Daniil Kharms

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Daniil Kharms
Daniil Kharms.jpg
Daniil Kharms
Born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov
(1905-12-30)30 December 1905
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Died 2 February 1942(1942-02-02) (aged 36)
Leningrad, Soviet Union
Occupation Poet, writer, dramatist
Literary movement Surrealism
Spouse Esther Rusakova, Marina Malich
Relatives Ivan Yuvachev (father)

Daniil Kharms (Russian: Дании́л Ива́нович Хармс; 30 December [O.S. 17 December] 1905 – 2 February 1942) was an early Soviet-era surrealist and absurdist poet, writer and dramatist.[1]

Early years[edit]

Daniil Ivánovich Yuvatchov (Даниил Иванович Ювачёв) was born in St. Petersburg, into the family of Ivan Yuvachev, a member of the revolutionary group The People's Will. By the time of his birth, the elder Yuvachev had already been imprisoned for his involvement in subversive acts against tsar Alexander III and had become a philosopher.

Daniil invented the pseudonym Kharms while attending Saint Peter's School. There are some assumptions that this might have been influenced by his fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, as the two words (Holmes and Harms) sound vaguely similar in Russian, as well as number of other theories.[2] While at Saint Peter's, he learned the rudiments of both English and German, and it may have been the English "harm" and "charm" that he incorporated into "Kharms".[3] Throughout his career, Kharms used variations on this name and the pseudonyms DanDan, Khorms, Charms, Shardam, and Kharms-Shardam, among others.

In 1924, he entered the Leningrad Electrotechnicum, from which he was expelled for "lack of participation in socially conscious activities".[citation needed]


After his expulsion, he gave himself over entirely to literature. He joined the circle of Aleksandr Tufanov, a sound-poet, and follower of Velemir Khlebnikov's ideas of zaum (or trans-sense) poetry. He met the young poet Alexander Vvedensky at this time, and the two became close friends and collaborators.

In 1928, his play "Elizabeth Bam" ("Елизавета Бам") premiered; it is said to have foreshadowed the Theatre of the Absurd.[citation needed]

In 1927, the Association of Writers of Children's Literature was formed, and Kharms was invited to be a member. From 1928 until 1941, Kharms continually produced children's works, to great success.[citation needed]

In 1928, Daniil Kharms founded the avant-garde collective Oberiu, or Union of Real Art. He embraced the new movements of Russian Futurism laid out by his idols, Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich, and Igor Terentiev, among others. Their ideas served as a springboard. His aesthetic centered around a belief in the autonomy of art from real world rules and logic, and that intrinsic meaning is to be found in objects and words outside of their practical function.

By the late 1920s, his anti-rational verse, nonlinear theatrical performances, and public displays of decadent and illogical behavior earned Kharms – who dressed like an English dandy with a calabash pipe – the reputation of a talented and highly eccentric writer.[citation needed]

In the late 1920s, despite rising criticism of the OBERIU performances and diatribes against the avant-garde in the press, Kharms sought to unite progressive artists and writers of the time (Malevich, Filonov, Terentiev, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Kaverin, Zamyatin) with leading Russian Formalist critics (Tynianov, Shklovsky, Eikhenbaum, Ginzburg, etc.,) and a younger generation of writers (all from the OBERIU crowd—Alexander Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Igor Bakhterev), to form a cohesive cultural movement of Left Art.

Kharms was arrested in 1931 and exiled to Kursk for most of a year. He was arrested as a member of "a group of anti-Soviet children's writers", and some of his works were used as evidence in the case. Soviet authorities, having become increasingly hostile toward the avant-garde in general, deemed Kharms' writing for children anti-Soviet because of its refusal to instill materialist and social Soviet values.[3] Kharms continued to write for children's magazines when he returned from exile, though his name would appear in the credits less often. His plans for more performances and plays were curtailed, the OBERIU disbanded, and Kharms receded into a mostly private writing life.

In the 1930s, as the mainstream Soviet literature was becoming more and more conservative under the guidelines of Socialist Realism, Kharms found refuge in children's literature. (He had worked under Samuil Marshak at Detgiz, the state-owned children's publishing house since the mid-1920s, writing new material and translating children's literature from the west, including Wilhelm Busch's Max and Moritz). Many of his poems and short stories for children were published in the Chizh (Чиж), Yozh (Ëж), Sverchok (Сверчок) and Oktyabryata (Октябрята) magazines.


His "adult" works were not published during his lifetime with the sole exception of two early poems. His notebooks were saved from destruction in the war by loyal friends and hidden until the 1960s, when his children's writing became widely published and scholars began the job of recovering his manuscripts and publishing them in the west and in samizdat.

His reputation in the 20th century in Russia was largely based on his popular work for children. His other writings (a vast assortment of stories, miniatures, plays, poems, and pseudo-scientific, philosophical investigations) were virtually unknown until the 1970s, and not published officially in Russia until "glasnost"

Kharms' stories are typically brief vignettes (see also short prose and feuilleton) often only a few paragraphs long, in which scenes of poverty and deprivation alternate with fantastic, dreamlike occurrences and acerbic comedy. Occasionally they incorporate incongruous appearances by famous authors (e.g.: Pushkin and Gogol tripping over each other; Count Leo Tolstoy showing his chamber pot to the world; Pushkin and his sons falling off their chairs; etc.)

Kharms' world is unpredictable and disordered; characters repeat the same actions many times in succession or otherwise behave irrationally; linear stories start to develop but are interrupted in midstream by inexplicable catastrophes that send them in completely different directions.[citation needed]

His manuscripts were preserved by his sister and, most notably, by his friend Yakov Druskin, a notable music theorist and amateur theologist and philosopher, who dragged a suitcase full of Kharms's and Vvedensky's writings out of Kharms's apartment during the blockade of Leningrad and kept it hidden throughout difficult times.

Kharms' adult works were picked up by Russian samizdat starting around the 1960s, and thereby did have an influence on the growing "unofficial" arts scene. (Moscow Conceptualist artists and writers such as Kabakov, Prigov, Rubinstein, were influenced by this newly found avant-garde predecessor).

A complete collection of his works was published in Bremen in four volumes, in 1978–1988. In Russia, Kharms' works were widely published only from the late 1980s. Now, several editions of Kharms's collected works and selected volumes have been published in Russia, and collections are available in English, French, German and Italian. In 2004, a selection of his works appeared in Irish.

Numerous English translations have appeared of late in American literary journals. In the 1970s, George Gibian at Cornell published the first English collection of OBERIU writing, which included stories and a play by Daniil Kharms and one play by Alexander Vvedensky. Gibian's translations appeared in Annex Press magazine in 1978. In the early 1990s a slim selected volume translated into British English by Neil Cornwell came out in England. New translations of all the members of the OBERIU group (and their closely knit group of friends, the Chinari) appeared in 2006 in the USA (OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism. It contains poetry, drama and prose by Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Nikolay Oleynikov, Leonid Lipavsky and Yakov Druskin, edited by Eugene Ostashevsky and translated by Matvei Yankelevich, Thomas Epstein, Genya Turovskaya, Eugene Ostashevsky and Ilya Bernstein), with an introduction by Eugene Ostashevsky (not Susan Sontag, who is listed on some websites as the author of the foreword). An English translation of a collection of his works, by Matvei Yankelevich, Today I Wrote Nothing was published in 2007. It includes poems, plays, short prose pieces, and his novella "The Old Woman". Individual pieces have also been translated by Roman Turovsky [4] and Alex Cigale.

Personal life[edit]

Kharms was married twice, to Esther Rusakova and Marina Malich. His wives sometimes appear in some of his lyrical or erotic poems.

One of his pseudonyms, which was signed in Latin alphabet, was Daniel Charms.[2]:18

Kharms was arrested on suspicion of treason in the summer of 1941. He was imprisoned in the psychiatric ward at Leningrad Prison No. 1. and died in his cell in February 1942—most likely, from starvation, as the Nazi blockade of Leningrad had already begun.


Kharms on graffiti. Kharkov, 2008
  • Beginning in the 1970s many of Kharms' children's texts were set to music, and were often played on the radio.
  • In 2006, Russian-American jazz pianist Simon Nabatov and English jazz vocalist Phil Minton released a CD entitled, A Few Incidences, which was based upon Kharms' texts.[5]
  • Ted Milton staged a performance around Kharms' texts, entitled In Kharms Way (with laptop musician Sam Britton).
  • The band Esthetic Education composed its poem Juravli I Korabli. It appeared on their debut album Face Reading, and on their live album Live at Ring.
  • Composer Hafliði Hallgrímsson has composed music featuring Daniil Kharms writings translated into English.[6]


  1. ^ Saunders, George (9 December 2007). "Soviet Deadpan". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  2. ^ a b Kobrinski, Аlexander (2009). Daniil Kharms. Great People series (in Russian). Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya. ISBN 978-5-235-03258-3. 
  3. ^ a b Frazier, Ian (7 May 2015). "A Strangely Funny Russian Genius". The New York Review of Books 62 (8): 36–38.
  4. ^ "DANIIL HARMS, Poet/Writer/Dramatist" The Polyhymnion Foundation
  5. ^ Simon Nabatov. "Dusted Reviews". Dusted Magazine. Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  6. ^ Gill, Andy (1 January 2010). "Album: Haflidi Hallgrimsson, Mini Stories (Signum Classics)". The Independent. London. Retrieved 1 May 2010. 


  • Tumanov, Vladimir and Larissa Klein. "The Child and the Child-like in Daniil Kharms." Russian Literature 34 (1993): 241–269.
  • Kharms, Daniil (2009). Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Edited and translated from the Russian by Matvei Yankelevich. New York: Ardis Books. ISBN 978-1-59020-042-1.
  • Kharms, Daniil (2013), "'I am a Phenomenon Quite out of the Ordinary' The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms." Selected, Translated, and Edited by Anthony Anemone and Peter Scotto. Boston: Academic Studies Press. ISBN 978-1-618113-72-6.

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