Slavic R5B, Section 2: Reading & Composition: Representing the Russian Peasant

MWF 12-1, 221 Wheeler. Instructor: Jenny Flaherty.

Units: 4

All Reading & Composition courses must be taken for a letter grade in order to fulfill this requirement for the Bachelor’s Degree. This course satisfies the second half or the “B” portion of the Reading and Composition requirement.

Until 1863 the American economy was based on a system of slavery. Russia also had a system of modified slavery known as serfdom; it was abolished in 1861. Before and after serfdom, the Russian peasant captured the imagination and articulated the anxieties of Russian writers. Famous Russian novelists such as Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky had something of an obsession with peasants. After 1850, most well-known Russian prose writers and many poets deal with the “peasant theme” in some way or another.

Why was this such an enduring theme for the great literati of the nineteenth century in Russia? In this class, we will consider how poor and oppressed people are represented in nineteenth century Russian literature. We will investigate the complex interaction between Russia’s educated elite and the peasant masses and explore notions of guilt, idealization, and exploitation. We will look for the impact of this key social interaction on literature.

The peasantry was conceived of as a homogenous mass defined by certain qualities: simplicity, closeness to nature, and an authentic “Russianness.” There are a lot of words we can use to talk about the Russian peasantry as the writers imagined it: the oppressed, the disenfranchised, noble savages, subalterns, the illiterate masses, the simple folk, the common man. “Otherness” is a category we will attempt to define.

We’ll learn to think about art not just as entertainment, but as something that challenges us to think about important issues that are relevant to our lives. This course engages contentious issues regarding inequality, oppression, racism, and the politics and ethics of representation. We will see that literature shows us ideas and ideologies which perhaps we didn’t even know we had. We will also see that literature has the power to incite political movements and make ethical demands on us.

Required Texts
These are available for purchase at the Student Bookstore on Bancroft Way.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Norton Critical Edition (2nd ed.) ISBN 978-0-393-93399-4
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor People, Translated by Hugh Aplin (Alma Books, 2013), ISBN-10: 1847493122
Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, Translated by Louise and Alymer Maude, (Harper Perennial, 2004), ISBN-10: 0060586974

Prerequisite: Successful completion of the “A” portion of the Reading & Composition requirement or its equivalent. Students may not enroll in nor attend R1B/R5B courses without completing this prerequisite.