Holquist.

Nordquist, Joan, comp. Mikhail Bakhtin. Social Theory: A Bibliographic Series 12. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Reference and Research Services, 1988. An excellent bibliographic tool, more recent and fuller than the bibliography in the book by Clark and Holquist. Includes both primary and secondary works.

Patterson, David. Literature and Spirit: Essays on Bakhtin and His Contemporaries. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1988. Essays, all by the author, relate Bakhtin to figures as diverse as Michel Foucault, André Gide, and Martin Heidegger. Patterson agrees with Clark and Holquist on Bakhtin’s Christianity.