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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. 

Topics: 

SECTION A

Set Texts

Isaac Babel’, Konarmiia (1926)

Mikhail Bulgakov, Master i Margarita (various editions)

SECTION B

Topics 

Topic 1: Crises of Representation

Please note that prior to every supervision you will have a discussion with your supervisor in which particular sources are recommended/selected.

Recommended primary sources:

Anton Chekhov, Diadia Vania; Vishnevyi sad.

Selected poetry by Aleksandr Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandel'shtam (see below under ‘Preparatory Reading’)

Aleksandr Blok, Balagan (play); Vsevolod Meierkho’d, ‘O balagane’ (about the staging of that play)

Extracts from Blok, “Krushenie gumanizma”; “O naznachenii poeta”

Topic 2: Opportunities: Revolutions in Art and Society

Recommended primary sources:

Selected poetry by Velimir Khlebnikov (see below); Futurist manifestos: ‘Poshcheshchina obshchestvennomu vkusu’; ‘Slovo kak takovoe’. Optional: Vladimir Maiakovskii, ‘Vladimir Maiakovskii: Tragediia’

Sergei Eisenstein, Stachka (1924); Visual art by Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin.

Maiakovskii, Misteriia-Buf (1B read only prologue).

Evgenii Zamiatin, “O literature, revoliutsii i entropii’.

Topic 3: New Minds, New Bodies, New Lives.

Recommended primary sources:

Mikhail Zoshchenko, Rasskazy (short stories from the 1920s: see especially: Grimasа NEPa, Bania, Krizis, Aristokratka).

Boris Barnet (film), Dom na Trubnoi (1928)

Evgenii Zamiatin, My (1919)

Or: Iurii Olesha, Zavist' (1929)

Iurii Olesha, Strogii iunosha (film, 1936)

Vasilev Brothers, Chapaev (film, 1935)

Topic 4: Stalin’s Subjects

Gregory Aleksandrov, Svetlyi put’ (film, 1938)

Vasiliev Brothers, Chapaev (film, 1935)

Raizman, Letchiki (film, 1937)

Chiaureli, Padenie Berlina (film, 1949)

Kalatozov, Letiat zhuravli (film, 1957)

Shalamov, Kolymskie rasskazy (1954-)

Akhmatova, Severnye elegii (1940-1955)

Kharms, Sluchai (1939)

Preparatory reading: 

Students who are planning to take SL14 are advised to read the following texts in preparation for the Michaelmas Term:

  • Anton Chekhov, any (or all) of the four plays, especially Diadia Vania; Vishnevyi sad.
  • Poetry by Aleksandr Blok (including K Muze, ‘Kak tiazhelo khodit' sredi liude’, ‘Utikhaet svetlyi veter’, , ‘Dolor ante lucem’, ‘V restorane’); Anna Akhmatova (including ‘Vecherom’, ‘Mne ni k chemu odicheskie rati,’ ‘Szhala ri ruki pod temnoi vual'iu’); Mandel'shtam (‘Zvuk ostorozhnyi i glukhoi’, ‘Silentium’.) 
  • Isaak Babel’, Konarmiia
  • Also Blok's play 'Balagan'.

You could also watch:

  • films by Sergei Eisenstein (Stachka; Bronenosets Potemkin)
  • films by Abram Room (Tret’ia meshchanskaia; Strogii iunosha)
  • films by Boris Barnet (Dom na Trubnoi)

If you have time, you can also read ahead towards the Lent term:

  • (especially) Mikhail Bulgakov, Master i Margarita
  • Iurii Olesha, Zavist’
  • And/or Eugene Zamyatin, My
  • Danil Kharms,  Sluchai
  • Shalamov, Kolymskie rasskazy

FOR BACKGROUND, PLEASE LOOK AT

 Balina, Marina and Evgenii Dobrenko, eds..  Cambridge Companion to 20th- Century Russian Literature.  CUP, 2011.  This book contains many chapters that will be relevant to specific topics in this paper, and would be a useful text to refer to consistently throughout the year.  Available HERE from computers in the .cam.ac.uk domain

AND/OR Emerson, Caryl.  Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature.  Cambridge, 2008 [see especially Chapters 7-8].

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.

Assessment: 

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.

Sample examination paper

Students in Part IB may choose the long essay option in lieu of the written examination.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Emma Widdis