Critics have frequently accused Russian Formalism of supporting an apolitical separation of art from life. As a central Formalist term, estrangement (ostranenie) often bore the brunt of this accusation. Taking issue with this critique, this essay focuses on the entangled relationship between the aesthetics and politics of estrangement and argues that an attentive look at the history of estrangement reveals its deep involvement with revolutionary and police state politics. This essay traces estrangement's conflicted development through Victor Shklovsky's oeuvre and beyond, in the work of Nicolae Steinhardt and Joseph Brodsky, and also in secret police interrogation and reeducation practices and in CIA manuals.
In Sentimental Journey, Shklovsky wrote that during the civil war, life itself was made strange and became art. Shklovsky's memoirs shed light on the effects of this revolutionary estrangement on the self. Furthermore, the memoirs reenacted this unsettling estrangement by incorporating elements of official Soviet genres, such as the trial deposition, the interrogation autobiography, and the letter to the government. As Shklovsky suggests, the effects of revolutionary estrangement on the self were certainly not limited to the therapeutic value of refreshing perception that is commonly ascribed to artistic estrangement. Indeed, estrangement of the self was a key device in secret police interrogation and reeducation practices; as such, it was instrumental in the politicized fashioning of the subject during Soviet times. In their confrontations with this police state brand of estrangement, writers like Joseph Brodsky and Nicolae Steinhardt further probed its methods and then appropriated its lessons for their own ends, developing self-estrangement as a new art of survival.