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‘Students Should Read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy Because They Help Readers See beyond the Noise of Our Present’

‘Students Should Read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy Because They Help Readers See beyond the Noise of Our Present’

© Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

On September 23, the HSE School of Philological Studies launched the third season of its international academic workshop on ‘The 19th-Century Russian Novel: Corpus, Poetics, Social Imaginary’. We talked to Alexey Vdovin, Associate Professor at the School of Philological Studies, about the workshop’s plans and international cooperation, as well as to Ani Kokobobo, Chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, who opened this year’s workshop with her report ‘Strange Bedfellows – Leo Tolstoy and Andrea Dworkin’.

Russian Novel in International Studies

Alexey Vdovin
© Elizaveta Sysoeva

My academic network has expanded a lot over the last few years, and includes colleagues from Russian institutions and international research centres in the humanities. They are colleagues who study the history of Russian novels: Ilya Kliger (NYU) and Damiano Rebecchini (University of Milan), as well as Anne Lounsbery (NYU), Muireann Maguire (Exeter), Anna Berman (Cambridge), Margarita Vaysman (St Andrews), Kirill Ospovat (Madison) and others. We already have a programme for our online academic workshop on ‘The Russian Novel’ for the autumn semester. It includes presentations by Ani Kokobobo (University of Kansas), Boris Orekhov (HSE), Pavel Uspensky (HSE), Andrey Fedotov (MSU) and Alexey Kozlov (Novosibirsk Teacher Training University).

The subjects of these studies are Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Avdotya Panaeva and Dmitry Grigorovich. As you can see, half of them are canonical, globally renowned authors, while the other half are less famous authors unknown even to many Russian native speakers. Many may have heard of them, but probably haven’t read them. This shows that modern studies of novels as the leading contemporary prosaic genre involve addressing a wide range of texts beyond the classics studied at school. This doesn’t mean we are going to change the canon, not at all. We are simply broadening our outlook. Luckily, modern methods (including computer ones) allow us to do that.

We see sustainably high demand for Russian novels from the 1880s to the present day. This is a kind of plateau. Of course, it consists of key writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Andrey Bely, Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn.

However, modern Russian novels are just as interesting to international readers as novels by Elena Ferrante, Amos Oz, Winfried Sebald, and Orhan Pamuk are to Russian readers

The reason for this is simple: readers always want to read about experiences that are different from their own, which are inevitably limited by their mother tongue and place of residence. Novels from other cultures provide an opportunity to expand our boundaries and experience things we are unlikely to experience in real life. Regarding form, international readers have always valued the unique writing style of Russian novels, which is different from classical European and American works.

Not Only Novels…

In addition to the workshop on Russian novels, we are working with a large team of authors to prepare a monograph for the HSE Publishing House. Entitled ‘Literary Institutions in 19th-Century Russia’, it is the result of our three-year grant project. At the end of the year, the HSE Publishing House will release a book that I prepared—a collection of unique letters written in the mid-19th century by common women to Nikolay Dobrolyubov and Nikolay Chernyshevsky. I am very hopeful that the final stage of this work will go smoothly.

The third area of work this year is the creation of the National Corpus of 18th–20th-Century Russian Novels. I’m working on it with my HSE colleagues Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya, Kirill Maslinsky, Boris Orekhov, Ilya Bendersky and our students as part of our major project ‘Literature as Social Practice and Cultural Experience’.

The idea of the project is to create products (resources, search systems) and studies relevant to Russia and other countries about the circulation of Russian literature in society, about how it is built into everyday experiences and impacts them

In particular, it is well known that Russian novels, from Pushkin and Gogol to Pelevin and Prilepin have, for over 200 years, impacted the way people understand their place in the world, how they see their country and its relations with the world around it. Once we have a representative number of novels in our corpus, we’ll be able to learn more not just about the evolution of the genre itself, but also about how certain ideas evolve within it. At the same time, my colleague Pavel Uspensky and I are looking at novels (and other texts) that were reproduced in school dictation assignments in the 20th century, in dictionaries (as word use examples) and the recollections of Gulag prisoners.

This is the breadth of the social cross-section we are getting: from classrooms to prison cells

Russian Literature vs. TikTok

Ani Kokobobo started her cooperation with HSE University in 2017 through communication with Alexey Vdovin. This presentation was her first virtual public speech at the HSE workshop. She shared her experience of analyzing Tolstoy texts and what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can give modern students.

Ani Kokobobo
Photo courtesy of Ani Kokobobo

I grew up in Albania and Russian literature was extremely highly regarded and available there, so that was how I became familiar with 19th century Russian novels at first. My parents and family friends all read Russian literature.

As a college student in the US, I took a course on Tolstoy my freshman year in college — I studied a number of other subject (Classics, History), but ultimately kept gravitating back to Russian literature and the unique perspective that 19th century Russian writers provided.

There was something about Tolstoy's respect for truth and speaking truths and Dostoevsky's ability to capture human compassion that was deeply compelling to me 

There is a traditional understanding of Tolstoy as a writer who is misogynistic. While I understand where this idea come from, and see some truth in it, I also think it has limited our understanding of Tolstoy's very interesting ideas about gender, which are far deeper than misogyny. Misogyny is quite superficial as a concept, and Tolstoy always goes into the depths of human experience.

Also, I think the field of 19th century Russian literature is very conservative and has not sufficiently engaged with questions of gender and sexuality. I recently finished a book on Tolstoy and sex/gender, and it is incredible to me that this book was not written twenty years ago. 

I think that familiarity with Russian literature and the ability to immerse oneself into the world of Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky gives young people a tremendous advantage in today's world

There is a lot of social media surface engagement and polarized political discourse on the world wide web. Works of art like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment force students to confront the depth of human experience in themselves and others. They should read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy because they help readers see beyond the noise of our present and think more critically about their lives. 19th century novels present perpetual questions about life, death, love, and the meaning of human existence.

The question of "how does one live one's life" is not one that young people can find an answer for on TikTok 

I am now working on a short book on the Tolstoy marriage and also on an article on Siberia in the 19th century Russian novel. And I would love to do a joint even with HSE University — maybe an event on questions of gender and 19th century Russian literature.

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