Researching Russian Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump

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

Eliot Borenstein


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 Thomas Jesús Garza


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teaching Chekhov in the Time of Trump

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

Anne Lounsbery


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Redefining the Russian Civilization and Culture Survey for the Trump Era

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

Rachel Stauffer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering Russia is a series of sixteen volumes (in Russian). Each volume showcases the architecture of one of Russia’s regions with photographs and commentaries by Dr. Brumfield. Here is a similar series of related books on the Vologda region by Dr. Brumfield. For a compelling read about traveling and photographing the Russian north, Architecture at the End of the Earth (Duke UP, 2015) is also a wonderful choice.

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

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


Reading Akhmatova Now

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

Sarah Krive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamir Rice (2002-2014)

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

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

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

the human irreplaceable, a star
falling into complete gravitational

darkness from all points of itself, all this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Manushag N. Powell, “We Other Periodicalists, or, Why Periodical Studies?” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Accessed August 24, 2018.

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

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


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

Cassio de Oliveira


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Going Public: A Guide for Slavists

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

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

Facebook Live advertisement; photograph by Roxanne Silverwood

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Going Public: A Guide for Slavists

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


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


Writing in Public

An Interview with:

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selected examples of public writing from scholars in the field:


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

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

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



The Public Humanities, Prison Education, and Our Hidden Interlocutors

José Vergara


This article is part of a SEEB series written and organized by Jennifer Wilson on the “Public Humanities.”

As I leaf through the notebook I used while teaching courses at Oakhill Correctional Institution, I can picture many of the moments, both large and small, that transformed the way I now think about the humanities. There was the time we discussed Kafka’s brilliant and frustrating short story “Before the Law,” and one participant announced, despairingly, “This dude took me somewhere I didn’t want to go.” Then there was the conversation about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” that led us to draw and explore different conceptions of time in a session that remains my favorite classroom experience to this day. As part of a creative writing workshop I ran, the students’ writing introduced me to a whole host of characters: the punch-drunk boxer and the jazz musician; the eponymous Gogol-esque hero of “A Tale about a Nose”; and Chop Chop the superhero pig whose creator invested as much thought into the imagery as into the sound of his dynamic texts. There was also the story of a lightning bug caught in a jar. With each flashing of its lantern, the author Scott explained, it grew more and more aware of the passing of its life.

I can attempt to retell the stories I heard within the bare room on the second floor of the prison’s education building, but my own words fall short. They remain only a pale glimmer of their original forms. What I can impart instead is the significance of these encounters. In Oakhill, a men’s minimum-security prison located about twenty minutes south of Madison, Wisconsin, I witnessed immense talents gone unnoticed by society and a pure desire to learn and engage with new material that rivals that of any so-called traditional college student.

My time at Oakhill began in June 2011. I decided to go through the prison’s training session after hearing from a friend about her experiences teaching there, and I began offering courses two months later. Eventually, in 2013, a number of volunteers teaching fiction, poetry, and creative writing came together to form the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project (OPHP). We received two major grants that allowed us to both cover our expenses (copies, books, mileage, etc.) and to create a dedicated position, a Project Coordinator who would oversee all operations and communication. As Project Coordinator, which I served as for over a year, I recruited volunteers to teach classes on new topics such as art, history, and theater. I likewise organized a travelling exhibition entitled Artists in Absentia that featured the art, music, and writing of participants. My goal in all these efforts was twofold: to diversify the educational opportunities provided to the men in Oakhill and to expand the exchange between the incarcerated individuals and the outside world, from which, of course, they often feel estranged. My hope was to permit the exhibition’s audience to see the humanity in the art produced by the contributors, and, while they needed little help in finding their artistic voices, we gave them a wider venue to showcase their talents.


Past, Present, Future – Dreamer and the Dreamed 
Ryan B.
Artists in Abstenia

Old School
Terrence K.
Artists in Abstenia

The statistics regarding prison education programs’ positive effects on recidivism, post-release employment opportunities, institutional expenses, and the general well-being of everyone involved, from incarcerated individual to correctional officer to warden, have been well documented. According to a report by the RAND Corporation: “Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not.”1 These are very real and very substantial factors to consider as we advocate for the public humanities and for broader prison reform.

My own involvement in the OPHP, which should be noted is not a credit-bearing program, was, of course, excellent professional training. But most of all, it was the single strongest affirmation of what I, and many of us, do: read and absorb ourselves in stories that in many ways transcend differences in space, time, and experience. In a prison, everything is stripped down to its essentials of pen, paper, words, minds. Nothing else, but much more. We were simply fellow enthusiasts seeking to learn about the worlds around us and to have meaningful conversations about the imagined situations found in those readings. Sometimes, as when we discussed Waiting for Godot, our conversations would swerve toward personal experiences related to being incarcerated for lengthy periods and the mental anguish that comes with that uncertain state. More frequently, we came to understand better more universal dilemmas, such as the pain of loss as expressed in Hamlet and Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory.

Teaching at Oakhill was also a lesson in humility and perspective. The men there did not always need to hunt for symbols or to link a text to a particular theory. It was instead enough to appreciate the art on its own terms, to allow the writing to provide insights into our own behavior, and to see how others live through these texts. As a quote from my notebook (jotted down after a co-instructor tried to invest too much meaning into a participant’s technique) read: “I just write, bro.”

At its best, the public humanities is an exchange, rather than a one-way street. At Oakhill, for example, the men would frequently thank me and the other volunteers for offering classes and for visiting the prison. The truth is that my gratitude extends to them in ways they can never know. Teaching at Oakhill demonstrated to me that we can blend the personal with the literary, the emotional with the theoretical, and in doing so, we can come to profound conversations in any classroom. I realize that this idea will not necessarily come as a revelation to most; it was not exactly to me either. Yet my time in prison only solidified that belief and made me a better instructor for it. What the humanities—and not just of the public variety—do is reveal the way others might live. For many of the men in my classes, though by no means all,  this process let them consider their own pasts, as well as the effects of their actions on their victims. The humanities thus bridge gaps in our understanding and bring us at least a little bit closer to recognizing another’s perspective. In our conversations about poetry and history, we similarly learn to appreciate the way others think and feel. I felt this each time I went to Oakhill.

In turn, the public humanities aim to redirect the conversation from a feedback loop within universities toward others who may have been underrepresented or underserved by our communities of higher education. The costs of the prison-industrial complex remain vast, but as a volunteer instructor at Oakhill, the one that always struck me as a remarkable pity was the loss of perspectives that comes from having so many people locked away. I can only speak for myself, but I know I was enriched by the men with whom I debated the merits of magical realism and the meaning of death in Anna Karenina.

We should all be so lucky as to spend at least one evening discussing favorite short stories with our hidden interlocutors in prison.2

1   See, for example, the following report produced by the RAND Corporation:

To learn more about prison education opportunities near you, please visit the Prison Studies Project directory. For a fascinating look inside San Quentin State Prison, listen to the podcast Ear Hustle, which was co-founded and co-produced by people currently incarcerated there.

José Vergara is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College. His research interests include comparative literature and the Russian novel of the long twentieth century. Having recently completed the Inside-Out Instructor Training Institute, he is looking forward to offering courses in a prison again soon.

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!



The Russian Revolution and Public History: Expanding America’s Story

Susan Smith-Peter


This article is part of a SEEB series written and organized by Jennifer Wilson on the “Public Humanities.” For more information on this series, see this post.

All of Russia was talking. At every street corner and shop, Russians were taking part in a flood of debate. So say many eyewitness accounts of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. As an associate professor of history at the College of Staten Island in the City University of New York, I wanted to recreate this dialogue, at least to some degree, both in my class and by presenting the story of the Russian Revolution to the public. Later, this experience informed my ideas of how Slavists can interact with the larger field of public history as part of public humanities.

The class I chose for my experiment was HST 701, Historical Methods, the introductory class for our History MA program. As a class, we learned about different historical schools and then saw how these approaches shaped how historians wrote about the Russian Revolution. In addition, because our department had recently received approval for its Advanced Certificate in Public History program, I decided to share the class’s work with the public through an exhibit at the New York Public Library (NYPL). The library’s rich collection of Slavic materials has been an inspiration for my work, as well as that of other scholars, and presenting a selection of this collection would draw attention to these holdings, which have been distributed among different divisions since the closure of the Slavic and Baltic Division in 2008.  

While working on the rich collection of Russian photography at the NYPL for another project, I had come across an album from Bessie Beatty, one of the Americans who wrote about the revolution in her book, The Red Heart of Russia, which the class could read and compare with the photographs in the album. From this beginning, an exhibit focusing on American perspectives on the Russian Revolution took shape, through which we would explore how Americans presented the March and November Revolutions to the world.  

Halfway through the class, a routine catalog search showed that the NYPL had the John Reed collection of posters and proclamations. Among them was the printed declaration from Lenin announcing the fall of the Provisional Government and the arrival of the new Bolshevik government.  Reed had described in Ten Days that Shook the World how he had tossed these proclamations out of a car the night of the November Revolution.  Now, here was a copy of this proclamation that he had saved himself. It was an easy choice for the exhibit.

The Russian Revolution: American Perspectives,” an exhibit at The New York Public Library, Nov. 8-19, 2017.

Creating the exhibit itself required a synthesis of researching the history and selecting the objects that could convey that history. The class, in addition to reading classic works of history including on the Russian Revolutions, also analyzed the Americans’ photograph albums about the Russian Revolution held at the NYPL, and collectively came up with a checklist of items to exhibit. One of my students found a poster representing the Bolshevik Revolution as a red wave sweeping away the clergy and bourgeoisie, and successfully argued that this Soviet poster should be the central visual piece of the exhibit. We met with members of the NYPL exhibitions team to discuss our vision for the exhibit, providing the students (and myself) with real-world experience in the process of curating an exhibit.

The show, titled “The Russian Revolution: American Perspectives,” was open November 8–19, 20171 during which time I gave tours for college students and found that there was a real interest in the topic. I also organized a one-day event at which I and other scholars of U.S.-Russia relations (including William Bensonhunt, David Fogelsong, Lyubov Ginzburg, and my MA student Peter Scasny) took part. It was well attended and the audience had many questions about Russian-American relations, both in 1917 and today. The semester after the class had ended, my colleague at the College of Staten Island, who was teaching many of my former students in his MA class, asked me, “What did you do to them?  All they want to talk about is the Russian Revolution.” It seemed a little bit of the festival of talk that marked the revolution itself had made its way across time and space.

This semester, as I taught HST 718, Public History, I began to think more about what this particular experience might have to offer the field as a whole. As it is presently practiced, public history is a field that trains professionals to present history to the public in museums, historical societies, parks and elsewhere. The professional body, the National Council on Public History, provides a framework of case studies and theoretical works on its website that helps to define it.2 One of the aims of public history is to provide communities with access to their own history by collecting and presenting it..

The 1917 exhibit on the other hand provides a framework by which to have a public history that brings in global as well as American stories.

Russian-American relations are not without consequence, both in the past and today and so it is important that it also be included in public history. This is an opportunity for Russianists and other Slavists to get involved in reaching the public. Public historians are committed to telling a diverse range of stories, but few of them have a background in the histories or languages of other countries.  Slavists could partner with public historians in institutions around the country to show that America has been engaging the world for a long time. Programs like the College of Staten Island’s Advanced Certificate on Public History can teach its students how to tell the many stories of America in the world and the world in America. In this way, we can get Americans talking about the world.

Susan Smith-Peter in front of the NYPL exhibit.

1 (Accessed May 25, 2018).

2 (Accessed May 25, 2018).

Susan Smith-Peter is associate professor of history at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York. She is the author of Imagining Russian Regions: Subnational Identity and Civil Society in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Leiden: Brill, 2018) and has published widely on regions and regionalism.

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!