Over the years I’ve had occasion to investigate various of the Russian writers known collectively as the Serapion Brothers (the most prominent of whom were Mikhail Zoshchenko and Victor Shklovsky), and I kept coming across the name Hongor Oulanoff, which always gave me a smile—there was something so incongruous about the combination of the Russian-sounding Oulanoff (Ulanov) and the very un-Russian Hongor. He turned up because he had written the first book-length study of the group, The Serapion Brothers: Theory and Practice (Mouton, 1966), and contributed several articles to the Handbook of Russian Literature (Yale University Press, 1990) edited by Victor Terras, a book I frequently use in my research.

Today, reading the front section of the NY Times, I found his death notice, from which I learned that he was an ethnic Kalmyk, a western Mongolian people (hence the name Hongor), and that he was born in Prague and studied in Paris before moving to the U.S. and teaching Russian literature at Vanderbilt and Ohio State. The notice says:

In the 1950s he helped his father Badma Badmanovich successfully petition the Eisenhower Administration to accept the Kalmyk refugees living in Western Europe, a people who had been purged and deported to Siberia under the Stalin era. As a result, many of the Kalmyks settled in the New York and New Jersey area. In 1990 Professor Oulanoff was honored at the 550th Year of Djangar Commemorative Festival in Elista, capital of the Autonomous Republik of Kalmykia, in Russia. There he presented the University in Elista with his compiled work of B. Kotvich’s linguistic study of the Kalmyk language, the only existing study at the time.

“B. Kotvich” is Władysław Kotwicz (Russian Vladislav Kotvich), whose book on Kalmyk grammar was published in Petrograd in 1915 (2nd ed. Řevnice, Czechoslovakia, 1929—the same year Oulanoff was born).

At any rate, Oulanoff seems to have been a good man as well as a good scholar; my condolences to his family.


  1. I recognised the Mongolian because Bayankhongor is a Mongolian province, and its capital has the same name.
    China appears to have arrived at a new way of dealing with Wikipedia. It’s possible to access articles, but it takes ages (sometimes several minutes) before they download, and when they do there are no images.

  2. Ulanov (Oulanoff) is also from Mongolian, ulaan means red
    the newborn babies called for some time ulaanaa before getting their names, just out of superstition
    i want to visit the Kalmuk buddhist temple in NJ, just can’t find time as always
    B, are you on FB? i would like to friend you there if you are and don’t mind of course

  3. Of course I wouldn’t mind… if Facebook was accessible from China. Unfortunately it’s been blocked ever since those other subjects of the Manchu empire (the Muslims of Xinjiang) revolted against their masters.

  4. ah, i forget that, my sister always complains about that when i send her links
    i think i’ve read here about some servers? online services that overcome their firewalls and wanted to send the link to her, but forget which entry it was
    should just do a search maybe, or maybe it was not LH

  5. I’m assuming that the ‹B› in “B. Kotvich” is for the Russian letter Ve in Владислав. Is this kind of thing at all common, or is it an error on the part of the Times writer?
    I nearly made the same error in this post and called it letter Be, so…

  6. John Emerson says

    I wonder if ulaan is also the origin of uhlan (ulan in German), a kind of light cavalry adapted from the Tatars first by the Poles and later by other nations. Wiki says no, but this is certainly one of the many cases when Wiki can be doubted. (Though I remain a firm defender of Wiki).

  7. Google in Russian gives only ONE hit for Hongor Oulanoff! and even that is for an American researcher. Is his work on the Serapions available online? I didn’t know about him, but Serapions are very close to my heart.
    Galina Belaya, my professor of Russian literature, (her profile and an article on socialist realism is here) considered them the most important literary grouping of the Soviet period. The way I remember her view of them is that they represented the core of Russian literary tradition. They grouped not around style or form, but cultural values. Older writers, Chukovsky, Tynyanov and Gorky, helped them and looked after their fortunes, I think, because they saw them as a force that would carry on that tradition, and perhaps they did – in many different ways.
    I think three characteristics of the group were most important and distinguished them from others. First, respect for each other and for writers of previous generations, second cosmopolitanism, openness to the world outside Russia, and third, their idependence of current political mood.

  8. John Emerson says

    Apropos of uhlans, off topic, Lipka Tatar mosques give me this weird cognitive dissonance. “The little green mosque in the vale” (not a vale, but you get the idea), like it should be in a country-western song.

  9. Is his work on the Serapions available online?
    Apparently not, but Amazon has copies of his book used from $15.50.
    I think you and your professor are right about them, and it’s a pity they’re not better known here. Even now, the focus is on writers who got actively suppressed and weren’t able to publish their great work (Bulgakov, Platonov) rather than on those who managed to publish fine work under existing conditions.

  10. John Emerson says

    The Russian literature thread in which I cannot really participate are especially interesting to me, since it gives me a glimpse of a an otherwise mostly inaccessible world.
    Foreign literatures come to the US in prepackaged forms, so everything beyond the canonical few authors is strange and new. I have somewhat the opposite problem with Chinese literature, since the canonical translations are mostly from the Pound-Waley generation and their heirs, and there’s a lot that doesn’t come across.

  11. Even now, the focus is on writers who got actively suppressed
    oh, absolutely, it simply distorts the picture of the Russian cultural process leaving huge seams of important work practically unkwon and leaving those who are known out of context.
    There is another side to the Serapion Brothers that is very interesting – how small circles of similarly thinking people work together for, it seems, the benefit of each other, but in the end influence larger cultural and social trends. It’s what I love to call ‘soup’ as in primordial soup from which new life forms sprout. Picture this: in the early 1920s, just a dozen of them, sitting hungry in a tiny cold room in Petrograd, Lev Lunts chopping up a piece of furniture to feed the burzhuika woodburner, talking world literature, arguing with Slonimsky, – and creating threads, attitudes, understadings and the whole way of thinking and sets of values which would last for decades and spread to others – writers and readers, academics and functionaries, millions of them. Mentally, I often compare them with the Bloomsbury set (the Woolfes, John Keynes, Bertrand Russel, the Bells, E.M.Forster, what a constellation).
    I’ll have to give up smoking for a few days and buy the book.

  12. John Emerson says

    I’ve been reading about the Paris circle of about 1830 — Nerval, Gautier, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Petrus Borel, Aloysius Bertrand, Nodier, maybe Musset, maybe Balzac, and other lesser writers (and figures.)
    The interesting things as that romantic poetry, decadent poetry, Parnassian poetry, realistic fiction, fantasy fiction, political journalism, travel literature, drama, and drama criticism and kitsch were all written by the same people, who all knew one other. (That is to say, pretty much everyone wrote in 4 to six of those genres). And some of it avant garde now, and some of it is middlebrow and still popular, and some of it is influential but unread, and some of it is happily forgotten.
    I’ve compared it to the big bang because everything was all jumbled together and because so much descends from this period.

  13. JE: Check your 08:42 AM comment here.

  14. Is “Philothée O’Neddy” close enough to count as verlan?

  15. Also, I have to confess to occasionally intoning Balzac like Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn.

  16. That’s Mackecknie, I believe, and I do the same thing.

  17. The most famous Ulyanov-i.e. Lenin seems to have had a mixed origin including Kalmyk , which shows in his distinctly orental features, though I imagine he drew on those origins when he felt it convenient to do so.

  18. I am not sure if Ulianov (Ульян – Julian) is of the same etymology as Ou/Ulanov/ff. But there are numerous Hongor Ulanovs, all with connections to Kalmykia. It seems to be a common Kalmyk name.

  19. Yeah, I don’t think Ulyanov is related.

  20. one can’t be too sensitive it seems, one Hongor Oulanoff died and there are comments saying there are numerous of them
    and the preciousness of Russian literature mentioned like endlessly on the thread dedicated to the replaceable even if it was the subject the deceased studied

  21. I shall be noised abroad through all great Russia,
    Her innumerable tongues shall speak my name:
    The tongue of the Slavs’ proud grandson, the Finn, and now
    The wild Tungus and Kalmyk, the steppes’ friend.
    from Exegi Monumentum

  22. well, smenyaya gnev na milost’, so to speak
    our customs require to not even name the deceased
    out of respect, one is called ‘taliigaach’ (deceased) afterwards
    he’s American and a public figure, not the family or kin and i should not get so easily touchy bringing our little known customs, of course
    hope it explains my, that, uncalled for, outburst

  23. I understand, thanks.
    Years ago, I went to the funeral of a cousin to whom I was close. It was in a remote village in the North of Russia. I wanted to carry te coffin – and suddenly everybody was slapping my arms and shouting: you’re family, you’re not supposed to carry her. It was a surprise to me, I didn’t know it was the custom, and I felt hurt, but I just complied.

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