Studying Russian and Russian Humor with Frank Miller

This article is part of an AATSEEL initiative to create an archive of memoirs about the great scholars and colorful personalities of Slavic Studies in the United States. If you are interested in writing such a memoir, please contact us

Emily Johnson

Frank Miller (1940–2016)

I met Frank Miller when I arrived at Columbia University as a graduate student in 1988 and had to take what at the time was the Russian program’s placement test: four single-spaced pages of fill-in-the-blanks questions that focused on known trouble spots in Russian.¹ We were quizzed on whether or not we recognized that путь was a masculine noun and that картошка was non-count, our command of irregular plurals in the nominative and genitive, and on our knowledge of advanced number declension rules. How exactly would you say: “I went to the movies with 23 young female crane operators”? I was dismayed to learn that I had scored an 82 on this placement test, but Frank just laughed and reassured me, with a big grin, that my result really wasn’t bad. Though he set high standards for the Russian program at Columbia, Frank was always encouraging to students and projected cheerful optimism: he believed that we all could achieve high-level Russian-language proficiency and expected great results from each of us. Frank’s laugh filled the seventh floor of Hamilton hall and made it a joyful, welcoming place.

A year later, I had Frank for one of the two Russian-language classes that the Slavic Department required all in-coming graduate students to take at the time. Once a week for two hours we sat in an old-fashioned auditorium with Frank and worked through the finer points of Russian grammar: every possible verb conjugation, how соловей declines and why, preposition usage… Lectures were accompanied by densely formatted hand-outs: single-spaced sheets crowded with variant forms and exceptions. It sounds as though it must have been torturous, but it actually was really fun. Frank’s great love of Russian, his wit, and his ability to illustrate every conceivable language issue with a joke made the class a joy. In response to questions, Frank would invariably say: “I have a joke that is relevant to this.” He taught Russian brilliantly through jokes.

It did not immediately occur to me to wonder exactly how Frank had managed to collect so many Russian jokes. He just knew them and generously shared them. Several years later, however, Frank invited me and a Russian friend who was visiting from Petersburg to his apartment for dinner. Frank loved entertaining faculty and graduate students and often played the host. He lived on one of the top floors of a modern high-rise in several large but very crowded rooms that were filled with books and what passed for computers at the time. Two very large Doberman pinschers romped through the living room, which had a great view across the water to New Jersey and seemed weirdly serene and quiet because it was so far above the noise of the city. When the take-out Chinese food arrived, Frank spread it out on an old barn door that served as both his dinner table and a work surface–it was a souvenir from his time in Maine. We served ourselves from the take-out boxes, and, as we ate, Frank swapped jokes with my friend. At some point that evening after dozens of jokes had been exchanged, my Russian friend asked Frank: “how exactly did you learn all of these?” and Frank got out a pocket-sized battered notebook. He had, it turned out, been writing down and saving jokes since he was seven. When he began studying Russian, his hobby simply shifted to a new language.

No matter what question you had about Russian, Frank always had an answer. Shortly after I started taking Czech language classes at Columbia, I came to Frank to ask him why, when I heard the adjective “Czech” in Russian I kept hearing an “R” sound in it. There was clearly no «р» in «чешский». Frank dragged me into the nearest classroom and with great enthusiasm began drawing a schematic view of the human mouth on the board: I was, he told me, having an auditory hallucination—the «ш» was made in the position where an English speaker articulates an “r,” so my brain was simply misinterpreting it—probably because of the following “с,” which required an abrupt change of tongue position.

When I started teaching first-year Russian at Columbia after receiving my MA, I again got to work with Frank. He had a weekly seminar for all first-year TAs that was effectively a non-credit-bearing class. For two hours a week, we would sit around a seminar table with Frank, and he would walk us through the unit we would be covering that week in our respective classes. He always had useful suggestions for how to help students understand and practice new forms and patiently answered all our questions about both the material and more mundane aspects of classroom management. He showed us how to move from textbook materials to communicative exercises in the classroom and also how to integrate authentic cultural material into our lessons. We graded quizzes and tests together, seated around the table with Frank as he told jokes and answered our questions. The time he spent with us gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in my first classes. Even now when I am teaching language classes, I often find myself recalling Frank’s explanations and approaches and using them with my students.

After I finished my Columbia degree, Frank became a wonderful, encouraging colleague, and I loved seeing him at conferences. I ran into him for the last time at ASEEES shortly before he passed away. He was seated in the bar with Olga Kagan and pulled me aside to ask how things were going at OU. He wanted to hear about our enrollment, the classes we were teaching, and the textbooks we were using. And then he told me several new jokes. I miss his warm presence and his generosity of spirit. I am very grateful for everything he did to mentor me as a graduate student and as a young faculty member.

¹ Thanks to Milla Trigos for her editorial suggestions and for sharing her memories of Frank with me as I was working on this piece.

Emily D. Johnson is Professor of Russian at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of How St. Petersburg Learned to Study Its Self: The Russian Idea of Kraevedenie (Penn State University Press, 2006), the editor and translator of Arsenii Formakov, Gulag Letters (Yale University Press, 2017), and, along with Julie Buckler, coeditor of Rites of Place: Public Commemoration in Russia and Eastern Europe (Northwestern 2013).  She received a PhD in Russian Literature from Columbia University in 2000.

Horace Lunt

This article is part of an AATSEEL initiative to create an archive of memoirs about the great scholars and colorful personalities of Slavic studies in the United States. If you are interested in writing such a memoir, please contact us

Wayles Browne

Horace Lunt (1918–2010)


Note: A translation, with minor updates, of the obituary by W. Browne that appeared in Croatian in Slovo 61. 311-315 (Zagreb 2011).

Horace Gray Lunt II was born in an America that barely knew of Slavic studies as a scholarly field. Of the numerous immigrants who at that time could still come in relatively unhampered from Slavic lands, some continued to cultivate the languages of the old country, publishing newspapers and books in them and speaking them in religious, social, and trade-union organizations, while others sought to switch to English and become Americanized as soon as humanly possible. Few indeed were the universities that offered even the rudiments of Russian or of the South Slavic languages, traditionally difficult for the American eye to tell apart.

Lunt arrived at Harvard in 1937 and expressed an interest in Russian language and culture, but his most logical choice of mentor, the Russian historian and pioneering Slavic studies professor Samuel Hazzard Cross (1891–1946), is said to have advised him to instead take up German literature (in which he got his A.B. in 1941), since there would be no job prospects for a Slavist.

In the United States of Lunt’s youth, general linguistics was also not widely recognized. It was developed largely in the hands of anthropologists, who in the 1920s and 1930s worked more and more intensively on American Indian cultures and languages, but only rare universities offered courses in linguistics as an independent field. Nor did ethnographically-oriented North American linguistics have close contacts with philology in the European sense or with the languages of the Old World.

The situation suddenly changed when the Second World War broke out. For one thing, the Armed Forces realized that soldiers and other non-academics would need to acquire—and quickly—a knowledge of a variety of languages, both European and Far Eastern. The task of creating courses and lessons was entrusted to the new science of linguistics, and many linguists found themselves spending many hours a day in a classroom with a native speaker of Japanese or Burmese, Dutch or Russian, and together making groups of draftees capable of conversation or intelligence work. Another important factor was the arrival of displaced Europeans in the United States; along with well-known physicists, mathematicians, writers and musicians, some linguists and Slavists found refuge here. Surely the most famous and influential of the latter was Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), who transplanted the achievements of the Moscow and Prague schools to the New World.

During Lunt’s wartime service in Egypt (and Italy), he had occasion to encounter South Slavic languages spoken both by allied-country soldiers and by internees. After the war he was able to spend a year in Prague studying under A. Frinta, who was the first to mention the Macedonian language to him. But a rise in international tensions led him to return to the US. At Columbia University he completed a PhD in two years under Jakobson, writing a dissertation on “The Orthography of 11th Century Russian Manuscripts” (1950), which was the first in a long series of works on early Slavic topics. Jakobson was offered a chair at Harvard in 1949 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Samuel Hazzard Cross, and brought Lunt with him from New York to Cambridge. Together they educated the first significant generation of American and mostly American-born Slavists and established firm links between Slavic and general linguistics. A striking example of the resulting “personal union” is Morris Halle (1923–2018), who came as a teenager from Latvia; after gaining a PhD in Slavic under Jakobson and Lunt at Harvard, Halle became the closest collaborator of the general linguist Noam Chomsky at MIT. Even in the present century there are notable professors teaching both linguistics and Slavic at such universities as The Ohio State University and Indiana University.

With the help of Blaže Koneski, Lunt spent the year 1951 in Skopje collecting material for his book A Grammar of the Macedonian Literary Language (Skopje 1952), the first description of the new standard accessible to a foreign audience. His field work aroused some suspicions in the Yugoslav authorities and even more in neighboring countries which for political reasons were unwilling to recognize the existence of Macedonians and a Macedonian language. Lunt is credited with the choice of the 3rd person singular present (instead of the 1st singular) as the citation form of Macedonian verbs, since it more clearly distinguishes their conjugation types.

Readers of Slovo (the journal of the Staroslavenski institut) will be most interested in Lunt’s works on Old Slavonic. His Old Church Slavonic Grammar appeared for the first time in 1955. Besides being written in English, it brought in a number of innovations as compared with previous grammars published in German and French. The approach was strictly synchronic, since the author held that one must first gain a practical understanding of the language and only then use it for comparative historical studies or other purposes. Historical considerations are visible only in discussions of changes which were in process as the canonical manuscripts were being written, such as the gradual vocalization of strong jers and omission of weak ones, and the expansion of productive aorist types and of the newer past active participle in -vъ (molivъ) in i-stem verbs (moli-) at the expense of the older *-jь type (moljь). The mention of stem types brings up one more feature of the book: verbs are not classified exclusively by their present stems, nor by their infinitive-aorist stems. Instead Jakobson’s treatment is used: for each type one sets up a basic stem which enables the formation of all the forms of a particular verb by applying a series of morphophonemic rules. Thus the type dělati, dělajǫ is reduced to a stem dělaj-, most clearly visible in the present, whereas the type glagolati, glagoljǫ is assigned a basic stem in –a, namely glagola-, which is seen in the infinitive. Jakobson proposed such a classification for Russian in 1948, and since then it has been successfully applied to all Slavic languages—except for Macedonian, where treatment in terms of the primary stem (3rd singular present) and secondary (the aorist stem) is more functional.

The OCS Grammar arose from the concrete experience of teaching the language to students. Prof. Lunt hand-copied a series of texts for his students, adding commentaries; some were normalized and others faithfully copied from the manuscripts. Further, he compiled a small OCS-English dictionary (Old Church Slavonic Glossary, 1959, second corrected edition 1969) which was never officially published but never ceased circulating through North America in photocopies. (Michael Flier of Harvard made a reset 3rd edition available in electronic form in 2014.) One can say that nearly all North American grad students of Slavic and some advanced undergrads have used Lunt’s materials and would immediately recognize his medieval Cyrillic handwriting ductus.

The Grammar saw a second, improved and corrected edition in 1959. The third, fourth, and fifth editions added only small changes, unlike the sixth edition of 1974 which raised real text-critical problems. Many sections were reformulated and renumbered, so that when citing the book one should always indicate which edition is meant. Prof. Lunt once complained in the presence of the writer of these lines that the publisher had reset even those sections that were to remain the same, which resulted in a new crop of typographical errors. Also added was a lengthy appendix, Towards a Generative Phonology of Old Church Slavonic, applying the “abstract” synchronic approach to phonology as developed by Halle and Chomsky at that period.

The seventh and last edition of 2001 was typeset all over again; it contains some new formulations, section numbers, and typographical errors. In particular there are multiple errors in the tables of noun (and indefinite adjective) declensions in §4.18, and section §4.70 and following, on the comparison of adjectives, is less accurately formulated than in previous editions. (Both these facts were kindly pointed out to me by Martina Vaníková of Charles University in Prague, to whom I express my gratitude.) Instead of the appendix on generative phonology at the end of the book, there now appears a highly useful new part A Sketch History: from Late Indo-European to Late Common Slavic, which is longer and more thorough than might be suspected from the title. Besides a summary of historical phonology it covers morphology, word formation and sources of the vocabulary. The book has gained in aesthetics as well, since the OCS material is printed in a pleasing old Cyrillic font instead of the previously used graždanka.

Prof. Lunt was also the compiler of Concise Dictionary of Old Russian (11th–17th Centuries), published in 1970 (München: W. Fink Verlag). The title is in English, but the glosses are in modern Russian, largely based on Sreznevskij’s famous 19th-century Materialy dlja slovarja drevnerusskogo jazyka po pis’mennym pamjatnikam. In teaching Old Russian (Old East Slavic), Lunt strictly distinguished OCS elements from East Slavic, so that his students made constant reference to the abovementioned Glossary as well.

One of Lunt’s contributions to general linguistics was co-organizing the Ninth International Congress of Linguists, held at Harvard and MIT (the first Congress to be held in North America). He was the sole editor of the book of Proceedings of the Ninth Congress (The Hague: Mouton 1964).

Prof. Lunt was known for judging both his own work and that of his colleagues and students by severe criteria. His reviews sometimes turned into overt polemics, so that some observers wondered if he was not displaying European rather than North American manners in scholarly discussion. Certain of his students even feared him, though others considered, and still consider, him to have been one of the chief factors in their choosing a Slavic career.

For further information about the last period of Lunt’s life and work, we can recommend the obituary by his Harvard successor Michael Flier. Together with other co-founders of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Lunt devoted himself to long-term study and translation of the Russian Primary Chronicle (Pověstь vrěmennyxъ lětъ or, in Lunt’s reconstruction, Pověstь vrěmenъ i lětъ). HURI is soon to publish the final authorized version of the reconstructed text and translation by the group.

A partial bibliography of Lunt’s publications appeared in the first part of a collection dedicated to him: Studies in Honor of Horace G. Lunt Part 1 = Folia Slavica 2.1–3 (1978), Part 2 = Folia Slavica 3.1–2 (1979). Columbus (Ohio): Slavica Publishers.

A second Festschrift was Christina Kramer and Brian Cook, eds., Guard the Word Well Bound. Proceedings of the Third North American-Macedonian Conference on Macedonian Studies = Indiana Slavic Studies 10 (1999).

A memorial volume was edited by Michael Flier, David Birnbaum (University of Pittsburgh), and Cynthia Vakareliyska (University of Oregon): Philology Broad and Deep. In Memoriam Horace Gray Lunt. Bloomington: Slavica 2014.

Wayles Browne (Ph.D. University of Zagreb 1983) studied under Lunt as an undergraduate and later under Halle and Chomsky. He is Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at Cornell University.

Russian and Food Studies

Angela Brintlinger


When Naomi Caffee and Colleen Lucey asked to interview me for their SEEB post “Spicing up the Classroom: Food in the Russian and Eurasian Studies Curriculum,” it led me to think more deeply about how Russian studies and food studies are connected, for me personally and for students in US institutions. My own peculiar history includes a great high school Russian teacher in suburban Chicago and his elaborate Russian Club banquet, where his students danced and served food and played the balalaika for the community every year. Thinking about Randy Nolde and my high school classmates—and the crazy DIY curriculum Randy invented to supplement our ALM Russian language textbook—reminded me that the best way to learn something is to make it personal.

And what could be more personal than food? Part of why we study and teach foreign cultures in the first place is to explore how our own experience differs from that of others. Foodways have deep roots in a particular culture and can transport us into that space of difference. Teaching about food and foodways also offers new opportunities for asking why, for exploring what influences and shapes Russian culture, including everything from religious practices, philosophies of life, literature, art and music to weather conditions, development and infrastructure issues, and social relations.

At the same time, food—which is so basic, something each of us needs on a daily basis—has a leveling effect. Soup and tea and pickled cucumbers or smoked fish are less foreign than iambic tetrameter, but they give at least as much insight into Russian culture. We all eat, and we all eat every day. When we look at why Russians eat the foods they do, we are able to understand the ways in which all human beings are similar, and we can at the same time parse out diversity within the Russian geographic and historic territories. I still teach Russian poetry, but I also teach Russian food.

Yuri Leving’s summer pickles.

My History of Russian Food and Cuisine course at Ohio State is in part organized around Russian aphorisms about food and domestic culture. “Cabbage soup and kasha are our daily bread.” “With an empty belly you don’t even feel like singing.” “It’s not the outfit that makes a wife attractive, but the way she runs her household.” We use sayings in English, but not as frequently as we meet them in Russian, and that alone is an interesting question for students to contemplate, an interesting entry point into the Russian mindset. Students need to come to their own understanding of what Russian culture is, and it should go beyond “Oh, those novels are so depressing” or “The Russian soul is so deep.” Today’s students are interested in the cultural phenomena we find in folklore, sayings, rituals.  And one way to access them is through food.

For Americans in particular, one of the most curious things about Russian and Eurasian culture is its longevity—and accessing culture through language and food allows us to consider continuities by introducing pre-nineteenth century texts. We can also approach gender questions in new ways. For example, in my course I pair the anonymous Domostroi with Elena Molokhovets’s 1861 Gift for Young Housewives. With these two books we see significant differences—a sixteenth century household manual authored by a man and a cookbook and manual for young women written by a female author concerned with economy and etiquette—but also similarities: both texts offer ideas for careful planning and predict strife among members of a household; both address issues of supply, storage, serendipity. Both consider family relations and those between master (or mistress) and servant. Both are produced in times without serfdom, allowing students to consider how Russian social fabric might differ from what they have seen in some early nineteenth century fiction.  And both are still popular texts today, which makes a discussion of cultural continuity even richer.

A 1911 edition of Domostroy (left) and a 1917 edition of Elena Molokhovets’s Gift for Young Housewives.

In fact, of course, today’s Russian bookstores look a heck of a lot like Barnes and Noble, which means they are overflowing with advice manuals, children’s literature, coffee table books, and cookbooks. One book that has enjoyed immense success in the post-Soviet era is Pyotr Vail and Alexander Genis’s Russian Cuisine in Exile. I first encountered this volume thirty years ago in a bare bones version published in Vermont by dissident Valery Chalidze. Originally collected as a book in 1987, the essays have been republished many times since the fall of the Soviet Union. Those of us who love Vail and Genis have over the years been frustrated that we haven’t been able to share their work with non-Russian speakers. And when I first started teaching Russian foodways, I would offer one or more essays to my students in my own informal translation. But students never understood why I found the essays to be brilliant. They couldn’t see the layers of the text, or sense the humor or style.

First edition of Russian Cuisine in Exile (1987).

Teaching my Russian food course, I came to realize that Russian Cuisine in Exile is best perceived as a set of essays. The chapters make sense in relation to each other—only after reading five or seven or twelve of them do the stylistic choices and cultural insights begin to be revealed. Tom Feerick and I finally translated the book into English and published it late last year with Academic Studies Press. We illustrated the book to demonstrate that same continuity of Russian foodways, with some images evoking the Russian imperial cultural tradition—including a painting by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, a period postcard from Riga and one of Caspian fishermen, a lubok, a costume design from “The Firebird”—and others conjuring the Soviet context of Vail and Genis’s youth or their life in diaspora.

Russian Cuisine in Exile, published by Academic Studies Press in 2018.

More and more secondary research is also becoming available to use in the classroom. For instance, this spring a volume I co-edited with Anastasia Lakhtikova and Irina Glushchenko—Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life—was published by Indiana University Press. In her preface to the book Darra Goldstein—known to many not just as the founding editor of Gastronomica and an early voice in Russian food studies in the US but also the author of several great cookbooks about Russian and Georgian food—points out something really important: food in the Soviet period was not just consumed, it was also performed. In our volume Anastasia, Irina and I strove to bring together an international collection of authors from different disciplines who would explore this nexus of food and gender and who would reveal how food studies encompasses film, poetry, cookbooks, popular magazines, folklore and fairytales, and etiquette manuals. We see food as a social phenomenon, and our authors survey it across the late Soviet period and take it into all kinds of spaces, from cafeterias and dacha gardens to homes and workplaces.

At a roundtable devoted to the book in Zagreb this summer, Natalia Pushkareva, the acknowledged founder of the discipline of women’s history in Russia, argued that Seasoned Socialism is the first volume to really pinpoint the gendered aspect of foodways in Russia. Focusing on the period of late socialism, which was in a way its own country, enabled us to explore the parameters of that culture through the everyday—through byt—and through how the everyday has been represented in both popular and elite culture. As Diane Koenker writes in the volume’s afterword, food opens up a way to study socialist consumer culture, and that too is a very productive area of inquiry in scholarship and the classroom.

Seasoned Socialism, published by Indiana University Press in 2019.

Naomi and Colleen asked me whether I see food becoming a more important topic in our field, and the answer is yes! Food reveals culture. But it is more than that: Terry Eagleton has written that food looks like an object, but is really a relationship. I would go further to say that we study (and teach) Russian culture as an object, but we should really study it as a web of relationships, as ways that people interact with each other, their identity, their environment, and their history.

My anecdotal evidence suggests that college instructors across the U.S. are seeing food studies as a way to access Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet identities, and Naomi and Colleen’s blog piece in March confirmed that. More and more students from the post-Soviet diaspora are ending up in our classrooms, and for them as well as their fellow students Russian food studies are a real plus. These heritage students serve as native informants, and we as teachers and scholars will continue to find new ways to frame and enhance the cultural information they bring with culinary essays, films demonstrating food culture, and of course literary works, including the poetry of Alexander Pushkin.

Angela Brintlinger is the Director of Ohio State University’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies, as well as a Professor and Graduate Studies Chair in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. She is the Co-Translator with Thomas Feerick, Pyotr Vail and Alexander Genis of Russian Cuisine in Exile (Academic Studies Press, 2018).

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This article is part of an AATSEEL initiative to create an archive of memoirs about the great scholars and colorful personalities of Slavic studies in the United States. If you are interested in writing such a memoir, please contact us

Barry Scherr

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Setchkarev (1914–1998)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spicing up the Classroom: Food in the Russian and Eurasian Studies Curriculum

Naomi Caffee and Colleen Lucey


As any Russian language instructor can attest, the topic of food is a perennial student favorite. After slaving away all semester on case endings and the nuances of verbal aspect, students are usually thrilled to enter the world of pirozhki, borscht, samovars, sukhariki, and sweets from the Red October chocolate factory. Food, together with the customs of hospitality and togetherness that characterize Russian and Eurasian cultures, presents language learners with a topic that feeds the body and soul as well as the mind.

Foodways and food studies, defined broadly by Elizabeth Engelhardt as “the study of what we eat, how we eat, and what it means” have traditionally been the province of the social sciences (1). However, as food scholars Darra Goldstein and Anya von Bremzen have pointed out, Russian literature is bursting with culinary moments as rich in meaning as they are in salt and fat: for example, Gogol’s sensuously grotesque table spreads and characters that resemble samovars, plums, and buns, or the epic dinners in Anna Karenina that lay out the ecstasies and anxieties of Russian aristocratic life. The significance of food looms even larger in its absence, as can be seen in the literature of the GULAG and the Blockade, where bread functions as the currency of hope and survival. Ohio State University professor Angela Brintlinger, who is the author of two recent books on Russian food culture (Russian Cuisine in Exile and Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life), stresses the importance of food’s interdisciplinary potential. The study of food “offers new opportunities for asking why, for exploring what influences and shapes Russian culture, which I would argue is everything from religious practices, philosophies of life, literature, art and music to weather conditions, development and infrastructure issues, and social relations.”

As instructors and curriculum developers at the University of Arizona (UA) and Reed College, we have found that cuisine can be an excellent entry point to broader discussions of Russian and Eurasian culture and history, as well as a crucial element in building the skills of critical thinking and intercultural understanding. And we are not alone: faculty across the country are beginning to incorporate food into the Russian and Eurasian Studies curriculum, providing new avenues for collaboration and interdisciplinary outreach across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We surveyed colleagues who are spearheading such efforts, in hopes that their experiences will inspire more educators to explore the vast, and delicious, possibilities.

Recipes for Success: Russian and Eurasian Foodways

When introducing curricular material on Russian and Eurasian Foodways, what are the potential and actual learning outcomes for students? The answer to this question will likely vary depending on the focus of your course and the resources at your disposal.

At Grinnell College, history and cultural studies combine with hands-on engagement in Professor Todd Armstrong’s course “Comrades in the Kitchen: Russian Food and Culture in the Soviet Century.” On top of their normal readings and class discussions, students were tasked with re-creating dishes from across the Soviet Union using recipes from Anya von Bremzen’s memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, as well as her cookbook Please to the Table. Along with cooking and eating, which took place with support from the Grinnell College dining hall, students researched their recipes and documented their preparation along with reflections on the process, which are published on the course’s blog.

Peer-to-peer experiential learning is the focus of the University of Arizona course “Russian and Sonoran Foodways,” first piloted in 2017 as part of a State Department-funded initiative. The course’s current instructor, Dr. Anastasiia Gordiienko, explains that the comparative study of food culture enables students to analyze the “history, society and politics” of Russia and the American Southwest, while also learning about contemporary issues of environmental sustainability. In addition to interdisciplinary readings and guest lectures from faculty members in the university’s Food Studies program, students “happily got their hands dirty” with experiential components such as tasting Russian and Sonoran dishes, holding an Iron Chef-style cooking competition, and cultivating (and eating) local vegetables during a field trip to the Tucson Village Farm.

UA students put their learning to practice at the Tucson Village Farm

UA students partner with Russian exchange students to create dishes for Iron Chef competition

Meanwhile at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, historian Leah Goldman concluded her course “Cultural Construction in the Soviet Empire” with a special guest lecture from Chef Bonnie Morales, co-owner of the Soviet-style farm-to-table restaurant Kachka. With a modest budget of only $125, Chef Morales prepared a meal of classic Soviet dishes, including the legendary salad sel’edka pod shuboi (“herring under a fur coat”) and arrived with her father in tow to lead the students in a culinary exploration of the Soviet Union. “It was an incredible experience” writes Dr. Goldman. “As we passed the dishes around for students to try, I asked Chef Morales to talk about what this food meant to her, as the American child of Soviet emigrants, and why she had decided to open a Soviet-style restaurant.” As father and daughter shared both food and memories, “they created a vibrant and very meaningful story about why they emigrated, the unexpected challenges they faced in the US (including a Jewish refugee group telling them they had to stop eating salo and other pork products), and Chef Morales’ gradual return to the food of her childhood.” Dr. Goldman adds, “If there is one thing the students will remember from that class, this is it! I think it was really valuable for them to be able to connect the subjects we had been reading about and discussing all year to something as concrete and tangible as food and to be able to experience the camaraderie of the Soviet ‘kitchen table’ culture.”

If you cannot find a local award-winning chef capable of preparing Soviet-inspired cuisine, what are your options? Professor Michael Denner of Stetson University came up with a tasty solution: travel to Georgia and make the country your classroom.

A Moveable Feast: Foodways and Study Abroad

Incorporating foodways into new or existing study abroad programs can produce exciting results for faculty, students, and local partners. The program Georgian Foodways: Global Pathways/Local Contexts offers participants the chance to sample the country’s unique cuisine–designated  by UNESCO as an object of Intangible Cultural Heritage—while assessing the connection between culture and culinary traditions. Organized by the School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and lead by Dr. Denner, the students travel to the capital of Tbilisi and make side trips to various towns famous for their local delicacies. For Dr. Denner, “Food—making it, eating it, thinking about it—has always been central to the way I teach.” When you “tell someone you’ve consumed tan (an Armenian milk-based drink), or khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread), or okroshka (Russian cold cucumber and kefir soup) that act of eating means something, culturally and linguistically. You have an immediate connection with your Armenian or Georgian or Russian friend, you’ve internalized a bit of their world.”

We found that a study abroad trip focusing on the shared language of food helped recruit new students to our departments. In collaboration with Moscow University for the Humanities (MUH), UA began offering Russian and American Foodways, a short-term study abroad option for students to travel and study the Russian food culture, including the burgeoning locavore movement in and around Moscow. We paired our students with undergrads from MUH and traveled to local farms where they tasted fresh kefir, yogurt, and cheese, as well as to farmers’ markets, shopping mall food courts, the historic Eliseevskii gastronom, the Stalin-era exhibition halls of VDNKh, and the country’s first-ever McDonald’s. Olin Marman, one of the students participating in the program, stressed that these activities helped him to better understand Russia’s diversity: “Russian food culture is not exclusively Russian […] It includes a culmination of culinary influence from surrounding areas, foods introduced by the government in the past, and the intake of global food culture via the internet.” He also noted that “I was blown away by how hospitable [the Russians were] to our group. I think that I, along with the general American population, had a very preconceived idea of what Russian culture would be like. I was expecting a very cold and quiet population that would not be interested in interacting with foreigners. I could not have been more wrong.” These reflections draw our attention to perhaps the most important role of food: upending assumptions and helping to discover common ground.

Na pososhok – Final Thoughts

What student of Russian or Eurasian culture can forget the fun of preparing shashliki with friends or a trip to the host family’s dacha? Food in these settings is more than the sum of its ingredients—it is a powerful means to forge memories and lasting friendships, as well as spark lifelong interest in a foreign culture. Such experiences can also bridge the gap between students and the cultures they study. As Dr. Brintlinger puts it, “We all eat, and we all eat every day. When we look at why Russians eat the foods they do, we are able to understand the ways in which all human beings are similar, and we can at the same time parse out diversity within the Russian geographic and historic territories.”

Whether as an extracurricular activity, a study abroad opportunity, an independent course, or a component of a language or culture course, foodways can provide instructors with new and compelling ways to enrich the Russian and Eurasian studies curriculum.

References Cited and Consulted

  • Brintlinger, Angela, Anastasia Laktikova and Irina Glushchenko, eds. Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019.
  • Caffee, Naomi and Colleen Lucey. “Borscht, Bliny, and Burritos: The Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Experiential Learning through Food.” Russian Language Journal 68.1: 2018. 33–54.
  • Engelhardt, Elizabeth. “Redrawing the Grocery: Practices and Methods for Studying Southern Food.” The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, Ed. John T. Edge, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and Ted Ownby. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013. 1–9.
  • Genis, Alexander and Pyotr Vail. Russian Cuisine in Exile. Trans. Angela Brintlinger and Thomas Feerick. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018.
  • Glants, Musya, and Joyce Toomre, eds. Food in Russian History and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
  • Goldstein, Darra. A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, 3rd edition. Edward and Dee: Montpelier, 2013.
  • Mikoyan, Anastas Ivanovich. Book of Tasty and Healthy Food: Iconic Cookbook of the Soviet Union. Trans. Boris Ushumirskiy. Utah: SkyPeak Publishing, 2012.
  • Scott, Erik. “Edible Ethnicity: How Georgian Cuisine Conquered the Soviet Table.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 13.4 (2012.): 831–58.
  • Von Bremzen, Anya. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. New York: Crown, 2013.
  • Von Bremzen, Anya and John Welchman. Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. New York: Workman Publishing, 1990.
  • Zavisca, Jane. “Contesting Capitalism at the Post-Soviet Dacha: The Meaning of Food Cultivation for Urban Russians.” Slavic Review 62.4 (2003): 786–810.

Naomi Caffee is Assistant Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon

Colleen Lucey is Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Arizona. 

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!


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!