The Shamakhmudovs, Part I: Family and Kinship Metaphors in the Soviet Symbolic Order

“The family of an Uzbek blacksmith identified as Shamakmudov [sic] may be the most multi-national in the world, the TASS news agency reported today. Akhmed and his wife adopted 14 children of soldiers killed in World War II including Uzbeks, Russians, Jews, Tartars, Moldavians, and Gypsies,” various American local daily news outlets reported in December 1964. Indeed, the main Soviet information agency, TASS, had run a short article on this Uzbek family as an exemplar of Soviet “friendship of the peoples.”

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A Day at the Zoo in Soviet Picture-Book Land

Frances Saddington has recently completed a PhD on the early Soviet picture book in the School of History at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK).

On a golden September afternoon in St. Petersburg, I found myself walking around the Leningradskii zoopark. I was in Russia to research early Soviet picture books, my brain was preoccupied with vivid images of Pioneer troops and racing locomotives, along with cannibal pirates and other fairy-tale characters. As I wandered past the farm animals and aviaries full of exotic birds, I let myself imagine what the zoo might have been like a century earlier, when the authors and illustrators I was studying might have visited.

I stopped short when I reached the big cats, realizing that a pride of bored, sleepy lions in a small, rusting cage looked just like an illustration in one of my favorite picture books. It was as though time had stood still and they had been here since 1928, waiting for me to turn up and take their photograph.

Many Beasts (Mnogo zverei) was written by poet Aleksandr Vvedenskii (1904-1941) and illustrated by the artist Vera Ermolaeva (1893-1937). An unusually subversive piece of verse for a children’s book, it told the tale of a trip to the zoo where foxes and seals greet the visitor cheerfully, but many of the other residents are deeply unhappy. Vvedenskii imagines that the camel would rather be in the desert, and an eagle sits on a stone all day feeling fed up because he is unable to fly. The parrots can talk, but they simply screech nonsense that nobody understands, while only the flies have any freedom, so they buzz around and mock the captive creatures.

Vvedenskii and Ermolaeva were important members of the Leningrad School of children’s authors and illustrators, who produced some of the most stylish picture books of the era. Ermolaeva was an incredibly gifted painter and illustrator, playing a key role in the early Soviet avant-garde. She was a leading organizer of the Segodniia (Today) collective, which, during the Civil War years, hand printed some of the first children’s picture books of the Soviet era. She also worked collecting advertising sign boards for the Petrograd city museum and was a close colleague of Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) at the illustrious People’s School of Art in Vitebsk.

Ermolaeva’s work in Many Beasts is typical of her idiosyncratic, painterly approach to book illustration. She drew the animals as flat, slightly abstracted figures in earthy shades, which matched the unsettled tone of the poem. Her big cats are full of natural character, with the bored-looking lion and snarling puma fairly bristling on the page. The lion in the photograph that I took was bathed in the same golden light as the book illustration and stuck in a small, bare cage with several other animals. It had gone past the point of boredom and fallen fast asleep.


A month after my excursion to the Leningradskii zoopark, I spent a chilly autumn day at the Moscow Zoo, a place equally full of picture book heritage. Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) must have been inspired by it when he wrote his poem The Menagerie (Zverinets), published as a picture book in 1928 with illustrations by Nikolai Kupreianov (1894-1933).

Pasternak’s zoo is a fascinating, almost mysterious place. The pond near the ticket kiosk shines silver in the wind and the roar of a growling puma echoes through the park. Bears hold conversations with visiting children, while the lioness paces up and down in meticulously measured steps behind the iron bars. A young Nile crocodile looks tiny, but will grow up to become far more terrible. The visitor is stunned by a fanned-out peacock’s tail, which looks like the night sky with fountains of falling stars.

On my own route around the park, I looked for tiny clues that would let my imagination recreate the zoo of the 1920s or early 1930s. Many things remain the same, including the huge pond near the entrance, the pony riding circle, and many of the enclosures in the zoo’s “new territory,” which was built in the late 1920s, across the road from the original site.

The most fascinating section of the new territory is Animal Island, a rocky edifice built to house large predators, surrounded by a moat to keep visitors safe. It is still inhabited by lions and other large creatures and retains its fascination for amateur zoologists of all ages. On the day I was there, grandmothers pushing prams stopped at the railings to let bundled-up toddlers peer at the big cats, who in turn shut their eyes disdainfully with no regard for the enthusiastic onlookers.

The structure was so innovative when it was constructed that it featured in a supplement to Iskorka (Sparkle), an illustrated magazine for pre-schoolers. Children were given printed shapes to cut out, which could then be glued together to make a three-dimensional model of the island. There were also cardboard animal templates, so that the model could be populated with lions, tigers, leopards, and bears, thus becoming a fully functional homemade toy.

Animal Island has barely changed, but today it is dwarfed by the tall, faded, late-Soviet apartment blocks that dominate the skyline near the zoo. The city is bigger and busier than anyone could have imagined a hundred years ago, but children still love to gaze at the zoo animals, take a pony ride, and buy a balloon to take home. The lions are still haughty, the birds are still noisy, and it would be nice to think that somewhere in the constant stream of visitors there is an artist, sketching ideas for a new picture book that will still be read a hundred years from now.

Exegi Monumentum Aere Perennus: Poetry as Memory in Ukraine and Beyond

To say that contemporary literature engages with issues of memory may sound banal. In both prose and poetry, memory is everywhere. And when it comes to scholarship, the “memory boom” of the eighties and nineties has definitely not waned. It’s no coincidence that one of the most famous quotes from the poetry of Louise Glück is “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.”

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The Dialectical Images of Russian History

When university students are first introduced to the discipline of history, it is often as a practice of grand narratives – the surveying and engineering of broad explanatory models about the past. But what space do we give in the classroom to more minute critical labors – siftings through the debris of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian centuries; the historian as collector, or humble ragpicker?

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Destruction or Hope? Past or Present? Postmodern Unity in Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso no. 1

For the majority of listeners, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” (1979) is not the first cinematic association that comes to mind when they experience Alfred Schnittke’s “Concerto Grosso no.1” (1977). (The music in Stalker was composed by Eduard Artemyev.) Yet in his book, “Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso no.1,” Peter Schmelz suggests that Stalker’s themes of time’s fluidity, nostalgia and hope are enacted in the piece.

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Men Who Paint, Men Who Post: Visualizing Russian Masculinity

In his first personal Instagram post since his poisoning, a dazed Navalny sits up in his hospital bed, surrounded by smiling family. He is hunched, his collarbone and ribs visible beneath his gown. This confused man with raised brows recalled Repin’s 1884 portrait of Vsevolod Garshin, a writer who was famously depressed. Even while sitting for his friend Repin, Garshin appears viscerally alone. Navalny does, too.

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Is the “Resource Curse” Irreversible? Experiences of the Russian Regions

In examining how the natural resource wealth of a country affects its economic development, some scholars have argued that windfall revenue from resource exploitation is a “curse” to the country because it creates incentives that reduce economic growth and living standards and worsen the business environment. Can resource-rich countries get out of this alleged economic “curse,” or are they stuck in it until the resources run out?

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Impeachment, Socialist-Style

The 1984 State Tribunal trial was preceded by an amendment to the constitution and a complicated two-year parliamentary procedure. How was it even possible to introduce such an institution into state-socialist Poland? What led the communist leadership to limit their powers and establish a special court before which their actions might be sanctioned? The answer to this question is inseparable from the eventful history of the early 1980s in Poland, and also interrogates many stereotypes of how law and politics functioned the socialist Eastern Bloc.

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Steppe School: The Late Russian Empire and Kazakh Agriculture

In 1894, Vasily A. Saenko arrived in the small town of Zaisan in what is today far eastern Kazakhstan to take charge of the Zaisan Kazakh Agricultural School. For several years, the school had suffered from changing leadership and poor management. Saenko would begin to enact a program of reform that he hoped would extend far beyond the classroom and serve as a catalyst for the transformation of the local Kazakh nomads into settled farmers.

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In Search of Russia’s Archival Mystique

If you’re a Russian historian, one of the first questions you usually get from an informed outsider is about the archives. Has the opening of the archives resulted in blockbuster revelations? Isn’t Putin shutting down the archives for good? You might protest that in terms of accessibility and ease of use, most Russian archives are more open than ever (at least pre-COVID), but it is unlikely that you’ll make a lasting impression. The perpetually tantalizing, perpetually closing Russian archives have a special mystique.

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Baltic Orthodox Monasticism

On 26 August 2018, an icon procession left the red-brick gates of the Pühtitsa convent, eastern Estonia: nuns in jet-black habits, priests in aqua vestments, and choristers in crimson velvet folk garb held aloft an icon of the Virgin, lovingly cloistered amidst glass, gold, and gems.

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Navalny, NFTs, and the New Arena for Political Dissent

NFTs or “non-fungible tokens” grant their purchasers ownership over a form of digital media. Like Bitcoin, NFTs are recorded on a blockchain to promote transparency and enhance security. Unlike various forms of cryptocurrency, NFTs are unique and not interchangeable, which solidifies their virtual rarity. While NFTs can theoretically represent a variety of digital assets, most recently they have been used in the sale of digital art.

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Dispatches from NYU Libraries

Alla Roylance is Russian/East European Studies librarian and the Librarian for the Linguistics at NYU.

As our long lockdown continues, uprooting our habits and routines, I felt it more important than ever to reach out to Russianists and other Slavists of NYU. You may be scattered across the country and the world and not realize that we are still here for you, able to provide a good number of services even while you are away from the campus.

Therefore, I thought it might be a good idea to start issuing regular updates from the library to keep you informed on new book arrivals, highlight new and old, but useful databases and channel other relevant news from the library.

Disclaimer: I realize that All the Russias’ audience reaches far beyond the NYU community. My “Dispatches from NYU Libraries” are — as the title suggests — meant primarily for the NYU crowd. At the same time, these notes offer one librarian’s view of new titles of interest in the field, and as such, will hopefully be interesting to this blog’s broader readership.

Now on to our inaugural issue of the Dispatches from NYU Libraries.

New books from Russia (in Russian):

Recently, I have been granted access to the library to deal with the backlog of (alas, already not so new) arrivals that accumulated during the lockdown. When I started opening the boxes of new books, I was fairly salivating. So much good stuff — not to be discovered anytime soon since access to the library is limited, stacks are closed and browsing is off-limits. Even during better times, most new books in foreign languages go straight to offsite storage anyway. But offsite does not mean out-of-reach. You can always request them from the storage for either contactless locker pickup (at Bobst in Manhattan or Dibner in Brooklyn) — or order them for home delivery anywhere in the contiguous United States and even in NYU Abu Dhabi (which blows my mind).

Today I want to highlight a small selection of books on Russian literature history and criticism and a couple of noteworthy purchases for Film Studies.

I want to start with one significant score for Film Studies, since I am particularly excited by it.

Внуковский архив (в трех томах): Письма, дневники, фотографии и документы звезд советского кино из собрания Александра Добровинского. Mосква, [СканРус], 2017. ISBN 9785435001204.

This lavish, richly illustrated three-volume set is a treasure trove of primary materials from the recently discovered archives of Grigory Aleksandrov and Lyubov Orlova, the power couple of the Soviet cinema. The collection of the letters, diaries and photographs was believed to be lost until it unexpectedly turned up in a dilapidated dacha outside of Moscow. Only 500 copies of the title were published and only four of them can be found in other institutions in the United States.

Natalia Miloserdova. Barskaia. SPb, Seans, 2019. ISBN 9785905669491. (Available in print and e-version)

A new series on film history “F-Кино” was launched with the first significant study of Margarita Barskaya, a pioneering woman in the history of Soviet cinema, one of the first Russian female filmmakers and a founder of the Soviet cinema for children.

Within the category of Russian literary studies:

Кирилл Осповат. Придворная словесность: Институт литературы и конструкции абсолютизма в России середины XVIII века. М., Новое литературное обозрение, 2020. ISBN 978-5-4448-1218-1. (Print only).

Kirill Ospovat (University of Wisconsin-Madison) scrutinizes the establishment of the institute of Russian literature and the relationship between poetics and politics, between literary forms and the absolutist model of the society.

Игорь Волгин. Ничей современник: Четыре круга Достоевского. М., Нестор-История, 2019.  ISBN 978–5–4469–1617–7. (Print and ebook)

This behemoth book (700+ pages) by Igor Volgin, professor of literature and journalism history and one of today’s most prolific Dostoevsky scholars, as well as a founder of the Dostoyevsky Foundation, offers a comprehensive biography of one of the world’s most seminal writers. Highlights include a newly researched literary history of A Writer’s Diary (based on previously unknown archival materials) and a discussion of the literary context surrounding Dostoevsky’s works, specifically links to influential contemporaries like Vasilly Rozanov and Ivan Ilyin.

Баршт, К. А. Достоевский: Этимология повествования. СПб, Нестор-История, 2019. ISBN 9785446916153 (Print and e-book)

Dostoyevsky is the gift that keeps on giving. This book delves into what the introduction calls the “writer’s creative laboratory” and is organized around five fundamental themes: “Biography/Plot”; “Novel/Context”, “Author/Narrator”, “Aesthetics/Ontology”, “Monolog/Dialog/Trialog.” Barsht, a scholar at RAN’s (Russian Academy of Sciences) Pushkinskii Dom, introduces new research and new ideas. Topics of investigation include whether V.P. Burenin inspired the character of Raskolnikov; traces of Christopher Columbus in “Crime and Punishment”; and other intriguing ideas and discoveries.

Александр Пушкин. Евгений Онегин. Подробный иллюстрированный комментарий. М., Проспект, 2019. ISBN: 9785392291052  (Print only).

What distinguishes this book from seemingly endless editions of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is its exhaustive illustrated commentary on all the questions that one might have while reading this canonical text. If you are a non-native Russian learner, you may find this edition particularly useful: one stanza per page is fringed with explanations what all these “кибитки,” “облучки,” “шлафор и чепец” and “альбомы нежных дев” mean and how they look.

SimplyE App Launches, Offering Instant Access to ProQuest Ebooks:

NYU Libraries just made ebook access more convenient. NYU users can read more than 150,000 ebooks (including textbooks) using the SimplyE app on a phone or tablet. Visit the research guide for instructions and more information. It is a pilot project and it will run through August 2021. During this beta test phase, the working group will conduct user testing and collect user feedback to improve the service. Feel free to send feedback to Here is the link to the full article.

Russian e-journals:

In case you missed an earlier announcement about nearly 40 Russian academic periodicals that we now subscribe to in e-format, here is the list of the titles.

All should be discoverable through the library catalog. They are linked to the catalog from the eLibrary digital platform which — along with our paid subscriptions — also provides access to many Open Access materials.

And finally:

Warm congratulations to our own Eliot Borenstein, whose book Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism just received the 2020 AATSEEL book prize in the category “Best Book in Cultural Studies.” I am happy to report that the book is available in print and e-version; the e-version is licensed for an unlimited number of users (NYU login credentials are required, of course).

In the next issue: more new books in Russian (history, political sciences + Central Asia/Caucasus/Siberia) and other news and updates.

Links to remember:

Suggest a purchase

Russian and Slavic Studies libguide (always the work in progress)

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Sex and Cold-War Technological Fixes, Part I

Like their counterparts among American defense intellectuals, Soviet engineers often imagined their work in sexual terms. Mating thus became a convenient shorthand for complex engineering couplings. Through the mid-1960s, docking simulations were popular events among space managers, engineers, and politicians in the secret Soviet space testing facility, a kind of mechanical peep show. “Hold the stallion,” said one engineer, positioning the probe at the entrance of the cone.

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On Studying and Teaching Lesser-Known Russian Writers

At every meeting of “The Other 19v,” a reading group devoted to discussing less-studied nineteenth-century Russian writers, we find new insights into this century of literary experimentation and cultural transformation. We are also currently working on a special issue of “Russian Literature” on the “unknown nineteenth century,” focused on less-studied writers. We are collecting abstract submissions for the issue until March 15; please contact Helen Stuhr-Rommereim or Vadim Shneyder if you are interested in contributing.

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