Russian Literature

Classics of Russian Literature

Irwin Weil, Ph.D. Professor, Northwestern University

Course Overview

Russian literature famously probes the depths of the human soul. These 36 half-hour lectures delve into this extraordinary body of work under the guidance of Professor Irwin Weil of Northwestern University, an award-winning teacher at Northwestern University and a legend among educators in the United States and Russia.

Professor Weil introduces you to such masterpieces as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Gogol’s Dead Souls, Chekhov’s The Seagull, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and many other great novels, stories, plays, and poems by Russian authors.

You will study more than 40 works by a dozen writers, from Aleksandr Pushkin in the 19th century to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the 20th. You will also investigate the origin of Russian literature itself, which traces to powerful epic poetry and beautiful renderings of the Bible into Slavic during the Middle Ages.

All of these works are treated in translation, but Professor Weil does something very unusual for a literature-in-translation course. For almost every passage that he quotes in English, he reads an extract in the original Russian, with a fluent accent and an actor’s sense of drama.

You may not understand Russian, but there is no mistaking the expressive intonation, rhythm, and feeling with which Professor Weil performs these passages. At one point, reciting verses from Russia’s most famous poet, he advises: “Listen to it once as a piece of music, and you will sense the linguistic genius of Pushkin.”

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.

These lectures are from The Teaching Company.
Courtesy: Chinni Krishnan J B and Sivamani

Course Guidebook PDF

1. Origins of Russian Literature

Russian literature has its national and spiritual origins in the territory around the ancient city of Kiev, which adopted Christianity in the 10th century with a 100-year-old, magnificent translation of the Bible into Slavic.

2. The Church and the Folk Old Kiev

One of Russia’s most precious literary productions is The Tale of Prince Igor, a 12th-century epic recounting the daring, doomed raid of a Kievan prince against the neighboring Polovetsians, precursors of the Tatars.

 

3. Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, 1799–1837

The first of five lectures on Russia’s greatest poet discusses Pushkin’s upbringing and the influences that molded his character and literary style, making him, in his own words, “the Mozart of the 19th century.”

 

4. Exile, Rustic Seclusion, and Onegin

In the 1820s, Pushkin began work on a long poem, a “novel in verse,” called Eugene Onegin. Inspired partly by Byron’s Don Juan, it became an endless source of inspiration for later writers and composers.

 

5. December’s Uprising and Two Poets Meet

After reading Shakespeare in French translation, Pushkin wrote the historical tragedy Boris Godunov, based on the life of a Russian tsar whom many people accused of rising to the throne by using murder.

 

6: A Poet Contrasts Talent versus Mediocrity

Pushkin’s drama Mozart and Salieri probed the psychological dimensions of the supposed murder of Mozart by his rival Salieri and inspired the 1980s play and film Amadeus. In Egyptian Nights, one can see elements of Pushkin in the character of Charsky.

 

7: St. Petersburg Glorified and Death Embraced

The concluding lecture on Pushkin explores his narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, about a poor man pursued by an equestrian statue of Peter the Great. Somewhat later, Pushkin was fatally wounded in a duel provoked by a man flirting with his wife.

 

8: Nikolai Vasil’evich Gogol’, 1809-1852

The first great master of Russian prose, Gogol’ gloried in extensive, often bizarre imagery. In delightfully different ways, The Nose, The Inspector General, and The Overcoat each deal ironically with absurd situations.

 

9: Russian Grotesque-Overcoats to Dead Souls

Gogol’s most famous novel, Dead Souls, concerns the confidence scheme of Chichikov, who buys ownership of dead serfs to use as collateral for a large loan, in the course of which Gogol’ creates a gallery of grotesque characters.

 

10: Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, 1821-1881

The first of six lectures on Dostoevsky probes the early life of this celebrated chronicler of eternal themes and extreme states of mind. Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, is a heartrending, sometimes cruel, account of life among the lower classes in St. Petersburg.

 

11: Near Mortality, Prison, and an Underground

Arrested for his political views, Dostoevsky was condemned to death and put in front of a firing squad, only to be reprieved at the last second. The experience had a searing effect on the author. Some years later, after many difficult experiences, he produced his most consistently cruel work, Notes from the Underground.

 

 

12: Second Wife and a Great Crime Novel Begins

Under a draconian deadline, Dostoevsky dictated his novella The Gambler in a month, and then married his stenographer. Around this time, he began work on a story that would grow into the novel Crime and Punishment.

 

13: Inside the Troubled Mind of a Criminal

Continuing the analysis of psychological portraits in Crime and Punishment, this lecture focuses on the double murder at the heart of the novel and the gradual unraveling of what had appeared to be the perfect crime.

 

14: The Generation of the Karamazovs

Dostoevsky’s last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, tells a story of family conflict and moral struggle. The book’s most celebrated chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” is as mystifying as it is unforgettable.

 

15: The Novelistic Presence of Christ and Satan

The Brothers Karamazov includes a celebrated interview with the Devil, and the conviction of the wrong brother for patricide. Dostoevsky died shortly after finishing the novel.

 

16: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828-1910

The first of six lectures on Tolstoy explores his early life and works, including a remarkable account of childhood, adolescence, and youth, and a series of realistic stories based on his experiences in the Crimean War.

 

17: Tale of Two Cities and a Country Home

Tolstoy’s most famous novel, War and Peace, was inspired at least partly by his reaction to the return to European Russia of some of the Decembrists previously exiled to prison in Siberia, and evolved into a sprawling saga centered on the great Napoleonic invasion of 1812. This lecture introduces some of its major characters.

 

18: Family Life Meets Military Life

What happens when decent family people meet the hideous bloodshed of the most massive war that Europe had yet seen? In War and Peace, Tolstoy paints a huge canvas in which even the smallest detail is astonishingly lifelike.

 

19: Vengeance Is Mine, Saith the Lord

After War and Peace, Tolstoy turned to an entirely different theme: adultery. Anna Karenina tells the story of a respectable married woman who goes through tortuous confusion and enters into a passionate affair that has tragic consequences.

 

20: Family Life Makes a Comeback

A parallel plot in Anna Karenina involves a character named Levin, whose name clearly links him to the author, Lev Tolstoy. Like Tolstoy, Levin is preoccupied with the search for happiness and spiritual fulfillment.

 

21: Tolstoy the Preacher

The final lecture on Tolstoy probes two late novellas, The Death of Ivan Il’ich and The Kreuzer Sonata. The aging Tolstoy grew increasingly obsessed with moral and religious problems. He died in 1910 after fleeing his wife and home.

 

22: Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, 1818-1883

In his day, Turgenev’s reputation surpassed that of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, especially in Western Europe. This lecture examines his Notes of a Hunter and First Love. The latter is a tender and beautiful evocation of adolescent passion.

 

23: The Stresses between Two Generations

In Turgenev’s best known novel, Fathers and Sons, he addresses many of the most hotly debated issues of the day, including anarchism, socialism, feminism, and science. Turgenev experienced painful ambivalence in determining his own position on these.

 

24: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, 1860-1904

Chekhov is renowned for capturing the subtleties of deep human feelings in his plays and short stories. This lecture examines one of each: The Seagull, a formative drama of 20th-century theater, and the poignant story The Darling.

 

25: M. Gorky (Aleksei M. Peshkov), 1868-1936

As a popular writer and public figure, Gorky came to symbolize the transition between two different political and social systems, separated by the Russian Revolution. His autobiographical sketches are a moving account of the 19th-century Russia that he knew.

 

26: Literature and Revolution

In the 1920s, Russian writers came under control of the Soviet system. Gorky, despite some misgivings, stayed loyal to the revolution. Many times he tried to protect writers and intellectuals from the murderous fanaticism of officials.

 

27: The Tribune-Vladimir Maiakovsky, 1893-1930

The brilliant poet Maiakovsky stoked the fires of passionate socialism with his evocation of the sun to visit the proletarian poet, his cry for a creative surge from “the army of the arts,” and even, with some ambivalence, in his paean to the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

28: The Revolution Makes a U-Turn

In 1929 Maiakovsky completed a very ambivalent and moving play, The Bedbug. Woody Allen’s film Sleeper is, in part, inspired by this work. One year later, Maiakovsky played Russian roulette with a loaded pistol and lost.

 

29: Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov, 1905-1984

The novelist Sholokhov saw the revolution as a tragic force that wiped out a whole community, the Cossacks. In the first part of And Quiet Flows the Don, he gives a vivid picture of pre-World War I Cossack life.

 

30: Revolutions and Civil War

The second part of And Quiet Flows the Don gives a remarkable picture of what it’s like to experience war and revolution. In later life, Sholokhov won a Nobel Prize and shockingly called for the execution of some dissidents.

 

31: Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko, 1895-1958

Arguably the most popular writer during the Soviet era was the satirist Zoshchenko, who crafted stories that shed a ridiculing light on the many hypocritical and often downright crazy aspects of Soviet propaganda and life.

 

32: Among the Godless-Religion and Family Life

Zoshchenko’s stories capture the religious piety that survived amid state-promoted atheism. He was also a master at portraying the comforts and vexations of family life amid housing shortages and other external pressures.

 

33: Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, 1890-1960

Principally a poet, Pasternak partly coped with the dangers of the Stalinist era by translating Shakespeare. In the thaw after Stalin’s death, he wrote a politically charged novel on the revolution, Doctor Zhivago.

 

34: The Poet In and Beyond Society

Doctor Zhivago focuses on its hero’s growing isolation in a country torn by war, revolution, and ideology. The novel has breathtakingly beautiful natural descriptions of Russia.

 

35: Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, Born 1918

In 1962 an unknown high school math teacher electrified the world with a novella called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which told the truth about the Soviet Union’s slave labor camps. Solzhenitsyn went on to recount other horrors of the Stalinist era.

 

36: The Many Colors of Russian Literature

Reviewing the territory covered in the course, this lecture points out that Russian literature opens a wide window into the ways of the world and the human condition, enlightened by the writing of Russia’s greatest authors.

 

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