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SL14: Russian Culture from 1905 to the Death of Stalin

The Russian twentieth century was an age of transformations - of revolution, of the Soviet Union, and of its collapse. In cultural terms, it was extraordinarily rich and varied.

This paper covers the period from the first ‘revolution’ in 1905, through 1917, to the death of Stalin in 1953. It travels from the poetry, film and theatre of the ‘Silver Age’, through the revolutionary experiments of avant-garde writers and film-makers, to the feel-good ideological texts of Stalinist Socialist Realism. In the fraught political arena of Soviet Russia, literature and culture were formed in relation to state imperatives, which could be accepted or rejected, but which were difficult to ignore. The texts that we study in this paper provide a wide variety of responses to the particular contexts of early twentieth-century Russia, and reveal the remarkable creativity that flourished, perhaps paradoxically, in that world.

This paper offers the chance to tackle texts of different kinds (novels, poetry, drama, short stories), work with different media (written texts, film, visual and performing arts), and different modes of cultural enquiry (literary criticism and theory, intellectual and cultural history).

The paper is divided into two sections. Section A examines two set texts: Isaac Babel’s cycle of Civil War stories Konarmiia (1926) and Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master i Margarita (1928-1940).  Section B offers four thematic topics. Each of these topics will require you to think across disciplinary boundaries, to make connections among texts produced in a range of media, and to explore both verbal and visual modes of cultural expression. 



Set Texts

Mikhail Bulgakov, Master i Margarita (various editions)

Isaac Babel’, Konarmiia (1926)


Topics in Twentieth-Century Russian Culture

This list sets out the kinds of topics that will be taught in this paper, together with indicative titles of primary source material recommended for study on each topic.

1. Poetry and Visual Art: from Silver Age to Avant-garde

Selected works by: Aleksandr Blok, Osip Mandel’shtam Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Maiakovskii, Velimir Khlebnikov.

Paintings by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich.

2. Theatre and Cinema: Experiment and Innovation before 1930

Chekhov, Vishnevyi sad (1904) ; Evgenii Bauer, Posle smerti; Blok, Balaganchik (1908); Maiakovskii, Misteriia-buf (1921), Klop (1929); Sergei Eisenstein, Stachka (1924).

Essays by Vsevolod Meierkhold, including O TeatreBalagan

3. Revolution: Constructing New People

Mikhail Zoshchenko, Rasskazy (1920s); Andrei Platonov, Kotlovan (1929); Iurii Olesha, Zavist’ (1929); Andrei Platonov, Schastlivaia Moskva (unpublished until 1991); Vasiliev brothers, Chapaev (film, 1934); Abram Room, Iurii Olesha, Strogii iunosha (film, 1936)

4. Visualizing Stalin’s Russia: Reality and Fantasy

Dmitri Furmanov, Chapaev (1923); Grigorii Aleksandrov, Svetlyi put’ (film, 1939); Aleksandr Medvedkin, Novaia Moskva (1939); Friedrikh Ermler, Ona zashchishchaet rodinu (film, 1943); Mikhail Chaureli, Padenie Berlina (film, 1949).

Visual art (Pimenov, Deneika) and architecture. 

Preparatory reading: 

SL14 Course Handbook will be available soon. 

Teaching and learning: 

Teaching will consist of 16 lectures (8 in each of Michaelmas and Lent terms) and 4 2-hour seminars (in Easter Term). Students will have 10 supervisions. The lectures are designed to provide a general background for the course, and it is therefore intended that ALL lectures will be useful to all students.


In the examination, all Candidates must answer three questions. Section A of the examination will include either a commentary or an essay question for each set text. Candidates can write on ONE of the set texts, or may write a comparative essay treating both texts. Section B will consist of a number questions which relate to, but are not necessarily limited by, the frameworks of the topics taught in that academic year. There will be at least one question on the exam paper relating to each of the topics. Answers in Section B must be answered by reference to two or more texts by one or more authors. Students are free to draw on whatever appropriate material they have at your disposal in response to particular questions set— subject to the general principle, which appears as a rubric on the exam paper, that "candidates should not draw substantially on the same material more than once".

Candidates for Part IB may answer two questions from Section A and one from Section B (although they may choose to answer two questions from Section B if preferred). Candidates for Part II must answer one question from Section A and two from Section B. All Candidates must ensure that at least two of their answers on the paper as a whole refer to at least one literary text.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Emma Widdis

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