The article seeks to establish the intellectual history of the Russian formalists' concept of poetic language. Focusing on Roman Jakobson and the Moscow Linguistic Circle, it argues that the study of poetic language drew on Alexander Veselovsky's Historical Poetics, historical dialectology, associationist psychology, and avant-garde ideology. This is in contrast to claims that Russian formalism was from the start inspired by Saussurean structuralism. Separating the foundations of modern literary theory from a structuralist paradigm allows us to disassociate the formalists' original claims for disciplinary autonomy from the subsequently developed theoretical proposition that literature is an autonomous system. By establishing that Russian formalist literary theory emerged within a paradigm which understood (poetic) language as a product of history, the article counters generalizations which cast Russian formalism as a movement which sought to isolate literature as somehow “autonomous” from society.