Tuesday, April 27, 2010

St. Petersburg Seminar

Two Swans

From time to time I've touched upon the idea of teaching a course about the Russian Revolution and its legacy. I've been unsure about whether this course would delve deeply into the revolutionary tradition in nineteenth century Russia, or spend much time tracing the revolutionary aftershocks that continue to this day in Russia and its "near abroad." Probably, the Revolution proper deserves its own course.

Reading Volkov makes me dream of a topics course or upper division seminar on St. Petersburg. Following Volkov's text, and perhaps Bruce Lincoln's treatise on the same subject, I'd like to explore the history of Russian modernity as that history has been revealed in St. Petersburg. I taught a course called the British Novel at Arizona State (West) that explored modernity (British modernity anyhow) through an exploration of British literature. We read Defoe, Shelley, Dickens, Woolf, Burgess, and various post-colonial authors such as Jamaica Kincaid. We ended spectacularly with Bridgette Jones' Diary and an episode of Absolutely Fabulous.

This class was one of the favorite ones I've ever taught. Aside from appreciating the high percentage of literature majors in the class, I liked looking at history through the lens of history, free of the heavy emphasis on dates and indeed the general question of causation. This class didn't focus on when things happened, or who made them happen. It didn't even stress why they happened. Instead, it looked at what happened, which is a difficult enough question to answer without any other complicating factor. And by using great literature, we looked at each age's most articulate, intelligent, and subtle spokespeople. What a relief to be free of safe, monotonous, and committee-written textbooks!

It would nice to look at Russian history by relying on the writers and artists rather than the historians. Following Volkov, I'd use Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Blok, Bely, Bunin, Mayakovsky, Trotsky, Akhmatova, Lunchacharsky, and of course Stalin--the sinister aesthete, not the sinister politician.

The point about St. Petersburg is that its intelligentia and artistic community experienced and articulated the severe dichotomy of modernity more accutely than any other European city--the glittering hopes as well as the awful suffering. Once the capital of one of the most powerful autocracies in Europe, and the scene of the country's most advanced forms of industrialization, St. Petersburg enjoyed many of the rewards of imperial patronage, including a sophisticated culture of prose, poetry, art, music, and theatre. But in a very short timeframe by European standards, St. Petersburg's privileged position as vanguard of Russian history was overthrown.

Lenin and Stalin de-graded the capital, fearful of its relationship to the West. The Nazi dictatorship starved the re-named city for 900 days. Following that, Stalin attacked the city again, as he had done before the wary in response to the Kirov murder he apparently authored, sending many of its leading writers to death or exile.

Madame Chorand

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