Melissa Frazier

AB, Harvard University. PhD, University of California-Berkeley. Special interests include the 19th-century novel and literature and the literary marketplace. Author of articles and books on topics including Pushkin, Senkovskii, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Russian Formalism. Awarded the 2007 Jean-Pierre Barricelli Prize for “Best Work in Romanticism Studies” by the International Conference of Romanticism for Romantic Encounters: Writers, Readers, and the “Library for Reading” (Stanford University Press, 2007). SLC, 1995–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Beginning Russian


At the end of this course, students will know the fundamentals of Russian grammar and will be able to use them to read, write, and, most especially, speak Russian on an elementary level. Successful language learning involves both creativity and a certain amount of rote learning; memorization gives the student the basis to then extrapolate, improvise, and have fun with the language. This course will lay equal emphasis on both. Our four hours of class each week will be spent actively using what we know in pair and group activities, dialogues, discussions, etc. Twice-weekly, written homework—serving both to reinforce old and to introduce new material—will be required. At the end of each semester, we will formalize—through small-group video projects—the principle of rigorous but creative communication that underlies all of our work. Students are required to attend weekly conversation classes with the Russian assistant; attendance at Russian Table is strongly encouraged.


Revolution and Utopia in Language: Russian Literature from Dostoevsky to Platonov


In his 1984 essay “Catastrophes in the Air,” the poet Joseph Brodsky suggests that, as its “every sentence drives the Russian language into a semantic dead end or, more precisely, reveals a proclivity for dead ends, a blind-alley mentality in the language itself,” Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1930) can be profitably read as a sequel to Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872). This course will frame a reading of Russian literature both before and after the 1917 Revolution with Brodsky’s insight. We will begin not with Demons but with the most important revolutionary and utopian text in Russian literature, Chernyshevsky’s novel-manifesto, What Is To Be Done? (1863). In response to Chernyshevsky, we will turn first to Demons and then to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) before considering Andrei Bely’s attempt in Petersburg (1916) to write both an explosion into the 20th century and also a culmination of all that has come before. We will then read from the wild burst of creativity in the 1920s as Russian literature fragmented into smaller forms—Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey (1923), Zamiatin’s We (1924), Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), Olesha’s Envy (1927)—before finishing with The Foundation Pit and what Brodsky sees as its essentially Dostoevskiian message: “Language is a millenarian device, history isn't.”

Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

Advanced Russian: St. Petersburg


This course is intended for students who are beyond the second-year level. Our aim will be to move away from grammar and into active reading, writing, watching, and speaking in Russian. In the fall semester, the course will center on the very rich artistic and cultural heritage of the city of St. Petersburg. We will start with Pushkin’s poem, The Bronze Horseman, and short story, The Queen of Spades, and then also consider Tchaikovsky’s rendering of the latter. We will also enjoy at least pieces of Gogol’s Petersburg Tales and Bely’s Petersburg. As we turn to the topic of the 1917 revolution, we will consider literary texts such as Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey, as well as films such as Eisenstein’s October and Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. We will then devote some time to the avant-garde writer Daniil Kharms. Kharms’ arrest and death in the early days of the siege of Leningrad brings us to another central moment in the city’s history, one that we will consider also in terms of documentary film, Tatiana Tolstaia’s short story, Sonia, and the life and music of Shostakovich. We will end the semester with Joseph Brodsky, both in his own writing and in the recent film, A Room and A Half. As the fall semester draws to a close, we will discuss possibilities for the spring; we might move to Moscow, for example, or focus on a particular text or writer. In both semesters, we will emphasize vocabulary acquisition along with the basics of Russian word morphology. Weekly conversation classes with the Russian assistant will be required, and attendance at Russian Table is strongly encouraged. The fall semester, at least, will also include biweekly film screenings.


Dostoevsky and the Age of Positivism


“Once it’s proved to you, for example, that you are descended from an ape, there’s no use making a wry face; just take it for what it is,” the Underground Man tells us. Lebeziatnikov attempts to educate the prostitute, Sonia, by lending her a copy of G.H. Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life. Ivan Karamazov rejects non-Euclidean geometry, while his brother Dmitri worries that chemistry will displace God: “Move over a little, Your Reverence, there’s no help for it, chemistry’s coming!” This one-semester course will frame a rich and multifaceted reading of Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov with an exploration of Dostoevsky’s complicated relationship to the newly emerging science of his day. We will consider Dostoevsky’s response in the context of the very many of his contemporaries also engaged in a new discourse of science, including Dostoevsky’s main ideological opponent, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, as well as writers whose more nuanced approach shaped Dostoevsky’s own: Balzac, Poe, Wilkie Collins, and George Eliot in Middlemarch. Finally, we will read some of the scientists and science writers whose works both influenced and were influenced by 19th-century European literature, including Darwin, Comte, the French physiologist Claude Bernard, and G.H. Lewes—not just a favorite of the fictional Lebeziatnikov but also the common-law husband of the real George Eliot. 


First-Year Studies: Dostoevsky and the West

Dostoevsky is often considered the most Russian of writers. He was, however, deeply influenced by his reading of contemporary Western European literature. Among Russian writers, he is also remarkable for the extent of his influence outside of Russia. This course will read Dostoevsky’s major novels in the context of the non-Russian works that precede and follow them. Our reading of Crime and Punishment, for example, will begin with Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Balzac and finish with Nabokov and Robert Bresson. While we will focus on Western Europe and the United States, we will also consider the work of at least two readers of Dostoevsky who claimed him from other parts of the world: J. M. Coetzee and Akira Kurosawa. Other texts will include Notes from Underground, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov, as well as works by Rousseau, Benjamin Constant, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Ralph Ellison, and Walker Percy.


Additional Information

Selected Syllabi

Selected Publications

Romantic Encounters: Writers, Readers and the “Library for Reading

Romantic Encounters: Writers, Readers and the “Library for Reading

Stanford University Press, 2007

Awarded the 2007 Jean-Pierre Barricelli Prize for “best work in Romanticism studies” by the International Conference of Romanticism.

Frames of the Imagination: Gogol’s Arabesques and the Romantic Question of Genre.

Frames of the Imagination: Gogol’s Arabesques and the Romantic Question of Genre.

Peter Lang Publishing, 2000.

“Преподавание Бахтина американским студентам”

Forthcoming: Диалог. Карнавал. Хронотоп. (2013).

“Balzacorama: Panoramic Vision in Nabokov’s Lolita”

Comparative Literature Studies. 48: 4 (2011) 486-511.

“Personae and Personality in O. I. Senkovskij”

Russian Literature. LVI-IV (2004) 343-362.

“Space and Genre in Gogol’‘s Arabeski”

Slavic and East European Journal, 43: 3 (1999).

“De-familiarizing the Tolstoj of Formalism”

Russian Literature. XLIV (1998) 143-158.

“Arabeski, Architecture and Printing,” in The Subject’s Space: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of Russia’s Golden Age”

eds. Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1998) 277-295.

“Kapitanskaja dočka and the Creativity of Borrowing”

Slavic and East European Journal, 37:4 (1993) 472-489.