Redefining the Russian Civilization and Culture Survey for the Trump Era

  • Trump

This is part of a SEEB series entitled “Russian Studies in the Era of Trump” organized by Ani Kokobobo.

Rachel Stauffer

The last time I taught a Russian civilization and culture course was in Spring 2017, just after the 2016 election. All iterations of the course including this one consisted of content familiar to most of us who teach and study Russia. It was a largely Eurocentric approach to Russian literary and cultural history, with an emphasis on high culture and art, architecture and literature influenced by Christianity, and the daily life, art, and culture of the urban, elite centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. We began with the history of the early Eastern Slavs in Kiev in the ninth century and ended with Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog” in 1899. Students read Suzanne Massie’s Land of the Firebird and a large chunk of Zenkovsky’s Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, followed by short works by Lomonosov, Derzhavin, Karamzin, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, supplemented with readings on culture from a variety of other sources.1 Except Princess Olga, Elizabeth, and Catherine II, there were few women discussed in the course and little discussion of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class in Russia’s artistic, literary, and cultural history. In light of recent events, I have decided that I can no longer continue to teach this course without devoting more time to these topics.

I attended graduate school at the University of Virginia and lived in Charlottesville for over a decade. In August 2017, I was horrified as I watched local television coverage of the violence unfolding in downtown Charlottesville, just one mile from my old neighborhood. I am angry, outraged, and disgusted that the cruel rhetoric borne of white supremacy in my home state continues to be emboldened by the tribalism fostered by individuals and policies of the Trump administration, and the current leadership of the Republican party. There are entire communities in the US (particularly in the South, where I currently teach at two large, state, public universities), where Russia is seen as a white supremacist utopia. In the weeks since the Helsinki summit, factions among Trump supporters, particularly in the South, have increasingly become pro-Russia, thanking Russia for saving the country from Hillary Clinton, for example. At one of Trump’s recent campaign rallies, two older white male Trump supporters were photographed wearing t-shirts that read, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat”. The League of the South, a self-described neo-Confederate, white supremacist, white nationalist group in Alabama, recently launched a Russian-language section on its website (!) with the following justification:

We understand that the Russian people and Southerners are natural allies in blood, culture, and religion. As fellow Whites of northern European extraction, we come from the same general gene pool. As inheritors of the European cultural tradition, we share similar values, customs, and ways of life. And as Christians, we worship the same Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and our common faith binds us as brothers and sisters. (Source)

As an educator, a Southerner, and a Russia specialist, I am mystified by such perplexing misinterpretations. Let’s be clear: we will have failed as Russia specialists and educators if Russia is perceived as a white nationalist utopia among our fellow Americans. In fact, I am puzzled that the discourse has already veered so far off the rails. Amidst the profound cultural reckoning in the US,  perhaps a reconsideration of the canon that seeks to overcome such dangerous and disinformed perspectives is not merely necessary, but an urgent matter for our field. This summer I worked to find meaningful ways to present many parts of the accepted canon of Russian literature in a more inclusive and representative way. I hope my changes will serve, in particular, to dispel notions of Russia as a white supremacist utopia, should any students be attracted to my course specifically to explore that ideology.

Let me share with you some of the changes I made. First, in terms of outcomes and assessment, I am placing new emphasis on developing students’ information literacy skills and on challenging students to identify stereotypes and implicit bias through two projects. For information literacy, students will complete a project called “Real (Not Fake!) News About Russia” in which they determine how to identify reliable sources for news and journalism about Russia. The final product is an annotated bibliography of 40-50 news stories from trustworthy sources collected over the entire term. The news stories will also ideally reflect current reporting on Russian cultural issues that connect to course content. For developing students’ understanding about stereotypes and implicit bias, I will be asking students to regularly collect impressions and stereotypes about Russia and Russians from acquaintances, friends, family members, and social media communities. We will compile the data collaboratively, creating a database of stereotypes held by Westerners about Russia and Russian speakers. Students will create a final product of their choosing (i.e., infographic, presentation, brochure, a digital resource, a travel guide, etc.) designed to challenge erroneous stereotypes.

Not only does this exercise require students to engage with the course content in order to deepen their understanding of Russian culture, it also requires them to dialogue with people whose views, education level, and understanding of Russia will likely differ from their own. In honor of one of this summer’s buzz words, “civility”, which became the resounding mantra of the right after the White House Press Secretary was asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, this exercise seems like an important one. Students need to know a) how to engage constructively, without contempt with those who have different or erroneous views, but also, b) how to identify disinformation. Disinformation is increasingly widespread across the political spectrum, social media platforms, and mass media outlets in the US. Incorrect progressive memes and images like this billboard in Colorado, which adorned the “O” in GOP with a hammer and sickle, have casually been posted and passed around like wildfire. The billboard reflects profound misinterpretation of Soviet symbolism, and is a reflection of widespread ignorance about Russia in the United States.

In the course, I will also require attendance, participation, short writing assignments, presentations, quizzes, and tests, but these two projects will serve, I think, a very important function in mitigating our current disinformation crisis. Throughout the semester, students will be giving assigned presentations in pairs on more nuanced topics in Russian culture, from a contrastive treatment of Western Protestant and Roman Catholic rituals with those of Russian Orthodoxy, to an entire presentation on the non-ethnically Slavic and non-Orthodox autonomous regions currently within the Russian Federation. There are also presentations on climate and agriculture, traditional food, Ukraine, the history of the Crimean peninsula, and contemporary gastronomy, and numismatics, among others.

In terms of specific content, I made many changes that would take too long to relate here, but several additions are worth mentioning, particularly because I chose them as a means of dispelling the myth of Russia as a white supremacist, Christian utopia. For one, I’ll be starting the semester with folklore. There is nothing quite as disorienting to American students as the ancient East Slavs’ organization and reconciliation of the chaos of the natural world through spirits, the pre-Christian pagan pantheon, life-cycle and yearly-cycle rituals as reflected in folk byliny, and skazki. I pulled this content intentionally from one of my folklore courses in order to start the semester through a nod to our shared humanity, with the understanding that every human is at the mercy of the chaos of the natural world, and while our organization of this chaos may differ based on culture, our goals remain the same. It is only after this section that we will move into Kievan civilization, the Christianization of the Rus’, and the Mongol occupation.

I plan to spend more time on the influence of the Mongols on contemporary Russia, emphasizing their cultural and linguistic contributions, the genetic legacies of Chingiz Khan and Tamerlane that continue today, and the way that the late Tatar occupiers shaped some of contemporary Russia’s minority languages, ethnicities, and autonomous regions (i.e., Tatarstan, Bashkiria, Kalmykia, Chechnya, Dagestan, Crimea). I will spend less time on Peter I and Catherine II as enlightened Europeanizers and Westernizers, and focus more on their contributions to secularism, intellectualism, territorial expansion, modernization, and social and class divisions in the Russian Empire. Using the reigns of these two monarchs as a springboard, I will also be integrating historical and artistic content about Ukraine, Central Asia, and the Caucasus both for comparison, but also in order to reflect on Russia’s role as colonial power.

The nineteenth century is where I have made the most changes to course content. Of course, Pushkin must be included as Russia’s national poet, but the focus will fall much more on his African heritage, which I explore through the introduction in Catharine Nepomnyashchy’s volume, Under the Sky of my Africa and an essay on Pushkin by W.E.B. Du Bois (I owe Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz at Howard University my gratitude for bringing this text to my attention). After Pushkin, I plan to circle back to folklore with Gogol and read at least one of the Dikan’ka tales rather than solely relying on Petersburg Tales. Because the universities in which I teach have courses on nineteenth-century literature, I plan to focus  instead on Alexander II’s Great Reforms, specifically the emancipation of the serfs, and how serfdom compared to American slavery, and how the emancipation itself further entrenched the peasant class into poverty, which precipitated the worker uprising and Russia’s tumultuous 20th century.

For this first time ever in this course, I will devote several weeks to the 20th century. I want students to leave the course knowing four major things about it: a) the economic, industrial, and social causes and consequences of the 1917 Revolution, b) the crimes, cruelty, and global influence of Stalinism that persist today in places like North Korea, c) the Russian perception of the Great Patriotic War as it stands in stark contrast to what most Americans believe about World War II, including the massive numbers of Jews and Ukrainians who were systemically allowed to perish (Vasily Grossman’s “The Old Teacher” is a particularly good story for this message in this context), and d) the fall of the Soviet Union, and how America’s role, namely the failure of the US to assist in the economic and political reforms that post-Soviet nations so needed during this time, have resulted in the contemporary fallout we see in our present.

Another departure from previous iterations of this course is that the final weeks will focus on contemporary Russian literature and cinema. In this section I will be circling back to folk traditions in contemporary context with the movies Gor’ko! (2013) and Disney’s The Last Warrior (2017). We’ll also discuss current demographic trends including data on racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual minorities. Using a chapter from Valerie Sperling’s Sex, Politics, and Putin, we will address the complex intersections of machismo, nationalism, and Orthodoxy, which will provide an opportunity to discuss feminism, Pussy Riot’s activism and the group’s subsequent persecution, most recently witnessed during the World Cup. A film, like Dmitrii D’iachenko’s comedy, What Men Talk About (2010), can provide an interesting point of contrast in these discussions. I plan to incorporate at least one film by Zvyagintsev, perhaps Elena as a representation of the questionable ways one woman must covertly sustain her luxurious life in post-Soviet Russia, or the obvious, more political choice, Leviathan.

The exercise of reconsidering my Russian civilization and culture course has led me to think deeply about American misconceptions regarding contemporary Russia. I hope that the ways in which I am revising the course can help to bridge the gaps, but this course, like many others, remains a work in progress.

1 Van der Oye’s Russian Orientalism, Lincoln’s Between Heaven and Hell, Martin’s Medieval Russia: 980-1584, Kivelson and Neuberger’s Picturing Russia, Ryan’s Bathhouse at Midnight, and Ivanits’ Russian Folk Belief, to name a few.

Discovering Russia is a series of sixteen volumes (in Russian). Each volume showcases the architecture of one of Russia’s regions with photographs and commentaries by Dr. Brumfield. Here is a similar series of related books on the Vologda region by Dr. Brumfield. For a compelling read about traveling and photographing the Russian north, Architecture at the End of the Earth (Duke UP, 2015) is also a wonderful choice.

Rachel Stauffer is an Adjunct at Virginia Tech University and James Madison University

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