The History and Context of the Digital Humanities in Russia

Inna Kizhner (, Siberian Federal University, Russian Federation and Melissa Terras (, University of Edinburgh, UK and Lev Manovich (, City University of New York and Boris Orekhov (, National Research University Higher School of Economics and Anastasia Bonch-Osmolovskaya (, National Research University Higher School of Economics and Maxim Rumyantsev (, Siberian Federal University, Russian Federation

The history and context of the development of Digital Humanities in Russia as outlined in this paper shows that there are various influences at play which have led to the forming of the Russian DH field. We link the quantitative methods used to previous trends in scholarship, including mathematics, Russian editorial practices, and the development of museum computing in the country. By doing so we can consider the individual societal contexts which encourage a field to emerge, and although that field may look similar to outsiders, identify the lineage of intellectual approaches which still influence methods and cultures within the discipline.

The connection between Russian Formalism and the Digital Humanities (Allison et al., 2011; Moretti, 2013; Jockers, 2013; Stanford University, 2015) relates to the tradition that originated following the strengthening of Russian mathematics at the turn of the nineteenth century after the Moscow Mathematical Society was established in 1864. The influence of this school on literary studies can be traced through the twentieth century from Andrey Bely’s experiments at the threshold of mathematics and poetry (Akimova, Shapir, 2006; Giansiracusa and Vasilieva, 2017) to the Moscow Linguistic Circle with Roman Jacobson as its chair (Akimova, Shapir, 2006; Pil’shchikov, 2015), to the Prague Linguistic Circle and further to the Tartu-Moscow School (Uspensky, 1998). Boris Jarkho’s ‘Research Methods for Literary Studies’ written in 1936 anticipated the approach of Stanford Literary Lab not only in its ‘quantitative interpreting’ (Underwood, 2017) but also in a skill of a scholar able to see wider contexts and make bridges across disciplines. The traditions are currently developed at the Centre for Digital Humanities at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow via digital tools (Skorinkin, 2017; Bonch-Osmolovskaya and Skorinkin, 2016; Orekhov and Tolstoy, 2017; Kuzmenko and Orekhov, 2016; Fischer et al, 2017).

Another tradition related to building the National Corpus of the Russian Language 1 can be traced back to Alexei Lyapunov (Sitchinawa, 2006), another famous Russian mathematician. The point here is not that mathematics sustained and influenced all the Russian humanities (Bakhtin’s famous studies can provide an opposite example 2 ) or that quantitative approach as a trendy international methodology was also present in this part of the world in the 1960s-1970s but that it provided the rigor and method to the field which was disconnected from the international research methods and standards. This disconnection resulted in a dramatic difference in academic cultures.

A recent paper (Underwood 2017) discusses distant reading as a part of the digital humanities project aimed at coping with confirmation bias. Underwood shows that (social) sciences provide the ‘experimental structure’ and help us build research design around hypothesis, samples and results. A specific Russian feature was that research methodology of this type was provided via mathematics, linguistics, and sciences. Social science and anthropology played a minor role in the interplay of influences (Gasparov, 2016).

A major part of the current Russian digital humanities project is connected to linguistics. However, linguistics did not only provide a set of formal features and a methodology to trace a formal technique in a literary work. It was an important initial influence, a novel method to do literary studies as a part of a new scientific perspective (Tynjanov, 1971; Jarkho, 2006) in the early twentieth century. The Moscow Linguistic Circle active from 1915 to 1924 held its meetings in Roman Jacobson’s flat in Moscow and its members were over 60 linguists and scholars working in text analysis and literary studies 3 . Apart from its significant international influence, the society had an important impact on how Russian scholarship developed (Akimova, Shapir, 2006; Shapir, 1996; Pil’shchikov, 2015). Its traditions were continued in applying quantitative methods to studying poetry in the second half of the twentieth century (Akimova, Shapir, 2006; Bodrova, 2017). Its influence can be traced in a highly influential approach of applying structural linguistics to interdisciplinary cultural studies at Tartu University 4 also in the second half of the twentieth century (Gasparov, 2016).

A part of current projects in Russian digital humanities are connected to this tradition. The project of creating a semantic edition of Leo Tolstoy’s complete works 5 (Bonch-Osmolovskaya, 2016) includes representative and interpretive components. The edition’s interpretive part works with a humanistic data model of the characters’ roles in War and Peace validated through the digital tools of natural language processing and extracting semantic roles (Bonch-Osmolovskaya and Skorinkin, 2016), this approach also includes a classification of characters using character networks (Skorinkin, 2017). The connection of digital approaches to the previous trends of scholarship (Russian Formalism and structural interdisciplinary studies initiated by scholars from Tartu and Moscow) is explicitly proposed and maintained through the Moscow-Tartu Summer School annually organized at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

Quantitative approaches to studying poetry has been a path traditionally pursued by Russian mathematicians or people related to mathematics. Andrey Bely who was closely related to Nikolai Bugaev 6 , one of the first chairs of the Moscow Mathematical Society, developed a quantitative approach to studying poetic rhythm in 1910 and initiated a society where scholars were taught to use statistics to study poetry (Semyonov, 2009). Andrei Kolmogorov, a famous Russian mathematician, organized a seminar and published several papers in this field in the early 1960s (Semeyonov, 2009; Kolmogorov, 2015).

The tradition has been continued via digital tools where the authors show the limitations of digital analysis (Orekhov, 2014) or integrate mapping poetry in interdisciplinary cultural studies following the Tartu tradition (Kuzmenko and Orekhov, 2016).

Russian editorial practices in the second half of the twentieth century were focused on publishing complete works of the authors from the canon of the time. Thorough editorial work was limited by the editors’ attempts to combine international standards of scholarly apparatus and the requirements of the moment. Twentieth century’s attempts to create scholarly editions using interpretive practices of the time (Bonch-Osmolovskaya, 2016) resulted in a current need to build new epistemological foundations for contemporary scholarly editions. Digital methods and digital scholarly standards are probably the best possible option to cope with epistemological difficulties in the field.

While editing textual materials was complicated by interpretive practices, visual editions in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s were introducing new standards of metadata and data models. Their editors made an important step towards digital practices and museum computing.

The editorial practices of printed visual editions of artworks related to the standards of publishing museum images (Kizhner et al, forthcoming), the quality of images and the scholarly apparatus accompanying visual editions in the 1970s and 1980s prepared the anticipations of standards for digital publishing and placing images in a wider context via digital tools (Polulyakh, 2009; Sher, 2006).

A specific Russian feature was looking for formal (structural) components to interpret a literary work, bringing a wide interdisciplinary context to interpretation. The tradition was sustained during the twentieth century before Russian scholars turned to digital humanities. The influence of social science, gender and race studies, enlarging or changing a canon did not leave significant traces even if (when) the ideas reached the community of scholars. A current exception are projects aimed at studying the nineteenth century literary canon and future developments seeking to compare it with contemporary canons (Vdovin and Leibov, 2013). The authors propose to build a canonical corpus and study the changes using a mark-up. The idea relates to Moretty’s evolutionary theories (ibid) and the Russian traditions of observing the dynamics of a formal feature that can be traced back to Boris Jarcho’s papers written in the 1930s.

The paper will demonstrate, using evidence from various sources that Russian traditions of quantitative interpreting, the influence of strong mathematics and a trend of placing cultural objects within a broader context were crucial for our understanding of how digital humanities, as a quantitative methodology, developed in the country, in a different way than it did elsewhere. Understanding these alternative histories will help us understand the range of activities taking place in Digital Humanities worldwide, by looking at the social, scholarly, and cultural contexts, helping the community to navigate and bridge differences.

Appendix A

  1. Akimova, M. and Shapir, M. (2006) ‘Boris Isaakovich Jarkho and the Strategy of Research Methods for Literary Studies’, in Jarkho Boris, Research Methods for Literary Studies (ed. Maxim Shapir ), Moscow: Pholologica. In Russian.
  2. Allison, S., Heuser R., Jockers, M., Moretti, F., Witmore, M. (2011) Quantitative Formalism as Experiment, Pamphlet 1. Stanford Literary Lab.
  3. Bonch-Osmolovskaya, A., (2016) ‘Digital Edition of Leo Tolstoy Works: Contributing to Advances in Russian Literary Scholarship’. Journal of Siberian Federal University. Humanities and Social Sciences 7 (9), pp. 1605-1614.
  4. Bonch-Osmolovskaya, A. and Skorinkin D. (2017) ‘Text Mining War and Piece: Automatic Extraction of Character Traits from Literary Pieces’, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, Vol. 32, Supplement 1.
  5. Fischer, F., Orlova, T., Skorinkin, D., Palchikov, G., and Tyshkevich, N. ‘Introducing RusDraCor - A TEI-Encoded Russian Drama Corpus for the Digital Literary Studies, in International Conference Corpus Linguistics 2017: Book of Abstracts, June 27-30, 2017, Saint Petersburg, pp. 28-32.
  6. Gasparov, M., (2002) ‘Michael Bakhtin in the Russian Culture of the 20th Century’, in Michael Bakhtin: Pro and Contra: Mikael Bakhtin’s Heritage in the Context of the World Culture (ed. Konstantin Isupov), Vol. 2, Saint Petersburg. In Russian.
  7. Gasparov, B., (2016) ‘Between Methodological Strictness and Moral Appeal: Questions of Language and Cultural Theory in Russia’, History of Humanities, vol.1, number 2.
  8. Giansiracusa, Noah and Anastasia Vasilyeva, ‘Mathematical Symbolism in a Russian Literary Masterpiece’, arXiv: 170902483v1
  9. Janecek, G., (2015) Andrey Bely: A Critical Review, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
  10. Jarkho B., (2006) Research Methods for Literary Studies (ed. Maxim Shapir ), Moscow: Pholologica. In Russian.
  11. Jockers, M., ‘Microanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL.
  12. Kizhner, Inna, Melissa Terras, Maxim Rumyantsev and Kristina Sycheva, ‘Accessing Russian Culture Online: The scope of digitization in museums across Russia’, forthcoming.
  13. Kolmogorov, A., (2015) Studies in Poetry, Moscow Centre for Mathematical Education Press, 2015. In Russian.
  14. Kuzmenko, Elisaveta and Boris Orekhov, (2016) ‘Geography of Russian Poetry: Countries and Cities Inside the Poetic World’, in Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 830-832.
  15. Moretti, F., (2013) Distant Reading, London: Verso.
  16. Orekhov, Boris and Fekla Tolstoy, (2017) ‘Textograf: A Web Application for Manuscript Digitization’, in Digital Humanities 2017: Conference Abstracts. McGill University & Université de Montréal, Montréal.
  17. Pil’shchikov, I., (2015) ‘The Legacy of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and the Digital Humanities Today’, in Russian Formalism and the Digital Humanities: Abstracts, Stanford University.
  18. Polulyakh, A., (2009), Photo capturing and digital technologies in museums: following traditions, In Proceedings of 'ICT fro Regional Development'  Conference, 5-6 February 2009, Smolensk Regional Administration, Smolensk, pp. 217-222. In Russian
  19. Sedakova, O., (1992) ‘Michael Bakhtin: An Alternative Interpretation’, In Russian.
  20. Semyonov, V., (2009) ‘Methods of Statistics for Studying Russian Poetry: Andrey Bely and Andrey Kolmogorov’, Journal of Moscow State University, series 9, number 6.
  21. Sher, J., (2006). ‘Department of Museum Informatics at the Hermitage Museum (1975 - 1985), Information Technology for Museums, No 2, Saint Petersburg. In Russian.
  22. Sitchinawa, D., (2005) ‘The National Corpus of the Russian Language: a Brief Prehistory’, in The National Corpus of the Russian Language: 2003-2005, Moscow: Indrik, pp. 21-30. In Russian.
  23. Skorinkin, D., (2017) ‘Extracting Character Networks to Explore Literary Plot Dynamics’, in Proceedings of Dialogue: Conference on Linguistic Computing, Moscow, 31 May - 3 June, Issue 16 (23), Vol.1, pp. 257-270.
  24. Shapir, M. (1996) ‘An editorial note to Jacobson, Roman ‘The Moscow Linguistic Circle’, Philologica 3. In Russian.
  25. Stanford University, (2015) Russian Formalism and the Digital Humanities Conference: Book of Abstracts, Stanford University.
  26. Tynjanov, J., (1971) ‘On literary revolution’, in Readings in Russian Poetics (ed. Ladislav Matejka and Kristina Pomorska), MIT Press.
  27. Underwood, T., (2017) ‘A Genealogy of Distant Reading’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Vol.11, No 2,
  28. Uspensky, B., (1998) ‘On the origin of the Tartu-Moscow School’, in ‘The Tartu-Moscow School: History, Memoirs, Reviews’ (ed. Sergey Neklyudov), Moscow: Languages of the Russian Culture, pp. 34-44. In Russian.
  29. Vdovin, Alexey and Leibov, Roman (2013) ‘Canonical texts: Russian poetry and teaching literature in the 19th century’, in Canonical Texts: Russian Pedagogical Practice in the 19th Century and Poetical Canon, Tartu University Press. In Russian.
The National Corpus of the Russian Language ( includes over 600 million words. It was published online in 2004 and developed by the linguists from the Russian Academy of Sciences (Sitchinawa, 2006).
See, for example (Gasparov, 2002; Sedakova, 1992), for the discussion of the difference between Bakhtin and the Russian Formalism.
Tynaianov and Schklovsky, famous for their contribution to Russian Formalism, were members of the Moscow Linguistic Circle (Shapir, 1996).
Tartu University in Estonia, a part of Russia at that time, was home for the literary studies done in the tradition of the methodology looking at formal structural features.
A project that is currently developed at the Higher School of Economics and Leo Tolstoy museum. Apart from using a representational mark-up in TEI standards, the project includes experiments towards an interpretive component (Bonch-Osmolovskaya, 2016; Bonch-Osmolovskaya and Skorinkin, 2016).
Boris Bugaev’s (Andrey Bely’s) relations with his father and the influence of the academic environment on Bely’s development have been widely discussed in literature (see, for example, Janecek, 2015 and Giansiracusa and Vasilieva, 2017).