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The Russian Revolution (1900 – 1940) through Literature and Film (Fall 2018-Spring 2019)

Two Semester Course – Fall 2018 (1900-1920) and Winter/Spring 2019 (1920-1940)

The Master and Margarita – Illustration by Elena Martyniuk

Course Summary: The course will provide an understanding of Russian culture and history of the first half of the 20th century through the lens of Russian literature, Russian film (including documentaries), and art. The class will include presentations by the teacher, student presentations, and group discussion. We will focus on close textual analysis of literature, films, and history over a period of 27 synchronous sessions and weekly online discussions, supplemented by biographical, historical, cultural, and critical information related to the Russian revolution and introduced by the teacher and students at each meeting. The class will consist of several parts: a lecture by the teacher, student presentations, and informal group discussion. The combination of the lecture, presentations, and discussion is the format that should prepare teens for the college environment.


Alexander Dovzhenko’s “Earth” (1930)

History: The aim of the course is to understand and to analyze the history of Russia and the Soviet Union between 1900 and 1940 by reading, watching, and discussing major works of Russian literature and film. Russian cinema and art will be studied alongside its literature to provide cultural and historical context in which the works appeared. The following topics in history will be examined 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 New Economic Policy? What was life like in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s? What was the Stalin terror and why did it happen? What is Russia’s totalitarian heritage? What went well in the country? How do artists respond to and shape historical events? How did writers, film-makers, and artists transmute fear, violence, and chaos into art? How do utopian ideas and dreams transform into reality?

Literature: In this class we will read Mikhail Bulgakov’s novellas “The Fatal Eggs” and “Heart of a Dog,” as well as his novel The Master and Margarita. We will also read stories by Maxim Gorky and Isaac Babel, Zamyatin’s We, Yuri Olesha’s Envy, and John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World.

Our primary writer will be Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). Playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is now widely acknowledged as a giant of 20th century Russian literature. His story, though, is particularly unusual for he was scarcely published at all in his own lifetime, either in Russia or in the West, and his plays reached the stage only with great difficulty. In order to follow Bulgakov’s evolution as a writer, we will begin with two of his novellas from the 1920s, “The Fatal Eggs” and “Heart of a Dog.” Both of them are hilarious and brilliantly inventive, and at the same time serve as biting political allegories. We will explore their ferocious satire, which is as timely as when they were first written. Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, was written in the 1930s in complete secrecy. Finally published in 1967, it took the Russian public by storm and has since become a world-wide bestseller. The novel is an extraordinary blend of comic satire, set in the Moscow of the 1930s, with a profound and intense retelling of the encounter between Christ and Pontius Pilate. The puzzling plot includes an elegant Devil who is working for the forces of good; a love story; and an account of the artistic integrity of its writer-hero, the Master. I will introduce the students to some of Bulgakov’s letters and diaries to provide context for his literary career, which occurred during one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history.

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. Isaac Babel was the first Soviet writer who became world-famous and achieved a wide-ranging reputation as a grand master of the short story. His most famous work, the collection of short stories Red Cavalry, shows the Russo-Polish War of 1920 through the eyes of a Russian Jewish intellectual working as war correspondent with the Red Cossack Cavalry, as Babel himself did. Odessa Stories are united by the protagonists, the narrator, and of course the setting – Odessa – the southern commercial port on the Black Sea and the most cosmopolitan city in the Russian empire. The stories present a larger than life, subtly humorous, fable-like picture of the city’s Jewish underworld. 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. Zamyatin’s We is the first modernist novel in Russia, which could be published in the Soviet Union only in 1988 for the first time. It is set in a future society run on mathematical principles where reason and logic are dominant. Yury Olesha’s Envy is a humorous look at the individual’s struggle with an increasingly industrialized society, which Vladimir Nabokov considered the best novel written in the Soviet Russia. We will analyze together the difficult modernist features of this novel, including its shifting narrators and fluid boundaries between dream and reality.


Poster for Battleship Potemkin

Film: 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. We will explore the debates that raged in the 1920s about the relative revolutionary merits of the documentary as opposed to feature film, of cinema as opposed to theater and art, and of proper role of film in the shaping of a new Soviet citizen. In this course, we will examine Russian and Soviet film in the context of Russian and Soviet history. 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 and developed into a mass weapon of propaganda; and then, through experimentation, further developed into a form of entertainment that shaped the public image of the Soviet Union.

Blended Class Format (Synchronous and Asynchronous Classroom): This is a blended course. This means that we will meet synchronously through a live webinar using Electa software once a week for 27 weeks for an hour and a half. We will also meet online using Canvas learning management system, and participation in all online activities is required. Students will find that the synchronous and asynchronous components of the class are interdependent and integrated.

Synchronous Component: The first synchronous session will start on Wednesday, September 12. We will meet from 3:30 pm to 5:00 pm CT. The last synchronous meeting will be the week of April 24 (no synchronous class on Thanksgiving week, Christmas break, and Spring break). Synchronous classes will consist of a short 15 to 20-minute lecture by the teacher, students’ presentations, and group discussions.

Asynchronous Component: Online participation is required every week. A brief video orientation overview of the online classroom will be available at least a week before the class starts. The classroom will include an Announcements area used for weekly updates, the Discussion area, the Course Materials area, the Syllabus area, and the Assignment area. Students will post their weekly short reflection paragraphs on the Weekly Discussion forum, which will be opened on Friday before a new week begins, and ask questions or comment on the responses of their classmates not later than 2 hours before each synchronous class. A good question is as valued as a comment. There will be a general Q & A forum where questions about class requirements and assignments may be asked. Students are encouraged to participate actively on all forums and extra points will be awarded for helping others and building an online community. Students will be working on their final papers in December and April, and all the revisions should be finished not later than December 19 and April 30.

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 online discussion and be prepared to actively discuss the assigned reading during the synchronous session. The workload will include weekly supplemental reading (essays, criticism, history, and poetry); watching films; weekly short written assignments and comments; and four PowerPoint presentations on relevant, individually researched topics. After a few introductory sessions, each student will “adopt” one particular writer, poet, artist, film director, or scientist, and will follow his or her life through the first part of the 20th century. Each student will make a presentation to demonstrate the results of the research and write a research paper on their adopted person which is due at the end of the year. Students will also be expected to write and revise one analytical paper (5 to 9 pages long in the MLA format) per semester.

Contact Information: I will log on to the online classroom nearly every day. The Q&A discussion forum is generally the best place to ask most questions. I will also be available for individual consultations through e-mail and Skype calls. Communication with students is important to me!

Prerequisites: Honors-level high school English and History 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 and history, the course is intended neither to be an introduction to English composition nor to history and literary analysis. In the past, students with significant experience in analyzing history, literature, and writing have been the most successful in these classes. I highly recommend to consult Reading and Writing about Literature: A Portable Guide by Janet E. Garner, which is a very good resource.

Registration Information: Registration will open on May 1, 2018 and close before the first class meets. No payment is required until the enrollment and registration process has been completed.

Age/Maturity Level: 15+. We are going to read adult, college-level fiction. Russian fiction and history 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. At least one film is R-rated for violence.

Evaluations and Transcripts: Written or voice evaluations will be provided for all writing assignments and presentations. A detailed participation rubric will be posted online under the Course Materials area and under the Syllabus for grading criteria and expectations. Grades will be posted in the online gradebook no later than the end of the week following the due date of the assignment. 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.

Grades: Grades are based on a scale of 100 points and are distributed among major assignments as follows:
Active participation in online weekly discussion forums: 30 points
Active participation in the synchronous session discussion: 25 points
Presentations during the synchronous session: 15 points
Final analytical paper: 30 points
Helping others on the forums will give students extra points!
Grading scale: A: 90-100; B: 80-89; C: 70-79; D: 60-69, F: 59 or below

Estimated Cost: $299.00 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 several 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 6 students, maximum 15 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 participation in live webinars. Headsets are strongly encouraged to reduce echo.

Syllabus Fall 2018
Synchronous meetings on Wednesdays from 3:30 pm to 5:00 pm CT

Class 1 Sept 12: Russia under the old regime
Class 2 Sept 19: Maxim Gorky “Chelkash and Other Stories”
Class 3 Sept 26: Marxism in Russia and the Russian Revolution of 1905
Class 4 Oct 3: Odessa Stories (selected stories) by Isaac Babel
Class 5 Oct 10: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin
Class 6 Oct 17: Ten Days That Shook the World (chapters 1-6) by John Reed
Class 7 Oct 24: Ten Days That Shook the World (chapters 7-12) by John Reed
Class 8 Oct 31: October: Ten Days that Shook the World by Alexandrov and Eisenstein
Class 9 Nov 7: The Civil War
Class 10 Nov 14: Chapayev by brothers Vasiliev
Fall Break – Nov 21
Class 11 Nov 28: Dovzhenko’s Earth; Red Cavalry (selected stories) by Isaac Babel
Class 12 Dec 5: War Communism and The White Sun of the Desert by Vladimir Motyl
Class 13 Dec 12: “The Fatal Eggs” by Mikhail Bulgakov; the first draft of the final paper is due

Syllabus Winter/Spring 2019
Synchronous meetings on Wednesdays from 3:30 pm to 5:00 pm CT

Class 1 Jan 16: Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Class 2 Jan 23: We by Evgeny Zamyatin, pp. 3 – 103 (Record 1 through Record 20)
Class 3 Jan 30: We by Evgeny Zamyatin, pp. 104 – 203 (Record 21 – Record 40)
Class 4 Feb 6: Envy by Yury Olesha, Part 1, pp. 3 – 73
Class 5 Feb 13: Envy by Yury Olesha, Part 2, pp. 77 – 152
Class 6 Feb 20: Constructivism and Man with a Movie Camera directed by Dziga Vertov
Class 7 Feb 27: The Master and Margarita pp. 1 – 54 (Chapters I through V)
Class 8 March 6: The Master and Margarita pp. 55 – 85 (Chapters VI through IX)
Class 9 March 13: The Master and Margarita pp. 86 – 125 (Chapters X through XIII)
Spring Break – March 20
Class 10 March 27: The Master and Margarita pp.126 – 181 (Chapters XIV through XVIII)
Class 11 April 3: The Master and Margarita pp.185 – 235 (Chapters XIX through XXIII)
Class 12 April 10: The Master and Margarita pp. 236– 293 (Chapters XXIV through XXVII)
Class 13 April 17: The Master and Margarita pp. 294– 335 (Chapter XXVIII through Epilogue)
Class 14 April 24: Burned by the Sun by Nikita Mikhalkov; the first draft of the paper is due

Text List (Required):
The Russian Revolution by Sheila Fitzpatrick (4th edition), Oxford University Press, 2017 ISBN-13: 978-0198806707
Chelkash and Other Stories by Maxim Gorky, Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Thrift Editions, 1991 and 2012: ISBN-13: 978-0486406527
Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed, Penguin Classics, 2007 (available online): or ISBN-13: 978-0141442129
Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, Pushkin Press, 2016 (will be available on Canvas): ISBN-13: 978-1782271666
Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, Pushkin Press, 2014 (will be available on Canvas): ISBN-13: 978-1782270935
The Fatal Eggs and Other Soviet Satire by Mikhail Bulgakov translated by Mirra Ginsburg, Grove Press, 1996: ISBN-13: 978-0802130150
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov translated by Mirra Ginsburg, Grove Press, 1994: ISBN-13: 978-0802150592
Envy by Yuri Olesha translated by Marian Schwartz, New York Review Books, New York, 2004: ISBN-13: 978-1590170861
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor, Vintage International, New York, 1996: ISBN-13: 978-0679760801
We by Evgeny Zamyatin translated by Natasha Randall, Modern Library Classics, 2006: ISBN-13: 978-0812974621

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
Heart of a Dog directed by Vladimir Bortko, 1988
Man With a Movie Camera directed by Dziga Vertov, 1929
Master and Margarita directed by Vladimir Bortko, 2005
Burned by the Sun directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994