Slavic R5B, Section 4: Behind the (Iron) Curtain: Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature

MWF 10-11, 283 Dwinelle. Instructor: Daniel Brooks.

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.

“Everyday life” is a nebulous concept, at once familiar yet difficult to define. Conceptually, it seems opposed to History with a capital H, that realm of extraordinary events and exceptional people. Indeed, everyday life is so unextraordinary that, at best, it passes by without our notice, or, at worst, becomes the object of disdain – the daily grind that that must be endured before “real life” can begin. However, such absolute distinctions did not obtain in the Soviet Union: the 1917 Revolution was believed to have reshaped the whole of Russian existence, and the modest sphere of everyday life became as vital a site of Marxist ideological intervention as economics or politics. Public and private space became one and the same: the communal apartment realized socialism in the home; humdrum routines were subjected to industrial efficiency standards; avant-garde artists took to remaking old objects – chairs, dresses, even pots and pans – for the New Soviet Man. Everyday life so transformed itself that History could ignore it no longer. But the utopian moment did not last.
In this course, we will peek behind the curtains behind the Iron Curtain and examine everyday life and domestic space in 20th-century Russian literature, art, film, and history. Our readings will illuminate various topics: how living space reflects the larger economic and political dynamics of various historical epochs (the experimental 1920s, the terrifying 1930s, the uncertain 1990s); how narrative fiction makes representations of boredom and routine provocative and interesting; how mundane physical locales (the bedroom, the communal bathroom, the queue) become highly symbolic Soviet microsocieties; how our course’s authors figured everyday behavior (working, eating, playing, procreating, and even defecating) as ideologically significant activity; and above all, how language of and about everyday life shapes human perception and consciousness in subtle, perhaps insidious ways.

Students in this R5B course will be expected to attend every class session and actively participate in class discussions. More specific assignments will include close readings of specific texts (2-3 pp.), a short paper (5-6 pp.), short research-based assignments (2-3 pp.) and one longer, research-based final assignment (10-12 pp.) with preparatory drafts. Every student will also be required to make one class presentation on a specific literary or historical topic; the instructor will provide useful secondary materials for each topic.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, “On Rubbish,” “After 1 AM,” other selected poems
Claude McKay, excerpts from A Long Way From Home and selected poems
Mikhail Zoshchenko, selected stories
Andrei Platonov, Happy Moscow
Lydia Chukovskaya, Sofia Petrovna
Yuri Trifonov, The House on the Embankment
Joseph Brodsky, “In a Room and a Half”
Sergei Dovlatov, selections from The Suitcase
Tatyana Tolstaya, selected stories
Liudmila Petrushevskaya, The Time: Night

Films: Bed and Sofa (1928)

Short secondary readings – to be assigned to individual students for presentation – will include scholarly approaches to representing and navigating everyday life (Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, etc.) and scholarly work on (post-)Soviet history and society (Svetlana Boym, Aleksei Yurchak, etc.).

Prerequisite: Successful completion of the “A” portion of the Reading and Composition requirement or its equivalent. Students may not enroll in or attend R1B/R5B courses without completing this prerequisite.