Classics of Russian Literature explores Russian masterpieces at all levels—characters, plots, scenes, and sometimes even single sentences, including: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which has one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, setting the stage for a novel that probes the tragic dimension of a subject—adultery—that had traditionally been treated as satire. Gogol's Dead Souls, with a concluding passage beloved to all Russians, in which the hero flees the scene of his fiendishly clever swindle in a troika—a fast carriage drawn by three horses—to the author's invocation, "Oh Rus' [Russia], whither art thou hurtling?"
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, whose long chapter "The Grand Inquisitor" is a gripping, haunting, mystifying parable that is often studied on its own, but that is all the more powerful in this great novel, which addresses faith, doubt, redemption, and other timeless themes.
The Golden Age and After
The central core of the course covers the great golden age of Russian literature, a period in the 19th century when Russia's writers equaled or surpassed the achievements of the much older literary cultures of Western Europe. The age commenced with Pushkin, developed with the fantastic and grotesque tales of Gogol', and grew to full flower with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—who at the time were considered in Europe to be lesser writers than their talented contemporary Turgenev. As the 20th century approached, Chekhov's exquisitely understated plays and stories symbolized the sunset of the golden age.
Gorky straddled the next transformation, linking the turmoil preceding the Russian Revolution with the political oppression that affected all artists in the newly established Soviet Union from the 1920s on. You examine the brilliant revolutionary poet Maiakovsky; the novelist Sholokhov, who portrayed the revolution as a tragedy for the Cossack people; the satirist Zoshchenko, who used Soviet society as food for parody; and Pasternak, who produced beautiful poems and a single extraordinary novel. Your survey ends with Solzhenitsyn, who became the most influential literary voice speaking out against the tyranny of the Soviet system.
Inside, Outside, and Behind the Scenes
Professor Weil uses intriguing details to bring these authors and their works to life. For example, readers of English translations are probably unaware of the symbolic names that Russian writers routinely give their characters, names that are especially evocative in Russian:
Roskol'nikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, is named after the term for "schism," signifying a person who is separating himself from society. Dostoevsky gives other characters names that mean "mud puddle" and "intelligence," again, representing the person's inner nature.
Iurii Zhivago, the hero of Doctor Zhivago, has a family name that is an older Russian form of the word "alive." Pasternak uses a grammatical case that emphasizes the animate nature of the noun, signifying life as it should be experienced.
In addition to such internal details that enrich your understanding of the text, Professor Weil also points you to outside resources, from films and operas to recommended attractions that you may wish to see if you travel to Russia:
In order to get a sense of the powerful rhythms of Pushkin's masterpiece Eugene Onegin, readers who don't know Russian can turn to Tchaikovsky's famous operatic adaptation, which magnificently catches the meter and texture of the poem.
A trip to Moscow should include a visit to Tolstoy's house, now preserved as a museum. There you will get a vivid sense of the contradictions in this man's life—in the marked contrast between the comfortable Victorian furnishings preferred by his wife and family and the Spartan austerity in which he closeted himself to write, a style that came increasingly to define his life.
Professor Weil also recounts behind-the-scenes stories, many of which relate to his own experiences in Russia. These anecdotes add a new dimension to your appreciation of the works covered in this course:
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn's moving novella about life in a Soviet forced labor camp, might never have appeared in print had not the mercurial Soviet premier Khrushchev found the story spellbinding. After reading the manuscript, Khrushchev admitted that it was one of the few literary works that he had managed to finish without sticking himself with pins to stay awake. The resulting publication stunned the Soviet reading public and the world.
"The History of an Illness," a short story by Zoshchenko, gently lampoons the Soviet health care system, with which Professor Weil has personal experience from his visits to the country. He describes some of the maddening features of Soviet medicine, including a propensity to treat every illness with vodka.
1. Origins of Russian Literature
2. The Church and the Folk in Old Kiev
3. Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, 1799–1837
4. Exile, Rustic Seclusion, and Onegin
5. December’s Uprising and Two Poets Meet
6. A Poet Contrasts Talent versus Mediocrity
7. St. Petersburg Glorified and Death Embraced
8. Nikolai Vasil’evich Gogol’, 1809–1852
9. Russian Grotesque—Overcoats to Dead Souls
10. Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, 1821–1881
11. Near Mortality, Prison, and an Underground
12. Second Wife and a Great Crime Novel Begins
13. Inside the Troubled Mind of a Criminal
14. The Generation of the Karamazovs
15. The Novelistic Presence of Christ and Satan
16. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828–1910
17. Tale of Two Cities and a Country Home
18. Family Life Meets Military Life
19. Vengeance Is Mine, Saith the Lord
20. Family Life Makes a Comeback
21. Tolstoy the Preacher
22. Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, 1818–1883
23. The Stresses between Two Generations
24. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, 1860–1904
25. M. Gorky (Aleksei M. Peshkov), 1868–1936
26. Literature and Revolution
27. The Tribune—Vladimir Maiakovsky, 1893–1930
28. The Revolution Makes a U-Turn
29. Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov, 1905–1984
30. Revolutions and Civil War
31. Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko, 1895–1958
32. Among the Godless—Religion and Family Life
33. Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, 1890–1960
34. The Poet In and Beyond Society
35. Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, Born 1918
36. The Many Colors of Russian Literature
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