Environmental Humanities in the Slavic Field

The two syllabi offered here are from courses that I offered many times over my years teaching in Bates’ Russian and Environmental Studies programs.  “Nature in Russian Culture” (also called, at various times, “Moist Mother Earth meets Utopia’s Engineers” and “Nature in the Cultures of Russia”) began with a course called “The Countryside in Russian Literature” that I first offered in the 1990s.  It evolved over time for a whole host of reasons: my own interests and evolving understanding of the material; ongoing conversations with colleagues in ES; and the kinds of texts and films that became available in English (sometimes because I translated them).  “Catastrophes and Hope” was one of the first course I developed solely for the ES program, but it strongly reflects my grounding in Russian studies.  It emerged from the sense that there were Russian texts – and Ukrainian experiences – that students would benefit from grappling with during the crises of our current cultural/political moment.  I often used a text by Rebecca Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, about the ways in which utopian communities have been created through mutual aid in the wake of disasters.  It’s a fabulous, hopeful book; but she doesn’t take civil wars and their aftermath into account.  Pasternak’s devastating account of violence and civil war (like Candide several centuries earlier) played the role of important if sobering correctives.

The “Nature in Russian Culture” syllabus is from one of the course’s last iterations; it is just one snapshot of the ways I chose to organize the material and make it relevant and interesting to my students.  The syllabus for “Catastrophes and Hope” was what I offered in my final semester of teaching, which turned out to be the semester in which classes shifted abruptly to zoom as Covid arrived.  In fact, the class had just begun reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl when Bates went remote.  We spent the final class knowing that something momentous was about to happen; I asked them to do some free writing about how they might respond if an Alexievich-type writer asked them, ten years from now, “what was it like for you at the beginning of Covid”?  Even before Covid, though, that was a course in which we grappled with enormous, emotionally-laden issues.  As you read the syllabus you’ll note that I included at the very beginning Wislawa Szymborska’s wonderful poem, “Into the Ark,” a modern version of the Genesis account of the flood (it was published in The New Yorker in the wake of Super Storm Sandy).  Because it’s a list poem, it’s easily adaptable; in later versions of the course I would ask students at the end of the semester to submit two items – one material, one abstract – that they would include in “our” ark.  I assembled those and then read the poem aloud on the last day.  They were extraordinary moments of meaning-making, of asserting our own visions of hope in a world that always felt on the edge of catastrophe.

Both of these courses were closely linked to my own research; both attracted (and were in some instances required for) Environmental Studies majors, many of whom brought interesting perspectives, questions and knowledge about the geophysical environment and contemporary environmental crises – but had next to no knowledge of Russian/Soviet culture.  Several times I worked with ES science colleagues to organize shared events between my class and theirs. Students always found texts and films to love in both courses – and there was always vastly more material I wanted to include than could be accommodated.  I am more than happy to be in conversation with people with questions or who might be thinking of offering a version of either course. 

—Jane Costlow

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