Fall 2008

Russian Literature at the Frontier: Encounters with Eurasia

Listed in: First Year Seminar, as FYSE-03


Dale E. Peterson (Section 01)


From medieval times to the present, Russians have defined themselves as positioned between Western and Eastern cultural traditions, claiming for themselves a unique role in an historic “clash of civilizations.” This course closely examines influential representations, in literature and film, of Russia’s encounter with the peoples on the southern and eastern borders of Imperial, Soviet, and contemporary Russia. Beginning with the depiction of pagan “others” in the ancient monastic chronicles and narrative poetry of early Russia’s Orthodox civilization, the course will focus on the secular literature of Imperial Russia, reading attentively the texts that shaped popular conceptions of the “natives” with whom Russians battled, traded, and incorporated into their own sense of a non-Western identity. We shall examine the long history of Russian “Orientalism” in poems, stories, and films that powerfully imposed or challenged racial stereotypes of the tribal peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia. And we shall follow the development in more recent times of the ideology of “Eurasianism,” which proclaims Russia to be the historic center of an emerging civilization that blends the races and cultures of East and West. Inevitably, the course will pause occasionally to consider comparisons and contrasts with the North American encounter with the indigenous peoples on its borders. Works to be studied include Russian literary classics by Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, and Tolstoy as well as more recent Soviet and post-Soviet depictions of Russia’s “inner Asia” in film and writing. All readings in translation with special assignments for any students who read Russian. Fall semester. Professor D. Peterson.