Slavic 46: 20th Century Russian Literature – Utopias and Dystopias of the Russian Revolution

MWF 10-11, 242 Dwinelle Hall. Instructor: Edward Tyerman.

Units: 4 Satisfies L&S Arts & Literature breadth requirement.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 inaugurated an unprecedented attempt to construct a new kind of society. It also occurred in a culture with a strong tradition of connecting literature to social change, where a vibrant artistic avant-garde advocated for the power of art to transform life. This course explores 20th-century Russian literature through the prism of utopia, understood as the ambition to create an ideal society. How did the drive to build a new, revolutionary society react to the legacies of the cultural past? How did utopian notions of perfecting society intersect with the Soviet embrace of technology and industrial civilization? What connections can be drawn between the atheistic vision of a perfect society on Earth and the eschatological traditions of Russian Orthodox Christianity? In answering these questions, we will read 20th-century Russian literature as a reflection of the utopian experiments of the Soviet period, but also as a potential participant in those experiments: literature called upon to play its role in the construction of the new human being.

At the same time, we will use the lens of “dystopia” to consider countervailing tendencies in 20th-century literature that critiqued the theoretical ideals and practical outcomes of the Soviet experiment. Ranging from science fiction and satire to the literature of the Soviet prison camp (Gulag), these works cast doubt on the perfectibility of human society and question the relationship between the ideals of the revolution and the reality of the society it created. At the end of the course, we will consider some texts written after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that look back at the utopian experiments of the 20th century.

Students will write two short papers (4-6pp) and take midterm and final examinations.

Texts will include: Blok, “The Twelve”; Futurist poetry and manifestos (Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh); Zamyatin, We; Babel, Red Cavalry; Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog; Zoshchenko, selected stories; Platonov, Foundation Pit; Akhmatova, Requiem; Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Shalamov, Kolyma Tales; Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line; Pelevin, Omon Ra; and Alexievich, Second-Hand Time.

Prerequisites: None. Course and readings are in English.