Major Program

The Amherst College Russian Department has a two-fold mission: to provide instruction in a foreign language at all levels, preparing students for informed study of the culture, and to offer literature and culture courses in translation as part of the broader liberal arts tradition. The study of Russian gives our students a comprehensive knowledge of the language which will allow them to develop competence in speaking, understanding, reading, writing, and cultural literacy, while at the same time it illustrates how language, society, and culture are inextricably linked.  The purpose of a Russian major is to furnish a nuanced appreciation of Russia's rich literary and cultural achievements as well as an understanding of Russia's historical significance on the world scene.  Through the study of at least three years of the Russian language, including a highly recommended (though not required) semester or summer-long stay in the country, as well as an opportunity to choose from among a wide variety of courses (some conducted in Russian) in literature, film, cultural studies, history, and politics, majors have the opportunity to explore multiple facets of the "Russian experience" under the guidance of scholars and teachers who are actively engaged in the profession.  The reliable presence of a historian increases the appeal and depth of the Russian major, adding a more global and historic aspect to the curriculum.

Acknowledging the diverse nature of, and various approaches to, the subject matter, faculty assist concentrators in putting together a series of courses which cohere to a well-defined whole, often interdisciplinary in nature.  A senior honors essay is optional, but each student, in a required comprehensive essay composed over the course of two semesters that is followed by an oral defense during the second semester of senior year, explains and defends the primary focus of his/her studies as a Russian major.  Earlier that year the major is also asked to demonstrate Russian language proficiency in a 90-minute translation exam which reflects the ability to comprehend the written language at a sophisticated level.  Our students are readily accepted into all semester programs in Russia, and when they return, the claim that they were as well -- or better -- prepared than most of their counterparts from comparable institutions.  An unsually high number of our majors have gone on to graduate study in the field of Russian and Slavic cultures, and to academic and other employment using their knowledge of Russian.

To achieve these stated goals, we require a level of competency, demonstrated by these abilities:

  • to write Russian clearly about a variety of non-technical topics with significant precision and detail and a fundamental grasp of the general rules of morphology and syntax;
  • to speak comprehensibly about a a variety of non-technical topics on everyday life and culture, making their ideas known through a mastery of basic vocabulary (about 3000) words) and intonation;
  • to comprehend ordinary, non-specialized conversation of a native speaker at a moderate or moderately rapid pace;
  • to read original Russian literacy and social science (though not technical) prose, with the occasional use of a dictionary;
  • to achieve competence through readings in English in the broad areas and periods of 19th and 20th century Russian literature and culture, with some knowledge of modern Russian history and/or politics.


Students majoring in Russian must formally define a concentration within the major no later than the pre-registration period in the spring of the junior year. By the end of the add/drop period in the fall of the senior year, they will provide a 4 or 5 page draft essay which describes the primary focus of their studies as a Russian major. Throughout this process of defining a topic of concentration, majors will have the help of their advisors. A final draft of the essay, due at the end of the add/drop period of second semester of the senior year will be evaluated by a committee of departmental readers in a conference with the students. This, in addition to a one-hour translation exam taken in the fall of the senior year, will satisfy the comprehensive examination in Russian. Click to see a sample concentration essay.

Departmental Honors Program

In addition to the above requirements for the major program, the Honors candidate will take Russian 498-499 during the senior year and prepare a thesis on a topic approved by the Department. Students who anticipate writing an Honors essay in Russian history or politics should request permission to work under the direction of Professor Sergey Glebov. All Honors candidates should insure that their College program provides a sufficiently strong background in their chosen discipline.


Students who have had previous instruction in or extensive exposure to Russian should contact the Chair of the Russian Department prior to the forthcoming semester to discuss their background in the language and to receive the Chair's suggestion as to which course they should take to begin their studies at Amherst College. The Chair will then direct the student to contact the instructor(s) of the possible course(s) and to visit their classes, after which it will be determined whether a placement exam will be necessary.

Study Abroad

Majors are strongly encouraged to spend a semester or summer studying in Russia.  Students potentially interested in study abroad should begin planning as early as possible in their Amherst career. They should consult members of the Department faculty and Janna Behrens, Director of International Experience, for information on approved programs and scholarship support. Other programs can be approved on a trial basis by petition to the Director of International Experience.  Study in Russia is most rewarding after students have completed the equivalent of four or five semesters of college-level Russian, but some programs will accept students with less.  One semester of study in Russia will ordinarily give Amherst College credit for four courses, two of which may be counted towards the major in Russian.

Summer language programs, internships, ecological and volunteer programs may be good alternatives for students whose other Amherst commitments make a semester away difficult or impossible.  (Please note that Amherst College does not give credit for summer programs.)  US-based summer intensive programs can be used to accelerate acquisition of the language, and some of these programs provide scholarship support. 

Consult the department bulletin board in Webster and the department website for information on a wide variety of programs.