Can You Be Nonbinary in Russian?

Cecil Leigh Wilson

 

It’s a question I get at least once every time I teach introductory Russian, or talk about Russian in my community of nonbinary English-speakers, or disclose this part of my identity to a Russian-speaker.


Artwork by the group NEBO (Nebinarnye v obshchestve)


Contrary to the handwringing of reactionary armchair grammarians, English is a language with long-established options for gender neutral and nonbinary language. Even the “new” nonbinary pronouns like ze/hir, ey/em, and others are have been recorded for several decades already—which, at the pace of internet-age linguistic transformation, is basically forever. And in English we’re mostly dealing with pronouns. There are other gendered aspects of language (Is ‘hey guys’ gender neutral? [No]), but they’re mostly on the sociolinguistic level.

In Russian, of course, things look very different for a nonbinary person just trying to be. So much greater a proportion of the language lets us know loud and clear that there is no room for our existence, that we are not meant to be. Many undergraduate students have asked me whether it’s feasible to use the built-in neutral, оно, for oneself—but, as it’s never used for people in standardized Russian, it usually comes off as dehumanizing.

In classrooms, on forums, and in other places where the question of nonbinary Russian comes up, someone will always offer the unhelpful and invalidating answer: “It’s just not possible (so get over it).” But because binaries are created and imposed, there is always nonbinary slippage. There are always options. Here are a few:

The Switcheroo

I’ve known some nonbinary Russian-speakers to opt for ‘both/and’ in the absence of a ‘neither/nor.’ In their circle of disclosure, they feel seen and affirmed by linguistic oscillation, switching back and forth between feminine and masculine grammar day by day or hour by hour. Some undergraduates I’ve met at UW-Madison have chosen this approach as well as So*ni and Sasha, interviewed in this article from The Moscow Times.

The Royal We

Although Slavic languages do not have the same historical foundation of a singular ‘they’ that English does, employing a neutral plural is still an option. Likely modeling on the English singular they, some Russian speakers have given it a try. In texts such as this article on dysphoria, a translation from English into Russian, the verbal agreement seems to match in number to its antecedent, sometimes switching in a single sentence: “Ами говорит, что в иные дни они чувствуют себя «на сто процентов комфортно», но в другие дни они «не хотят, чтобы их даже видели».”

Get Creative

One of the most beautiful things about linguistics for my queer heart is that, no matter how deeply a language is structured to normativize, there are always speakers with the ingenuity to make it work for them. Even if these creative solutions are not widely recognized as legitimate language use (as nonbinary Engilsh often is as well), it makes an enormous difference to have even a small language community in one’s sphere of disclosure validate linguistic innovation. Here are some creative solutions I’ve seen:

  • In writing, it’s possible to combine masculine and feminine grammar in past-tense verbs, adjectives, and nouns, marked with some form of slash mark “/” or underscore “_”, as modeled in the above linked article on dysphoria:
    “С тех пор, как я узнал_а термин “небинарный”…”
    “Долж_на отметить, что я не учен_ая и моя выборка довольно маленькая…”
    “Практически все участни_цы говорят, что интенсивность дисфории зависит от обстоятельств…”
  • After getting involved with the Language Neutralization Laboratory (whose web presence is no longer active as of 2016, but remains as an excellent archive of discussion and modeling of nonbinary Russian), So*ni developed a past-tense verbal ending “-кши”—for example, “я читакши” instead of “я читал_а.”
  • There is a multitude of Reddit and other forum and blog threads working out new pronouns and grammar. One that comes up occasionally is оне (as in this thread: “Оне походиле в магазин; У неге есть кошка; Еме нравится кофе; Еге зовут Сам; Мы с ним поехал в Китаю; Мы говорили о нем.” Another is ох, included in this compilation of gender neutral terms in various languages: “ох/ех/ех/ем/их/ниx.”

“Just” Pick One

I want to discuss this option because it’s the choice* that I ended up making for myself, but I want to be clear first that this should not be the only, or even first, advice given to a student seeking solutions. But it is an option, and one that many nonbinary people take (including in English) with their own complex reasons and emotional connections to it.

I started learning Russian long before I started my process of self-acceptance—for years my grammar was that of my assigned gender, because why wouldn’t it be? It was actually my experience living in Russia immersed in what I experienced to be a binary system not actually all that much more restrictive than that of the U.S., just restrictive in different ways, that pushed me to socially transition back home. “At least you get to go home,” a Muscovite trans friend told me, so I left the closet at customs.

My decision came down to this: between the grammar of my assigned gender, which completely invalidates all the work I put in to accept and disclose my transness, and the grammar of the other binary gender, which… isn’t accurate, but at least isn’t that… I settled for the latter and hoped I would grow into it.

And I did, in a way. Flamboyance and camp come through my Russian masculinity much more strongly than they do in English—in tone, gesture, posture, and other paralinguistic performances—as if on balance, as if queerness demands to be written on my body in one way or another.

If you know other nonbinary Russian possibilities, I would be so grateful to hear about it in the comments. I’ll leave you with the parting words of Loki, interviewed for this article by the Center for Human Rights Information:

“Прежде всего, к любому человеку стоит обращаться на “вы”. Во-первых, это свидетельствует об уважении и культуре, во-вторых – предупреждает оскорбительное восприятие. Следует задать вопрос “В каком роде мне стоит к вам обращаться?” Если общение уже началось и человек поправляет вас, то стоит прислушаться и использовать то обращение, о котором он просит, даже если вам кажется, что внешность или голос этому не соответствуют.”


Cecil Leigh Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hir pronouns are ze/hir (Eng), on (Cz), and он (Rus).


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Russian Studies in the Era of Trump

This is the introduction to a SEEB series organized by Ani Kokobobo, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Kansas.


The Russianist’s Burden

What a time to be a Russianist! Everywhere you look, there is mention of #russiagate #Putin #Mueller #Manafort #goldenshowers #kompromat. I attended my university’s freshman orientation a few weeks ago, and upon announcing my Russianist persuasions, the younger generations looked at me with a new level of respect – someone asked for a few words in Russian, and another inquired about my opinion of Vladimir Putin. I offered some measured remarks about the present political climate, but the experience was an apt reflection of all the ways in which being a Russianist in Trump’s America is a triggering exercise, rife with frustration and insecurity.



I may have a PhD in Russian literature, but my many years of book learning do not technically qualify me to assess the conspiracy theories on Trump and Russia dominating our media discourses. And, as you will see below, even conspiracy theory specialist, Eliot Borenstein, sometimes feels at a loss. What relevant contemporary insights, could I, a nineteenth-century specialist to boot, possibly possess in this situation? The most rational thing to do would be to embrace this irrelevance peacefully. But being a Russianist and hopeless romantic, I find it very difficult to renounce the gnawing thought that it is precisely my useless training as a humanist that qualifies me to weigh in on the current political climate.

As it happens, many current events in our culture are unprecedented, so much so that political scientists and pollsters are themselves at a loss. Under the circumstances, the analytical toolkit of the humanist, the skills to break down the unknown from a textual or comparative basis, come to immediate use. In fact, much of the media coverage of our present often looks like an exercise in comparative studies with literature and history proving to be handles on the chaos of the present than more quantitative modalities.

Whether as a reflection of our worst fears or merely an attempt to conceptualize the fearsome, sales of books like 1984 or A Handmaid’s Tale have ballooned. From this perspective, works of Russian literature can also be useful at understanding our present and it is in this capacity, as true humanists rather than as collectors of Putin factoids, that we can also quite useful as Russianists. As I have written elsewhere, books like Dostoevsky’s Demons, with its emphasis on the negation of the status quo and the unhinging of impulses, seemingly prophesy Trump’s America, with all its primal rallies and “drain the swamp” cries.

After Trump won the election, I used Anna Karenina to grieve the loss of Hillary Clinton and War and Peace to cope with Trump’s victory. Hillary’s loss communicated to me some of the profound challenges of the woman’s path and the female struggle to attain complete subjecthood, when faced with obvious ceilings to our ambitions. I could not help but think of Anna crushed under the wheels of the train, while Levin walked away unscathed; the man survives, while the woman does not. If Anna ends up under the train because she can only express her story and her ambitions in the romantic sphere, Hillary was needlessly pulled back into the novels of adultery and courtship throughout the entire 2016 campaign, known only through her husband’s past indiscretions.

When I myself and those around me were panicking after the elections, I turned to Tolstoy once again for solace, this time to War and Peace, a novel aimed against a narcissistic, puny man, Napoleon, and his overwhelming hubris. The novel also reflects the limits of any one person’s political power given that historical change happens through the collective confluence of multiple small forces rather than through the will of one man. It remains to be seen whether Tolstoy is right, but his words speaks to all of our contemporary anxieties.

More recently, I have found profound reflections of the #metoo movement in my classroom. For instance, last year I taught Bunin’s “Light Breathing,” which had never been my favorite story. Because I tend to teach large novels normally, I grew concerned that I might struggle to fill up the class period. Yet presenting the story to a younger generation of students, most of whom swing feminist, was like nothing I’ve ever seen. The Bunin story is a classic tale of a young, high-school age woman sexually assaulted by an older man—a friend of her father’s—and then murdered by a younger man who expected her to be his betrothed. We end the story by her grave, as both men presumably continue to enjoy their lives. At one point in the story, inadvertently predating Simone de Beauvoir, the young woman tells her school principal that the older man who violated her actually “made” her into a woman. These heartbreaking words reflect the extent to which being a woman, whether in Bunin’s time, or even in our own, can be synonymous with sexual violence. The young woman’s voice in the narrative is muffled, her story is told primarily through the voices of others, and eventually, through her dead body. While our nation watches a contentious Supreme Court nomination fight where control over women’s bodies is more at stake than ever, I cannot help but think back to Bunin’s narrative. A survivor of sexual assault has spoken up against Judge Kavanaugh only to receive death threats for trying to derail a man’s career. But something in the nation is also shifting, people are taking pause, survivors are being heard, and, in the end, Judge Kavanaugh’s fate might well be decided by two centrist women. Maybe I still don’t love those odds, but if a few months ago I was thinking of the Bunin story as a parable of womanhood, now I’m inclined to hope that it is not. Perhaps the woman won’t get murdered, perhaps she won’t end up under the train, perhaps this time the woman will survive, and the man will be forced to take responsibility for his moral failures. Perhaps.

Either way, what we do is deeply relevant to the present, to today, to the future, to America’s relationship with Russia, and far beyond. And with that, I now defer to the wonderful words of my colleagues below that consider how the research and teaching of Russian language and literature are assuming new valences and new responsibilities in contemporary America. Some of their contributions proactively urge us in new directions, whereas others give us a more nuanced picture of the work we are already doing, and how that work may be organically evolving as we keep moving our field forward.

We construe this brief forum as a small contribution to an extensive and important conversation for our field. It was a pleasure to work with each contributor, and I encourage you to heed their insights.


Russian Studies in the Era of Trump

A SEEB Series Organized by Ani Kokobobo

 


Ani Kokobobo is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Kansas.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Researching Russian Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump

This is part of a SEEB series entitled “Russian Studies in the Era of Trump” organized by Ani Kokobobo.


Eliot Borenstein

 

A funny thing happened to me while I was writing my book on conspiracy theory and contemporary Russia: my obscure little corner of Russian cultural studies suddenly threatened to become relevant.

I started working on this topic somewhere during the George W. Bush presidency, but it took far too many years until I could hang up my own personal “Mission Accomplished” banner.  Around Obama’s reelection, it became a book project (Plots against Russia; Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism, thanks for asking), forthcoming with Cornell in 2019, most likely still under that black swan of American presidents, Donald J. Trump.   All of this gives me a vaguely uncomfortable feeling, as though I had just discovered that the name I’ve had my entire life is shared with someone who has recently become a global celebrity—and it will never be just my name anymore.  When I tell people I’m working on conspiracy and Russia, instead of the banal response I’ve become accustomed to over the years (“Oh, that must be so interesting!”), I’m now inevitably asked, “So you’re writing about Trump?” and “Is he really being controlled by Vladimir Putin?”

My honest answer comes in two forms.  The first, and shortest, is, “How the hell should I know?”  There is nothing in my background or skill set to suggest that I have the magic power to search Putin’s pocket to see if it contains the man I must reluctantly acknowledge is our president. And that clearly holds true for every Russia expert consulted anywhere in the media, whether the questioner is an earnest recycler and farmers’ market devotee on NPR or by some latter-day Goebbels on Fox.  As Slavists, we are no doubt better informed when it comes to Russia, and are in a better position to interpret a given political statement, event, or disaster, but we confront the same epistemological dilemma faced by educated Russians:  the near-complete absence of reliable information and a decades-long tradition that relies on rumor and speculation to compensate for an informational deficit.

Granted, that informational ecosystem is quite different from its Soviet predecessor: in the past, speculation thrived as an alternative to a monolithic, clearly mendacious media apparatus that virtually begged its audience to distrust it and seek alternative explanations.  The much-ballyhooed Putinist “firehose of lies” model is more challenging, in that the state media disseminates self-contradicting theories on an almost daily basis, most likely to encourage audiences to give up any hope of finding something one might call “the truth” (a tactic either consciously embraced by Trump, or, more likely, arrived at independently through a series of narcissistic impulses and misfired neurons).

What we Slavists have, to varying degrees, is context, and, in the best case scenario, the capacity for nuance. For example, years of studying and living in Russia have left me invested in the country and its politics more than I am with, say, in those of Ireland, but still less than I am in the political life of the United States.  So if I have had years to cultivate a loathing for Vladimir Putin, that loathing is much like the disdain I had for George W. Bush, in that each one damaged his country’s political discourse and restricted personal freedoms (Putin much more than Bush).  But when I hear pundits talk about Putin as though he were a cross between Stalin and Voldemort, I roll my eyes and gnash my teeth as if I were taking part in a punk performance inside an ethically compromised cathedral.

All of this makes the study of Russian constructions of conspiracy feel inherently compromised.  The American media treat the Russian political system as nothing more than a successful conspiracy in action:  if the world is going to hell, it’s because Putin is sitting in a secret bunker with his KGB pals, casually stroking his Siamese cat and cackling softly to himself as he plots the next step in the destruction of liberal democracy.  Every now and then he takes out a copy of the infamous “pee tape” and smiles a sinister smile before posting the latest anti-Hillary meme from a fake Texan Facebook account.

The more I study conspiracy, the less faith I have in the possibility of debunking or convincing.  People’s assessments of facts (or “facts”) are as much a matter of disposition and worldview as they are of logical judgment.  Disposition and worldview are also the key to what we might call propaganda: if Russian state television can convince its viewers that the State Department is trying to destroy Russia, it is because the audience is ready to believe it.  Moreover, Russian television provides misinformation about events outside of the viewers’ direct experience. This, to my mind, is one of the key differences between Soviet and contemporary Russian televised propaganda. Soviet television asked its viewers to believe stories (of great economic success, for example) that could be disproved simply by walking out of one’s apartment and into a grocery story. Russian television complements the viewer’s lived experience rather than trying to supplant it.

Take the case of Malaysian Flight MH-17, shot down over rebel territory in Ukraine on July 17, 2014.  Virtually no one who has an opinion on the cause of this disaster has any direct experience of the event.  Instead, we rely on the news, expert reports, and, of course, speculation and rumor. So why do I believe that the anti-Kyiv rebels are most likely responsible for downing the airplane (or the “Boeing,” a level of specificity insisted upon in the Russian media for reasons that escape me)? First, because it’s the simplest explanation.  Second, because of the social media posts by those same rebels immediately after the plane came down, when they apparently thought they had bagged a Ukrainian asset.  But finally, it does come down to trust: I have more confidence in the European organizations that have investigated the disaster than I do the Russian government and media, which have spun wilder and wilder theories (It’s the other lost Malaysian plane!  The plane was already full of dead bodies! It was an assassination attempt on Putin himself! It was a Ukrainian false flag operation designed to make Russia look bad!) in order to distract from the possibility that the plane was destroyed by Russian-backed rebels using Russian weaponry.  But am I in a position to evaluate the technical findings of aeronautics experts on either side? Of course not.

What I have instead is a critical disposition. I have a decades-long disagreement with a colleague at my home university: when the administration does something that strikes us both as completely wrong-headed, he argues for evil intent, while I chalk it up to everyday incompetence. I assume complexity and incompetence as a matter of course, but maybe that’s just playing into the hands of clever people with a sinister agenda. The drawback to his worldview is that it verges on paranoia, and the drawback to mine is that it smacks of naivete.

If we go back to the MH-17 controversy, we find one of the biggest areas of sensitivity for a Westerner writing about conspiracy theory in Russia: the question of Russophobia. After all, the only reason any of these theories about the “real” story behind MH-17 make sense is if we assume that a big chunk of the outside world has an irrational, reflexive hatred of Russia, and dreams of a day when the country is either wiped from the map or put entirely under Atlanticist control. In my book (and, previously, on my blog), I argue that Russophobia for Russia is like political correctness for Republicans:  a straw man whose utility lies in rallying the base against an imagined enemy. This does not mean that there aren’t specific incidents that fit the model of “political correctness” gone wild (we know there are, because the same ones keep getting trotted out again and again), or that there aren’t people or institutions in the West that have a reflexive hostility to Russia. But in today’s Russia, Russophobia is used as a discursive club against both internal and external critics.  Any allegation that the Russian government might be doing something objectionable is immediately dismissed as Russophobia.

And that is what makes me uncomfortable about studying conspiracy in the shadow of the Trump/Russia scandal (pardon me, “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” as our great leader once put it). I am unconvinced that Western criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or the crackdown on LGBT rights, or the increased censorship over the media and the Internet, is the result of Russophobia.  I will also not be surprised in the slightest if we see more and more confirmation that Russian agents interfered and continued to interfere with US elections.  But the hysterical tone about Putin and Russia right now plays into Putin’s hands.  We are performing Russophobia for a Russian audience that just can’t get enough of it.


Eliot Borenstein is a Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies, Collegiate Professor at New York University, Senior Academic Convenor for the Global Network, and Acting Chair of East Asian Studies.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Making Russian Great Again: Language, Dissent, and Critical Pedagogy

This is part of a SEEB series entitled “Russian Studies in the Era of Trump” organized by Ani Kokobobo.


 Thomas Jesús Garza

 

The recent Helsinki summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, together with the ongoing Mueller investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, have certainly kept Russia in the media and public discourse throughout this summer. If the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” were true, we should all expect double or even triple enrollments in Russian courses this fall! A more realistic and pragmatic view, however, might suggest a different tact in preparing our programs and our learners for what appears to be a never-ending flow of attention—much of it negative—on Russia and US/Russia relations in the media and in our personal spaces. In these times of heightened negative rhetoric and a lowered level of civility in public discourse, especially in emotionally-charged topics such as immigration, individual rights, election outcomes, and yes, Russia itself, the language and culture classroom can provide an ideal environment to develop not only language skills, but to acquire first-language discourse and communication skills to navigate the fraught waters of today’s negative post-factual conversations.

A supporter of Donald J. Trump and a protester
exchange words outside a Trump rally in San Jose, Calif.
Credit: Stephen Lam/Reuters

Preparing 21st-century learners with the skills to use Russian in a variety of social and rhetorical settings in which they can communicate meaning effectively requires a self study of existing language programs. The first step in reexamining our language and culture classrooms and curricula is to determine to what extent critical pedagogy1—which can be defined as socially conscious pedagogy—is used in existing courses at all proficiency levels. Critical pedagogy in world language education attempts to “make language study both relevant for students and more critical with respect to its value in the development of the educated person in a democratic society” (Reagan and Osborn xii). Critical pedagogy can be incorporated into our classes, where it can simultaneously help prepare learners not only linguistically, but also rhetorically and affectively, for the kinds of challenging and difficult global discourse they are facing. Such a shift requires embracing both proficiency-based and task-based instruction2 from the first through the last days of instruction, providing learners with many and varied sources of authentic, current materials that can yield the base for modeling and practicing increasingly complex discourse, and constructing meaningful opportunities for learners to engage in robust, but civil, exchange of ideas. As articulated by Regan and Osborn, “We advocate in this regard that language classrooms themselves become sites of challenging hegemonic ideologies, of liberating students from oppressive cognitive, intellectual, and sociological constructs that have thus far been created or reinforced in our context” (90).

At the Novice level of instruction, such instruction might begin by providing learners with multiple perspectives, definitions, and responses to every prompt, eschewing notions—including grammatical!—that there is only one “right” answer every time. Instead learners begin the process of acquiring Russian by reading not simply each word, but also reading the world to which it refers. Seemingly routine classroom questions, often unasked, might involve learner-centered decisions regarding gender use (given the gender-marked environment of Russian) in self-identification, or familial relations that may not be mother-father-sibling. By beginning with a base that is more dialogic and less strictly binary, learners can advance much more easily more to the Intermediate level where they are faced with tasks that require them to state their opinions. They will also, it is hoped, begin to develop the skills—skills that transfer readily to the native language—to allow them to communicate with self-conviction as well as with generosity toward their interlocutors, demonstrating the hallmarks of civil discourse.

Essential from the first days of instruction and onward is the use of authentic materials of varied media, including online. In addition to providing current, relevant input in multiple modalities, media-based materials are particularly appropriate within a critical pedagogy of global languages. Visual, auditory, and textual media require the learner to engage critically with constructed messages in order to understand them through “selective perception and negotiating meaning” (Osborn, 92). This procedure, mediated and practiced in the classroom and/or online, helps learners develop the necessary skills, through the steps of interpreting and negotiation of meaning, to move toward communicating critically on the content in a class presentation format.

At the Advanced to Superior levels of proficiency, as learners are challenged not only to defend their points of view and perspectives with evidence, but also to hypothesize about the outcomes and effects of their propositions, a number of the topics of debate on CNN and Fox News can prove excellent fodder for linguacultural development in class. The structure and execution of such debate-based courses are well-documented by Brown and Bown3 (2004) and have served as a model for similar courses nationwide. What is crucial about these courses is that they fully embrace a more formal debate-style discourse format, in line with national and international debate societies’ standards, such as The University Interscholastic League (UIL) or the National Forensic League (NFL) in the States, or the World Universities Debating Council (WUDC). Organizations such as these have established sets of rules, formats, and procedures for formal debate that can be easily adopted in a language course setting. The rules and procedures not only give structure and purpose to the debate format, but also establish a common “code of conduct” during the debate sessions. Students may not, for example, resort to hurling invectives or engaging in ad hominem attacks on their opponents. Argumentation must be, and is so judged, concisely and clearly expressed, well-documented, and effectively presented within the established rubrics of formal debate.

Central to the debate format is the development not only of linguistic skills in the language, but also of cognitive, discourse, argumentation, and presentational skills. As Brown and Bown state, “In addition to educating students about significant social and political issues, debate fosters critical thinking and analytical skills as well as respect for opposing opinions and an increased capacity to relate to others” (1). In conjunction with a critical pedagogy, the kinds of topics and situations that arise as the subject for global debate in the classroom provide precisely the kind of context that engenders examination and discussion through a variety of critical lenses and perspectives. Learners are not, therefore, trapped in the confines of a single narrative or perspective in the analysis, say, of a single common literary or political text, but rather are asked to engage with the material in a way that is much more individuated and personal for each learner and his/her/their identity.

We are fortunate in our profession as instructors of language and culture to have several sets of standards and guidelines to inform and help shape our curricular content and methods in critical pedagogy. Of particular note in this regard are the ACTFL World-Readiness Standards for Russian (2017). Focusing on the inherent interdisciplinarity and multimodality of language and its acquisition, the Standards are well-suited to help frame a critical pedagogy of global languages. As Reagan and Osborn conclude, “Although collaborations with other disciplinary specialists within the academic setting may seem restricted because the fluency required to discuss complex topics in the second language often eludes students, in reality the newest standards and mandates provide multiple opportunities for connections and comparisons in the second language classroom” (80).

That we must endure on a daily basis the degraded, unproductive discourse in national media outlets, around topics of national and international importance, does not mean that our language and culture classrooms should fall reflexively in line with such production. Indeed, our classrooms can and should be the incubators of language use that is critically informed, produced, and delivered by independent and individual learners who are prepared both intellectually and critically to communicate intended meaning. Perhaps, if not in our homes around the kitchen table, then in our institutions around a seminar table, we can again discuss the crucial topics of the day with dispassion and consideration, all the while keeping the “humane” in the “humanities.”


1 “Critical pedagogy” here refers to the application of the underpinnings of socially-conscious pedagogies proposed by educators including Paolo Friere and Ira Shor, among others, in the teaching of global languages and cultures. It is informed by the work of the ACTFL World-Readiness Standards and the Proficiency Guidelines, among other standards for professional competence in world languages. See Reagan, Timothy G. and Osborn, Terry A. (2002). The Foreign Language Educator in Society: Toward a Critical Pedagogy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers; and Osborn, Terry A. (2006). Teaching World Languages for Social Justice: A Sourcebook of Principle and Practices. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

2 Task-Based Instruction (TBI) is outlined and discussed in detail in Leaver and Willis, eds. (2004). Task-Based Instruction in Foreign Language Education: Practices and Programs, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

3 Brown, Tony and Bown, Jennifer. (2004) Teaching Advanced Language Skills through Global Debate: Theory and Practice. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press; see also Brown, Tony, Balykhina, Tatiana, Talalakina, Ekaterina, Bown, Jennifer, and Kurilenko, Viktoria. (2014). Mastering Russian through Global Debate. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.


Thomas Jesús Garza is University Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and the Director of the Liberal Arts Texas Language Center.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Teaching Chekhov in the Time of Trump

This is part of a SEEB series entitled “Russian Studies in the Era of Trump” organized by Ani Kokobobo.


Anne Lounsbery

 

A Turkish friend of a friend of mine recently dreamt that she was playing guitar for the authoritarian leader of her country, President Recep Erdoğan, while directing his gaze toward some pretty flowers and urging him to listen and look. Her dream reminded me of a somewhat intrusive thought I had more than once this past year while teaching a class on Chekhov. I’d be reading one of those perfect stories—models of elegance, subtlety, empathy, and restraint—and then I’d start trying to picture Donald Trump reading the same text. It turned out that this was not really possible: I was not able to imagine what Chekhov’s effect might be on such a person. Would the printed letters swim in front of his eyes, failing to cohere into words? Would Trump roar and wave his arms about in rage? Would he just be physically overcome—knocked out, perhaps—by the effort of reading a text that was in no way about him?



Chekhov’s stories model a certain way of being in the world. One might describe them as incorrigibly humanist, humanist in the most uncool sense. You can choose to interpret Chekhov in ways that make his texts more difficult than they really are, especially if you subscribe to the Modernist tenet that high art is all about difficulty. But I think if you do so you’re failing to experience what’s best and most important about the stories, which is simply their call to look humbly for truth, to attend carefully to ordinary life, and to practice ordinary human empathy. The prescriptions here are almost embarrassingly simple—but they are not at all easy.

The difficulty is made clear in a now-famous letter Chekhov wrote to his hapless brother, in which he outlined, Jordan Peterson-style, what one must do in order to become a more or less “cultured” (воспитанный) person. The letter’s eight bullet points cover everything from hygiene (cultured people will not tolerate bedbugs) to modesty (cultured people eschew false vanity, and they don’t whine about being “misunderstood”) to ethics (cultured people “dread lying like fire”). Most significantly, cultured people “respect human personality [личность], and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to yield to others.”

Given the extraordinarily high standard set by this last statement (always kind, gentle, and polite?), it’s no wonder the letter concludes by noting that the project of becoming a civilized person will require “constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, and will” (беспрерывный дневной и ночной труд, вечное чтение, штудировка, воля). The same project—at once modest and impossibly ambitious—is outlined in another of Chekhov’s well-known letters, this one to his friend Suvorin. He asks Suvorin to imagine the process by which “a young man, the son of a serf,” slowly and laboriously “squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and upon waking one beautiful morning realizes he no longer has a slave’s blood in his veins but that of a real human being [не рабская кровь, а настоящая человеческая].”

Chekhov’s stories can be read in light of this long, slow project of becoming. Because even when the stories are a little tricky—when they qualify or undercut themselves in those ways that we literary critics always enjoy identifying—they generally do so in the service of pretty straightforward ethical claims.

Take Chekhov’s taste for fleeting phrases that cast doubt on grand statements of epiphany, whether emotional or ideological. In a story like “The Fiancée” (Невеста), for instance, Chekhov’s heroine may convince herself that she’s embarking on a capital-R Revolutionary mission to “turn the world upside-down,” but the writer qualifies virtually every such moment—and many other moments—by some version of “it seemed”: as in, “it seemed to her that something new and great was opening before her that she had not known till then” (ей казалось, что перед нею открывается нечто новое и широкое, чего она раньше не знала), or in the last line, “She went upstairs to her room to pack, and the next morning said good-bye to her family, and full of life and high spirits, she left the town—as she supposed, forever” (покинула город — как полагала, навсегда). It’s a pattern we find repeated throughout Chekhov’s oeuvre, and one thing it does is foster attention to the ways we risk being seduced by the ideologies implied by master narratives of all sorts.

But in Chekhov qualifications like these are not typically motivated by a desire to debunk grand narratives and theories. Rather, Chekhov aims to situate such narratives—always and relentlessly—in the context of very particular lives and conditions. There’s no understanding the grand narratives, he implies, without understanding the conditions that produce them, and there’s no understanding the people who embrace the narratives unless we understand what they get out of believing them (hello, Hillbilly Elegy).

Chekhov’s unflagging insistence on context helps illuminate the letter to his brother I cited above. One thing that’s striking about the letter’s series of bullet points is the intimate connection they assume between everyday habits (don’t spit on the floor), ethics (pay your debts), aesthetics (“it’s not enough to have read The Pickwick Papers and memorized a monologue from Faust”), and high morality (“respect human personality”).

This is a problematic connection—its problems are those of what we might label, in shorthand, “bourgeois morality”—but one that helps me think through my own despair at the vulgarity of our current leadership. Because while I know I should always be viscerally repulsed above all by Trump’s destructive policies (and on occasion I am), I also find myself weirdly shocked and even frightened by his spelling errors, his taste for Ted Nugent, and the décor of his living room.

For Chekhov, the link between aesthetics and ethics is unquestioned. Perhaps the most memorable element of “The Fiancée” is a painting so powerfully vulgar—though all the ekphrasis we get is “a naked lady and beside her a purple vase with a broken handle”—that it appears to be held responsible for the heroine’s decision to flee her family and start a new life. The “stupid, naïve, unbearable vulgarity” (глупую, наивную, невыносимую пошлость) contained in the naked lady image enacts the familiar association of poshlost’ with something vaguely immoral (as Svetlana Boym put it, “poshlost’ is the Russian version of banality, with a characteristic national flavoring of metaphysics and high morality, and a peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual”). There is no question that in “The Fiancée,” bad taste is a red flag, an entirely reliable indicator of other very, very bad qualities.

I’m not as sure as Chekhov is about this connection. I know, for instance, that the shock I feel at Trump’s vulgarity is a kind of luxury: many people in the world spend their whole lives under rulers who are never not building themselves villas full of golden toilets, addressing TV cameras in a snarling provincial dialect, sneering at eggheads, making threatening allusions to the disloyalty of various internal enemies. Sometimes I feel guilty for my inability to shake off these comparatively trivial horrors (in the future, I wonder, we will all have to spell it “Councel”?) so as to focus exclusively on horrors with consequences that are more direct, and more grave. And yet I find myself drawn back to the spectacle of our current leader’s vulgarity and ignorance, unable to not draw connections between this “stupid, naïve, unbearable poshlost’” and the moral catastrophe we are witnessing.


Anne Lounsbery is Department Chair, Acting Director of Graduate Studies, and Associate Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Redefining the Russian Civilization and Culture Survey for the Trump Era

This is part of a SEEB series entitled “Russian Studies in the Era of Trump” organized by Ani Kokobobo.


Rachel Stauffer

 

The last time I taught a Russian civilization and culture course was in Spring 2017, just after the 2016 election. All iterations of the course including this one consisted of content familiar to most of us who teach and study Russia. It was a largely Eurocentric approach to Russian literary and cultural history, with an emphasis on high culture and art, architecture and literature influenced by Christianity, and the daily life, art, and culture of the urban, elite centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. We began with the history of the early Eastern Slavs in Kiev in the ninth century and ended with Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog” in 1899. Students read Suzanne Massie’s Land of the Firebird and a large chunk of Zenkovsky’s Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, followed by short works by Lomonosov, Derzhavin, Karamzin, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, supplemented with readings on culture from a variety of other sources.1 Except Princess Olga, Elizabeth, and Catherine II, there were few women discussed in the course and little discussion of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class in Russia’s artistic, literary, and cultural history. In light of recent events, I have decided that I can no longer continue to teach this course without devoting more time to these topics.



I attended graduate school at the University of Virginia and lived in Charlottesville for over a decade. In August 2017, I was horrified as I watched local television coverage of the violence unfolding in downtown Charlottesville, just one mile from my old neighborhood. I am angry, outraged, and disgusted that the cruel rhetoric borne of white supremacy in my home state continues to be emboldened by the tribalism fostered by individuals and policies of the Trump administration, and the current leadership of the Republican party. There are entire communities in the US (particularly in the South, where I currently teach at two large, state, public universities), where Russia is seen as a white supremacist utopia. In the weeks since the Helsinki summit, factions among Trump supporters, particularly in the South, have increasingly become pro-Russia, thanking Russia for saving the country from Hillary Clinton, for example. At one of Trump’s recent campaign rallies, two older white male Trump supporters were photographed wearing t-shirts that read, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat”. The League of the South, a self-described neo-Confederate, white supremacist, white nationalist group in Alabama, recently launched a Russian-language section on its website (!) with the following justification:

We understand that the Russian people and Southerners are natural allies in blood, culture, and religion. As fellow Whites of northern European extraction, we come from the same general gene pool. As inheritors of the European cultural tradition, we share similar values, customs, and ways of life. And as Christians, we worship the same Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and our common faith binds us as brothers and sisters. (Source)

As an educator, a Southerner, and a Russia specialist, I am mystified by such perplexing misinterpretations. Let’s be clear: we will have failed as Russia specialists and educators if Russia is perceived as a white nationalist utopia among our fellow Americans. In fact, I am puzzled that the discourse has already veered so far off the rails. Amidst the profound cultural reckoning in the US,  perhaps a reconsideration of the canon that seeks to overcome such dangerous and disinformed perspectives is not merely necessary, but an urgent matter for our field. This summer I worked to find meaningful ways to present many parts of the accepted canon of Russian literature in a more inclusive and representative way. I hope my changes will serve, in particular, to dispel notions of Russia as a white supremacist utopia, should any students be attracted to my course specifically to explore that ideology.

Let me share with you some of the changes I made. First, in terms of outcomes and assessment, I am placing new emphasis on developing students’ information literacy skills and on challenging students to identify stereotypes and implicit bias through two projects. For information literacy, students will complete a project called “Real (Not Fake!) News About Russia” in which they determine how to identify reliable sources for news and journalism about Russia. The final product is an annotated bibliography of 40-50 news stories from trustworthy sources collected over the entire term. The news stories will also ideally reflect current reporting on Russian cultural issues that connect to course content. For developing students’ understanding about stereotypes and implicit bias, I will be asking students to regularly collect impressions and stereotypes about Russia and Russians from acquaintances, friends, family members, and social media communities. We will compile the data collaboratively, creating a database of stereotypes held by Westerners about Russia and Russian speakers. Students will create a final product of their choosing (i.e., infographic, presentation, brochure, a digital resource, a travel guide, etc.) designed to challenge erroneous stereotypes.

Not only does this exercise require students to engage with the course content in order to deepen their understanding of Russian culture, it also requires them to dialogue with people whose views, education level, and understanding of Russia will likely differ from their own. In honor of one of this summer’s buzz words, “civility”, which became the resounding mantra of the right after the White House Press Secretary was asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, this exercise seems like an important one. Students need to know a) how to engage constructively, without contempt with those who have different or erroneous views, but also, b) how to identify disinformation. Disinformation is increasingly widespread across the political spectrum, social media platforms, and mass media outlets in the US. Incorrect progressive memes and images like this billboard in Colorado, which adorned the “O” in GOP with a hammer and sickle, have casually been posted and passed around like wildfire. The billboard reflects profound misinterpretation of Soviet symbolism, and is a reflection of widespread ignorance about Russia in the United States.

In the course, I will also require attendance, participation, short writing assignments, presentations, quizzes, and tests, but these two projects will serve, I think, a very important function in mitigating our current disinformation crisis. Throughout the semester, students will be giving assigned presentations in pairs on more nuanced topics in Russian culture, from a contrastive treatment of Western Protestant and Roman Catholic rituals with those of Russian Orthodoxy, to an entire presentation on the non-ethnically Slavic and non-Orthodox autonomous regions currently within the Russian Federation. There are also presentations on climate and agriculture, traditional food, Ukraine, the history of the Crimean peninsula, and contemporary gastronomy, and numismatics, among others.

In terms of specific content, I made many changes that would take too long to relate here, but several additions are worth mentioning, particularly because I chose them as a means of dispelling the myth of Russia as a white supremacist, Christian utopia. For one, I’ll be starting the semester with folklore. There is nothing quite as disorienting to American students as the ancient East Slavs’ organization and reconciliation of the chaos of the natural world through spirits, the pre-Christian pagan pantheon, life-cycle and yearly-cycle rituals as reflected in folk byliny, and skazki. I pulled this content intentionally from one of my folklore courses in order to start the semester through a nod to our shared humanity, with the understanding that every human is at the mercy of the chaos of the natural world, and while our organization of this chaos may differ based on culture, our goals remain the same. It is only after this section that we will move into Kievan civilization, the Christianization of the Rus’, and the Mongol occupation.

I plan to spend more time on the influence of the Mongols on contemporary Russia, emphasizing their cultural and linguistic contributions, the genetic legacies of Chingiz Khan and Tamerlane that continue today, and the way that the late Tatar occupiers shaped some of contemporary Russia’s minority languages, ethnicities, and autonomous regions (i.e., Tatarstan, Bashkiria, Kalmykia, Chechnya, Dagestan, Crimea). I will spend less time on Peter I and Catherine II as enlightened Europeanizers and Westernizers, and focus more on their contributions to secularism, intellectualism, territorial expansion, modernization, and social and class divisions in the Russian Empire. Using the reigns of these two monarchs as a springboard, I will also be integrating historical and artistic content about Ukraine, Central Asia, and the Caucasus both for comparison, but also in order to reflect on Russia’s role as colonial power.

The nineteenth century is where I have made the most changes to course content. Of course, Pushkin must be included as Russia’s national poet, but the focus will fall much more on his African heritage, which I explore through the introduction in Catharine Nepomnyashchy’s volume, Under the Sky of my Africa and an essay on Pushkin by W.E.B. Du Bois (I owe Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz at Howard University my gratitude for bringing this text to my attention). After Pushkin, I plan to circle back to folklore with Gogol and read at least one of the Dikan’ka tales rather than solely relying on Petersburg Tales. Because the universities in which I teach have courses on nineteenth-century literature, I plan to focus  instead on Alexander II’s Great Reforms, specifically the emancipation of the serfs, and how serfdom compared to American slavery, and how the emancipation itself further entrenched the peasant class into poverty, which precipitated the worker uprising and Russia’s tumultuous 20th century.

For this first time ever in this course, I will devote several weeks to the 20th century. I want students to leave the course knowing four major things about it: a) the economic, industrial, and social causes and consequences of the 1917 Revolution, b) the crimes, cruelty, and global influence of Stalinism that persist today in places like North Korea, c) the Russian perception of the Great Patriotic War as it stands in stark contrast to what most Americans believe about World War II, including the massive numbers of Jews and Ukrainians who were systemically allowed to perish (Vasily Grossman’s “The Old Teacher” is a particularly good story for this message in this context), and d) the fall of the Soviet Union, and how America’s role, namely the failure of the US to assist in the economic and political reforms that post-Soviet nations so needed during this time, have resulted in the contemporary fallout we see in our present.

Another departure from previous iterations of this course is that the final weeks will focus on contemporary Russian literature and cinema. In this section I will be circling back to folk traditions in contemporary context with the movies Gor’ko! (2013) and Disney’s The Last Warrior (2017). We’ll also discuss current demographic trends including data on racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual minorities. Using a chapter from Valerie Sperling’s Sex, Politics, and Putin, we will address the complex intersections of machismo, nationalism, and Orthodoxy, which will provide an opportunity to discuss feminism, Pussy Riot’s activism and the group’s subsequent persecution, most recently witnessed during the World Cup. A film, like Dmitrii D’iachenko’s comedy, What Men Talk About (2010), can provide an interesting point of contrast in these discussions. I plan to incorporate at least one film by Zvyagintsev, perhaps Elena as a representation of the questionable ways one woman must covertly sustain her luxurious life in post-Soviet Russia, or the obvious, more political choice, Leviathan.

The exercise of reconsidering my Russian civilization and culture course has led me to think deeply about American misconceptions regarding contemporary Russia. I hope that the ways in which I am revising the course can help to bridge the gaps, but this course, like many others, remains a work in progress.


1 Van der Oye’s Russian Orientalism, Lincoln’s Between Heaven and Hell, Martin’s Medieval Russia: 980-1584, Kivelson and Neuberger’s Picturing Russia, Ryan’s Bathhouse at Midnight, and Ivanits’ Russian Folk Belief, to name a few.


Rachel Stauffer is an Adjunct at Virginia Tech University and James Madison University


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Reading Akhmatova Now

This is part of a SEEB series entitled “Russian Studies in the Era of Trump” organized by Ani Kokobobo.


Sarah Krive

It’s a muggy summer day, but I’m fortunate to be spending it in the Slavic Reference Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Seated at a modern apparatus, with neat stacks of microfiche at the ready, I begin my search for poems by Anna Akhmatova. The poems themselves are by now accessible through the six-volume Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Ellis-Lak 1998–2005). But rather than reading poems as discrete entities, however, I aim to read them as them as they once were, situated in journals, newspapers, and small anthologies of their original publication. I want to see how they appeared on the page, what other texts and images surrounded them. Remediating is a way of trying to understand, in part, “crucial cultural information about how different components of the periodical’s readership were intended to interact with its content.”1

As I scroll through image after image of journal pages from 1912 to 1924, three things immediately stand out: first, how little advertising has changed. Then, as now, the adverts promise the moon—instant hemorrhoid relief, piano lessons, eyeglass repair, a Norwegian cruise. Sensing that we still (and, in the case of Russia, again) share a consumer mentality is somehow spectacularly reassuring a century on.

While the paratext of consumer taste reveals mostly the ways in which bodies break down and how we prop them up, my attention shifts to the ways Akhmatova’s poems are situated among other literary texts and even the news of the day. So the second thing that comes to mind is how reading her poems in situ suggests the ways that individual Akhmatova poems were consumed by readers. An example of what at first glance seems like an incongruous juxtaposition of words can be found in the December 20, 1915 morning edition of the newspaper Birzhevye vedomosti, on a large page dense with theater notices, book subscriptions for the coming year, a factory stock options sale, and Italian villa rentals, a slim column with the heading “Vospominania” contains Akhmatova’s poem, printed without stanza breaks, «Тот август как желтое пламя…». Below it is Sologub’s poem from August 18, 1889, «Что в жизни мне всего милей?».  To the right, Ivan Kasatkin’s short story, “The Meeting.” Akhmatova’s poem asks: Что сталось с нашей столицей,/Кто солнце на землю низвел? “What had happened to our capital,/Who had lowered the sun to the earth?” And later, И серые пушки гремели/ На Троицком гулком мосту “And gray cannons thundered/Across Trinity Bridge.”

Тот август как желтое пламя,
Пробившееся сквозь дым,
Тот август поднялся над нами,
Как огненный серафим.
И в город печали и гнева
Из тихой Корельской земли
Мы двое — воин и дева —
Студеным утром вошли.
Что сталось с нашей столицей,
Кто солнце на землю низвел?
Казался летящей птицей
На штандарте черный орел.
На дикий лагерь похожим
Стал город пышных смотров,
Слепило глаза прохожим
Сверканье пик и штыков.
И серые пушки гремели
На Троицком гулком мосту,
А липы еще зеленели
В таинственном Летнем саду.
И брат мне сказал: настали
Для меня великие дни.
Теперь ты наши печали
И радость одна храни.
Как будто ключи оставил
Хозяйке усадьбы своей,
А ветер восточный славил
Ковыли приволжских степей.
1915

Akhmatova brings the experience of war into the urban landscape of the present day, providing readers of the Stock Market News reason to pause and perhaps look out the window at the morning sky.

Together with the numerous publications “in support of orphans” or “in support of soldiers” that I came across, Akhmatova’s poem leads me to ask how poets and writers of our own time are responding to the twenty-four hour news cycle, to each new tragedy, unavoidable or not. And I’m led to ask: what is the relationship between artists and soldiers today. In an era of Go Fund Me appeals, what use is a poet? Celebrity writers like Elizabeth Gilbert can use Instagram to solicit funds for a group dedicated to reuniting migrant children with their parents. Beyond that, how do poets and writers today face a violent world, and do they perceive it as their civic duty to speak out?

I found answers waiting for me on my local bookstore shelf. Bullets into Bells. Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press, 2018). Containing poetry and commentary that confronts contemporary gun culture, any page of the text will knock you to your knees. Take, for example, the opening stanzas of Mark Doty’s “In Two Seconds”:

Tamir Rice (2002-2014)

the boy’s face
climbed back down the twelve-year tunnel

of its becoming, a charcoal sunflower
swallowing itself.  Who has eyes to see,

or ears to hear? If you could see
what happens fastest, unmaking

the human irreplaceable, a star
falling into complete gravitational

darkness from all points of itself, all this:

the held loved body into which entered
milk and music, honeying the cells of him:

who sang to him, stroked the nap
of the scalp, kissed the flesh-knot

after the cord completed its work
of fueling into him the long history

of those whose suffering
was made more bearable
by the as-yet-unknown of him…

Looking for a connection between a hundred year old revolution a continent away and the present moment in North America, I find it in guns, in weapons, in the tragedy of trying to live one’s small “l” life and being confronted with Life and Death. I find myself trying to understand the culturally disciplined bodies moving about Petrograd, smoke in the air, and what reading a poem in Stock Market News might evoke for them, along with the poets and writers who provided literary works in order to support soldiers, and children orphaned by war. Reading a journal like the short-lived Vershiny (1914-15) [The Peak], perhaps the Harper’s Weekly of its time, every single issue a hushed page-turner of photographs, like the one of soldiers’ lifeless bodies in a snow-covered field, sticks of hay poking up around them.

We typically assume that it isn’t comme il faut for a scholar to weep before a poem memorializing the dead or a photograph of soldiers leaning against each other, exhausted. But by reclaiming co-feeling with the artistic works of an earlier historical period, we can better recognize the ways poetry now can and must play a role similar to the one it seemed to play then: it offers a language that can contain paradox, contradiction, absurdity, and render us speechless, rightly so.


1 Manushag N. Powell, “We Other Periodicalists, or, Why Periodical Studies?” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. https://tswl.utulsa.edu/afterword/we-other-periodicalists-or-why-periodical-studies/#F16. Accessed August 24, 2018.


Dr. Sarah Krive is Lecturer in Liberal Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

“Why is There a Bull on the Magazine Cover?” The Readers of the Soviet Magazine 30 Days

Cassio de Oliveira

 

This blog post is a preliminary study of the readership of the Soviet magazine 30 Days (30 dnei, 1925-1941). Better known nowadays for having been the venue for the publication in installments of Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov’s famous novels The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf (Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev and Zolotoi telenok, published in 1928 and 1931 respectively), 30 Days also holds a unique place in the Soviet publishing environment between the NEP Era and the First Five-Year Plan. In what follows, I shed light on the distinctive features of 30 Days by focusing on archival evidence about the makeup of its readership.

In Modernism in the Magazines, Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman argue that understanding a magazine’s readership “will lead us to most of the other elements involved in reading a magazine from the past” (145). This is important because magazines “have a different temporality . . . and are usually intended to be less local” than newspapers (144-145). While this contrast between the geographic range of newspapers and magazines does not fully hold in the Soviet experience—for one thing, Pravda and Izvestiia, the premier Soviet newspapers, enjoyed countrywide circulation—it is true that the topics and types of articles of Soviet magazines and journals differed considerably from their daily counterparts.

In this context, what makes 30 Days unique? The first clue lies in its title, which indicates a monthly circulation rather than the weekly or biweekly runs of counterparts like Ogonek, Prozhektor, or Krokodil.i When we think of monthly Soviet periodicals, we usually picture so-called thick journals such as Novyi mir or Aleksandr Voronskii’s Krasnaia nov’. 30 Days differs significantly from such publications: until 1934, when it became an exclusively literary magazine, it carried extensively illustrated articles of general interest along with sketches (ocherki), poetry, short stories, and the occasional novel and novella in installments. Translated works by left-leaning foreign authors frequently appeared on its pages as well.

“Shock workers, go on, take up the pen!” (Speech by Vsevolod Ivanov at the factory “Samotochka”)

While not all of its belles-lettres fare was humorous in nature, the magazine aimed for a lighter touch, with a long-running page dedicated to chess problems and an occasional section devoted to funny and strange news from around the Soviet Union; running through issues from 1930 and 1931, the magazine organized a curious contest entitled “Slovostroi” (“Word-builder”). The goal of Slovostroi was for readers to suggest neologisms that expressed or represented the age of “Socialist Construction” of the First Five-Year Plan, with the best submissions being published in the magazine.ii As the 1930s progressed and the overall tone of the Soviet press became more and more strident, the humor of 30 Days would sometimes turn into sarcasm. For instance, the editorial introductions to a play by Iurii Olesha (Chernyi chelovek) and a story by Isaak Babel’ (“Giui de-Mopassan”), both published in the sixth issue for 1932, mock the quantitatively low productivity of both authors.iii

Especially during its first years of publication, 30 Days frequently sent out surveys to its subscribers. The magazine also organized at least two events intended for editors and writers to get to know their readers, one in the late 1920s (probably 1927), and one in early 1931 (probably in February) at the Samotochka factory in Moscow.iv

What do the 1927 and 1931 readers’ conferences reveal? The 1927 conference allows us to see how the editors articulate their view of the magazine. Vasilii Reginin, the magazine’s longtime editor in charge, affirms that the model for 30 Days is the European (specifically French) magasin, except that, content-wise, 30 Days is focused on themes deemed relevant to a Soviet readership, such as “questions of socialist construction,” in contrast to European “beauty contests” and “pug competitions.” The magazine should be an “organizing force,” Reginin says, helping the reader “participate in the construction of the new life and new culture” (“Vystuplenie na pervoi” 13).v

Workers listen to a reading of a chapter from The Little Golden Calf

Notwithstanding Reginin’s statements then and at the 1931 meeting, the workers of the Samotochka factory consistently returned to the question of the intelligentsia readership of 30 Days: comrade Fridman, “a shock-worker of the factory,” claims that the magazine had originally been destined primarily to the “working intelligentsia.”vi Comrade Granek likewise believes that the readers of 30 Days had been, until recently, members of the intelligentsia who wished to read the literary works “for relaxation after a hard day’s work.” He claims that 30 Days has managed to tailor itself to a new (i.e. working class) readership, but also that contemporary literature “should not serve the purpose of relaxation but should rather build the piatiletka [the Five-Year Plan]” (Reginin, “Vystuplenie na vyezdnom” 15-16). The role of literature is evaluated in different ways: one Staiukhin appreciates that 30 Days is not only a literary magazine, but also a political one (12); comrade Denezhkin, on the other hand, argues that “we need literature,” and that it should not be sacrificed to make room for discussions of politics and economy (14).vii

Surprisingly given the increasing amount of space allocated to non-literary texts in 30 Days in the early 1930s, the archival transcript and the write-up of the 1931 meeting demonstrate that readers—at least those of the Samotochka factory—preferred literary works to the articles on the Five-Year Plan that had become ever more pervasive in the magazine. At a time of growing ideological consolidation, these readers actively expected 30 Days to cater to their values, which it did by maintaining a “proletarian editorial board” (rabochii redsovet), for instance.viii Reader involvement in 30 Days illustrates the peculiar role that print culture—both the press and literature, packed into one publication—played in the development of a Soviet “imagined community” (to use Benedict Anderson’s concept), while also demonstrating the amount of wiggle room that a magazine (in contrast to newspapersix) had in defining its editorial line in Stalinist Russia. Finally, it lays bare the artificiality of an us-versus-them mentality regarding the role of the press and print culture in society—regardless of the ruling ideology.


Research for this blog post was generously supported by a Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the NEH.


Notes

i Mikhail Kol’tsov, at one of the readers’ conferences discussed below, highlights this detail (Reginin, “Vystuplenie na pervoi” 9). To him, 30 Days is a monthly but carries the kind of subject matter of a weekly magazine.

ii Slovostroi apparently was misunderstood by many readers, since, in an issue published a few months after the introduction of the game, the editors wrote an explanatory note on what its purpose was.

iii Curiously, Olesha would go on to become a member of the editorial board of the magazine in January 1933.

iv In 1933, the magazine also held an evening devoted to discussions and readings of short short stories (vecher malen’kogo rasskaza), which presages the magazine’s editorial turn to strictly literary works in the following year.

v All translations are mine. A write-up of the meeting can be found in Brigadir.

vi Reginin, “Vystuplenie na vyezdnom” 1. This claim is reinforced in Sitkov. At the 1927 conference, Reginin had said that “our readers are qualified workers, doctors, agronomists, office clerks, party members as well as politically unaffiliated, etc.” (“Vystuplenie na pervoi” 11).

vii The question in the title of this post (“why is there a bull on the cover?”) was also posed at the conference; in response, Reginin explained that the bull is intended to remind readers of the need, discussed in the XVI Congress of the Communist Party, to raise more livestock (“Vystuplenie na vyezdnom” 9). In the article in 30 Days, the editor of the factory wall newspaper claims that nonetheless the cover “is an insufficient illustration of the meat problem” (Brigadir 70).

viii The “proletarian editorial board” served as an apprenticeship for the formation of proletarian writers and journalists; it was also in charge of editing the section of book reviews by shock-workers in each issue. Some editorials would also occasionally be published under its byline.

ix On the role of newspapers in the formation of public discourse in the NEP Era and the First Five-Year Plan, see Lenoe.


References

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 1991.

Brigadir. “‘30 dnei’ na zavode,” 30 dnei 3 (1931): 68-71.

Lenoe, Matthew. Closer to the Masses: Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution, and Soviet Newspapers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Reginin, V.A. “Vystuplenie na pervoi moskovskoi konferentsii chitatelei zhurnala ‘30 dnei’. Stenogramma. Imeiutsia vystupleniia: Kol’tsova M.E., Gusa M.S. i dr. Mashinopis’.” RGALI (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva), f. 1433, op. 3, ed. khr. 90.

Reginin, V.A. “Vystuplenie na vyezdnom zasedanii redaktsii ‘30 dnei’ na zavode ‘Samotochka’. Stenogramma. Imeiutsia vystupleniia: Fridmana, Astaf’eva, Denezhkina i dr. Mashinopis’. [1930-e g.].” RGALI, f. 1433, op. 3, ed. khr. 78.

Scholes, Robert, and Clifford Wulfman. Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010.

Sitkov, I. “Sovetskii ‘magazin’—‘30 dnei.’” Kniga i revoliutsiia 8 (20 April 1929): 38-39.


Images

Il’f, Il’ia, and Petrov Evgenii. Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev. Zolotoi telenok. Pervaia publikatsiia v zhurnale “30 dnei.” Reprint. Moscow: Lomonosov, 2010, p. 210.


Cassio de Oliveira is an Assistant Professor of Russian in the Department of World Languages and Literatures at Portland State University. He is currently writing a book manuscript entitled Writing Rogues: Collective and Individual Identity-Formation in the Soviet Picaresque, 1921-1938, in which he analyzes the emergence of the picaresque mode in Soviet literature of the NEP era and High Stalinism.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Going Public: A Guide for Slavists

This is part of a SEEB series on the “Public Humanities” organized by Jennifer Wilson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University.


In 2012, Brown University launched the country’s first dedicated master’s degree in “Public Humanities.” With the goal of making humanities research “meaningful and accessible,” the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage has offered courses on radio and podcasting (the Center also hosts its own public humanities podcast, “Public Work”), the history of heritage museums and cultural organizations in Rhode Island, prison education, and public memory. The program also offers courses taught by directors of local organizations such as Lorén Spears, the Executive Director of Tomaquag Museum, who co-teaches a course on “indigenous cultural survival” in Rhode Island.

Facebook Live advertisement; photograph by Roxanne Silverwood

Since then, “public humanities” programs, often geared towards graduate students, have been springing up across the country. Central to these initiatives is a desire to think about the potential social impact of the humanities. Advocates for public humanities bemoan the current state of academic research, finding it too often cloistered away behind ivy-trimmed gates and prohibitively expensive paywalls, and are proactively thinking about ways to bridge the divide between universities and the public. Case in point: the University of Washington at Seattle’s Simpson Center offers public humanities certificates and short-term fellowships designed to help students “integrate their scholarly and social commitments.” One recent fellow, Julian Barr, revamped a walking tour of Seattle’s LGBTQ neighborhood, combining research in history, geography, and gay and lesbian studies for the final project, titled “The Original Seattle Gayborhood: A Public Historical Walking Tour of Seattle’s Lesbian & Gay Past.” Similarly, the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship at The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor holds an annual summer workshop called the “Institute for Social Change” where students are trained in “publicly engaged scholarship, pedagogy, and practices.” Rackham also offers students paid internships in the southern Michigan area, including at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Indeed, for many public humanities programs and initiatives, critically reflecting on the university’s role in the immediate community is often a way to begin conversations about the ways research can and should serve local populations. In fact, my own journey into public humanities work came after I began a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in my hometown. As an African-American native of West Philadelphia, it was strange to be on the other side of things so to speak, behind the walls that have historically shut people like me out. It dramatically changed my approach to my research, and I became newly eager to think about how my scholarship could engage and give back to the broader public. I began contributing to media outlets like The New York Times and The New Yorker, hoping to bring the lessons gleaned from years of studying Russian literature to bear on contemporary questions of cultural production and social justice. Recently, I wrote about what today’s true crime writers could learn from Dostoevskii about representations of criminality. As scholars with valuable insights into a part of the world that is increasingly making the news, we are in a unique position to offer culturally specific insights that could better inform public debates about the post-Soviet world, an act that would be a social good for the people who live there and could potentially suffer from a misinformed American mediasphere.

The contributors to this special issue have all likewise been thinking through the ways that their scholarly work can have an afterlife in the public realm. José Vergara and Marijeta Bozovic’s pieces both speak to the role of socially engaged pedagogy within the public humanities, with Vergara reflecting on his time as Project Coordinator for the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project (OPHP) and Bozovic discussing plans to adapt her university course, “Internet Cultures,” for students from the New Haven public school. In her contribution, Susan Smith-Peter writes about her experience creating an exhibit on the Russian Revolution for the New York Public Library; Smith-Peter teaches courses on Public History and her essay provides an important snapshot into what that discipline can offer the still nascent field of Public Humanities. For readers interested in how they can bring their scholarship to a wider audience through online writing, my interview with editors Boris Dralyuk (Los Angeles Review of Books) and Maya Vinokour (All the Russias) can provide some useful insights into the process and possibilities that writing for the public presents. Likewise, Katherine Bowers discusses new trends and opportunities in open-access publishing that can help scholars reach a broader and more diverse public.”

It is important to mention that much of the energy behind public humanities programming and institutionalization stems out of a recognition that the adjunct crisis has hit humanists especially hard. With an increasing dearth of stable employment for humanities PhDs, many public humanities programs have emphasized how their coursework and research fellowships can aid students in finding careers outside of academia. Most notably, the American Council for Learned Societies (ACLS) created a Public Fellows program that places recent humanities PhDs in jobs in government and non-profit jobs. ACLS has successfully secured jobs for fellows at places like the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Smithsonian Museum, and New York’s famed storytelling venue “The Moth.” This special issue hopes that alongside the very important conversation about the role of public humanities in helping graduates find meaningful work outside of higher education, we also consider how vital this new movement around socially engaged, publically accessible scholarship might be for those of us still within the academy as we fight not merely to save the humanities as they have been historically constituted (often in spaces that have excluded minorities and vulnerable members of our society), but to save a new, impactful, public, and truly humanistic version of them.   


Selected Public Humanities Projects by Scholars of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures:

 

Enthusiasm (Victoria Donovan, St. Andrews) –  “Enthusiasm’ is an innovative, interdisciplinary one-day arts event brings together musicians, members of the community, archivists and historians to take a radical look at a little-known historical episode that links Merthyr and the South Wales Valleys to the Donbass in Ukraine and asks how the legacy of this past continues to resonate in our social, cultural and political landscape today.”

Immigrant Stories (Co-editors Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas, and Anne Lounsbery, New York University) – Hosted by All the Russias (the official blog of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russian at New York University), this initiative compiled first-hand immigration stories from students and scholars in the field of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  

Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature and Leadership (Andrew D. Kaufman, University of Virginia) – A community-based course that brings college students together with residents of a maximum security juvenile correctional center to discuss Russian literature.

Crime and Punishment at 150 (Co-organized by Katherine Bowers, University of British Columbia, and Kate Holland, University of Toronto) – An outreach initiative that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866) through a series of public events and digital projects.


Going Public: A Guide for Slavists

A Series on the “Public Humanities” Organized by Jennifer Wilson

 


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Writing in Public

An Interview with:

Boris Dralyuk (Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books)

Maya Vinokour (Assistant Professor at NYU and Editor, All the Russias’ Blog)

 

This interview is part of a SEEB series written and organized by Jennifer Wilson on the “Public Humanities.” Interview responses edited and condensed for clarity.

“The Knowledge”
Portland Center for the Public Humanities at Portland State University
Designed by Harrell Fletcher

 

Jennifer Wilson: Can you each say a bit about your respective publications and how they’re distinct from other forums academics might be interested in writing for?

Boris Drayluk: The Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) is for the most part an online publication, although we have a print component. We publish three pieces a day and cover a wide range of subjects; we’re not simply a book review. We have about fifteen section editors who oversee genres ranging from the hard sciences to the humanities to memoir to science fiction. In terms of why academics might want to publish with us—our venue allows them to speak in more accessible terms, terms not devoid of specificity but aimed at a broader audience. As disciplinary discourses get narrower and narrower, we aim to broaden the conversation. We also attract half a million readers a month from all parts of the globe. Few academic publications can reach that kind of audience. I think that’s inherently appealing.

Maya Vinokour: All the Russias tries to embody a hybrid space, or something like the “third space” that coffee shops are supposed to be (not home, but not work, either). I like the idea of a publication that is academic but also open to experimentation, speculation, and even (or especially!) weirdness. As editor, I want the blog to be as heterogeneous as possible, so anything that’s of interest to the field is fair game. I would also say that 500 words, our stated minimum for submissions, is a low barrier to entry. The short form can be really helpful in that it requires low commitment, but offers a high potential for visibility. The blog has a wide and quite diverse readership, as I’ve learned over the past few months. I frequently get emails from people who are not in the field either with comments or submissions. They’re not involved in the formal academic pursuit of Russian, East European, or Eurasian studies, but they’re reading the blog and interested in what it has to say.  In terms of how we’re distinct from other places academics might publish, we take from a variety of contributors—both those entirely outside academia, and also from undergrads all the way to full professors and beyond. My ideal version of the blog is a panoply of voices and people who are all experimenting with new ideas.

JW: What kind of work by scholars do you typically publish and what kinds of writing would you like to see more of from them?

BD: Because we are, at least nominally, a book review, we tend to receive pitches for reviews. The kind of work I’d like to see from scholars of East and Central European and Eurasian studies would be reviews of important academic titles and translated fiction, as well as reviews of fiction yet to be translated—and not just reviews, but essays and think pieces on trends in their disciplines. One piece we published by Maya is exemplary of that. It was a review in shape, but also much more than that: a broad essay on books by Sorokin and Pelevin that have yet to be translated into English. I want our publication to push the conversation, to enable new translations, and to familiarize people outside of the discipline with work they should know. I want readers to clamor for new work, for new translations.

MV: We generally feature things that offer cultural or political observation, but also like to include posts pertaining to local matters in New York City. Anytime there’s an interesting new play or exhibition in New York or an event at the NYU Jordan Center, we try to illuminate it. It’s a combination of being tied to the origin of NYU and the Jordan Center and also looking out at the world beyond. In terms of the kind of post I’d love to publish more of in the future: ideally, All the Russias would become a really experimental forum, a laboratory for working out new research directions that may not be fully fleshed out. It could be really cool if people were willing to go out on a limb and feature things that they were just beginning to work through (although of course I understand how risky that can feel!).

JW: What do you think scholars, particular those with backgrounds in our field (Slavic, Eastern Europe and Central Asia studies), have to offer the public sphere?

MV: We’re obviously living through unique and interesting times, to put it lightly. I think in a way there’s a positive aspect to this for us as scholars in the humanities. We’re living in this unresolved and terrifying ideological free-fall, which means there’s also demand for explanations and narratives, for new means of theorizing this world we’re living in. As scholars of Russian and East European Studies, the most obvious thing that we have to offer is cultural insight that would be helpful in public policy matters. More broadly, as scholars of REEES literature and culture, we have this privileged access to a rich philosophical, social, and aesthetic tradition. If we learned to present it in the right way, in the most powerful and beautiful way, I believe we could parlay it into those insights that people are really craving. Personally, as a scholar of Russian literature, I feel pretty uniquely positioned to deal with the “accursed questions” which, in the past, the Anglo-American world felt largely free to ignore. But it can’t do that anymore. As humanists, we hold the intellectual and epistemological keys to thinking through all of these challenges. And that’s where places like LARB and All the Russias fit in—as bridges to a wider world.

BD: As humanists, as people who study literature, and as translators—Maya and I both translate—we have faith in literature’s explanatory power. We believe that the humanities can offer answers that no other discipline can offer,, especially when it comes to logo-centric cultures. Writing matters a great deal in the Slavic realm. These are cultures that have invested in the written word, and their literatures give us clues to a world beyond the confines of any book.

JW: Both LARB and All the Russias’ have featured numerous essays and interviews by academics. What in your experience are some of the most common challenges scholars face in adapting their writing style for a wider audience?

BD: The real challenge is that people are trained to speak to certain audiences. This isn’t just true of academics. If you work in a machine shop, you’re geared to speak to other mechanics. Academia is a kind of machine shop. Specialists have a jargon, a shorthand by which they communicate their ideas. When speaking to a broader audience, academics have to let go of that shorthand. They have to unpack terms they’re no longer used to unpacking. That is a challenge, but a challenge that can be easily overcome in the course of an edit. It’s just a matter of reminding contributors of what it takes to speak to a broader audience. [laughs] They remember what it’s like to speak to outsiders—you just have to remind them. The skill is never lost. It’s like riding a bicycle.

MV: I like this idea that it’s a process of re-socialization. [laughs] Everyone knows what it’s like to read something that’s captivating. The idea is just to identify that element in your own work and say it in the first sentence. That’s my most common comment: the interesting nugget that the piece was written to showcase is in there, but it has to come out quickly. Scholars want to qualify claims and equivocate and prepare the ground for whatever idea is coming, but when you’re writing something between 500–1200 words, you have two sentences to reveal that nugget or you’re in trouble.

BD: It was at one point the case that people who were specialists in their fields were expected to speak to a broader audience. And I think today’s academics want that too. They spend 15–20 years digging into something for a reason. And they’re eager to explain that reason.

JW: What kind of feedback have you gotten from academics who’ve written for LARB and All the Russias? What, if anything, have they shared with you about the experience of writing for the public? 

BD: I can’t even count how many notes of gratitude I’ve received from academics. People are deeply gratified, especially when they see comments on the bottom of the page from general readers. They enjoy receiving emails that acknowledge the value of their difficult, lonely work — emails from friends and relatives, as well as from perfect strangers. It’s a wonderful thing for me to see as an editor.

MV: Another thing you learn in academia is to never let anything out unless it’s in its most glorious polished form. It’s understandable. You don’t want to appear not fully together or incur the disapproval of your peers. People also worry about getting “scooped” in some way. And all of that is normal, and even conditioned into us by the structure of the profession. But I do think it’s vital for spaces to exist where people actually feel comfortable to be more informal. Man is a social animal, and the way that we develop our intellectual apparatus is by displaying it to other people and having a conversation about our ideas. So I try to balance that spirit with people’s comfort in sharing their ideas.

JW: For someone interested in publishing with LARB or All the Russias’, what advice would you give? 

BD: Write to me! I’m at boris@lareviewofbooks.org. We do like a robust pitch that explains the importance of a given topic, but we’ll take a one-line pitch and spin that out as well. We’re willing to work with writers on just about anything. Give us a try. We’d like to hear from you!

MV: People can reach me at alltherussias@gmail.com, and before that I encourage them to check out our style and submission guidelines. I’m excited to hear from people with ideas, whoever they may be—whether you’re just entering the field, adjacent to it, outside of it, whether you’ve published a little or a lot. The main thing for me is that you have some insight or thought you want to share. So when in doubt, just pitch or submit! The way that something like a blog works best is if it’s intellectually open and curious.  


Selected examples of public writing from scholars in the field:

 


Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His recent publications include 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016), as well as translations of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2014 and 2016) and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press, 2018).

Maya Vinokour is Assistant Professor in the Department of Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU.


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!