Welcome to the Russian Department

The St. Petersburg river at night

For many Amherst students, the first encounter with Russian culture takes place in a course taught in English with all readings in translation and no previous knowledge of the Russian language or history expected.

The Russian department offers a variety of these courses. From first-year seminars and surveys of major eras in cultural history to courses that focus on specific authors (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov) or larger problems, such as revolutionary thought and aesthetics; film and media; theater and performance; private experience and cultural institutions; contemporary geopolitics; and various contested relationships between self and society: class; gender; race, etc. Some of the students who take these courses become Russian majors. Others simply take them to enrich their liberal-arts experience and explore an interest in the culture that has been singularly influential in shaping the modern world: its politics, its imagination, its anxieties, and its aspirations. 

Courses for Non-Majors • Fall 2023

Interested in taking a liberal studies course in the humanities that looks beyond literature originally created in English? Ready to expand your horizons? Considering dipping your toe in the study of Russian literature and culture?

How about any one of these courses in culture and literature — appropriate for students at any point in their academic career and offered in English, with no expectation of previous acquaintance with Russian history or Russian language!  

Strange and wonderful books, images, films and sounds await.

Fall 2023

Russian Literature on Trial

RUSS-221 • Erica Drennan

Why are novels so interested in trials? What is the relationship between literary and legal analysis, and between the role of the reader and that of a juror? How do we interpret “facts” in a literary text versus a legal context? In this course, we will read Russian novels that feature trials in order to explore the relationship between the literary and the legal, two very different ways of making sense of the world that collide in novels about trials.  As part of our exploration of this relationship, we will put literary characters on trial in order to question how guilt, judgment, and redemption operate in the works we read. Mock trials of literary characters were a form of entertainment in Soviet Russia and émigré communities in the 1920s and 1930s. By staging our own mock trials, we can interrogate our role as readers and investigate some of our texts’ major ethical questions: Do we have the right to judge others? Can people be redeemed? What is the relationship between reading and judgment? What does justice look like in a literary work? Readings will include nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, as well as real trial transcripts. There are no prerequisites for this course. All readings in English.

Vladimir Nabokov

RUSS-225 • Luke Parker

This course looks at the fiction and career of Vladimir Nabokov, a trilingual fiction writer of genius and a sophisticated self-promoter. As a liberal aristocrat living in exile in Berlin and Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, the young Nabokov was hailed as the hope of an entire generation of émigrés – artists and writers forced out of their homeland following the Russian Revolution. We first examine this European career in its publishing and media contexts, including his writing for translation into German, French, and English and for adaptation into screenplays for silent and early sound cinema. We then track to his move to America and discover how a transnational career is crafted. Modernist fiction of this period was shadowed and overshadowed by a burgeoning film industry: we will watch a number of great movies from the silent and early sound era, including some of the masterpieces of Weimar cinema by the directors who would go on to create film noir in Hollywood. We will focus on a range of Nabokov’s darkly comic novels: The Luzhin Defense, Laughter in the Dark, Invitation to a Beheading, Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire. During the course we will learn through Nabokov’s fiction to appreciate the subtleties of irony, voice, and parody; to think more deeply about the relation between history and culture (how do events engender works of art?); and to study the interaction between literature and visual culture. All readings in English.


RUSS-227 • Catherine Ciepiela

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels remain relevant to readers across the globe for their daring critique of modernity. A journalist himself, he took his material from the newspapers – stories of crime, corruption, poverty, addiction, terrorism, politics – and mined it for existential meaning. He also drew on his own difficult experience as a political prisoner who spent a decade in Siberia, an eternal debtor, and an incurable epileptic. In this course we will study Dostoevsky’s fiction and journalistic writings, alongside reactions to his work from international thinkers (Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche), writers (D.H. Lawrence, Richard Wright, David Foster Wallace) and filmmakers (Alexander Sokurov, Robert Bresson). We will begin with several early works (“Notes from Underground,” “The Double,” House of the Dead) whose concerns persist and develop in the novels that are the focus of the course: Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. All readings and discussions in English.

Russian and Soviet Architecture and Cities,1700-2000

RUSS-238 • Visiting Professor Angela Wheeler

(Offered as ARCH 228 and RUSS 238) This course investigates the complex relationship between Russia, its imperial subjects—in the Baltics, Caucasus, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Siberia—and global cultures of architecture and city-building. Case studies from across this vast territory (one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass) demonstrate that, far from being isolated on a “periphery” or behind an “Iron Curtain,” the region’s architects and planners actively participated in complex international design debates. How could buildings incorporate new technology and still reflect local cultures? What role should the state play in improving quality of life for the urban masses? Could redesigned spaces influence things like crime and public health? Beginning with Tsar Peter I’s construction of Saint Petersburg, proceeding through the rapid transformations of the Russian and Soviet empires, and concluding with the post-socialist “transition” of the 2000s, we will explore architecture and urban planning as tools of empire, modernization, and identity. Through lectures, research, writing, and discussion designed around visual and historical analysis, we will follow the region’s architects and policymakers as they interacted with, critiqued, selectively adopted, and influenced international architecture and city planning practices.

Stalin and Stalinism

RUSS-235 • Sergey Glebov

(Offered as HIST 235 [EU/TC/TE/TR/TS], EUST 245 and RUS 235) Joseph Stalin, the infamous Soviet dictator, created a particular type of society in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Stalinism became a phenomenon that influenced the development of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, and North Korea. The course will begin with the exploration of Stalin’s own life and then focus on what historical forces enabled the emergence of Stalinism. It will cover the period on the eve of and during the Russian Revolution, Stalinist transformation of the USSR in the 1930s, WWII, and the onset of the Cold War. Among issues to be explored are the extent of popular support for Stalinist-type regimes, the mechanisms of large-scale political terror, the longevity of Stalinist regimes, and historical memory about Stalinism. Two class meetings per week.

Modern Russian Fiction

RUSS-260 • Luke Parker

Cycles of war, revolution, exile have spurred the creation of artistic prose reclaiming fantasy, imagination, and freedom. Despite enormous suffering, both in the Soviet Union and in Europe, Russian-language writers contrived to invent stories that parodied, questioned, undermined, and demythologized the violent workings of history and state. We read some of the richest fiction of modern and contemporary writers, including science fiction and documentary prose. We consider the continued relevance of issues of statelessness and internal emigration, censorship, samizdat and tamizdat, and the "genre of silence" and writing "for the drawer." Includes writers such as Bulgakov, Platonov, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn and the Strugatskys, as well as Sorokin and Tolstaya. All readings in English.

Kremlin Rising

POSC-380 • Visiting Assistant Professor Pleshakov

This course will examine the foreign policy of the Russian Federation of the past twenty years. As a successor state Russia has inherited both the Soviet Union's clout (nuclear arms, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council) and Soviet debts—monetary, psychological, and historical. What are the conceptual foundations of Russian diplomacy? Can we deconstruct Russian nationalism so as to examine its different trends and their impact on foreign policy? Do Russian exports of oil and gas define Russian diplomacy, as it is often claimed? Is there any pattern in the struggle over resources and their export routes in continental Eurasia?

Requisite: A previous POSC course.

Major Explorations: Russian

Whether your passion is literature, politics, history, film, we offer courses on all of these subjects in English, so they are accessible to all comers, as well as a full Russian language curriculum. We have a remarkable resource called the Amherst Center for Russian Culture.