Thawing Out



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


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.