Myth and Mayhem: Russian Literature at Dartmouth

by Ryan Ellis | 5/8/19 2:10am

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You’ve probably heard of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Maybe you’re also familiar with Alexander Pushkin or Fyodor Dostoevsky. But unless you’re actively studying Russian, your knowledge of the literature courses offered by the Russian department may not extend far beyond the infamous supposed layup, RUSS 13, “Slavic Folklore: Vampires, Witches and Firebirds.” Regardless of its reputation as a low-stress class, the survey of Russian fairytales explores themes present throughout classes offered in Russian literature, language, history and culture: themes surprisingly relevant to the war and peace of today’s political climate.

Russian professor Lynn Patyk, who specializes in the intersection of Russian politics, literature and other forms of cultural representation, currently teaches the Slavic folklore course. Patyk’s original research focused on the origins and emergence of revolutionary terrorism within the crucible of the Russian literary tradition, resulting in the publication of her first book, “Written in Blood.” Patyk described the impact this research has had on her focus in the classroom.

“It really looked at the way that Russian literary culture provided sort of the moral foundations, if you can call them that, but also the tropes for the emergence of terrorism … [The Slavic folklore class] does, surprisingly, have that aspect to it as we proceed in the course. At the beginning it’s very traditional: folktales, fairytales, epic tales. But when we get to the end of the course we’re going to be talking about news-lore and conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theory is a genre of information warfare,” Patyk said.

Patyk also teaches a first-year seminar, RUSS 7.01, “Who’s The Terrorist?,” which explores similar concepts of terrorism and its cultural representations. She likewise has taught a course on Dostoevsky, in which students discuss novels like “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov” — works that emerged during a time of intense political discourse and violence that birthed organized political terrorism in Russia. If you’re more interested in the psychological and symbolic aspects of warfare, Patyk will soon debut her new course about conspiracy narratives and conspiracy theories, RUSS 38.10, “The Conspiratorial Imagination in Literature and Lore.”

Russian literature has, in large part, been intrinsically linked to the political discourse of the region. Amanda Durfee ’19, a double major in history and Russian focusing on the Cold War in the late 20th century, took RUSS 10, “Introduction to Russian Civilization” her sophomore spring. Durfee said she has found an exciting blend of politics, history and literature in some of the classes she’s taken in the department.

“I loved that class,” Durfee said. “It’s like a broad overview of Russian history, literature, culture, language, like everything wrapped into one … It was fun to just sort of engage with it and gather new information.”

Durfee is currently taking RUSS 32, “Reading Red: 20th Century Russian Fiction.” The class explores works by authors writing largely under the censorship of the Soviet Union, including Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrei Bely and Vladmir Nabokov, as well as Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose novel “We” served as the inspiration for George Orwell’s “1984.”

These, however, are just a few of the many literature courses offered within the Russian department. Students can study the works of Tolstoy in RUSS 36, “‘The Seer of the Flesh’: Tolstoy’s Art and Thought,” which spends the majority of the term discussing Tolstoy’s most famous novels, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” while analyzing his preoccupation with life and death and the meaning we can derive from both.

Russian professor Victoria Somoff likewise teaches a course on Russian theater, cross-listed with the theater department, in which students are able to select and perform a Russian play on stage. Other courses include a survey of 19th century Russian works, such as those by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov and several classes cross-listed with comparative literature, like Russian and comparative literature professor John Kopper’s course on the intersection of literature and music.

Hallie Sala ’19, a Russian language and literature major, said she has taken nearly all the courses offered by the department. When asked what drew her to study Russian and its extensive literary cannon, she pointed to the beauty of the language itself.

“It’s an incredibly rich language,” Sala said, “and Russian writers talk about how it’s the most valuable thing they have. Their country might be poor, but the Russian language is an incredible wealth.”

Sala also stressed the value of learning Russian as a gateway into the many significant events of the last century, and more broadly, as a useful and engaging tool for the present day. 

“If you’re interested in history, well, the history of the 20th century is written in large part in Russian, and you can’t really understand it without that.”

Even if languages aren’t for you, many of the literature, history and culture courses offered by the Russian department are taught in English and have no prerequisites. A prime example is RUSS 14, “The Age of Brainwashing: A History of Russian and Eastern European Film,” taught by Patyk, which spans the early period of silent films in tsarist Russia through the revolutionary and Soviet eras and into contemporary Russian and Eastern/Central European film.

When asked why someone who is not studying Russian might consider taking a Russian literature course, Patyk stressed the unique, thought-provoking experience that comes with immersing yourself in a novel.

“I think that, right now, students are really immersed in this digital environment, and part of the thing about this digital environment is that you have access to infinite material. But often, it’s bits and pieces — all of these fragments. One thing that taking a course in Russian literature does is it makes you read a novel that asks sort of the insoluble questions that concern all of us as human beings.”

These questions, she continued, are able to be played out in a sustained narrative that allows the reader to observe the consequences of the author’s attempts to answer them.

“It really gives students, gives anyone, an experience that is really hard to come by in our culture, which is this deep, immersive, considered reflection and engagement that you won’t have from going all over the internet, or even in Netflix,” Patyk said. 

Whether you have experience with the language or just a general curiosity about Russian culture, the general consensus seems to be that Russian courses are highly accessible to non-majors. Sala emphasized the openness of the courses to anyone interested in the Russian literary tradition.

“There is usually a great mix of people from all sorts of majors — biology majors and English majors, etc. Everyone comes in at the same level. You can just dip your toes in a little bit, and Russian literature is so rich and so accessible that you get a lot out of it,” Sala said.

So, if you’re still upset about not taking courses in Slavic folklore this term, maybe consider one of the many other literature and culture classes offered by the Russian department. Whether you’re interested in the revolutionary period, Cold War conflict or the philosophical questions that have defined Russia’s rich literary cannon, the Russian department offers a wide variety of courses that capture the complexities of the region in times of war and in peace.