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Barry Scherr

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Setchkarev (1914–1998)


To many undergraduates at Harvard in the 1960s, and quite possibly to some of the graduate students, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Setchkarev, the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, was popularly known as “Setch.” His Slavic 150, a year-long introduction to Russian literature, attracted large enrollments—to the point of being one of the campus’s more renowned courses—and with relatively few Slavic majors on campus, most of those taking it had little or no previous contact with Russian. For them, the name Setchkarev proved a challenge, and I recall hearing it spoken with the stress on any of its three syllables. As for Vsevolod, few if any students who had not studied Russian would even venture a try. “Setch” was short, clear, and easily pronounced.

A few words of background. In 1965–66 I was in my last year as an undergraduate at Harvard but only in my second year as Slavic major. Although I had taken or audited several courses in the department the previous year, Setchkarev, if I remember correctly, was on leave or sabbatical for at least one semester at that time. In any case, I had no previous acquaintance with him before taking Slavic 150. Thus, although I had the advantages of knowing some Russian and familiarity with a few of the works that were to be covered, my perceptions of him and the course were more those of a typical undergraduate rather than those of somebody who worked closely with him.

The initial impression, when he entered a large classroom in Harvard Hall, was one of contrasts. He used a cane and had a slightly awkward walk (resulting, as I only later learned, from a severe case of polio as a child), which made him seem, at first glance, older than his fifty plus years. However, the rapidity of his movements and the unflagging vitality with which he spoke quickly put to rest any thought that this person had been slowed in any way. The course catalogue back then frequently listed courses as meeting “M, W, (F)”, with a note explaining that the parentheses indicated classes would be held on that day only “at the pleasure of the instructor.” Setchkarev cheerfully announced to the students that he took great pleasure in lecturing on Fridays. He then launched into an overview of all of Russian literature, to set the stage for what was to come, and before the end of the first class had moved into an introduction to the Kievan period. Facts came pouring forth, while his sheer exuberance kept one entranced. It was like being confronted by a cross between Mirsky and the energizer bunny.

At each lecture he would move without hesitation from one topic to the next, seemingly in perfect command of his material. He would inevitably pick up at the beginning of each class from exactly where he had left off before. Rumor had it that when the period came to an end, he could halt mid-sentence and then conclude the sentence at the beginning of the next class. I never heard him fail to finish a sentence, but he did occasionally stop at what appeared to be mid-paragraph and then continue from precisely that point at the next lecture.

It quickly became apparent that Setchkarev was not teaching so much a survey as a history of Russian literature. In other words, not unlike Mirsky, whom he seemed to have assigned so that students would be offered a second opinion about the myriad of works and figures covered in the course, Setchkarev was not focusing on a handful of selected works but making an attempt to cover all of Russian literature, virtually from the beginning to the end, giving each figure and work the amount of attention it deserved in relation to all else. There were of course assigned readings, but in his lectures he did not necessarily favor those above other works by the particular author. I recall that in talking about Goncharov he allotted more time to The Precipice than to Oblomov, the novel that was on the reading list and toward which he expressed limited enthusiasm, describing it at the outset as a “non-novel in four parts.” Conversely, he spoke with greater zeal about The Precipice, introducing it as a “metaphysical investigation of existential boredom.” (He had a penchant for the word “metaphysical,” which cropped up in a number of phrases, including “metaphysical horror,” used at least once in the course.)

So why not simply make The Precipice required reading? For one thing, he tended to assign better-known works, even if they were not his absolute preference. Perhaps more crucially, in the 1960’s only an abridged translation of The Precipice had appeared, and Setchkarev saw such editions as desecrations of his beloved works. His spring reading list contained an underlined warning at the bottom of the page: No abridged versions should be used. There was a story (told by Setchkarev himself?) that in the past students had discovered a partial translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and many of them read that edition instead of the full text. After discovering what was happening, Setchkarev looked through the book, discovered that it had omitted any reference to Zosima’s deceased brother, and so he placed “Markel” as a required identification on an exam. Had that really happened? I don’t know, but I do know that the year I took the course students were in fact asked to identify Markel on the spring midterm.

And yet it is understandable why a few of those taking the course might have been tempted to turn to a shorter version of The Brothers Karamazov. Setchkarev not only took pleasure in lecturing on Fridays, but he also took an obvious pleasure in Russian literature and wanted people taking his class to read a lot of it. So, yes, this survey course required that students read the longest of Dostoevsky’s novels, but that was not all: the spring term’s reading list also included Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground. For Tolstoy, he required the old favorite of survey courses, Anna Karenina, but then added The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and, to ensure that students would be exposed to the full measure of Tolstoy’s genius, War and Peace. The selections from Leskov, Chekhov and Bunin were more modest in scope but hardly insignificant, albeit in the case of Gorky, who was hardly one of Setchkarev’ favorite writers, the reading was limited to a single short story, “26 Men and a Girl.” The post-Revolutionary era was represented by four authors, but only a single work that had been published in the Soviet Union: Fedin’s moderately long novel Cities and Years. Zamiatin’s We, a novel by Aldanov, and a pair of works by Nabokov rounded out the reading list. In all, the required reading for the semester totaled well over 5000 pages. The assignments for the fall semester had admittedly been somewhat less intimidating, but still substantial: ranging from works written during Medieval times through healthy doses of Pushkin, Gogol and Turgenev, to Oblomov and Pisemsky’s One Thousand Souls. Anyone expecting to get through the course with spending just a couple hours each week doing the reading was in for a surprise.

I soon discovered a small cluster of graduate students who were auditing the course under the suspicion, probably justified, that the information conveyed in Slavic 150, which was primarily aimed at undergraduates, was essential to know for the qualifying PhD exams. If they found the course informative, they too could also find it intimidating in more than one way. I recall that one of the advanced graduate students was already scheduled to be teaching a survey course on Russian literature at another institution the following year. He shook his head at the end of one lecture, saying something to the effect that Setchkarev had just gone through at least twenty pages worth of dense material and wondering how he would ever be able to prepare the equivalent when it came time to teach his own course. But of more immediate concern for the graduate students was the sheer range of items that Setchkarev covered. If the Slavic 150 exams focused largely on the readings (albeit points brought up during the lectures were often important for answering the essay questions), then the graduate students realized that preparation for PhD exams required at least some familiarity with all the figures, works and concepts he discussed. The portions of the course on the major authors would typically include a surprisingly full “life and works,” bearing a structural resemblance to the books Setchkarev had written in German on Pushkin, Gogol and Leskov (an English translation of his book on Gogol had appeared not long before the course began). Lectures on the author would start with a list of writings and then go on to a synopsis of the author’s life, analyses of each work, and often a brief bibliography of the significant critical literature for those who wanted still more readings. Thus the first three weeks of the spring semester were devoted in their entirety to Dostoevsky, during which Setchkarev discussed, in addition to the three works on his reading list, the remaining novels, all the novella-length works, what I recall as nearly all the shorter stories, and of course The Diary of a Writer. If between them Dostoevsky and Tolstoy occupied nearly half of the spring term lectures, during the rest of the semester Setchkarev nonetheless found time to say at least a few words about all the major writers active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then moved quickly through the Soviet period. In a single lecture he might cover all the futurists, offer a summary of Formalist criticism and introduce the Serapion Brothers. During the first semester key figures—Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev—had also been predominant, though not quite to the extent that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were to do be in the spring. But the coverage was even broader, going back to the earliest instances of Russian literature and at least mentioning every major writer and work—along with a few who some might regard as not so major—well into the nineteenth century. He of course spoke at some length about Derzhavin and Zhukovsky, but Vladislav Ozerov and Ippolit Bogdanovich, among many others, also did not escape his attention. Lectures were devoted to the literary criticism that came to the fore during the middle of the century, to leading figures in the “natural school,” and to civic poets. The names of writers and works would come flying at the students from the podium, with barely a pause for breath as Setchkarev leaped from one figure to the next.

It is easy to see why graduate students felt an obligation to attend, but one might have thought that the sheer massiveness of the reading along with the profusion of unfamiliar names and works would have discouraged students who were not Slavic majors or masochists from taking the course. But Setchkarev had a way of drawing students in and holding their attention. No doubt his dynamic lecturing and infectious exuberance were key factors. But, more importantly, he also had a knack for making his presentations both accessible and engrossing. He paid attention to background and context, so that even those with no previous exposure to Russian literature could glean a sense of the larger picture, of where particular types of writing and individual writers fit in, and of the role that literature played within the social, political and cultural life of the country. In a way the course was an introduction to Russia, as much as to Russian literature. Moreover, he could characterize authors, entire works, or aspects of novels with a remarkable incisiveness, often peppering his talks with sharp asides and personal views that became etched in the memory. He was at times startlingly opinionated, in a way that was perhaps simply entertaining for some while giving others something to consider—whether in agreement or opposition—as they continued their study of Russian literature. Those he admired received generous assessments: Sergei Aksakov’s Family Chronicle was marked by an “astonishing objectivity” and beautiful descriptions, while the experience of reading Aleksandr Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts was said to be like encountering the speech of a spirited interlocutor. Not unexpectedly, his sweeping dismissals were even more indelible. He had praise for some of Gorky’s writings, but described Mother as utterly tasteless and without a single believable character. It happened that while still in high school I had purchased a volume of short stories by Leonid Andreev; along with some early exposure to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy that book became one of the items that first piqued my interest in Russian literature. Setchkarev introduced Andreev with a remark to the effect that Andreev was ten times worse than Gorky at his weakest—an edict that had me seriously questioning my own judgment. I felt at least partly redeemed when he offered some modest praise for “The Seven That Were Hanged”—the title story and my favorite in the collection I had bought.

There were the broad likes and dislikes, while within those his sensitivity to literature led to further distinctions. Early in his lectures on Gogol he made the point that ultimately there were two main “styles” in Russian literature, that of Pushkin and that of Gogol. What he termed the pure, clear language and structure found in Pushkin went on to recur in Lermontov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Bunin—all writers he clearly loved. The Gogol manner—with its ornate language and often bewildering form—was, he said, to reappear in Dostoevsky, Leskov and Bely, before becoming largely “victorious” in Soviet times—a clear signal from Setchkarev that he was not fully comfortable with its later practitioners. The distinction itself signaled his concern with language—a recurrent topic in his lectures, even if all the readings were in translation—and with aesthetics. The Pushkinian manner implied a certain control, which the writers he admired generally maintained, while the pyrotechnics of the Gogolian manner were in danger of slipping into excess, a fault he particularly noted with many Soviet writers. But for him an equally great sin was to lose sight of the aesthetic goal and become didactic. Hence his dislike of Turgenev’s Virgin Soil and of Leskov’s No Way Out, despite his otherwise favorable view of these writers, who each exemplified one of the two contrasting styles in Russian literature.

The twentieth century became complicated for him by what he saw as the split of Russian literature into two streams, Soviet and émigré. Although his sympathies were clearly more with the latter, he at least spent more or less equal time on a condensed survey of Soviet writers, for the most part focusing on those whose writing he found worthy of note, such as Zoshchenko, Babel and Olesha. As he moved closer to the then present day, he singled out works that were somewhat outside of the mainstream and in one way or another could be seen as critical of the regime: Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Viktor Nekrasov’s Kira Georgievna, and Tendriakov’s The Extraordinary. Doctor Zhivago, which he admired for its honesty (“an ethical success”) for him was too wrapped up in pursuing moral and political issues (and thus “an artistic failure”). He saved the émigré writings, which he clearly favored, for last. First came the poets: Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva, Georgy Ivanov, Poplavsky. He then focused on just two prose writers, ending, not surprisingly, with all of Vladimir Nabokov’s Russian novels.  The other prose writer, though, was Mark Aldanov, for whom he felt a special affinity. Why Aldanov? There was first of all his interest in philosophy, another recurrent topic in the course (Setchkarev’s dissertation and first book dealt with Schelling’s influence in Russian literature, and his knowledge of philosophy extended well beyond Schelling). Furthermore, Aldanov’s limpid style was said to make him an exemplar of Pushkinian style and of attention to aesthetics. Emphasized most of all, though, was the ability of Aldanov to write on historical and political topics without overt didacticism, a task at which many of the others discussed in the course had failed.

The last few moments of Slavic 150 contained two particularly notable remarks. He concluded with a final and it seemed heartfelt plea for the primacy of aesthetics. Art, he said, arose from the organic and inseparable blending of the material with the proper form; at the very end he thus made explicit the concern with form and content that had underlain numerous observations over the preceding months. And just before that he ended his overview of émigré literature by stating his conviction that the two distinct currents of Russian literature he had been discussing, émigré and Soviet, were fated to one day merge back into a single literature. At the time, 1966, this seemed like a rather far-fetched notion, yet he was to live to see it come true. These instances, like so much else in the course and like “Setch” himself, have remained indelible.

Barry Scherr is the Mandel Family Professor of Russian Emeritus at Dartmouth College. His research has dealt primarily with Russian verse theory, Russian poetry of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and early twentieth-century Russian prose, with a special interest in Maksim Gor’kii.  He is the co-editor, with Mikhail Gronas, of Лифшиц/Лосев/Loseff (2017), a volume of memoirs and articles dedicated to Lev Loseff, and has recently published an article on Loseff’s father: “A Shadow Career: The Covert Poetry of Vladimir Lifshits.”


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