Slavic 131: Literature, Art, and Society in 20th-Century Russia

TuTh 12:30-2, Dwinelle 259. Instructor: Harsha Ram.

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

Cross-listed with Comparative Literature 155.


The 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution seems an ideal moment to go back and examine the history and literature of revolutionary Russia. This was an era of violent upheaval, material destitution, and radical projections of social renewal and human transformation. We will be tracing the arc of the first revolutionary decade, from the revolutionary upsurge of 1917 and the Civil War of 1918-1921, which saw the ultimate consolidation of Soviet power, to the early and often contradictory formulations of Soviet culture arising over the course of the 1920s. Our course will focus primarily on the relationship between literature and revolution, a vital question given the importance paid to written culture by Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks alike. How did the writer bear witness to the first socialist revolution in history? Is revolution an event or a process, and how might it be narrated? Is literature a mirror of history or can it also serve actively to shape change? How did the principle literary genres — poetry, drama, the short story and the novel — serve the goal of imaging the revolution? How did political and literary theory animate the debates of the time? Was there room for satire and laughter in a socialist society? If the 20th century can be deemed the era of utopia and dystopia, what does Russian literature teach us about the hopes and failures of revolutionary transformation?

Writers and thinkers we will be reading include John Reed and Victor Serge, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov, Isaak Babel and Boris Pilnyak, Viktor Shklovsky and Leon Trotsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko and Yuri Olesha, Evgeny Zamyatin and Andrei Platonov. In addition to a course reader, you will be required to purchase the following books.

Marina Tsvetaeva, Earthly Signs. Moscow Diaries 1917-1922 (New York Review Books) 978-1-68137-162-7

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Selected Poems (Northwestern World Classics) 978-0-8101-2907-8

Mikhail Bulgakov, White Guard (Yale University Press) 9780300151459

Isaak Babel, Red Cavalry (Norton) 978-0-393-32423-5

Daniil Kharms, Incidences (Serpents Tail) 1-85242-306-4

Boris Pilnyak, The Naked Year (Overlook Press) 978-1-4683-0639-2

Evgeny Zamyatin, We (Penguin) 0-14-018585-2

Prerequisites: none