Literary and Critical Theory Boris Tomashevsky
Igor Pilshchikov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0117


Boris Tomashevsky (b. 1890–d. 1957) was a Russian Formalist literary scholar, verse theorist, academic editor, historian of Russian literature and Russian-French literary relations, and scholar of Pushkin’s life and work. A mathematician and engineer by education (he studied mathematical statistics and electrical engineering at the Montefiore Institute of the University of Liège, Belgium, and at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, where he also audited courses on literature), he pioneered a new statistical-probabilistic approach to the study of verse. Tomashevsky participated in the activities of two groups associated with the Russian Formalists: the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (Obshchestvo izucheniia poeticheskogo iazyka, OPOIaZ), and the Moscow Linguistic Circle (Moskovskii Lingvisticheskii Kruzhok, MLK). Born in Saint Petersburg, Tomashevsky produced a significant part of his research on Russian verse in Moscow, where he lived from 1918 to the end of 1920 (after coming back from the fronts of the First World War), and presented the results at meetings of the Moscow Linguistic Circle. In 1919, following the proposal made by the first president of the MLK, Roman Jakobson, Tomashevsky was elected a full member of the Circle. His quantitative verse studies from the Moscow period were, however, published as a separate collection as late as 1929 in Leningrad (former Saint Petersburg/Petrograd). In 1921 Tomashevsky left Moscow for Petrograd and joined OPOIaZ. He started working in the Pushkin House (the Institute of Russian Literature), and giving lectures at the State Institute of the History of Arts and, from 1924, at Leningrad University (professor from 1942). In the 1920s he published a treatise on Russian vesification, a compendium of Formalist poetics, and a textbook on the same subject. Due to “the external pressure” (his own words)—the official anti-Formalist policy started in 1931—Tomashevsky abandoned verse studies and poetics and focused on Pushkin’s biography and textology (a term he coined in the mid-1920s), as well as the research of Pushkin’s interests in French literature. As a “textologist” (textual analyst), he became one of the partisans of a new (“layer-by-layer”) method of transcribing manuscripts in critical editions that he championed both in theory and in practice. In 1948 he became the head of the Pushkin House’s Manuscript Department. Tomashevsky mostly escaped anti-Formalist purges, but his works in the field of comparative literature were officially condemned during the anti-comparativist campaign of 1948–1949. He returned to the study of verse only at the end of life.

General Overviews

There are no book-length monograph studies devoted to Tomashevsky, neither in English nor in Russian nor any other language. His name is much less frequently mentioned than those of other Formalists, such as the celebrated OPOIaZ (Obshchestvo izucheniia poeticheskogo iazyka, or Society for the Study of Poetic Language) “triumvirate”—Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Yuri Tynianov. To a certain extent, Tomashevsky remains “le formaliste oublié,” as Depretto 2018 has recently put it. There are, however, important articles devoted to many or some aspects of his multifarious legacy. The most important is perhaps Jakobson 1959—an obituary notice or, in fact, an analytical and memorial article about Tomashevsky written (in English) by his long-term close acquaintance and colleague. The text features the recollections of Jakobson’s conversations in the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1919, the Prague Linguistic Circle in 1928, and in Moscow (during the preparations for the Fourth International Congress of Slavists), in 1956. The rest of the article is an apt and insightful overview of Tomashevsky’s accomplishments in various fields of research. Many biographical details can be found in Levkovich 1979 (republished in the Tomashevsky tribute, Boris Viktorovich Tomashevsky, 1890–1957, edited by Zvezdenkova and Fedotova). Depretto 2018 discusses Tomashevsky’s original contribution to verse theory and poetics, with a special focus on his intellectual position among other Moscow and Petrograd Formalists.

  • Depretto, Catherine. “Formalisme et poétique. Boris Tomaševskij, le formaliste oublié.” Communications 103 (2018): 107–118.

    DOI: 10.3917/commu.103.0107

    A discussion of Tomashevsky’s activities in OPOIaZ and the Moscow Linguistic Circle.

  • Jakobson, Roman. “Boris Viktorovič Tomaševskij. 1890–1957.” International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics 1/2 (1959): 313–316.

    An obituary. Reprinted in Jakobson’s Selected Writings, vol. 5, 545–548. The Hague, Paris, and New York: Mouton, 1979.

  • Levkovich, Yanina. “B. V. Tomashevsky.” Voprosy literatury 11 (1979): 201–219.

    An overview of Tomashevsky’s biography and scholarly legacy (in Russian).

  • Boris Viktorovich Tomashevsky, 1890–1957: K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdenia. Edited by E. V. Zvezdenkova and S. B. Fedotova. Moscow: [Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House)], 1991.

    A tribute to Tomashevsky. Contains a republication (pp. 5–16) of Levkovich 1979 and other biographical materials.

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