Many years ago, I read an excerpt from a study of Mikhail Bakhtin that described him "famously smoking his manuscript on Bildungsroman." I had to read this about ten times, over and over. The insanity! To write a book and then smoke it. I was horrified. If he needed a nicotine fix so badly, couldn't he have fashioned a pipe out of something?

The next time I saw mention of Bakhtin's smoking was in the fine movie "Smoke" (excerpt below), and I thought it was really cool—I actually jumped up, pointed at the TV, and said "Can you believe that!" What a story. It fascinates me.

I recently lost some work in a computer crash (including this site), was reminded of Bakhtin, and searched the web for information on his book-smoking. This research was only moderately successful. I found sketchy information on sites that mention the event, and some seem to doubt it ever occurred (the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy says he "allegedly" smoked his book). I did, however, learn a lot about why he may have done such a thing; the fact that may have happened during the horrid Seige of Leningrad in WWII is explanation enough. Additionally, he may have thought his publisher had an extra copy of the text.

The basics:

Who: Mikhail Bakhtin, Russian literary theorist/critic/avid smoker.

What: Smoked his only copy of a study on the Bildungsroman.

When: 1942 (one timeline linked below had it in the 30s—never trust the internet).

Where: During the Seige of Leningrad (OK, this is also disputed on a less-"excitable" page: at Truth be told, I am not sure who to believe.

Why: Siege, addiction, death looming, unaware that (alleged?) only other copy bombed by the Germans...

Length of Manuscript: "Book length " (Bakhtin Centre), "10 years worth of work" (Smoke).

Math: Assuming 1,000 double-sided pages of text, that's 500 smokable sheets. If he was a really good roller he probably could have gotten 25 papers from one sheet, but we'll say a conservative 20, so that's 10,000 cigarettes. This site claims you can get 600 cigarettes out of a pound of tobacco, so he would have needed 16+ pounds. The Seige of Leningrad lasted a bleak and dismal 900 days. That makes 11 cigarettes a day. If it was a 2,000 page book he would have had more than a pack per day (assuming he had a 32lb bag of tobacco on hand), but I get the impression he was at least a 2-pack-a-day guy. Some reports also indicate that he only smoked a large portion of the book, not all of it. I need some more concrete numbers here...


Below, the web research done for you so that you do not have to type in bakhtin, cigarette papers, manuscript smoking, bildungsroman, etc. to find out the story. In part, this is also a project to see if google et. al. will someday find this page and declare it the ultimate site for Bakhtinian Smoking Research. We dream large here at

I want to learn more! If you have anything to add, I'd love to see it and/or link to it. For now, this is web only, but I hope to get a real bibliography up as well. I'm particularily interested in any sort of autobiographical account from the man himself (translated would be helpful).

These links are now in no particular order, but someday might be. The paragraphs were callously torn from whatever page they were on; the full page is linked below each entry.

This great article theorizes that if he'd had web access, Bakhtin could have put his work online AND made cigarettes out of it. I've quoted a good portion of this one because I think the essay as a whole is fascinating. Please go read it! The section from Michael Holquist is what I read in my theory class so long ago, but I couldn't find it until now. Thanks, Richard!

"Michael Holquist, in the Introduction to Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination presents a short story that really gives insight into Bakhtin's character: In 1936 [Bakhtin] […] finished work on a major book devoted to the eighteenth-century novel.
This manuscript was accepted by the Sovetskij Pisatel Publishing House, but the only copy of it disappeared during the confusion of the German invasion […] The only other copy of this manuscript Bakhtin—an inveterate smoker—used as paper to roll his own cigarettes during the dark days of the German invastion. (Holquist, Michael. Introduction. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. xv-xxxiii.) Once Bakhtin had become the author and written a text, and also had become the reader bring the remaining pieces of the language to make the work whole (at least for him) the work no longer served a purpose to him. It could no longer evolve or change, for it, being printed in on paper, was, by its nature, static—being usurped in importance by the need to smoke. Maybe if the Internet had been available as a medium while Bakhtin was writing, he would have been able to publish his work online. Taking the dream one step further, maybe if the students of the world, then, were able to manipulate his text, add to it, discuss it, and link to it, the text would have continually changed and evolved. Bakhtin's essay would have always been new, only having meaning at a particular moment, and forcing the reader to continually become the author. This would allow Bakhtin to continually have a new text to explore. Only then would Bakhtin's pleas in Discourse in the Novel have manifested into the real world during his lifetime and possibly prevented us from forever losing some of his thoughts to a cloud of smoke."
Virtual Dialogues: Bakhtin's Author in Today's Classroom, by Richard C. Hay

A lovely little poem entitled "# 87: bakhtin's smoking habits", by one Chris McCabe. And what's this? More poetry, "Deepstep Come Shining", by C.D. Wright. How did I miss all of this verse before...

NEW! "The essay on the Bildungsroman is actually a fragment from one of Bakhtin's several lost books. In this case, nonpublication cannot be blamed on insensitive censors. Its nonappearance resulted, rather, from effects that grew out of the Second World War, one of the three great historical moments Bakhtin lived through (the other two being the Bolshevik Revolution and the Stalinist purges). Sovetsky pisatel (Soviet Writer), the publishing house that was to bring out Bakhtin's book The Novel of Education and Its Significance in the History of Realism, was blown up in the early months of the German invasion, with the loss of the manuscript on which he had worked for at least two years (1936-38). Bakhtin retained only certain preparatory materials and a prospectus of the book; due to the paper shortage, he had torn them up page by page during the war to make wrappers for his endless chain of cigarettes. He began smoking pages from the conclusion of the manuscript, so what we have is a small portion of its opening section, primarily about Goethe."
Speech Genres and Other Late Essays A new book.

"All these concerns and questions found their manifestation in an aesthetic project that led to the writing and publication of a book on Dostoevsky in 1929. Bakhtin was forced to leave
Leningrad for an exile in Kazakh town of Kustani (Dentith 7) shortly after the publication of the book. But this period was very fruitful for Bakhtin as it made it possible for him to write his doctoral dissertation on Rabelais and another book on bildungsroman. World War II and change of political climate, however, stopped the process of examination of his doctoral dissertation. The book on novel of education was also destroyed partly because of Bakhtin's own fault: there were two copies of the manuscript; one was destroyed by Germans in their attack to the publishing house, and the other one was used by Bakhtin as cigarette papers! Therefore, one significant work of an author for whom writing is primarily a dialogue with the world remained uncommunicated."

"Yet Bakhtin's global celebrity hardly jibes with the picture of the retiring scholar painted by his admirers in these years. He was an absentminded and impractical philosophizer, without personal ambition, deeply egalitarian, a man whose great desire in life was to sit up drinking tea and discussing Dostoevsky with his friends. From his devotees, we have an account of Bakhtin, in the late 1930s, gaining a commission to write an article for the Soviet Literary Encyclopedia, only to have it go unpublished because his entry--on satire--had the misfortune to fall into the same volume as an entry on Stalin, and therefore proved too sensitive for release. Then there is the story about Bakhtin in the winter of 1941 using the air-dropped propaganda leaflets of the advancing Nazis as texts for students in his German language classes.
Most famously, we have Bakhtin, short of rolling paper for his cigarettes, smoking away the entire manuscript of his work on the bildungsroman. It has been suggested that some of the more vivid episodes in Bakhtin's life may be a bit apocryphal, the result of his own storytelling impulse and a hagiographic desire on the part of his devotees. And yet, who knows? It was a strange century the Russians had."
Battle over Mikhail Bakhtin (no longer online)
formerly at

"Paper is a fragile thing. The Great Library at Alexandria, the grand repository of Hellenistic knowledge and literature, was destroyed by a fire set by the troops of Julius Caesar in 48 B.C.; the "daughter library" founded by Ptolemy III was destroyed in the fourth century. The printing press made duplicating and disseminating books much easier, but what about letters and manuscripts? Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin legendarily smoked the only copy of his book on the Bildungsroman, cigarette papers being hard to come by in Leningrad in 1942. Ralph Ellison lost several hundred pages of the manuscript of his second novel (eventually published as Juneteenth) in a fire at his Massachusetts cabin. (Gabriel Rosetti buried a sheaf of his poems with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Thinking better of the gesture, he later had Siddal exhumed and the poems removed from her coffin: less romantic, perhaps, but fully understandable."
STEVE COOK, WEBLOG EXCERPT (this is a neat site, check it out)

"Mikhail Bakhtin is known for being such a fan of smoking that, during a paper shortage, he used pages of a manuscript as rolling paper. The pages of this project, though non-flammable, will change with the passage of time. They will not be consumed by fire, rather, changed by information."
Art and Answerabity

Work on novelistic discourse and Rabelais. Writes the essays that will be collected in The Dialogic Imagination.
At some point, uses pages from his early work as cigarette papers."
Kenneth Burke and Mikhail Bakhtin: A Common Chronology (no longer online)


"While in Kazakhstan Bakhtin began work on his now famous theory of the novel which resulted in the now famous articles Slovo v romane (Discourse in the Novel) (1934-5), Iz predystorii romannogo slovo (From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse) (1940), Epos i roman (Epic and Novel) (1941), Formy vremeni i khronotopa v romane (Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel) (1937-8). Between 1936 and 1938 he completed a book on the Bildungsroman and its significance in the history of realism which was lost when the publishing house at which the manuscript was lying awaiting publication was destroyed in the early days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Voluminous, most still unpublished, preparatory material still exists, although part is lost, allegedly because Bakhtin used it for cigarette papers during the wartime paper shortage. Bakhtin's exceptional productiveness at this time is further accentuated when one considers that one of his legs was amputated in February 1938. He had suffered from inflammation of the bone marrow, osteomyelitis, for many years, which gave him a lot of pain, high temperatures, and often confined him to bed for weeks on end. This had been a factor in the appeals of his friends and acquaintances for clemency when he was internally exiled, a factor that may well have saved his life. This did not, however, prevent him from presenting a now famous doctoral thesis on Rabelais to the GorYenkii Institute of World Literature in 1940. The work proved extremely controversial in the hostile ideological climate of the time and it was not until 1951 that Bakhtin was eventually granted the qualification of kandidat. It was not published in book form until 1965."
Bakhtin Circle [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

"Meanwhile, back on the pig farm, the critic Mikhail Bakhtin was laboring in Omskscurity. There are, in fact, ninety-five Russian towns called Omskscurity (the ones that are not called Lenin, Kirov, or Gorky), and so we had better say that Bakhtin lived in Omskscurity-with-Many-Pigs. Bakhtin became a pig farm accountant to conceal his class identity: he sneakily changed "Count" to "Accountant" on an official document (an act of "carnivalization," according to his biographers). Bakhtin had only one leg, and so, as his biographers observe, was often "supported by his wife."
He set the world's record for cigarette consumption. When he had a fresh pouch of tobacco, nothing made of paper was safe. In 1938 he smoked the complete works of Tolstoy in ninety volumes, and his study of Turgenev went up in Smoke. His many visitors were handed gas masks by his kindly wife."
Excerpts from And Quiet Flows the Vodka or When Pushkin Comes to Shove: The Curmudgeon's Guide to Russian Literature and Culture (Satire...I think.)

The "Smoke" Excerpt:
"Rashid and Paul in the latter's apartment. In mid-conversation:

It's 1942, right? And he's caught in Leningrad during the siege. I'm talking about one of the worst moments in human history. Five hundred thousand people died in that one place, and there's Bakhtin, holed up in an apartment, expecting to be killed any day. He has plenty of tobacco, but no paper to roll it in. So he takes the pages of a manuscript he's been working on for ten years and tears them up to roll his cigarettes.

Rashid can't believe it. "His only copy." Paul says, "If you think you're going to die, what's more important, a good book or a good smoke? And so he huffed and he puffed, and little by little he smoked his book." Rashid still doesn't believe him. Paul reaches high up in his bookcase to find a book, and he discovers a brown paper sack. "Is this yours?" He throws it down toward Rashid--hundreds of bills of currency float down toward Rashid."
SUMMARY OF FILM: Smoke (1995) dir: Wayne Wang (imdb link: here) (no longer online)

Title: "City of
Date of Publication: 1998
Author(s): Auster, Paul
Summary: Bakhtin provides Auster with material for one of several anecdotes which are used to show that true stories can appear fictional but find their sole meaning in their authenticity.
"There is also M.M. Bakhtin, the Russian critic and literary philosopher. During the German invasion of Russia in World War II, he smoked the only copy of one of his manuscripts, a book-length study of German fiction that had taken him years to write. One by one, he took the pages of his manuscript and used the paper to roll his cigarettes, each day smoking a little more of the book until it was gone."
The Bakhtin Centre Homepage (This is the clearinghouse for all things Bakhtin)

Last updated: January 14, 2005. Minor changes to this exciteable page made in January, 2008. Not intended as an authoritative source; written by a 21-year-old.