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Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities?

Soviet_Poster_1

A Soviet poster from Albert Rhys Williams’s Through the Russian Revolution, 1920.

When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature.

This absence struck me as odd, especially given the literary tastes of the Russian reading public. The Russian literati ostensibly admire and cherish the greats—your Tolstoys and Chekhovs, your Dostoevskys—but ask them to name their favorite writers and most will cite someone from this isolated literary isle. They might mention Mayakovsky, the macho darling of the Futurist movement, whose thundering poetry shook his listeners into an acute state of consciousness; or Akhmatova, an Acmeist poet who explored suffering, humanity’s great equalizer, with minimal words and explicit emotion. They could invoke Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago many Americans assume to be a tragic love story between a man and a woman, when really it’s a tragic love story between a man and a revolution, although in Russia Pasternak is celebrated even more for his poetry, especially his wildly experimental collection My Sister, Life. Then there’s the lyrical sentiment of Platonov, or the satire of Solzhenitsyn. There’s Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Zoschenko, Babel, Bergholz, Zamyatin, Bely, Bulgakov, and a litany of other luminaries whose surnames have all but disappeared from university syllabi.

Is this a lingering effect of the Cold War, a symptom of our culture’s tendency to seal off what we fear or don’t understand? I’m reminded of the horrific looks I got from people the summer I was nineteen, when I decided to read Mein Kampf. They worried that it would negatively influence my nubile and malleable young mind—a concern I found irritating, since I’ve long believed it’s our moral obligation to dissect the most heinous events in history, to use literature as a scalpel of sorts. Was the fear and scorn of Soviet oppression, I thought, part of the reason its literature was kept behind closed doors, even all these years later?

Alas, in interviewing more than a dozen academics at renowned American institutions, I found my tantalizing theory shot down by a simpler answer: American universities don’t teach Soviet literature because American students show little interest in reading it. All of the professors with whom I corresponded said that universities were full to the brim with Soviet literature courses in the sixties, but interest took a nose dive once Russia ceased to be the Evil Empire. Priscilla Meyer, of Wesleyan University, told me that enrollment in Russian courses has decreased by 40 percent since 1991, with a particular hit in the Soviet department. Darra Goldstein, of Williams College, said that when students do want to study Russian, they’re likely to go for the “big names” like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as opposed to writers who belong in what they see as “the distant past.” Adam Weiner, of Wellesley, similarly lamented that the students “are missing out on some wonderful books, but how on earth does a professor like me get them into the classroom to study something that they regard as the literary equivalent to the dodo bird?”

On one hand, this reticence on the students’ part is logical. While all the aforementioned authors are concerned with the great questions of the soul and the human condition, writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are part of a mainland tradition—it’s not necessary to know much about the historical context of their era to understand or appreciate their work, whereas the Soviet writers are completely steeped in their historical setting. For me, that was the major appeal of such authors; I wanted to use the books to gain deeper insight into this fascinating and complicated epoch. But it seems modern-day students are less interested in literature for its historical lens and more interested in it for its intrinsic pleasures. Sibelan Forrester, of Swarthmore College, along with others, said that it was easier to “package” this literature thematically rather than historically, slipping them into courses with sexier titles like “Angels of Death” or “Literature Behind Bars.” Once the students discover Soviet writers, they apparently often love them—but reeling them in is harder than ever.

This revelation knocks against the inevitable great question: Why do we teach literature? Is it to shed light on a historical period? To deconstruct the technical foundations of the craft? To ponder profound existential questions? To indulge in what Nabokov famously called “aesthetic bliss”? All of these approaches have their merits, and Soviet literature is conducive to any of them, but it would appear that today’s students, especially in liberal arts schools, are taking the plunge mainly for the latter.

That’s a further deterrent to the study of these books, given that many of them are undeniably more complex than their literary predecessors. Bely’s Petersburg, for example, is a masterpiece considered by many critics to be a precursor to the postmodern novel, but it’s a behemoth of a book that requires a linguistic and mathematical genius to fully comprehend. And technique aside, these books are difficult because they don’t subscribe to a neat, binary way of thinking, i.e., Soviet Union equals bad, democracy equals good. In fact, what’s most fascinating about this genre is how even the famously dissident texts are ambivalent about the Soviet regime. Doctor Zhivago, for example, documents the tragedy and brutality of the civil war, and yet in a darkly poetic way is almost grateful for it, because it is only by enduring cruelty that we can truly appreciate kindness, it is only by witnessing ugliness that we can truly appreciate beauty, and it is only through despair that we can truly appreciate joy. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn satirizes the evil absurdity and unnecessary suffering of the gulag, and yet he extols the discipline and work ethic that it engenders; since human nature is so lazy and depraved, he muses, perhaps it’s beneficial to have someone forcing you to be your most productive self. And in The Foundation Pit, Platonov realizes that the naïve ideals of the revolution are a shimmering illusion, but at the same time he sees that this fantasy brings people joy. To glean these nuances from the books, it’s pivotal not to approach them with the notion that communism is unequivocally bad and democracy unequivocally good—a binary most students have inevitably inherited in the post–Cold War world.

And then there’s the final, obvious problem, which is that the language barrier here is stronger than ever. Most of the Soviet literature classes that I found, especially the ones in poetry, required fluent Russian, and it’s no surprise: the early literature in particular was all about experimenting with style and structure, breaking apart the essences of words and shifting them around like puzzle pieces, allowing for a metafictional expression of meaning and transforming language into a palpable, visual art form. This approach makes them largely untranslatable—so much depends on puns, jargon, and syntax that are irremovable from the mother tongue.

But new, much-improved translations have been rolling in, delighting hopeful academics everywhere. Forrester also believes that getting the “marketing” right—packaging this literature into thematic courses, and bringing up the historical context for individual works—could further increase enrollment. And if American and Russian political relations continue to devolve, it’s feasible that we could see a resurgence in interest comparable to that of the Soviet period. It would be one silver lining, at least.

Diana Bruk was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and emigrated to New York at the age of five. She has written for the New York Times, Salon, Vice, Guernica, BuzzFeed, and others. She lives in New York City.

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  1. James | July 3, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Fortunately, I was exposed to Russian literature during the Cold War, so all of the writers you mention are near and dear to my heart. I would include one great one not in you list (Osip Mandelstam) and one who was more influential as a critic and party functionary (Maxim Gorky). Thank you for the enlightening article.

  2. Frankie | July 3, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Love this article, which poses a larger question that I will think about haha. Why do we teach literature?
    But I think Forrester’s solution is a step on the right path to introduce American students to this much-ignored collection of literary work.

  3. Bob Berry | July 4, 2014 at 12:06 am

    Thanks for the interesting article. My experience at American University in Washington, DC reflected , I think, much of what your piece describes, in my Junior year (1980-81) I took a course called Russian and Soviet Literature hoping to learn more about Soviet literature since I was already pretty well grounded in the big Russians (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekov (sp), Gogol). The coursr readings included some things like Solzenitsin (sp) and Mayakovsky (sp). ( I am sorry-my spelling appears to have deserted me) but never once so much as mentioned Bulgakov *who has since become a great addition to my favorite writers list. It was a well taught class and I enjoyed it very much.

  4. Farnoosh Moshiri | July 7, 2014 at 1:07 am

    How about Mikhail Sholokhov?

  5. Nicole Rudick | July 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    I would’ve taken a course in Soviet lit. I’ve read Platonov and Solzhenitsyn as well as Ehrenberg’s “The Thaw,” though all on my own. I studied Russian art—specifically Soviet-era painting—in grad school and found that there was little in the way of more recent scholarship. I still think it’s a fascinating period culturally.

  6. DJ | July 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Just so I understand, you’re saying that humanities departments today are too prone to present the idea that communism is unequivocally bad and democracy is unequivocally good? Boy, things have changed since I was in grad school.

  7. Rebecca Stanton | July 9, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    This article makes no sense at all. “Skipped straight to Nabokov”? Nabokov’s Russian works (and some of his English ones) were written during Stalin’s lifetime, precisely the period you claim is being elided. _Doctor Zhivago_, on the other hand, was written mostly after Stalin’s death and was *not* published during the Thaw; indeed, very few of the authors you mention were suddenly published during the Thaw. (Some, like Zoshchenko, had been published fairly consistently during Stalin’s rule, though also consistently harrassed; others, like Bulgakov, were suppressed for much longer than that; several, like Babel, were published prolifically in the 1920s and 30s, before their suppression and subsequent rehabilitation during the Thaw or even later). And I have no idea where you get the notion that Solzhenitsyn “muses,” in _One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich_, that “human nature is so lazy and depraved…perhaps it’s beneficial to have someone forcing you to be your most productive self.” This is pretty much the exact opposite of what is expressed in that novel. Finally, most universities that HAVE Russian departments offer courses on 20th-century Russian literature in translation; the fact that you didn’t find them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. (There is a larger context, of course, which is that many institutions have been whittling down or even outright abolishing their Slavic Departments over the past two decades, which of course means the Soviet a well as “classic” Russian literature courses get eliminated, along with language instruction. This, however, is less abou student demand than about corporate-minded administrators who don’t see much value in foreign language and literature departments, and who are widely perceived to be waging war on the humanities at large.)

  8. Rebecca Stanton | July 9, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Oh, and P.S.: Solzhenitsyn, of course, also does not in any sense belong to the so-called “classic” period of Soviet literature indicated as stretching from the Revolution (1917) to Stalin’s death (1953), since his first works were published in 1962, at the very end of the Thaw. I agree that he more than deserves to be called a classic of Soviet literature, but he certainly doesn’t fall into the “lost era” being lamented above.

  9. Alexander Boguslawski | July 9, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    We need to make sure what we understand when we say Soviet literature. If we consider works written within the socialist realist canon (like Furmanov’s Cement), there is nothing to study, unless we want to learn some historical underpinnings of the political system etc. If we, however, mean literature written in the Soviet period, but not fitting the definition of socialist realism, there are many examples not only worthy of study, but enjoyable, funny, tragic, enchanting, stimulating, extraordinary, or superbly original. Works of Il’f and Petrov, Alexander Grin, early Konstantin Fedin, Lavrenyov, Nagibin, and later, in the seventies, Sasha Sokolov — many of these works pushed Literature (with a capital L) forward, without being concerned with political sistuation, ideology, and authorities. That these works are not taught in our universities is, first of all, because of paucity of translations (because good translators are not paid enough to bring these works to the attention to the public), infantilism of our reading public, skewed nature of our book market, and timidity of our publishers. Besides that, many cultural problems that can e solved or alleviated only by thorough introductions to the works or by extensive annotations, notes, and commentaries many translators are not willing to provide.

  10. Mack Hall, HSG | July 10, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Brilliant, but compromised by the now requisite “when I was in graduate school…” / “when I was at Oxford…” filler.

    Stop it. Everyone here has been in graduate school; it’s no more relevant to the point than saying “when I was in Wal-Mart.”

5 Pingbacks

  1. […] U.S. liberal arts programs often overlook large swaths of Russian literature. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/07/03/thawing-out/ […]

  2. […] When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature. Read full article […]

  3. […] When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature. Read full article […]

  4. […] Journal: Five Best: Simon Sebag Montefiore on Russia in fiction. 52. The Paris Review: Diana Bruk, Thawing Out. Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities? 53. New York Times: Exposures. To Be a Russian. Photographs by Misha […]

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