Russian Literature and Culture at Stanford


The classic Russian fiction and drama have long ago been adopted by the Western world and made part of the Western canon. Many undergraduates choose to major in Russian because of their experience of these works in translation. Less well known, because harder to translate, is Russian poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries – its respective "Golden" and "Silver" ages. Students who want to learn Russian because they already love Russian literature will be astonished at the caliber of this poetry, no less great than the country’s novels, stories, and plays. In Russia this has never been in doubt; in fact, because of the innate flexibility of the Russian language for poetry, and because of Russian poets' roles as public figures and celebrities, poetry has remained vital, visible, and close to the heart of native Russian readers. Those who study at Stanford have the opportunity not only to study the great Russian prose works and drama, but also enter the enchanted world of Russian poetry.

In the last decades, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this great cultural legacy has proved to be an inexhaustible font of images, stories, and ideas for Russia’s new and burgeoning popular culture (from film and rock-n-roll, to commercial design and advertising), as well as its new post-communist politics and civil society. Russian Prime Minster Viktor Chernomyrdin kneeling before the open casket of Joseph Brodsky in New York and President Vladimir Putin paying homage to Alexander Solzhenitsyn are memorable moments in Russian history and speak volumes about the power of Russian letters over the country’s educated society, and, conversely, the sense of obligation Russian poets and writers nurture before their nation. Russia is still a work in progress.

Undergraduates with an interest in literature who choose also to learn Russian will obtain two future lifetimes: one, encountering the well-known classics at their full stature in the original; and another, equally rewarding, discovering and immersing themselves in an unexpected wealth of poetry, and beyond, the infinitely rich culture of modern Russia. Slavic Department courses emphasize these different aspects of Russian literature. Our faculty includes world-renowned specialists in poetry, fiction, and literary and cultural history, as well as the cross-cultural dialogue that has so much enriched Russian literature and its interlocutor-cultures to the West, South, and East.

The Slavic Department offers a variety of courses dealing with subjects ranging from 11th-century Russian literature to post-communist culture, from Russian participation in major international cultural movements, such as Romanticism, modernism and the avant-garde, to modern Russian-Jewish cultural nexus. The recently introduced Slavgen 148 covers approximately the last half-century of Russian letters, from the death of Stalin to the present. Other courses deal with the aforementioned movements, as well as individual writers (Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Babel, Nabokov), folklore, and, related to Russia both territorially and culturally, modern Yiddish literature. Course readings are usually done in translation, although in some advanced courses they are assigned in Russian. Students who have acquired enough Russian are welcome to participate in the Department's graduate courses; although you will need the consent of the given professor, this is usually provided with pleasure. Conversely, the undergraduate literature sequence (Slavic 145, 146, 147, and 148; and 187 and 188) is a survey of the Russian literary landscape substantial enough to frequently attract the interest and participation of graduate students. Thus department courses provide an opportunity for stimulating and mutually beneficial interaction between the undergraduate and graduate communities.

The small size of the department contributes to this. Here it is appropriate to emphasize a general fact about the Slavic Department: our undergraduates have complete access to the intellectual life and resources of the department; they are encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity energetically, to pursue interests and make contacts that extend well beyond the stipulations of courses and degrees. It is up to you to take the initiative; but do so, and you will be both surprised and rewarded.

Slavic Department majors are required to take three years of Russian; many take more. While it is great to read Russian literature in translation, it is even better (and always more exciting) to read it in Russian. Even if most of the undergraduate courses require reading in translation only, training in Russian allows students to read portions of the original and appreciate its beauty.

Concentrators in Russian Language and Literature are required to take the full 20-unit survey of Russian fiction and poetry. No student finds this a chore. Who could possibly complain about reading Eugene Onegin, Dead Souls, Notes from Underground, Fathers and Sons, Anna Karenina, Chekhov’s stories and plays, Doctor Zhivago, and other Russian classics? Turning to the poets, you will soon find out that of which Turgenev could never convince Flaubert (who, unlike you, could not read Russian): the greatness of Pushkin. But have you heard of Tiutchev or Baratynsky, Blok or Tsvetaeva, Brodsky or Kibirov? If you like poetry, these names will soon be more to you than objects of study: they will become part of your life. In the first quarter of the poetry sequence, students read the works of the Russian Romantics; in the second, students read the Russian symbolists, futurists, and acmeists, with a foray into more recent Russian poetry. Poems are read in Russian; discussion is usually in English or Russian.

Moving beyond the department’s courses proper, we should mention the courses of special interest to any Russian major or minor that are taught by the Stanford faculty from other departments who are affiliated with Slavic. These include courses on Russian history; Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Jewish history; art and architecture; religion; Russian and Byzantine art; Russian avant-garde art; Russian, East European and Yugoslav cinema; Russian theater, society, and politics.