Propp Vladimir Yakovlevich

28 April [ 16 April] 1895 (1895-04-28), Saint-Petersburg — 22 August 1970 (1970-08-23), Leningrad


Biography, education, career:

Vladimir Propp was born in Saint-Petersburg to a family of Russified Germans. His father, Johann Jacob Propp, a descendant of yeoman property-owners from Saratov Governorate, held the position of attorney in Brothers Reichert Trading House, that supplied all the German bakeries of Saint-Petersburg with flour. His mother, Ann Elizabeth Friedrichovna (née Bensel), devoted herself to raising her four children. In the family, the children spoke three languages: German with their mother, French with their governesses, and Russian with their father and with each other. Vladimir Propp graduated from church school (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Anna) [1], and in 1918 – from the Faculty of History and Philology of Petrograd University, majoring in Slavic-and-Russian Philology. During World War I Vladimir Propp was ready to go to war, though his father was pro-German. He completed the course on administering first aid and nursing and volunteered to work as a sick quarter attendant. Later he wrote in his diary that it was then, while socializing with soldiers, that he became a true Russian, “22 April 1918 was one of the best days in my life. It was Easter. The earliest as can be. I stood on the sixth floor at the window of the hospital in Novaya Derevnya, looking at Saint-Isaac’s Cathedral lit by street lights. I was in love with Kseniya Novikova then, who was nursing combat casualties. My soul resurrected, together with nature, through the acceptance of not only myself. Where there’s another soul, a different soul, there’s love. And that’s what she was, entirely different from me. I became Russian through war and love. I conceived Russia. <…> Talking to soldiers about my nervous shock, the sense of frustration and despair brought me to church. I had been ready for this to happen long before, after reading Solovyov.” [2]. Apart from Solovyov’s work, Vladimir Propp was influenced by The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: an Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky, teachings by St. Seraphim of Sarov, and Evangelical texts. In 1921 he was enrolled at the Petrograd Theological Institute as a first-year student, but he did not complete the full course. In 1918–1928 Vladimir Propp taught Russian at secondary schools. In 1926–1934 he taught German in several universities. He was Head of the Department of Foreign Languages at Leningrad Planning Institute and the Department of Germanic Philology at the 2nd Leningrad Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages; he also cooperated with the Institute of Art History, Institute of Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Russian Geographical Society, Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the USSR Academy of Sciences. For ten years on end Vladimir Propp had worked on his Morphology of the Folktale. Only when he completed the work did he show it to B.M. Eichenbaum, D.K. Zelenin, and V.M. Zhirmunsky. They all had high regard for Propp’s monograph and, with Zhirmunsky’s support, it was published. The book was very well received by the professional community: D.K. Zelenin, V.N. Peretz, R.O. Shor, and Jan de Vries gave good reviews. His colleagues realized that Propp’s method opened scope for philological analysis, but the structural patterns of a folktale discovered by Propp were not recognized by the official science, and the book was nearly buried in oblivion. In his monograph, Propp eschewed historical approach to the material, historical-genetic method of interpretation, choosing the structure of a folktale as object of analysis. He made a distinction between diachronic and synchronic methods of analysis and stuck to the latter in his research, choosing the texts as object of analysis in order to elicit the nature of their complexity. Only 30 years after the first publication was Morphology of the Folktale duly appreciated. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in his article Structure and Form: Reflections on a Work by Vladimir Propp, “The most striking aspect of Propp's work is the power with which it anticipates further developments. Those among us who first approached the structural analysis of oral literature around 1950, without direct knowledge of Propp's attempts a quarter of a century earlier, recognize there, to their amazement, formulae — sometimes even whole sentences — that they know well enough they have not borrowed from him: the notion of an "initial situation"; the comparison of a mythological matrix with the rules of musical composition; the necessity of a reading that is at once "horizontal" and "vertical"; the constant use of the idea of a group of substitutions and of transformation in order to resolve the antinomy between the constancy of the form and the variability of content <…> These are so many intuitions, whose perspicacity and prophetic character arouse our admiration. They earn for Propp the devotion of all those who, unknown to themselves, were his followers.” [3]. Still, right after the publication in the USSR, the book was harshly criticized for “formalistic principles”, and Pushkin House broke cooperation with the scholar. In August 1930 Vladimir Propp was arrested by the Joint State Political Directory (OGPU) on charges of membership in illegal German nationalist groups and interrogated; he spent 11 (or, according to another source, up to 76) months in confinement. In 1932 Vladimir Propp was offered position of Assistant Professor at the Department of Romano-Germanic Philology at Leningrad State University. In 1937 he transferred to then-nascent Department of Folklore. A year later he was appointed Professor and awarded the degree of Candidate of Sciences in Philology without defending a thesis. In 1939 he defended his doctoral thesis that was later published as a monograph under the title of The Historical Roots of the Folktale. He considered the following scholars his teachers: S. F. Oldenburg, V.N. Peretz, V.M. Zhirmunsky, D.K. Zelenin, V.V. Struve, L.Y. Shternberg, I.G. Frank-Kamenetsky, V.G. Bogoraz, E.K. Pekarsky, V.I. Chernyshov, P.K. Simoni, and N.I. Tolstoy. During World War II Vladimir Propp was either subject to exile from Leningrad in 1941, together with other ethnic Germans, or, according to another source, was denied the right to return from evacuation in Saratov in 1944. Luckily, a petition form A.A. Voznesensky, Head of Leningrad State University, sealed Vladimir Propp’s fate. In 1946 Vladimir Propp published his monograph The Historical Roots of the Folktale, based on his doctoral thesis of 1939. For him, this second book was a logical extension of his first one. Having defined what a folktale is and having exposed its unity through composition, Vladimir Propp concludes that the reason for this unity stems from protohistory, i.e. those stages of human development that are the object of ethnographic research. The main idea of the book is that many folktale motifs originate in various social institutions, the rite of induction being one of the most essential ones. The folktale is associated with ritual practices of ‘archaic’ societies of Oceania, Africa, and America; ethnographic descriptions of these practices served as the basic interpretation material for Propp’s research. That said, the Slavonic archaic past, with its inherent social institutions, turns out to be the actual present of modern and early modern history of Russia. During ideological campaigns of the 1940-s, the book was harshly criticized, and its author was accused of anti-Marxism, idealism, religious lobbyism, commitment to bourgeois ideals, etc. This, to a large extent, caused an extensive myocardial infarction that Vladimir Propp suffered then. It was only in mid-1950-s that Vladimir Propp’s next book Russian Heroic Epos came to light (L., 1955; 2nd ed. – M. 1958). Having analyzed the texts of all the bylinas (Russian heroic epic poems) that he knew, Vladimir Propp suggested a concept of Russian epos – a new, theoretically and methodologically grounded insight. “Vladimir Propp studied Russian bylinas as a historically contingent stage in the history of epic folklore, drawing a typological comparison with archaic (what he called, ‘pre-state’) epos of the peoples of Siberia and the Extreme North. This comparison allowed the scholar to reveal a complex layer of archaic motifs, to explain its nature and, more importantly, to read into the plots, to unravel the many riddles, to explain the distinctive characters of bylinas, to discover the specific features of bylina poetics, and to finally understand the nature of historicism of the bylina.” [4]. Propp’s next monograph, Russian Agricultural Feasts, was published in 1963. He remarked that the book was based on ethnographic material and that he “had applied the same method that had been used in Morphology of the Folktale. It turned out that all the basic agricultural feasts were comprised of the same elements but were differently shaped” [5]. Using the material of various ritual motifs, Propp distinguishes the parts that are incorporated into the structure of agricultural rituals. It turns out that a large part of the population of the 19th century Russia were the carriers of archaic culture elements. Otherwise it would have been impossible to collect the vast relevant existing material on rites. In 1963–1964 Vladimir Propp was Head of the Department of Russian History, in 1949–1952 he lectured at the Department of Ethnography and Anthropology at the Faculty of History, Leningrad State University. In 1963 Propp was nominated for election to Berliner Academy of Sciences; in 1966 Leningrad State University nominated him as a member-correspondent of the USSR Academy of Sciences; but the world-renowned scholar was never elected to either of the academies. After Vladimir Propp’s death, his widow, E.Y. Antipova, published two of his books: The Problems of Comism and Laughter (1976) and The Russian Folktale (1984). Vladimir Propp spent many a year studying Old Russian art, primarily Russian icon-painting and the architecture of Orthodox churches. He had a collection of thousands of photos of icons, churches, cathedrals, and temples. Judging by his last drafts and commentaries, he was going to devote his new book to the structural features of Russian temple architecture.

Areas of expertise: Folklore studies; History and ethnography of the Russians; Semiotics of traditional culture; Culture theory

Main scientific achievements:

The basis of Vladimir Propp’s scientific heritage is his four monographs published in his lifetime and his articles on the same topics. Vladimir Propp is the founder of the comparative-typological method in folklore studies and one of the founders of the modern theory of text. His works were way ahead of his time. His Morphology of the Folktale was duly appreciated only 30 years after it was written. The typological parallel between the folktale and the rite of induction, drawn by Vladimir Propp in his book of 1946, has been the topic of many Russian publications devoted to comparative studies of folklore narratives and the rite of passage since mid-1970-s. The study of calendar rites, Propp’s ideas from his book of 1963, his method of ethnographic material description – this all began to be used and developed by folklorists and ethnographers in late 1980-s. Vladimir Propp’s works had a great influence on such prominent scholars as A. Dundes, A.J. Greimas, M. Pop, P. Maranda, L. Honko, Y. Pentikainen, T. Sebeok, R. Barthes, T. Todorov and many others. His works lay the foundation for structural and typological study of narrative. His ideas, to a large extent, triggered many structuralist studies of mythological, folklore, and literary narratives. “Up until now, V.Y. Propp’s scientific heritage has remained largely unacknowledged and unknown to the world’s humanities. Recreating Propp’s scientific-methodological context (and that would be the works by B. Russell, L. Wittgenstein, G. Frege, R.O. Jakobson, P.G. Bogatyrev, M.M. Bakhtin, C. Lévi-Strauss, and V. Turner) will reveal the fact that his works were so much ahead of the science of the 20th century; they combined logical and philosophical generalization with the specificity of a cultural fact, without imposing a new scientific paradigm on real life, but rather inferring this paradigm from it.”[6].

Major Publications:

Морфология волшебной сказки. Л.: Academia, 1928; [Morphology of the Folktale. L.: Academia, 1928]

Исторические корни волшебной сказки. Л.: Изд-во ЛГУ, 1986; [The Historical Roots of the Folktale. L.: LSU Publishing House, 1986]

Фольклор и действительность. М.: Наука, 1989; [Folklore and Reality. M.: Nauka, 1989]

Русские аграрные праздники (Опыт историко-этнографического исследования). Л.: Изд-во ЛГУб 1963. 2-е издание: СПб.: Терра — Азбука 1995; [Russian Agricultural Feasts (An effort of historical and ethnographic research). L.: LSU Publishing House, 1963. 2nd ed.: SPb.: Terra – Azbuka, 1995]

Проблемы комизма и смеха. Ритуальный смех в фольклоре (по поводу сказки о Несмеяне) (Собрание трудов В. Я. Проппа.) Научная редакция, комментарии Ю. С. Рассказова. М.: Издательство «Лабиринт», 1999; [The Problems of Comism and Laughter. Ritual Laughter in Folklore (on the folktale about Nesmeyana) (Complete works by V.Y. Propp) ed. and commentaries by Y.S. Rasskazov. M.: Labirint, 1999]

Поэтика фольклора. М.: Издательство «Лабиринт», 1999; [Poetics of Folklore. M.: Labirint, 1999]

Русская сказка (Собрание трудов В.Я. Проппа). Научная редакция, комментарии Ю.С.Рассказова. М., 2000; [The Russian Folktale (Complete works by V.Y. Propp) ed. and commentaries by Y.S. Rasskazov. M., 2000]

Русский героический эпос. М.: Издательство «Лабиринт», 2006; [Russian Heroic Epos. M.: Labirint, 2006]

About V.Y. Propp:

• Мелетинский Е. М. Структурно-типологическое изучение сказки // В. Я. Пропп. Морфология сказки. М., 1969. С. 134—166; [Meletinsky E.M. A Structural and Typological Study of the Folktale // V.Y. Propp. Morphology of the Folktale. M., 1969. P.p. 134-166]

• Reinhard Breymayer: Vladimir Jakovlevič Propp (1895—1970) — Leben, Wirken und Bedeutsamkeit. B: Linguistica Biblica 15/16 (1972), S. 36—77 (S. 67—77 Bibliographie);

• Путилов Б. Н. Предисловие // Фольклор и действительность. Избранные статьи. М., 1976. С. 7—15; [Putilov B.N. Preface // Folklore and Reality. Selected articles. M., 1976. P.p. 7-15]

• Чистов К.В. В.Я. Пропп — исследователь сказки // В. Я. Пропп. Русская сказка. Л., 1984. С. 3—22; [Chistov K.V. V.Y. Propp – an investigator of the folktale. // Propp V.Y. The Russian Folktale. L., 1984. P.p. 3-22]

• Библиография трудов В.Я. Проппа (сост. Б. Н. Путилов) // Типологические исследования по фольклору. Сборник статей памяти Владимира Яковлевича Проппа (1895—1970). М., 1975. С. 16—25. Дополн.: Еремина В.И. Книга В.Я. Проппа «Исторические корни волшебной сказки" и ее значение для современного исследования сказки // В.Я. Пропп. Исторические корни волшебной сказки. Л., 1986. С. 5; [Bibliography of V.Y. Propp’s works (comp. B.N. Putilov) // Typological folklore studies. Collection of articles in commemoration of Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (1895-1970). M., 1975. P.p. 16-25. See also: V.I. Yeryomina. V.Y. Propp’s Historical Roots of the Folktaleand its role in contemporary studies of the folktale. // V.Y. Propp. The Historical Roots of the Folktale.L., 1986. P. 5]

• Путилов Б. Н. От сказки к эпосу по страницам творческой биографии Владимира Яковлевича Проппа) // Ежеквартальник русской филологии и культуры. СПб., 1995. I. 3. С. 351-370; [B.N. Putilov. From folktale to epos: pages of Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp’s career // Quarterly of Russian philology and culture. SPb., 1995. Vol. I. 3. P.p.351-370]

• Путилов Б. Н. Перечитывая и передумывая Проппа // Живая старина, 1995. № 3 (7). С. 2—6; [B.N. Putilov. Revising and rethinking Propp // Zhivaya starina, 1995. № 3 (7). P.p. 2-6]

Мартынова А.Н. Предисловие к изданию трудов В.Я. Проппа // Поэтика фольклора. В.Я. Пропп. Собрание трудов. Т.1. М.: Издательство «Лабиринт», 1998. С. 5—23; [A.N. Martynova. Preface to Complete works by V.Y. Propp // Poetics of folklore. V.Y. Propp. Complete works. Vol.1. M.: Labirint, 1998. P.p. 5-23]

• Serena Grazzini: Der strukturalistische Zirkel. Theorien über Mythos und Märchen bei Propp, Lévi-Strauss, Meletinskij. Wiesbaden 1999 (DUV: Literaturwissenschaft);

• Неизвестный В. Я. Пропп. «Древо жизни. Дневник старости. Переписка» / Предисл., сост. А. Н. Мартыновой; Подгот. текста, коммент. А. Н. Мартыновой, Н. А. Прозоровой. СПб.: Алетейа, 2002; [The Unknown V.Y. Propp. Tree of Life. Diary of an old man. Correspondence. // foreword, ed. and commentaries by A.N. Martynova, N.A. Prozorova. SPb.: Aleteya, 2002]

• Vilmos Voigt: Propp, Vladimir Jakovlevič. В: Enzyklopädie des Märchens, том 10 (2002). S. 1435—1442;

• Уорнер Э.Э. Владимир Яковлевич Пропп и русская фольклористика. Изд-во СПбГУ, 2005; [E.E. Warner. Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp and Russian folklore studies. SPSU Publishing House, 2005]

Иванов М.В. Поднявший перчатку // Санкт-Петербургский университет. 25 апреля 2005; 20 мая 2005; 2 июня 2005; [M.V. Ivanov. Th one who picked up the glove // Saint-Petersburg State University. 25 April 2005; 20 May 2005; 2 June 2005]

• Мартынова А.Н. Владимир Яковлевич Пропп: Жизненный путь. Научная деятельность. СПб., 2006; [ A.N. Martynova. Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp: his life and career. SPb, 2006]

Бочкарева Л.И. Владимир Яковлевич Пропп и его любимое Линёво // Стрежень. Научный ежегодник. Волгоград, 2009. Т. 7; [L.I. Bochkareva. Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp and his favourite Linyovo // Strezhen. Scientific annals. Volgograd, 2009. Vol.7]

Адоньева С. Б. Владимир Яковлевич Пропп // Пропповский центр. Русский фольклор в современных записях; [S.B. Adonyeva. Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp // Proppian Centre. Russian Folklore in contemporary notes]

Пропп Владимир Яковлевич // Проект «Фольклор и народная культура России»;

Хорькова М. В.Я. Пропп, которого мы не знали. (Ч. 1) // Татьянин день;

Хорькова М. «Проклятый дар» В.Я. Пропп. (Ч. 2) // Татьянин день.


[1] “At school I showed no interest in religion. I was keen on German Romanticism, which resulted in acute individualism and self-esteem. But the dull melancholy and my strife to get free from the bondage of my soul were a kind of way out for my future spiritual outbursts. Besides, the religious element of romanticism and my interest in idealist philosophy of the 19th century had a strong influence on me. I graduated from school, prone to mysticism.” (Неизвестный В. Я. Пропп. «Древо жизни. Дневник старости. Переписка» / Предисл., сост. А. Н. Мартыновой; Подгот.текста, коммент. А. Н. Мартыновой, Н. А. Прозоровой. СПб.: Алетейа, 2002. С. 9.) [The Unknown V.Y. Propp. Tree of Life. Diary of an old man. Correspondence. // foreword, ed. and commentaries by A.N. Martynova, N.A. Prozorova. SPb.: Aleteya, 2002]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Кл. Леви-Стросс. Семиотика. М., 1983. С. 411. [C. Lévi-Strauss. Semiotics. M., 1983. P. 411]

[4] Б. Н. Путилов. Перечитывая и передумывая Проппа // Живая старина, 1995. № 3 (7). С. 5. [B.N. Putilov. Revising and rethinking Propp // Zhivaya starina, 1995. № 3 (7). P. 5]

[5] В.Я. Пропп. Структурное и историческое изучение волшебной сказки. // Поэтика фольклора. В.Я. Пропп. Собрание трудов. Т.1. М.: Издательство «Лабиринт», 1998. С. 133. [V.Y. Propp. AStructural and Historical study of the Folktale. // Poetics of Folklore. V.Y. Propp. Complete works. Vol.1. M.: Labirint. 1998. P. 133]

[6] Адоньева С.Б. Владимир Яковлевич Пропп // Пропповский центр. Русский фольклор в современных записях. [S.B. Adonyeva. Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp // Proppian Centre. Russian Folklore in contemporary notes]

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