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 • January 2022 and Spring 2022


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.


January 2022

Nabokov's Art and Terror
RUSS-225 • Luke Parker

(Offered as RUSS 225 and ENGL 315) This course undertakes a sustained examination of the works of Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977). Drawing on the literary masterpieces of Nabokov’s Russian and English periods, we seek to gain a critical appreciation of his literary art and the cultural and aesthetic contexts from which they emerged. Throughout the course, we will consider his abiding themes such as the complex relationship between art and life, and between the poet, the state, and society; the narration of the experience of time; metafiction, its possibilities and constraints; bad art; the experience of exile; and the privileged position of art and aesthetics. The latter are variously inflected as refuge, asylum, or a space of revolt, as well as what enables the artist to counter, but also to inflict, cruelty. The course will also situate Nabokov’s work with the currents of literary modernism; to that end, readings are also drawn from such figures as Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf. Our access into these themes and the author’s narrative art will be through attentive reading, itself a preeminent theme of Nabokov’s work. No familiarity with Russian history or culture expected. All readings in English. 

This course will meet for three hours MWF as well as require asynchronous film screenings for at leat 2 hours per week. 

January term. Visiting Professor Parker.


Chekhov and His Theater
RUSS-229 • Catherine Ciepiela

Anton Chekhov’s reputation rests as much on his writing for the theater as on his fiction. His plays, whose staging by the Moscow Art Theater helped revolutionize Russian and world theater, endure in the modern repertoire. In this course, we will study his four major plays in their cultural and historical context, drawing on the biographical and critical literature on Chekhov, printed and visual materials concerning the late nineteenth-century European theater, and the writings of figures like Constantine Stanislavsky, who developed a new acting method in response to Chekhov’s art. We also will examine key moments in the production history of Chekhov’s plays in Russian, English, and American theater and film. No knowledge of Russian language or culture is assumed.

January term. Professor Ciepiela.


Spring 2022

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. 

Spring semester. Professor Ciepiela.


Love and Death: The Big Questions of Russian Literature

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.

Spring semester. Professor Wolfson. 


Russian Empire in Eurasia

RUSS-130 • Sergey Glebov

Offered as HIST 112 [AS/EUCP], ASLC 112, EUST 112 and RUSS 130) In the course of five hundred years, the Russian empire in Eurasia evolved as the largest territorial polity in the world. In this course, we will explore the medieval foundations of the imperial state and look at its predecessors and models (Kievan Rus’ and the empire of the Mongols), discuss ways in which cooperation and resistance shaped the imperial state and society, and study cultural and political entanglements among different ethnic, linguistic and confessional groups in Eurasia. Chronologically, we will cover the period from the tenth century to the crisis of the empire in the early twentieth century. Thematically, we will focus on structures of imperial state and society (the imperial house, peasantry, nobility, confessions, intelligentsia, revolutionary movement) and most important regions of the Russian Empire (Ukraine, the Caucasus, the Baltics, Siberia, Central Asia). Two class meetings per week.

Spring semester. Professor Glebov.


In/different Nature: Reading the Russian Environment

RUSS-274 • Daniel Brooks

Russia stretches from Europe to Asia, and its vast tundra, steppe, and forests have been conceptualized in many ways throughout history: as a rich paradise or an inhospitable hell; a meaningless, empty space or site of limitless potential and transformation; a foe to be conquered or a guarantor of freedom. Russia’s specific geographical circumstances and complex political and cultural legacies have produced a unique understanding of the natural world. This course will consider that understanding through a cross-disciplinary lens, exploring how changes in Russian culture, science, and the environment all influenced one another. We will encounter works of fiction, nonfiction, visual art, cinema, history, philosophy, and natural science—and, through Russians’ eyes, ponder what the future of our planet might look like.
 
Two 80-minute meetings a week. Spring semester. Five College Lecturer Daniel Brooks.

Strange Russian Writers: Gogol, Dostoevsky, Bulkakov, Nabokov, et al

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. Spring semester. Professor Emeritus Rabinowitz


RELATED COURSES

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.