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Fall 2014: Russian and Soviet History of the First Half of the 20th Century through Literature and Film (1900 – 1920)

Semester One – Fall 2014

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky, 1920

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky, 1920

The course will provide an understanding of Russian culture and history from 1900 – 1920 through the lens of Russian literature, film, and art. We will read stories by Maxim Gorky; John Reed’s “Ten Days That Shook the World;” Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel White Guard; and his novella “Fatal Eggs.” We will discuss the following films: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October: Ten Days That Shook the World; Dovzhenko’s Earth; Chapayev, directed by brothers Vasiliev; and Motyl’s The White Sun of the Desert. We will focus on close textual analysis of the literary works, and hold in-depth discussions about history, literature, art, and film, supplemented by biographical, historical, cultural, economic, and critical information related to the works and their creators. The class will consist of several parts: a lecture by the teacher; student presentations; and informal group discussion.

The Power of the bourgeoisie

The power of the bourgeoisie is the power of violence and death c. 1919

We will study Russian cinema and art alongside Russian literature and provide the cultural and historical context in which the works appeared. We will examine in detail:

  • What were the reasons for the Russian revolution?
  • Why did the revolution find such enormous support within the country?
  • How was it perceived in the West?
  • Would it have been possible to prevent it?
  • What went wrong after the revolution?
  • What were the Civil War and War Communism?
  • What was the role of propaganda during the Civil War?
  • How do artists respond to and shape historical events?
  • How did writers in the early 20th Russia transmute fear, violence, and chaos into art?
  • How do utopian ideas and dreams transform into reality?
Death to capital — or death under the heel of capital!" Victor Deni, 1919

Death to capital — or death under the heel of capital!” Victor Deni, 1919

Our main writer will be Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). Playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is now widely acknowledged as a giant of 20th century Russian literature, ranking with Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Brodsky. His story, though, is particularly unusual, for he was scarcely published at all in his own lifetime, either in Russia or in the West. His plays reached the stage in his home country only with great difficulty. We will start with White Guard, which describes the Civil War in Kiev. We will finish the course with his satirical science fiction novella “The Fatal Eggs.”

Maxim Gorky’s stories will help us analyze Russian life before the October Revolution and will demonstrate the necessity of change. The first great Russian writer to emerge from the ranks of the proletariat, Gorky experienced firsthand the suffering, injustice, and despair which permeate his tales.

The most famous first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution was written by John Reed, a radical American journalist reporting from Russia for the socialist paper “The Masses.” We will discuss whether “Ten Days That Shook the World” could be accepted as an unbiased account of the events.

Lenin on the parade in May 1919, Red Square, Moscow

Lenin on the parade in May 1919, Red Square, Moscow

Vladimir Lenin made a famous remark that “of all arts, for us cinema is the most important,” and movie attendance in the Soviet Union was until recently among the highest in the world. Cinema’s central position in Russian and Soviet cultural history and its unique combination of mass medium, art form, and entertainment industry have made it a continuing battlefield for conflicts of broad ideological and artistic significance. In this course, we will examine Russian and Soviet film in the context of historical events. We will see how it began as a fragile but effective tool to gain support among the overwhelmingly illiterate people during the Civil War that followed the October Revolution in 1917, developed into a mass weapon of propaganda, and then, through experimentation, further developed as a form of entertainment that shaped the public image of the Soviet Union.

I will use my Russian background to provide participants with a unique chance to appreciate some of the pleasures of the original Russian versions of the works that are inevitably lost in any translation. It is my goal to provide an atmosphere that encourages many questions and observations.

Registration: The final date for registration is August 1, 2014.

Level: College level

Class Time and Format: Classes for the fall/winter semester will begin in September 2014 and end in December 2014. The class will meet once a week for one and a half hours on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday from 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm CT. (Important: please use the space provided on the registration form to indicate your preference for the days.) Classes will consist of a 20 to 30 minute lecture, students’ presentations, and group discussion. The combination of lecture, presentations, and discussion is a format that should prepare teens for the college environment.

Age/Maturity Level: 13+ (mainly because of the content). We are going to read adult, college-level fiction. Some of the works we will read contain sexual themes and episodes of extreme violence. I feel strongly against having very young children present. I want the teens to feel that our discussions are a place where they can express the most difficult and controversial ideas openly. The course will include open conversations and visual material about the revolution, the Civil War, and the Stalin terror.

Course Requirements and Workload: The amount of reading will be considerable – up to 150 pages per week. Students are expected to read the assigned works and to watch the assigned films in advance of each session and be prepared to discuss what they have read. In addition, students will read supplemental texts from various fields (essays, criticism, history, poetry, and philosophy); write short assignments for each class; and make one or two presentations. One analytical paper (3 to 5 pages long in the MLA format) is expected. As the class is discussion-based, students are expected to take an active part in all discussions. The teacher will be available for individual consultations through e-mail and phone calls.

Prerequisites: Students are expected to have experience writing essays. While I will encourage students to develop their ideas and style, the course is not an intended to be an introduction to English composition.

Evaluations: Written evaluations will be provided via email for all writing assignments and presentations. I will be evaluating papers, participation, and presentations with in-depth comments. I plan on giving grades on the paper and an end-of-the-course grade.

Weekly Written Assignments: 25%
Paper: 30%
Class Discussion: 30%
Presentations: 15%

Cost: $289.00 per semester. There will be 15% discount for the siblings taking the class. Payment is due before the first session. Payment will be accepted through PayPal. Both credit card payments and cash transfers are accepted at It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to pay with a credit card via 90% of class fees are refundable if a student withdraws before the official start of the semester. 50% of class fees are refundable during the first two sessions of the semester. After the second session, no refunds are given for any reason. You may decide to buy the books we are going to read. Most of the books and films can be easily found in the public libraries or in used bookstores.

Number of Students: Minimum 7 students, maximum 16 students.

Technical requirements: All students must have a PC or Macintosh with internet access and a supported browser to participate in courses. High-speed internet is strongly recommended. A microphone and headset is required for live webinars. Headsets are strongly encouraged to reduce echo.

Syllabus Fall 2014: Russian and Soviet History of the First Half of the 20th Century through Literature and Film 1900 – 1920

Class 1: (Week of Sept 8) Russia under the old regime
Class 2: (Week of Sept 15) Maxim Gorky “Chelkash and Other Stories”
Class 3: (Week of Sept 22) Marxism in Russia and Russian Revolution of 1905
Class 4: (Week of Sept 29) Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin
Class 5: (Week of Oct 6) “Ten Days That Shook the World” (chapters 1-6) by John Reed
Class 6: (Week of Oct 13) “Ten Days That Shook the World” (chapters 7-12) by John Reed
Class 7: (Week of Oct 20) October: Ten Days that Shook the World by Alexandrov and Eisenstein
Class 8: (Week of Oct 27) The Civil War
Class 9: (Week of Nov 3) Chapayev and Earth
Class 10: (Week of Nov 10) White Guard (Part One and Two) by Mikhail Bulgakov
Class 11: (Week of Nov 17) White Guard (Part Three) by Mikhail Bulgakov
Class 12: (Week of Dec 1) War, Communism, and The White Sun of the Desert by Vladimir Motyl
Class 13: (Week of Dec 8) “The Fatal Eggs” by Mikhail Bulgakov; the first draft of the paper is due

Text List (Required):
The Russian Revolution by Sheila Fitzpatrick (3rd edition), Oxford University Press, 2008
Chelkash and Other Stories by Maxim Gorky, Dover Thrift Editions, 1991
“Ten Days That Shook the World” by John Reed, Penguin Classics, 2007
White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov translated by Marian Schwartz, Yale University Press, 2008
“The Fatal Eggs and Other Soviet Satire” by Mikhail Bulgakov translated by Mirra Ginsburg, Grove Press, 1996

Text List (Recommended):
A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891 – 1924 by Orlando Figes, Penguin Books, 1996
The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by S. A. Smith, Oxford University Press, 2002
Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, New York Review Books Classics, 2011

List of Feature Films:
Battleship Potemkin directed by Sergei Eisenstein, 1925
October: Ten Days that Shook the World directed by Grigory Alexandrov and Sergei Eisenstein, 1927
Earth directed by Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930
Chapayev directed by brothers Vasiliev, 1934
The White Sun of the Desert directed by Vladimir Motyl, 1969

Further recommendations can be found here.