Building Ukraine Alive – Suggestions for Hands-on Learning at the Undergraduate Level

Natalie Kononenko


When I first came to the University of Alberta, a local public school called me up and asked me to do a presentation about Ukrainian culture. I thought this was great. Having town/gown interaction encourages interest in higher education. Exposing young students to university faculty increases the chances that those young ones will go on to advanced study. For all of us who teach the various Slavic languages, literatures, and cultures, encouraging interest in Slavic studies is a distinct plus.

But as lovely as serving the educational needs of the public-school system may be, it can prove impossible. The first request was followed by others and I quickly realized that my physical presence at all schools that wanted a unit on Ukraine was out of the question.

Ukraine Alive is born!

I had worked extensively in digital technologies at the University of Virginia where I taught before I was recruited at the University of Alberta. I helped develop a number of education aids. I used digital processing to handle the massive amounts of data that folklore research tends to produce. I built sites for use in my University of Virginia classes. A site for elementary education was a natural evolution of my work.  I will not present a full history of our work here. Some of it has been published. See, for example: “Ukrainian Folklore Audio.” Oral Tradition 28.2 (2013): 243–252.

The first website I produced was Shkola Zhyva, a Ukrainian language resource for bilingual education. First I worked alone, then with a graduate student. Elementary school teachers who were teaching in all-English classrooms soon learned of our site and asked for an English language version. With federal grant support (SSHRC – Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada), this became Ukraine Alive and can be accessed at

The really innovative aspect of and the one that I would like to share with the AATSEEL community is the involvement of undergraduates in website building and presentation. Having undergrads working on an elementary school website has enormous rewards on all levels. The website, because it is built by persons closer in age and experience, resonates with the target users. It contains a wealth of fun and relatable pictures, video, and text. Google Analytics shows thousands of hits. As important is the effect that working on the site has on the undergraduate developers. This is not just a paper that earns them a grade and is then filed somewhere in the depths of one of the current online classroom management systems; this is something that stays and is regularly used. Undergraduate student pride in their work is a joy to see. Because one of the jobs of web building, as I run it, was having the students do a demo of part of the site in one of the local elementary schools, students get first-hand evidence of work being used. They can test what they and their classmates have produced and, if they come back and suggest modifications to the site according to the reactions that they saw, we make the appropriate changes. The sense of accomplishment that this work produces is most rewarding for all.

Let me give the logistics of running a course where undergrads help build websites:

  • Students do research. They go through the existing Ukraine alive website to see what might be lacking or that might be productively expanded or better presented in a different form. They can look at Ukrainian educational resources in any format and they can compare to websites for other languages and cultures.
  • Presentation and discussion. Students present their ideas to the entire class. Their ideas are debated and they then form groups that will work together to tackle the issues to which the class decides to give priority.
  • As the work on the generation of the unit proceeds, each group presents its progress to the class. The teacher presents background information. In the recent past, one of our issues has been gaming and the degree to which gaming can incentivize the learning of a culture the way that it is supposed to motivate STEM subject matter acquisition.
  • Students do presentations in the elementary school classroom. They go as a group and present a general introduction to the site, plus their own unit.
  • Presentation of results back in the university classroom. Students give a short formal talk about their presentation to the elementary school students and the unit that they had worked on, critiquing their own work. They critique both the unit that they built and their own presentation style.
  • Write-up – students produce a course paper. This is a report of work accomplished and an analysis of it. Reports that include theoretical discussion earn the highest grades.

This sort of web-building can be done for any Slavic and East European language. Cultural websites are even more widely accessible and fun to build. Examples might be foods of the Slavic world—or a particular part of it. Students could collect greetings from various Slavic and East European countries and post these. This works especially well if greeting gestures are added to words of greeting. While we do websites for elementary ed., this is not obligatory and work for middle and high school would, I am sure, be welcomed by both teachers and students.

To keep this blog post from getting overly long, I will bring up a few logistical issues that might help others. Bringing the website outside the university and presenting it to potential users can be hard to do. The biggest problem is overcoming public school teacher reluctance. We were lucky because we already had a relationship with teachers and because our university has a Community Service Learning program that sets up partnerships in the community.

My advice—check with your university to see if a community liaison program exists and take advantage of their services. If such a program does not exist, contact the local school board. Once the initial contact is made and once a successful demo is completed, our experience is that you will have more requests for demos than you can handle.

Less direct approaches include delivering a public lecture, preferably well-advertised and covered by the local media and news bulletins on the university website. Most universities are more than willing to advertise innovative programs, especially those that reach out to the community.

Natalie Kononenko is Professor & Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography at the University of Alberta.

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!

My Memories of Jurij Striedter

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

Andrew Wachtel

Jurij Striedter (1926–2016)

I suppose that Jurij Striedter began teaching at Harvard when I was a sophomore, in the fall of 1978. Rumors quickly spread that the new faculty member, who had come from the legendary Konstanz University in Germany was bringing a breath of fresh air to a Slavic Department that was sorely in need of it.  I was actually not a member of the Department. Having been told that I was a completely hopeless student of Russian who would never learn the language, I chose instead the History and Literature Program, but since Russian literature and history were part of my course, I decided, at the urging of friends who knew something about what was going on, to sign up for Professor Striedter’s course on the Soviet novel.

I was never a big fan of lecture courses and avoided them as much as I could, but the lectures that Jurij gave in a medium-sized auditorium in Boylston Hall (I think) were something completely different.  He would stand up in front with a sheaf of notes on small pieces of paper which he would toss to the floor as he finished a page. As he lectured, he would wander around occasionally tugging at the waistband of his pants, which were always threatening to fall down. As opposed to the elegant, perfectly prepared, languid and typically Harvard lectures of Donald Fanger, Jurij’s were much more free form and spontaneous. He exuded a breathless energy and an exceptional desire to communicate to his audience the essence of the works that he chose to discuss. Most important, while he was talking about books like Konstantine Fedin’s Cities and Years, Boris Pilnyak’s The Naked Year and Gorky’s Artamonov Business (or “Zee Artamonov Biziness,” as he pronounced it in his inimitable Russo-Germano-inflected English), he made it clear that at least for the 50 minutes he was lecturing, there was nothing in the world more important than that novel, its ideational aura, and its stylistic peculiarities. Amazingly enough, and I have never been able to figure out quite how he did it, he was particularly effective lecturing about novels that we were not actually reading (the Gorky in particular). He was so good, in fact, that when I actually read the novel some years later in graduate school, I was most disappointed. It turned out that Jurij’s reenactment of it was significantly better than the work itself.

In general, he had a rather odd idea of the concept of a syllabus and of what undergraduate students in the US should be doing. I recall him telling us, perhaps as part of this class or perhaps in some other context, that when he came to Harvard, he was amazed to be told by his colleagues that he had to prepare a syllabus for his students, with all the reading carefully laid out. As he put it, “zo I asked my colleagues, vill zey ectually read zee buks on ze seelabus?” “And zey said, ‘no, but zey veell feel geelti about eet.’” In any case, although I generally did not take notes in my Harvard classes, not only did I do so in that course, but I still have those notes to this day, and could probably teach my own course on the basis of them, though it would certainly lack Jurij’s charm, wit, and conviction.  As one result of that course, I went on to write my junior paper for the History and Literature major on The Naked Year, though I did not have the good fortune to do so under Jurij’s guidance.

In my junior year I took my last lecture course at Harvard, a survey of Russian drama, again from Jurij.  This course was particularly memorable because one of Jurij’s mentees at the time was Peter Sellars, who of course has gone on to have a major career as an opera director. At that time, however, Peter was the bad boy of Harvard theater, directing as many plays as he could, sometimes in some pretty strange settings, including a notorious performance of Antony and Cleopatra in the Adams House swimming pool. That year, and inspired probably by Jurij’s teaching, Peter staged a performance of The Death of Tarelkin in the elevators of one of the university libraries, which required the audience to follow the actors around, as well as a truly stunning production of The Three Sisters, which I think is the best version of a Chekhov play that I have ever seen.

In any case, as it was with the Soviet novel, Jurij’s lectures on drama were themselves spectacular performances.  As he spoke about Sumarokov, he actually made you want to go out and read one of the plays (later, as a graduate student, I was similarly inspired to do so by Simon Karlinsky and discovered that both Jurij and Simon’s lectures were a lot more interesting than the plays themselves). Later, when I had the opportunity to write on the ballet Petrushka and on Russian theater more generally, I realized that far from being entertainment (as we undergraduates saw them at the time), Jurij’s lectures were deep and extremely thought-provoking, opening up unexpected vistas for scholarly production. As I wrote in the acknowledgements section of my book Plays of Expectations, “My initial interest in the study of Russian theater and drama was sparked many years ago by a series of inspired lectures on this topic by Jurij Striedter. Jurij always said that he wanted to write a book with a title similar to the one I have chosen for this volume, so I would like to thank him both for starting me down this path and for helping to name it.” This recollection leads me to note how unfortunate it was that Jurij found writing extremely difficult and did not leave anything like the written legacy that his incredibly broad and fertile knowledge could and perhaps should have done (though undoubtedly the work he did write is of absolute top quality). Really, though, he was an oral performer first and foremost, and if you did not have the chance to hear him speak, you lost a great deal.

In my senior year at Harvard, Jurij invited me to take the Slavic graduate proseminar, a course which proved instrumental in leading me toward a career in Slavic. While Jurij’s undergraduate classes were remarkably easy (he didn’t expect the students to do all that much reading and he didn’t seem very interested in the grading process either, giving most everyone an A, I believe), the proseminar was another beast entirely.  The group was small, and included a number of extremely well-prepared students, including Claudine Frank (the daughter of my future Stanford colleague Joseph Frank), Maria Markoff-Belaeff, and Katya Everthav. From the first assignment, which involved a bibliographic treasure hunt through the bowels of Widener Library, through the final paper assignment, this class demanded our full attention and most of our time (which was a bit problematic given that I, at least, was simultaneously writing my senior thesis on a topic which had almost nothing to do with Russian literature).

Jurij’s seminar teaching was at least as inspiring as his lecturing, but it consisted primarily in setting the table and forcing the students to do almost all of the work (a great technique, especially if the students are good, and one that I have tried to emulate). Along the way, however, Jurij, in his completely unassuming and unpretentious way, managed both to inspire and terrify us. Perhaps my most vivid memory of this course relates to a unit he taught about the relation between meter and meaning in poetry.  In order to illustrate his contention that meter could indeed carry meaning, he told us the following story. When he was in his early teens, he and his parents moved from the USSR to Germany—as he put it, “When my father was told that we could leave Stalin’s Russia he said, ‘Nothing can be worse than this.’ But after we had lived in Hitler’s Germany for a while, he had to admit that he was wrong.” In any case, as Jurij recounted, he decided to translate the Russian skazka “Konek Gorbunok” (“The Little Humpbacked Horse”) for his new German friends. And so, he did, preserving the original meter and rhyme.  As if his linguistic and literary ability at the age of 14 or so was not scary enough to us fledgling Slavists, he continued. “But my friends did not like this work, and so I began to think about why this might be.” Now we were truly terrified. Not only had our professor begun to engage in literary translation as a teenager, he apparently was involved in literary analysis as well. “And,” he continued, “I figured out that the rhyme and meter of Ershov’s skazka was the same as the one that had been used in German poetry by a poet named Wilhelm Busch. And I realized that for my German new German friends, this meter and rhyme scheme carried a different meaning and could not be used to translate a skazka.” After this, we pretty much all gave up the idea of continuing in graduate studies.

Jurij told us other fascinating stories as well, explaining that he had decided to go into literary studies after starting in Philosophy but realizing that he did not want to study with Heidegger. He was also quite open about his terrifying time serving as a recruit in the German army towards the very end of the war. Particularly fascinating was his description of the efforts he made to ensure that he was able to surrender to the Americans and not the Soviets, deliberately marching West from Czechoslovakia in the recognition that if the Soviets captured him and realized that he had once been a Soviet citizen he would have had no chance at survival.

Still, even though Jurij could be intellectually terrifying and quite demanding, there was always a warmth and a lack of pretension (the latter being a quality generally absent among senior Harvard faculty) that always encouraged us. And at the end of the semester, when he and Emanuala invited us to their home in Newton for a final seminar dinner, I think that we all felt incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to learn from someone of his incredible stature.

After graduating from Harvard, I spent a year in Europe and then started a PhD program in Slavic at Berkeley.  But in my third year, the great Hugh McLean nominated me for a position in the Harvard Society of Fellows, and in the fall of 1984, I was invited to Harvard to interview for this position. The interview was an ordeal, conducted by the 10 senior fellows, the majority of whom were Nobel Prize winning scientists who seemed to believe that the Humanities was pretty trivial stuff. But fortunately for me, Jurij was also one of the senior fellows, and I have to assume that he managed to convince his colleagues that they should take a lone Slavist (out of the 8 fellows in my year there were 6 physicists and one biologist). And what a delight those three years were—the only requirement in the Society is to have dinner with the junior and senior fellows once a week.  At these dinners I had the chance to talk both professionally and personally with Jurij, and as I was finishing up my dissertation, he agreed to be an unofficial outside reader.  He generously invited me to participate in the PhD writing seminar he organized for his students, and again I was able to watch his incomparable ability to ask probing questions, while never tearing down his students.

Indeed, one of Jurij’s amazing abilities was to ask the first question after any talk, be it by a student or a visiting scholar. As we all, know, when you give a talk there is nothing more disheartening than getting to the Q & A and seeing that no one wants to ask anything. When Jurij was in the audience, that problem simply never came up. As soon as the moderator asked for a question, he would have a searching one at the ready, opening up the discussion and ensuring that the speaker felt that she had been heard and appreciated (although not always agreed with). I once asked Jurij how he managed to do this, and he admitted that he spent most of his time during the talk thinking about what he could ask that would simultaneously push the speaker further and allow her to open up. It really was typical of his generous spirit and he would do it regardless of whether the speaker was a neophyte or a full senior professor.

After his retirement from Harvard, I did not see Jurij very frequently, but we corresponded on a number of topics having to do with autobiography and memoir, which is something I had written about. I was thrilled when his own memoir came out (but also extremely frustrated because my German was in no way good enough to read it). As soon as the Russian edition came out, I read it and was thrilled to hear the clear and probing voice that I had known as a teacher and colleague, telling some stories that I had already heard and many that I hadn’t. If you have not read it, I really encourage you to do so, as it displays all of Jurij’s best qualities as well as telling an extraordinary story of a life lived and examined in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. It proves that no matter how difficult the circumstances one grows up in, a truly generous spirit and open mind will somehow find a way to flourish and to nourish future generations. Hopefully all of us who had the opportunity to work with him will do the same.

Andrew Wachtel is an American scholar, translator and educator. At present, serves as the President of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.

Remembering Horace Lunt

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

Lawrence Feinberg

Horace Lunt (1918–2010)

During my five years of graduate study (1962-1967) two individuals, Roman Jakobson and Horace G. Lunt, loomed especially large in the Harvard Slavic Department. The department then boasted a number of other eminent scholars: Wiktor Weintraub in Polish; Albert Bates Lord in South Slavic literatures; Kirill Taranovsky in Russian poetic studies; Vsevolod Setchkarev, Renato Poggioli (a joint appointment with Comparative Literature) and Donald Fanger in Russian literature. But at least from my own perspective, Jakobson and Lunt stood out from the rest. Lunt had been Jakobson’s PhD student at Columbia, and when Jakobson moved to Harvard in 1949 he brought Lunt with him as an assistant professor. By the time I came along Lunt was a full professor and department chairman, and he was the one who decided your fate if you chose to specialize in Slavic linguistics. Literature majors as well as linguists were required to take Lunt’s rigorous Old Church Slavonic course during their first year, and the impression he formed of you in that course could prove consequential over the long haul.

Lunt’s close association with Jakobson in the 1940s might lead one to suspect a degree of spiritual affinity; in fact, it would be hard to imagine two more different personalities. Jakobson was a larger-than-life figure. Even when on leave a continent away from Cambridge, as he was during my first two years, his aura was all-pervasive. Whether you were taking a class on the history or structure of Russian, or a seminar on Pushkin’s dramatic verse, his name was bound to come up, usually spoken with reverence. Where Jakobson was intense and inspirational, Lunt was cool and aloof. He was enthusiastic about his scholarly pursuits, but it was a contained passion; rabble-rousing wasn’t his style.  Jakobson could never be confined to any department (or university). While he lent Slavic Languages and Literature his aura, he remained a kind of numinous presence, in the department but not of it.  Lunt, by contrast, was the hands-on steward of the institution, which he oversaw as chairman from 1960 to 1974. Though he lacked Jakobson’s charisma, his learning, sagacity, and confident bearing (understated noblesse oblige), not to mention the power he wielded as chairman, gave him a mystique of his own.¹

Here some qualification is in order. Although Lunt was in most things the prime mover of the 1960s Slavic Department, nothing would have gotten done without the mediation of the able administrative assistants (then secretaries), Ann Chvany and her successor Gladys Hoffman. They were a crucial link between students and faculty. Their primary function, though, was to enable communication within the cenobitic community that was the Slavic half of Boylston’s fourth floor, conveying messages between “Mr. Lunt” and his colleagues ensconced in their separate cells.

The summer before moving to Cambridge I bought a used copy of Lunt’s Fundamentals of Russian, a book with a formidable reputation, which promised “to take the student over the direct but rocky road to Russian […] without sugared pills or fun and games.” I was looking for a rigorous review of Russian grammar before embarking on graduate work, and wasn’t disappointed. I also bought his Old Church Slavonic Grammar, which I looked into without understanding very much. Overall, the image I formed of Horace Lunt from my summer reading was of an erudite but dry curmudgeon. What a surprise, then, when I first met this youthful, genial, and not the least bit stuffy man in his Boylston Hall office. Then and in later meetings he had a way of putting you at ease, for he was seldom at a loss for words and enjoyed telling stories. It didn’t especially matter if you were shy, because you could trust him to do most of the talking.

But the impression I had formed of Lunt sight unseen turned out to be not entirely off the mark. The same man with the relaxed manner, easy wit, and amazing photographic memory for the names of his students would, if he met you outside the classroom or his office, acknowledge you with a grunt and distracted nod.  You tended to take this personally until you compared notes. Some with a closer connection to him have since written of his conflicted relation to his patrician family legacy.² He was emotionally suspended, as it were, between his native turf, the Rocky Mountain West, where he felt truly in his element, and the chill ancestral home where he had been sent to prep school and gone to college, and where now, for better or worse, he worked and lived. That personal history, which few of us knew at the time, puts those awkward encounters in a new light. At such moments it is as though the expansive Westerner contracted to his sere New England roots.

He could be offhandedly dismissive of other scholars’ work, and his published reviews sometimes seemed gratuitously nasty. One that left a particular impression was his skewering of a book by the Cornell linguist Charles Hockett in a review published some years earlier.³ “Hockett loves a gimmick” was his prelude to a take-down of Hockett’s American Descriptivist phonemics. (At the time Lunt’s own theoretical framework was Prague School structuralism). In concluding his review, Lunt wrote that the book’s “entertainment value” didn’t make up for its general awfulness. You had to wonder: if he could be this brutal with a respected scholar, what hope was there for us lesser lights? Well, maybe he might be more indulgent with those just starting out, but the evidence there wasn’t all that encouraging. When I consulted with him to get his approval for an MA thesis topic and his advice on bibliography, I also asked if I needed to hand in chapters individually, or if he would just as soon have it in one piece. He replied that handing in individual chapters made more sense: “What if it turns out to be terrible?” I later learned that he had sent others off on the same cheery note.

In my time at Harvard, the department had roughly 40 students at various stages of their graduate careers, about evenly divided between literature and linguistics. There were maybe two or three among the linguists whom Lunt treated almost as younger colleagues. While conscious of his own worth, he was also modest about the limits of his knowledge and always open to learning from others and being challenged intellectually. The downside to being in that select club, as we later learned, was that you might suddenly fall from grace.  There was something to be said, after all, for starting out, as most of us did, with minimal expectations on his part — showing you could at least “do the work,” as he liked to say—and trying to work your way up in his estimation.

One-upmanship was rife among us, but there was also much mutual support, particularly welcome at a time when faculty tended to keep their distance. The gulf that then existed between students and faculty may be hard to imagine from the perspective of today’s academic culture, where faculty are expected to act as nurturing role models for their students, who in turn regularly evaluate their professors. (It may be equally difficult to imagine a time when so much depended on one individual.) But this was a stern, male-dominated world, and strict hierarchy was the rule at Harvard and other elite institutions—somewhat less so elsewhere. Lunt’s remoteness wasn’t that exceptional for Harvard; it was the odd negative tropisms that really set him apart.

My department chairman in college had been on the overbearing side. While I might have welcomed a more engaged mentor in graduate school, it felt good for once to have a little breathing space. For his part, whatever else he thought of me, I suspect Lunt appreciated my willingness to work independently and not make too many demands on his time. I did a reading course with him in Macedonian, in which I received a grade of Satisfactory on the basis (if there was any) of nothing more than one very perfunctory meeting. My MA thesis was a fairly traditional (theory-free) study of participles and adjectives in modern Russian, a compact paper written entirely without supervision. A week or so after I turned it in, I was on my way to his Old Russian class when he stole up behind me on the path to Siever Hall:  “Well, I picked up most of your points.” So (gulp), did he want me to come in and discuss it with him? “Nope.” We walked the rest of the way in silence, but I was walking on air. I don’t remember feeling I’d been shortchanged.

Lunt was stinting with his praise, and seldom complimented (or for that matter criticized) people to their face; you had to rely on oblique signs to know if you were in or out of favor. It is hard to overstate how insecure most of us were. Each spring we awaited news whether our Harvard Graduate School or National Defense Fellowship support had been renewed for the coming year. With so many other pressing concerns, it was nice not to have to worry about tuition and basic living expenses. Just as important, though, was to know that we were still in Chairman Horace’s good graces or at least not beyond the pale. The great fear we all had was of failing to clear one of the major hurdles: the MA thesis (then a gateway to the doctoral program) and especially the PhD general examination. I had made it through the first checkpoint, which only momentarily allayed my anxiety, for I had now entered pre-doctoral limbo. News that yet another of our peers would have to retake the written or oral exam sent shudders through our ranks. Linguists were expected to cover an extensive reading list, which, as of the mid-60s, ran from Meillet’s Le slave commun to Morris Halle’s Sound Pattern of Russian. (The latter and Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures were, for the moment, the only representatives on the list of emergent Generative theory.) It was obviously impractical to try to read everything on the list end to end, but, apart from the grapevine, we had little concrete guidance on what to emphasize. If you approached Lunt, he was typically non-committal. But since he was the one solely, or primarily, responsible for making up and evaluating exams, I figured I could do worse than try to suss out the issues that were especially on his mind at the moment, paying close attention to his classroom presentations, with their many informative digressions and asides. Through some combination of good strategy and sheer luck, I made it through generals. Lunt even wrote a brief note of commendation on my exam book, which I never actually saw; Mrs. Chvany passed the compliment on to me. In those days just making it through writtens and orals on a first try was sufficiently ego-boosting, though the high didn’t last long.

In Lunt’s classes you admired the range and depth of his knowledge as well as his scrupulous attention to detail. His copious handouts summarized the essential facts and were helpful in studying for exams. But if you were looking for guidance on this or that thorny issue you were often disappointed. Posing questions came more naturally to him than handing down definitive judgments. Just when I thought I had a handle on, say, the Slavic neo-acute accent, he would pull out some detail from Slovene dialects and everything would revert to a muddle. (He himself could sometimes get lost in the welter of details.)

What made Lunt unique among Slavists of his generation — this has become clearer in hindsight — was that he was in nearly equal parts philologist, linguist and historian. Though a generation behind Jakobson, he was much more of a bridge between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Slavistics. His scholarship ranged over Slavic paleography; descriptions of OCS, Macedonian, Slovene and East Slavic; diachronic Slavic phonology; and explorations in Slavic cultural history and onomastics. In my time at Harvard he even ventured outside Slavic, working on a description of the West African language Gha, and he would later write on Guaraní, an Amerind language of Paraguay.  He was fascinated by American dialects and had made a thorough study of his own Midwestern speech. To illustrate a point in OCS phonology, he would sometimes go around the class, having us pronounce a word in our various regional accents (I was his New York informant).

Lunt prized order but respected complexity. He was always happy to hit on some principle that would encompass a mass of unruly data. Yet the historian in him wanted above all to discover the truth— the way things actually were— and he was impatient with any effort to shoehorn the facts into some preconceived scheme. If he could be merciless in his evaluations of others, he was equally unsparing of himself; hence the articles and monographs with their excursuses, appendices and voluminous footnotes (each statement elaborately hedged), which somehow concluded without ever reaching closure.

By the mid-60s the structuralism that Lunt had imbibed at Charles University in Prague, and later with Jakobson at Columbia, no longer satisfied him, and he was moving in the direction of MIT phonology, with its abstract underlying representations and ordered rules. By 1970 he had overcome all his initial doubts and was firmly in the Generative camp. (My PhD qualifying exams in 1965–66 may have been the last in Slavic philology.) This new theoretical orientation, in particular the influence of Halle and Theodore Lightner, would be reflected in the later editions of his OCS grammar and in much of his published research over the next 30-plus years.

In choosing a topic for my dissertation I briefly considered doing something with Czech, but in the end decided to work on Russian poetics with Jakobson (by then officially retired) and Taranovsky. This way I managed to complete the PhD in three years; the alternative path was uncertain at best.  But when it came time for me to defend, Lunt served as my fourth reader and also chaired my defense committee. While he confessed to having no interest in poetic language, he gave my work (an architectonic analysis of Boris Pasternak’s poem “Gamlet” which may have set a record for brevity) a thorough reading, asked some pertinent questions and offered sound practical advice. I was a little jet-lagged that day and not at the top of my form, so I was lucky the inveterate gadfly had relaxed his sting.

There were those who dismissed Lunt as a cold technician. Some years ago, while rooting around in Columbia’s Bakhmeteff Archive as part of my research into the history of American Slavistics, I came across an astonishing document. It was a 1954 letter from Poggioli, then chairman of Comp Lit, to his counterpart in Slavic, Michael Karpovich, urging (no, imploring) him not to grant Lunt promotion to associate professor with tenure. The gist of the letter was that Lunt was indifferent to literature unless it was in the form of an old manuscript. Fortunately, Karpovich seems to have been unmoved. It is true that, once he embraced linguistics as his calling, Lunt tended to keep imaginative literature at arm’s length. It came as a surprise to his students to learn that, as an undergraduate German major at Harvard, he had written his senior thesis on Hermann Hesse. Even so, his mature work was bracingly literate (he had particular scorn for bad writers), and there were glimmers of a humanistic sensibility even in his most austere scholarship. At the very least, he was a humanist by virtue of his Socratic bent and devotion to his scholarly vocation.

I didn’t see much of Lunt after I left Harvard, but I remember in particular two occasions  when he visited the provinces. The first was in 1969, when he stopped off in Boulder with his wife and two young daughters on route to their nearby summer retreat, a visit that happened to coincide with a reception for Slavic summer faculty at CU. The second was in 1983, when he came to Chapel Hill to confer with one of my colleagues on Balkan Slavic and several of us took him out to dinner.  By then he had noticeably mellowed. His pride in those he had helped shape professionally was muted but unmistakable. We all felt fortunate to have known and worked with him.

1. While Jakobson and Lunt respected each other, one heard there was also some tension between them. Among other sore points, Lunt apparently didn’t like Jakobson to serve on PhD committees because he could be too lenient with the examinee. It was the familiar story of the withholding father and indulgent grandparent.

2. See Jan L. Perkowski, “Horatius at the Bridge.” Studies in Honor of Horace G. Lunt on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. Pt. 1 (= Folia Slavica 2.1-3, 1978). Ed. Ernest A. Scatton et al. Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1978.  22-28 (see esp. pp. 26-27).  Michael S. Flier, Introduction to Philology Broad and Deep. In Memoriam Horace G. Lunt.  Ed. Michael S. Flier et al. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2014. 1-6 (see esp. p. 3).

3. Horace G. Lunt, review of Charles F. Hockett, A Manual of Phonology. Word 11 (1955): 618-21.

4. By the late 1960s, a time of widespread student unrest, the Slavic department’s grad students had begun demanding more guidance from the faculty. I had already left by this time and was teaching at the University of Colorado. There may or may not have been an actual sit-in in the main office, but I was reliably told that a delegation did visit Lunt, whose response was: “Nobody held me by the hand when I was in grad school.”

5. Since my colleague didn’t drive, I agreed to take Lunt to the airport to catch his early- morning flight back to Boston. By accident or design, I’d left my copy of the recently published Stankiewicz Festschrift in my car. He had scarcely strapped himself into the passenger seat when he was recalling what it was like to deal with “Ed.” Then, flipping through the volume, he took off after the contributors (“How does he know it happened that way?”). When we got to the airport he hightailed it into the terminal with a hastily muttered thank-you and goodbye. It felt reassuringly like old times.

Lawrence Feinberg is Emeritus Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Studying Russian and Russian Humor with Frank Miller

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

Emily Johnson

Frank Miller (1940–2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horace Lunt

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

Wayles Browne

Horace Lunt (1918–2010)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian and Food Studies

Angela Brintlinger


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

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

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

Yuri Leving’s summer pickles.

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

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

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

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

First edition of Russian Cuisine in Exile (1987).

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

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

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

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

Seasoned Socialism, published by Indiana University Press in 2019.

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

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

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

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

Barry Scherr

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Setchkarev (1914–1998)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Naomi Caffee and Colleen Lucey


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

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

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

Recipes for Success: Russian and Eurasian Foodways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moveable Feast: Foodways and Study Abroad

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

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

Na pososhok – Final Thoughts

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

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

References Cited and Consulted

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

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

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

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


Can You Be Nonbinary in Russian?

Cecil Leigh Wilson


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

Artwork by the group NEBO (Nebinarnye v obshchestve)

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

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

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

The Switcheroo

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

The Royal We

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

Get Creative

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

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

“Just” Pick One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Russian Studies in the Era of Trump

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

The Russianist’s Burden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Studies in the Era of Trump

A SEEB Series Organized by Ani Kokobobo


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

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