Russian Studies in the Era of Trump

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


The Russianist’s Burden

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Russian Studies in the Era of Trump

A SEEB Series Organized by Ani Kokobobo

 


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


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


 

Researching Russian Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump

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


Eliot Borenstein

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


 

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

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


 Thomas Jesús Garza

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


 

Teaching Chekhov in the Time of Trump

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


Anne Lounsbery

 

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


 

Redefining the Russian Civilization and Culture Survey for the Trump Era

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


Rachel Stauffer

 

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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