Welcome to the Russian Department

The St. Petersburg river at night

For many Amherst students, the first encounter with Russian culture takes place in a course taught in English with all readings in translation and no previous knowledge of the Russian language or history expected.

The Russian department offers a variety of these courses. From first-year seminars and surveys of major eras in cultural history to courses that focus on specific authors (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov) or larger problems, such as revolutionary thought and aesthetics; film and media; theater and performance; private experience and cultural institutions; contemporary geopolitics; and various contested relationships between self and society: class; gender; race, etc. Some of the students who take these courses become Russian majors. Others simply take them to enrich their liberal-arts experience and explore an interest in the culture that has been singularly influential in shaping the modern world: its politics, its imagination, its anxieties, and its aspirations. 

Courses for Non-Majors • Spring 2024

Interested in taking a liberal studies course in the humanities that looks beyond literature originally created in English? Ready to expand your horizons? Considering dipping your toe in the study of Russian literature and culture?

How about any one of these courses in culture and literature — appropriate for students at any point in their academic career and offered in English, with no expectation of previous acquaintance with Russian history or Russian language!  

Strange and wonderful books, images, films and sounds await.

Spring 2024

Understanding Russia

RUSS-111 • Catherine Ciepiela

This introduction to Russian culture and history examines Russia’s vast and varied contributions to world culture, from literature and the arts to intellectual and political history. Setting aside cultural commonplaces about Russia—from borscht to nesting dolls and vodka—and various clichés of Russia as some enigmatic, reason-defying civilization, this course considers Russia’s ongoing development as it responds to the world and fashions its own forms of art, culture, and thought. The course will survey Russian culture and history from the early eighteenth century to the present, a broad span of time in which we see periods of upheaval and change to which its writers, artists, and intellectuals gave artistic and intellectual expression. We will be guided throughout the course by such questions as: How has Russia imagined its place in the world and in world culture? How has it responded to developments from abroad in fashioning its own culture? What is distinctive about Russia’s literary, visual, and
performing styles? What can Russian cultural history tell us about the ways people experience, negotiate, and navigate multiple identities in a single polity stretching from Germany to Alaska? About class and gender politics? This course will draw upon the rich holdings of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture and the Mead Art Museum, which, together, form a premier teaching and research collection of Russia’s culture history in the West. Each module of the course will, for example, focus upon an archival, verbal, or visual artifact held in these collections, using it as a springboard to consider broader themes of Russian culture and history.

Love and Death

RUSS-122 • Boris Wolfson

Who is to blame? What is to be done? How can we love, and how should we die? In an age when such larger-than-life questions animated urgent debates about self and society, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov and other writers whose famous shorter works we’ll read in this course reinvented the idea of literature itself. Political terrorism and non-violent resistance, women’s rights and imperial expansion, quests for social justice and personal happiness: as nineteenth-century Russian authors explored the cultural anxieties provoked by these challenges of modernity, their ambition was not to mirror experience but to transform it by interpreting its deepest secrets. This is an introduction to the daring, contradictory visions of life and art that forever changed how we do things with words. No familiarity with Russian history or culture expected. All readings in English.

Russian and Soviet Film

RUSS-241 • Michael Kunichika

(Offered as RUSS 241 and FAMS 341) Lenin proclaimed, famously, that cinema was “the most important art of all” for the new Soviet republic.  This course explores the dramatic rise of Russian film to state-sanctioned prominence and the complex role it came to play in modern Russia’s cultural history.  We examine the radical experiments of visionary filmmakers who invented the language of film art (Bauer, Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Vertov, Dovzhenko); the self-conscious masterpieces of auteurs who probed the limits of that language (Tarkovsky, Paradzhanov, Sokurov); and the surprising ways in which films ostensibly designed to enact cultural and social myths of power, history, and national identity in the end reshaped their makers, their audiences, and the myths themselves

Identity and Ideology

RUSS-245 • Luke Parker

(Offered as RUSS 245, EUST 245 and FAMS 245). Are our screens really windows through which we glimpse other worlds? Or just mirrors reflecting our own preconceptions? Are they doors through which we enter new experiences? Or cheap frames for prepackaged content? The power of visual media to emancipate its users – or trap them – was first recognized in the cinema, from the earliest silents to the flourishing of classical sound film. Film has always been the great art of exile, produced by immigrants and cosmopolitans facilitating the circulation of images, identities and ideologies. Yet it was also the battleground of competing visions of modernity, from Hollywood’s exported Americanism to Soviet political and artistic utopias, to Nazi promises of national renewal. In this course we focus on the interactions between Soviet, German, and American cinemas in the first half of the twentieth century as a way of understanding visual media’s power to shape identity and circulate ideology. We will look not only at questions of propaganda and censorship, but also at mediation, circulation, and exchange, as well as the crucial skills of (self-)translation and adaptation. Key figures include Grigory Alexandrov, Boris Barnet, Bertolt Brecht, Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich, Sergei Eisenstein, Greta Garbo, Piel Jutzi, Lev Kuleshov, Fedor Otsep, G.W. Pabst, Anna Sten, and Josef von Sternberg. No previous background or language knowledge required – all films with English subtitles.

Strange Russian Writers

RUSS-317 • Stanley Rabinowitz

A course that examines the stories and novels of rebels, deviants, dissidents, loners, and losers in some of the weirdest fictions in Russian literature. The writers, most of whom imagine themselves to be every bit as bizarre as their heroes, include from the nineteenth century: Gogol (“Viy,” “Diary of a Madman,” “Ivan Shponka and His Aunt,” “The Nose,” “The Overcoat”); Dostoevsky (“The Double,” “A Gentle Creature,” “Bobok,” “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”); Tolstoy (“The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Father Sergius”), and from the twentieth century: Olesha (Envy); Platonov (The Foundation Pit); Kharms’ (Stories); Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita); Nabokov (The Eye, Despair); Erofeev (Moscow Circles); Pelevin (“The Yellow Arrow”). Our goal will be less to construct a canon of strangeness than to consider closely how estranged women, men, animals, and objects become the center of narrative attention and, in doing so, reflect the writer Tatyana Tolstaya’s claim that “Russia is broader and more diverse, stranger and more contradictory than any idea of it. It resists all theories about what makes it tick, confounds all the paths to its possible transformation.” All readings in English translation. Not open to first-year students. Limited to 15 students.

Culture of Monuments

RUSS-321 • Michael Kunichika

(Offered as RUSS 321, ARHA 321 and ARCH 320) Taking case studies from Russian, Soviet, and Post-Soviet history, this course examines monuments and memorials in literature, cinema and the arts. Focusing on specific episodes and case studies, we will consider the form and cultural politics of monuments and memorials, and especially how these objects become arenas in which conceptions of art, history, and politics are contested. We will be interested as much in monuments that were built as those that were destroyed—or dismembered, defaced, dismantled, or relocated—and those that were envisioned but never realized. Case studies will include monuments to Peter the Great, the Soviet avant-garde’s attack on traditional monuments, the monumental assemblage of the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris 1937 Universal Exposition, to Leninopad (the demolishing of monuments to Lenin in Ukraine). We will also consider how these case studies may help us to better understand the dynamics at play in debates around monuments from other periods and cultures—as well as the creative responses that artists have imagined as they grappled with the question of what to do with monuments. No knowledge of the history and culture of Russia and the Soviet Union is required.

Collapse or revolution

RUSS-328 • Sergey Glebov

(Offered as HIST 428 [AS/EU/US/TE/TR/TR] EUST 428 and RUSS 328.) Following Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, putting an end to the Communist experiment in Eurasia and to the Cold War. This momentous and defining event was the outcome of different historical processes, the fall of the Communist Party rule, the collapse of the command economy, and the disintegration of the Soviet multiethnic state under the pressures of nationalism. In this research seminar, students will explore social, political, and cultural forces that shaped the end of the Soviet Union and study the impact of the Soviet collapse on the post-Soviet developments. Using a range of primary and secondary sources, students will develop and execute independent research projects focusing on the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the legacies of this historical moment in Eurasia and the world. Student research will result in a 25 page research paper. One meeting per week. Limited to 18 students.

Terrorism and revolution 

POSC-301 • Visiting Assistant Professor Pleshakov

Russia was among the first nations in the world to face political terrorism when in the 1870s the leftist People's Will group launched the hunt for Tsar Alexander II. The terrorist trend continued into the twentieth century; in 1918, the Socialist Revolutionary Party attempted to assassinate Lenin. Eradicated by Stalin, terrorism resurfaced in the 1990s, when Russia found itself under attack by Chechen separatists. Legitimacy of political terrorism as the last refuge of the oppressed has been actively debated in Russia for more than a century, and the fact that terrorist groups in question ranged from proto-Marxists to the pseudo-Islamic has made Russian discourse on terrorism uncommonly rich. We will be using a variety of primary sources, such as terrorists’ manifestos and memoirs, as well as conceptual critiques of terror, starting with Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons. First, we will wrestle with the definition of “terrorism” as opposed to “terror.” Second, we will explore the place of terrorism in a revolutionary movement and war. Third, we will look at the counter-terrorism measures applied by the Russian government in the past and now. A case study of terrorism in Russia will hopefully help us to answer a number of questions that are highly relevant today. Limited to 20 students.

Requisite: At least one POSC course (200 level or above)

Major Explorations: Russian

Whether your passion is literature, politics, history, film, we offer courses on all of these subjects in English, so they are accessible to all comers, as well as a full Russian language curriculum. We have a remarkable resource called the Amherst Center for Russian Culture.