Teaching Russian Culture: weeks 1-3

In an earlier post I explained a revised approach to a course I’ve taught for many years, Introduction to Russian Culture, a general survey for undergraduate students, many of whom have little background with the topic and most of whom are fulfilling a world civilizations requirement. This is a course I’ve taught at two institutions over a thirty-year time span, and I’m always looking for new ways to do it. The initial format I used came from a course I took as a first-year grad student at UCLA, a fantastic large-lecture survey taught by Michael Flier. I still use some of the questions Michael used (esp. the one about how political figures use culture as a way of legitimizing their rule), but there are many differences in what I do as well, esp. with the inclusion of a lot more music and film.

This year’s course had sixty students with a slightly larger than normal proportion of actual Russian majors and/or Russian Flagship participants. There were also several heritage speakers (Russians and Ukrainians), more than I remember from past classes. Altogether, I’d say a good third of the class had some experience with the material, which was a welcome surprise, though at times I had to encourage them to take a step back in order not to discourage the students for whom this was new territory.

The artifacts approach went really well, and my co-teacher (grad student apprentice teacher), Ani Abrahamyan, was fantastic. Overall I was really happy with the way the course went, and several students mentioned that they liked it a lot, but there are always things to improve.

Here is what we used in the first three weeks and how we used it. Most of the items were accompanied by short readings from a wide variety of book excerpts provided via Canvas.

(1) Kathryn David’s short analysis of Vladimir Putin’s July 2021 article about how Ukrainians and Russians are “one people,” which we used as a spring board for considering uses of culture that are politically loaded, how more than one country can claim the same cultural heritage, and what the implications for such places might be today. It also enabled us to broach the idea of “Kievan Rus’.”

2. Hagia Sophia Cathedral, with highlights on the Virgin Orans and Christ Pantocrator on the inside. This enabled us to talk about the Byzantine heritage of Kievan Rus’, its cultural legacy, the importance of the Eastern Church in Rus’. How unusual this church is for Rus’, what is more common (with examples), and the basic church architectural form/s in Rus’.

3. From the Primary Chronicle, two episodes: “The Call of the Varangians” (what sort of a founding myth is this story? who would tell such a tale about themselves, who is its audience? what is its purpose?), and “Vladimir’s Choice” (of the Byzantine form of Christianity).

4. The word (and the concept of the) Slav, along with its long-term importance for the development of the word “slave” in other European languages (how did this happen, when, and how?). Also enabled us to think about language issues (East, West, South Slavs), provenance (from “beyond the Carpathians”), and how knowledge is structured, including their own coursework today.

5. One Saint’s Life: The Life of Mercurius of Smolensk. To broach the form and idea of hagiography, to bridge to the Mongols, and to introduce perhaps the coolest variety of all — the “cephalophoric” saints (those that carried their own severed heads): one can add plenty of other headless saints and their images to this, possibly a still from the recent film The Green Knight, and one or two examples from secular (gothic) works.

6. From the Novgorod chronicle: excerpts from “The Taking of Riazan.” Cultural representations of Chengiz Khan and Batu, cultural trauma, Mongol fighting techniques, beginning of the question of long-term heritage issues in Russian culture.

7. Dormition Cathedral of Vladimir (which we’ll see again in an excerpt from Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev).

8. Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity (and others that lead to this particular one).

9. Three excerpts from Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev: “The Jester,” “The Holiday,” “The Raid.” Why did they take the Jester away? Dvoeverie/synchrtism (which was introduced earlier). What is the relationship between the Mongol chief and the Russian prince?

10. The Kremlin (and kremlins in general), as well as “Moscow the Third Rome” get us into the rise of Muscovy, symbols of power, more Mongol legacy questions.

11. In connection with an excerpt from Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance (on the legacy of the Mongols in Russian culture) and a claim the students read in Ward and Thompson’s Russia: an Historical Introduction, we read excerpts from Chaadaev’s first philosophical letter and Pushkin’s response regarding Russia’s “sacrifice” of itself for the sake of Western (Christian) civilization, then watch two excerpts from Tarkovsky’s Mirror, where the ideas are played out.

I’m sure I’ve skipped a few things, but these are the ones we spent the most time on in the first three weeks.

The artifacts are framed historically in lecture and through short, excerpted readings for each class, sometimes one but more often two or three (though not more than 25-30 pages total per meeting), for each of which the students write responses to reading questions in a couple of sentences. In class we also wrote, usually after they were provided with a question, invited to discuss it with the person next to or behind them. We’d then share and they would turn in their cards at the end of each class.

Weeks 4-6 next up.

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