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Russian Literature for Teens Fall 2016 through Spring 2017: War and Peace, Oblomov, and Crime and Punishment

Illustration to "Oblomov" Artist G. Mazurin

Illustration to Oblomov. Artist G. Mazurin

Illustration to "War and Peace." Artist Andrei Nikolaev, 1959

Illustration to War and Peace. Artist Andrei Nikolaev, 1959

Designed for teens who love literature and writing, this online course will introduce students to the amazing world of Russian fiction of the 19th century. We will read and discuss some of the most celebrated masterpieces by Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Goncharov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Our class will focus on close textual analysis of the material read at home, supplemented by biographical, historical, and critical information introduced at each session. I will draw upon my Russian background to provide the students with a unique opportunity to appreciate some of the pleasures of the original Russian versions that are inevitably lost in translation. We will look closely, for example, at the semantics of the Russian and English words for “war” and “peace” to discover that they may have different meanings and connotations. We will analyze the meaning of the Russian word “prestuplenie,” which is literally  “stepping over,” and means “crime.”

Class Format: The class will meet once a week for 12 weeks from 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm Central Time on Tuesdays. The first class is September 13. The last meeting will be December 6 (no class on November 22). Classes will consist of a 20 to 30 minute lecture by the teacher, 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: 15+. We are going to read adult, college-level fiction. Russian fiction may contain sexual themes and episodes of disturbing violence not appropriate for younger readers. I feel strongly against having very young children present and want the teens to feel that our discussions are a place where they can express the most difficult and controversial ideas openly.

Course Requirements/Amount of Outside Work: This is a college-level class, and as such it has a corresponding workload and expectations. The reading will be considerable – up to 150 pages per week. Students are expected to read the assigned selections in advance of each weekly session and be prepared to actively discuss what they have read. In addition, the workload will include weekly supplemental reading (essays, criticism, history, poetry, and philosophy); occasional films; weekly short written assignments; and one or two PowerPoint presentations on a relevant, individually researched topic. Students will also be expected to write and revise one analytical paper (4 to 7 pages long in the MLA format). The teacher will be available for individual consultations through e-mail and phone calls.

Prerequisites: Honors-level high school English classes or AP English Composition or Literature are prerequisites. Students are expected to have experience writing essays. While I will encourage students to develop their ideas and style and to improve their skills in writing about literature, the course is intended neither to be an introduction to English composition nor to literary analysis.  In the past, students with significant experience in analyzing literature and writing about it have been the most successful in these classes.

Evaluations and Transcripts: 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. At the end of each semester, students will receive grades on the final paper and an end-of-the-course grade. Detailed course descriptions and student evaluations will be sent to the students; these can also be sent to colleges/universities upon request. Although the class is not officially accredited, the grades and evaluations have been appreciated by colleges and universities and quite useful to former students in the college application process.

Grading for Each Semester
Final Paper 1: 30%
Reflection Paragraphs: 25%
Class Discussion: 30%
Presentations: 15%

Estimated Cost: $289 per semester. You can sign up to take both semesters or take either the fall or winter semester separately. 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 can be easily found in the public libraries or in used bookstores.

Number of Students: Minimum 8 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 or headset is required for live webinars. Headsets are strongly encouraged to reduce echo.

Fall 2016: Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Illustration to War and Peace. Artist Dmitry Shmarinov, 1953-1955

Illustration to War and Peace. Artist Dmitry Shmarinov, 1953-1955

Course Description

Students will learn about the Napoleonic wars of 1805 – 1813 and the historical situation in Europe and Russia of that period. We will explore Tolstoy’s view of history, and his conception of the role of “so-called great men in historical events” (Tolstoy, Leo “Some Words About War and Peace”). In our discussions we will focus on the way Tolstoy shows us the deep internal spiritual work in his main characters and discuss the genre of War and Peace. The discussions will also include a close look at the simplicity and lucidity of Tolstoy’s writing. One of the devices he uses is the repetition of details that characterize a particular person the best.

Tolstoy is a master of contrasts: we will compare not just particular War and Peace episodes, but the formal life in St. Petersburg and the relaxed lifestyle in Moscow; life in the cities vs. life in the country estates; and the use of Russian and French languages by the Russian nobility. At the final meeting, the teacher will help students analyze Tolstoy’s ideas of the duality of freedom and necessity as presented in the Second Epilogue and other theoretical chapters within War and Peace.

I would like students to mark the passages in the book that proved hard to understand, and I will reserve some time during each class to answer all the questions. I love questions and recognize that it is not the easiest book to conquer. It is uplifting, though, and I will do my best to help everyone understand Tolstoy’s style and ideas. The first reading assignment is probably the most difficult one, as many characters appear at once. (To my students: I promise that you will know who they are by the end of the first class. You may want to leave enough time to read this assignment without rushing through it, though.)

Required Texts:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and revised and edited by Amy Mandelker, Oxford University Press, 2010 ISBN 978-0-19-923276-5

Recommended Text:
Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin (We will read Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”)

Syllabus – Fall 2016
Class 1: September 13 War and Peace, Book One, Part One
Class 2: September 20 War and Peace, Book One, Part Two
Class 3: September 27 War and Peace, Book One, Part Three
Class 4: October 4 War and Peace, Book Two, Parts One and Two
Class 5: October 11 War and Peace, Book Two, Part Three
Class 6: October 18 War and Peace, Book Two, Parts Four and Five
Class 7: October 25 War and Peace, Book Three, Part One
Class 8: November 1 War and Peace, Book Three, Part Two
Class 9: November 8 War and Peace, Book Three, Part Three
Class 10: November 15 War and Peace, Book Four, Parts One and Two
No Class November 22 (Thanksgiving Break)
Class 11: November 29 War and Peace, Book Four, Parts Three and Four
Class 12: December 6 War and Peace, Epilogue – Parts One and Two and Appendix “Some Words about War and Peace
No Class December 13: First Draft of the Final Essay is due.

Winter/Spring 2017: Goncharov’s Oblomov and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Illustration to Oblomov. Artist L. Krasovsky

Illustration to Oblomov. Artist L. Krasovsky

Course Description

A distinguished member of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom once confessed that for a long time he could not remember whether Goncharov wrote Oblomov or Oblomov wrote Goncharov. The situation is quite different in Russia. Oblomov remains one of the most popular, winsome, and delightful novels ever published in Russia. It has become standard reading in Russian schools. If you mention it to a Russian, the response will likely include an “Oblomovism” (“oblomovshchina” in Russian), a term from the novel that entered the language to indicate sluggishness, apathy, and inertness. It has also become a catchword for the condition of the Russian gentry, Russian backwardness, and even the Russian soul. On the basis of this single novel, Ivan Goncharov might be Russia’s true national writer. The novel relates the story of a man who fundamentally never wants to get out of bed (he famously fails to leave his bed for the first 150 pages) and who remains throughout his life as guileless, simple, and kindly as a Russian version of Forrest Gump.

Illustration to "Crime and Punishment." Artist Ernst Neizvestny

Illustration to “Crime and Punishment.” Artist Ernst Neizvestny

Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky’s first great novel of his mature period. During our discussions, we will address important questions: What is the real motivation for Raskolnikov’s crime, the search for which provides greater suspense than a search for a criminal in a conventional murder mystery? Why is Raskolnikov not running away from the crime but moving towards it? How does Dostoevsky force the reader into empathy for a brutal and bloody murderer – for the first time in literature? Is the Epilogue necessary, although it is often disregarded by some critics? Why do Dostoevsky’s characters both attract and repel the reader?

We will examine the polyphonic quality of Dostoevsky’s art: the presence in his texts of persistent “other voices” generated by the narrator; frequent inner dialogue; a stream of literary quotations; and allusions. We will pay particular attention to the connection between Raskolnikov and the city. St. Petersburg seemed to Dostoevsky “the most intentional and abstract city.” We will read Crime and Punishment in an outstanding new translation by Oliver Ready. Ready’s translation is the closest to Dostoevsky’s style, bringing the vitality and humor of the original.

Required Texts:
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov translated by Stephen Pearl, Bunim & Bannigan Ltd, 2006 ISBN-13: 978-1933480091

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky translated by Oliver Ready, Penguin Classics, New York, 2015 ISBN: 978-0-14-310763-7

Syllabus – Winter/Spring 2016
Class 1: January 10 Oblomov Part 1 (Chapters 1-8)
Class 2: January 17 Oblomov Part 1 (Chapters 9-12)
Class 3: January 24 Oblomov Part 2
Class 4: January 31 Oblomov Part 3
Class 5: February 7 Oblomov Part 4
Class 6: February 14 Crime and Punishment Part 1
Class 7: February 21 Crime and Punishment Part 2
Class 8: February 28 Crime and Punishment Part 3
Class 9: March 7 Crime and Punishment Part 4
Class 10: March 14 Crime and Punishment Part 5
No Class March 21 – Spring Break
Class 11: March 28 Crime and Punishment Part 6
Class 12: April 4 Crime and Punishment Epilogue
Week of April 12 First Draft of the Final Essay is due

Recommended Films:
War and Peace directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. DVD (405 min) by Kultur DVD, 1968. It has English subtitles.
Oblomov directed by Nikita Mikhalkov; starring Oleg Tabakov and Elena Solovei. DVD (142 min) by Kino on Video, 1979.
Crime and Punishment directed by Dmitry Svetozarov. DVD (416 min) by Maramant, 2007.
Crime and Punishment directed by Kulidjanov; starring Georgy Taratorkin and Innokenty Smoktunovsky by Ruscico, 1969
Crimes and Misdemeanors directed by Woody Allen. (104 min), 1989.

Books on Russia, Its Culture, History, and Literature (not required):
Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov
The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture by James H. Billington, Vintage Books, 1970
Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes, Metropolitan Books, 2002
The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn by Solomon Volkov, Knopf, 2008
Land of the Firebird by Suzanne Massie, Heart Tree Press, 1980
Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time by Joseph Frank, Princeton University Press, 2010
The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia by John Channon and Rob Hudson, Viking, 1995
Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia by Ian Barnes, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015
The Cossacks: An Illustrated History by John Ure, The Overlook Press, 2002
Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace by Dominic Lieven, Viking Penguin, 2010
In the Service of the Tsar Against Napoleon: The Memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806-1814, Greenhill Books, 1999
The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars by Nadezhda Durova, Indiana University Press, 1988
Life on the Russian Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History by Priscilla Roosevelt, Yale University Press, 1995
A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginning to 1900 by D. S. Mirsky, Northwestern University Press, 1999
A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism by Andrzei Walicki, Stanford University Press, 1979
Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia by Svetlana Boym, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1994 (The book has good information on “poshlost”)