Announcing: Working Group on 19th-century Russian Culture and Literature

Attention, friends and colleagues!

We’re pleased to announce the organization of an informal working group devoted to the literature, art, and culture of Russia in the nineteenth century. As a first step, the NYU Jordan Center blog (All the Russias) has agreed to host an Occasional Series of posts devoted to the period. Perhaps our initiative will eventually lead to a conference (or conferences), since one of our goals is to bring together academics from North America, Europe and Russia, but our primary aims are to draw attention to scholarly work on the nineteenth century and to encourage intellectual exchange. Please see the end of this document for practical details. We welcome your participation!


Dostoevsky + 11 time zones: it’s why Russian studies is never going away. Or at least that’s what I was taught in graduate school—and indeed the brilliant cultural production of the nineteenth century has long drawn students and scholars to the Russia field. But as the literature of this period grows more distant from our own moment (is the nineteenth century the new eighteenth century?), we encounter both framing challenges and intellectual opportunities. What does nineteenth-century culture mean for us today?

Centuries are imaginary entities that we use to manage the flux of time. For historians of Russia and Europe, until 1989/91, the nineteenth century served as “the origin story of the present” (as noted in the description of last November’s ASEEES roundtable “What Was—and When Was—Russia’s 19th Century?”). But in recent years the era’s relationship to our own time has become less obvious. New scholarship in European and world history has taken advantage of this distance to ask large synthesizing questions (as we see in books like Jürgen Osterhammel’s Transformation of the World). Historians of Russia are beginning to explore similar topics, reflecting on the period’s boundaries and overall significance.

We believe that our approaches to nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture could benefit from such reflection. Particularly in Western scholarship on Russia, we have tended to organize our inquiries around certain familiar categories, foremost among them the author function. While we recognize the fundamental importance of such categories, we also welcome opportunities to focus on others. To that end, listed below are examples of questions that might inform our work.

Periodization issues: is there a long (or a short?) nineteenth century in literary and artistic culture? What are the texts, dates and events that typically serve as dividing lines, and to what extent are they the same or different across sub-fields and approaches? For instance, how can we most productively conceive of the relationship between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian culture? Should we be trying to bring together the study of the pre- and post-Reform periods? Does the literary nineteenth century end in 1917?

When is it most useful to focus on Russian cultural production’s place in larger European and world systems, and when is it important to insist on its particularity?

What does “realism” signify in the Russian context? What about “World Literature”?

How are we to understand the relationship between literature and the Imperial state? For example, what is the significance of the fact that many writers (Sollogub, Goncharov, Melnikov, Shchedrin, Leskov … ) were in government service at one time or another, and that virtually all professional artists were state employees, dependent on state institutions for their training and employment and on government commissions for their livelihood? How did the particular nature of the state-society relationship in Russia shape not just writers’ and artists’ lives, but the literary and artistic forms they produced?

How can we bring together Russian and non-Russian scholars so that “native” and “non-native” approaches can learn from each other? Are Western academics sufficiently aware of Russian and Soviet scholarship? How are Western approaches to Russian literature and art received in Russia today?

How do we deal with “minorness” in an era of very major writers?

How is what we call “Russian” literature embedded in ongoing histories of empire, colonization, exclusion, extraction, etc., and how are our own ways of reading and seeing affected by these histories? What might it mean to “decolonize” Russian studies, and in what ways is such a metaphor—developed, of course, in very different contexts—suitable to our field? How might Russianists add nuance to (Western) conversations about race and ethnicity?

What constitutes the canon of nineteenth-century women writers and how do we make these voices heard? How can we integrate questions of gender into our teaching of both women’s and men’s texts, especially given that the Woman Question animates so much intellectual and artistic discourse of the period? How does the position of women writers in Russia compare to that of women writers elsewhere, and what can the Russian tradition contribute to feminist theoretical approaches generally?

How can we incorporate non-textual media (visual, musical, performative, material) into our work, and how might such materials reorient—or productively destabilize—the literary canon?

Are we paying sufficient attention to the transnational networks—particularly Slavic/East European/Eurasian—that helped animate Russian art and thought in the nineteenth century?

Should we focus more on integrating the study of poetry and prose? Prose and drama?

How can we interest undergraduate and graduate students in nineteenth-century culture at a time when the present moment’s concerns are more urgent than ever? In other words—and this speaks to far larger questions in the academy—how can we work to counter the presentism that threatens to distort our understanding of art and its place in the world?

Of course we don’t expect that everyone’s work will directly address the issues we’ve listed. Rather, it’s our hope that keeping an eye on such questions will help us take advantage of a transitional moment in the study of Russian culture.

Once we have a sense of who’d like to participate, we can determine how best to proceed: it might be as simple as a shared google doc keeping track of everyone’s interests so as to encourage collaboration, or it might be something more elaborate. Please email one of us if you’re interested in being involved, and consider submitting a short piece of writing to our Occasional Series (19v.) on the Jordan Center blog. As we work to get the initiative underway, we especially welcome pieces that reflect on the larger issues we face as scholars of the nineteenth century.

Anne Lounsbery, New York University

Sara Dickinson, Università di Genova

Ornella Discacciati, Università di Bergamo

Bella Grigoryan, University of Pittsburgh

Ilya Kliger, New York University

Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

Margaret Samu, Parsons School of Design and Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vadim Shneyder, University of California at Los Angeles

Helen Sturh-Rommereim, University of Pennsylvania

Alexey Vdovin, Higher School of Economics, Moscow

Kirill Zubkov, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, and Institute of Russian Literature, St. Petersburg