Slavic 46: Twentieth-Century Russian Literature: Utopias and Dystopias of the Russian Revolution

TuTh 9:30-11, Dwinelle 182. 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 Soviet socialism’s embrace of technology and industrial civilization? 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 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 those works of 20th-century Russian literature that criticized 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 around 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: Alexander Blok, “The Twelve”; Futurist poetry and manifestos (Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchenykh); Evgeny Zamyatin, We; Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry; Mikhail Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog; Mikhail Zoshchenko, selected stories; Andrei Platonov, “The Homeland of Electricity”; Anna Akhmatova, Requiem; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Vendikt Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line; Viktor Pelevin, Omon Ra; and Liudmila Petrushevskaya, “The New Robinson Crusoes.”

Prerequisites: None. Course and readings are in English.