This is the introduction to a SEEB series organized by Ani Kokobobo, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Kansas.
The Russianist’s Burden
What a time to be a Russianist! Everywhere you look, there is mention of #russiagate #Putin #Mueller #Manafort #goldenshowers #kompromat. I attended my university’s freshman orientation a few weeks ago, and upon announcing my Russianist persuasions, the younger generations looked at me with a new level of respect – someone asked for a few words in Russian, and another inquired about my opinion of Vladimir Putin. I offered some measured remarks about the present political climate, but the experience was an apt reflection of all the ways in which being a Russianist in Trump’s America is a triggering exercise, rife with frustration and insecurity.
I may have a PhD in Russian literature, but my many years of book learning do not technically qualify me to assess the conspiracy theories on Trump and Russia dominating our media discourses. And, as you will see below, even conspiracy theory specialist, Eliot Borenstein, sometimes feels at a loss. What relevant contemporary insights, could I, a nineteenth-century specialist to boot, possibly possess in this situation? The most rational thing to do would be to embrace this irrelevance peacefully. But being a Russianist and hopeless romantic, I find it very difficult to renounce the gnawing thought that it is precisely my useless training as a humanist that qualifies me to weigh in on the current political climate.
As it happens, many current events in our culture are unprecedented, so much so that political scientists and pollsters are themselves at a loss. Under the circumstances, the analytical toolkit of the humanist, the skills to break down the unknown from a textual or comparative basis, come to immediate use. In fact, much of the media coverage of our present often looks like an exercise in comparative studies with literature and history proving to be handles on the chaos of the present than more quantitative modalities.
Whether as a reflection of our worst fears or merely an attempt to conceptualize the fearsome, sales of books like 1984 or A Handmaid’s Tale have ballooned. From this perspective, works of Russian literature can also be useful at understanding our present and it is in this capacity, as true humanists rather than as collectors of Putin factoids, that we can also quite useful as Russianists. As I have written elsewhere, books like Dostoevsky’s Demons, with its emphasis on the negation of the status quo and the unhinging of impulses, seemingly prophesy Trump’s America, with all its primal rallies and “drain the swamp” cries.
After Trump won the election, I used Anna Karenina to grieve the loss of Hillary Clinton and War and Peace to cope with Trump’s victory. Hillary’s loss communicated to me some of the profound challenges of the woman’s path and the female struggle to attain complete subjecthood, when faced with obvious ceilings to our ambitions. I could not help but think of Anna crushed under the wheels of the train, while Levin walked away unscathed; the man survives, while the woman does not. If Anna ends up under the train because she can only express her story and her ambitions in the romantic sphere, Hillary was needlessly pulled back into the novels of adultery and courtship throughout the entire 2016 campaign, known only through her husband’s past indiscretions.
When I myself and those around me were panicking after the elections, I turned to Tolstoy once again for solace, this time to War and Peace, a novel aimed against a narcissistic, puny man, Napoleon, and his overwhelming hubris. The novel also reflects the limits of any one person’s political power given that historical change happens through the collective confluence of multiple small forces rather than through the will of one man. It remains to be seen whether Tolstoy is right, but his words speaks to all of our contemporary anxieties.
More recently, I have found profound reflections of the #metoo movement in my classroom. For instance, last year I taught Bunin’s “Light Breathing,” which had never been my favorite story. Because I tend to teach large novels normally, I grew concerned that I might struggle to fill up the class period. Yet presenting the story to a younger generation of students, most of whom swing feminist, was like nothing I’ve ever seen. The Bunin story is a classic tale of a young, high-school age woman sexually assaulted by an older man—a friend of her father’s—and then murdered by a younger man who expected her to be his betrothed. We end the story by her grave, as both men presumably continue to enjoy their lives. At one point in the story, inadvertently predating Simone de Beauvoir, the young woman tells her school principal that the older man who violated her actually “made” her into a woman. These heartbreaking words reflect the extent to which being a woman, whether in Bunin’s time, or even in our own, can be synonymous with sexual violence. The young woman’s voice in the narrative is muffled, her story is told primarily through the voices of others, and eventually, through her dead body. While our nation watches a contentious Supreme Court nomination fight where control over women’s bodies is more at stake than ever, I cannot help but think back to Bunin’s narrative. A survivor of sexual assault has spoken up against Judge Kavanaugh only to receive death threats for trying to derail a man’s career. But something in the nation is also shifting, people are taking pause, survivors are being heard, and, in the end, Judge Kavanaugh’s fate might well be decided by two centrist women. Maybe I still don’t love those odds, but if a few months ago I was thinking of the Bunin story as a parable of womanhood, now I’m inclined to hope that it is not. Perhaps the woman won’t get murdered, perhaps she won’t end up under the train, perhaps this time the woman will survive, and the man will be forced to take responsibility for his moral failures. Perhaps.
Either way, what we do is deeply relevant to the present, to today, to the future, to America’s relationship with Russia, and far beyond. And with that, I now defer to the wonderful words of my colleagues below that consider how the research and teaching of Russian language and literature are assuming new valences and new responsibilities in contemporary America. Some of their contributions proactively urge us in new directions, whereas others give us a more nuanced picture of the work we are already doing, and how that work may be organically evolving as we keep moving our field forward.
We construe this brief forum as a small contribution to an extensive and important conversation for our field. It was a pleasure to work with each contributor, and I encourage you to heed their insights.
Russian Studies in the Era of Trump
A SEEB Series Organized by Ani Kokobobo
- Researching Russian Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump by Eliot Borenstein
- Making Russian Great Again: Language, Dissent, and Critical Pedagogy by Thomas Jesús Garza
- Teaching Chekhov in the Time of Trump by Anne Lounsbery
- Redefining the Russian Civilization and Culture Survey for the Trump Era by Rachel Stauffer
- Reading Akhmatova Now by Sarah Krive
Ani Kokobobo is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Kansas.
SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!