Freedom of Thought, Freedom to Learn: Recovering Marc Slonim

Russian scholar and one-time revolutionary Marc Slonim fled the repression spreading across wartime Europe to lead a prolific academic career at Sarah Lawrence.

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Marc SlonimOn a cold January day in 1918, while a civil war ravaged Russia, Marc Slonim (literature faculty emeritus) and his Socialist-Revolutionary colleagues knew they risked death as they marched to the Tauride Palace in Saint Petersburg, where they hoped to draft a new constitution in support of a more democratic country. Slonim, just 23 years old, was the youngest delegate to the Constituent Assembly in Petrograd, the first democratically elected legislative body in Russian history. As he and his comrades stood in the courtyard waiting for the Assembly to begin, they could hear Bolshevik troops open fire on the crowds gathered outside. By midnight, the Bolsheviks and their supporters began to leave the meeting. The Socialist-Revolutionaries refused to budge, though they knew the Bolsheviks would bring back trucks and planned to arrest them. When the Assembly ended at 4 a.m., Slonim managed to escape.

A child of the intelligentsia, fluent in four languages since the age of 12, Slonim ran in privileged circles. He often exploited his connections on behalf of clandestine Socialist-Revolutionary causes. “I took for granted that one should fight for the liberation of the people, for freedom and social justice,” he wrote. In all arenas of life, he “rejected fanaticism, intolerance, and dogmatism.”

As the Russian Empire died and the communist Soviet Union came into being, tens of millions of people were caught up in anarchy and bloodshed. Along with more than two million others, Slonim fled the country. His dreams of a different Russia, one in which all people could flourish, fluttered away like ash in the breeze.

In 2012, almost a century after the final meeting of the Constituent Assembly, Melissa Frazier (Russian) was teaching in Russia on a Fulbright scholarship when she was asked to deliver a presentation to her fellow scholars about Sarah Lawrence. She talked about William Van Duzer Lawrence and John Dewey, and shared that in the 1930s émigrés from Europe began teaching at the College. “One name will be really familiar to you: Marc Slonim,” she said. Frazier heard a gasp in the audience.

Frazier shared Slonim’s name to give her audience a sense of the College’s repute. He is well known as a tour de force in the field of Russian literature, one of poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s editors, and the first to publish, in 1927, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian novel We in its original Russian, in the journal he edited, Volya Rossii (Russia’s Will). After Frazier’s presentation, another professor hurried up to her to ask, “What did Marc Slonim do at Sarah Lawrence?” Frazier had to admit she didn’t know.

The exchange launched Frazier into a whirlwind of research. Today she’s hell-bent on sharing what Slonim means to Sarah Lawrence and the important lessons he has to teach us.

“Boston University sent him a birthday card every year recruiting his papers—that’s how well known he was,” Frazier explains. “But now he’s vanished.”

Events of the 20th century led countless Russian intellectuals, professionals, writers, and artists to immigrate to the West. A short list of such luminaries includes aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, writer Vladimir Nabokov, and linguist Roman Jakobson. Slonim fled across Siberia in 1918 under an assumed name. Eventually he earned his PhD in Florence and spent time in Prague and France. In 1922 he wrote one of his most talked-of books, From Peter the Great to Lenin. That year he returned to Prague to join the editorial board of Volya Rossii. From 1927 to 1938, he alternated between Prague and Paris, but the German occupation of France in 1941 forced him to flee yet again. This time he settled in New York.

Sarah Lawrence hired Slonim in 1943 as a guest replacement to teach Russian history. His salary was $750 per semester. From that modest start, Slonim’s scholarly career began to acquire its formidable shape, as he produced a steady stream of literary-critical works and continued writing for the émigré Russian press. His books included The Epic of Russian Literature from Its Origins through Tolstoy (1950), Three Loves of Dostoevsky (1953), and An Outline of Russian Literature(1958). He produced more than a dozen books in all and hundreds of magazine articles, including more than 200 for The New York Times Book Review. But despite Slonim’s prolific output, Frazier says, most scholars in her field don’t read him as a very compelling critic. “Literary scholarship has changed significantly since the ’50s and ’60s,” she explains. Slonim did a lot more in the way of plot summary—but in the polarized world of the Cold War, even plot summary was hugely important. “He was one of the few in the West actually reading what was being written in the Soviet Union with the recognition that there were still great writers who had stayed behind,” Frazier says. “So even if we don’t pick up his books to get insight into literature, we look at him as an incredibly significant figure in the phenomenon of Russian émigré culture.”

As Russian intellectuals and artists immigrated to other countries in the first half of the 20th Century, their work was lost to their fellow Russians who stayed behind. In Russia, Frazier says, "Nobody knew what they were doing." Slonim is one such intellectual whose story has mostly been lost. "There is a movement in Russia right now to recover the history of those people," Frazier says.

Moreover, ideological concerns—both on the American side of the Cold War and in the more conservative émigré community—led many in the field of Russian literature to ignore the work being done in the Soviet Union. Popular émigré intellectuals, including Nabokov, called such work didactic propaganda, or worse. Slonim did not share Nabokov’s view. His literary criticism remained free of dogma.

"He grew up determined to transform an authoritarian state and to empower people and students to learn."- Melissa Frazier

As the unpublished memoirs of his younger years recount, he had always possessed an extraordinary openness to people of all kinds, from soldiers and sailors to princes and countesses. His syllabi reveal that he taught a wide range of Soviet, Russian, and European literature. “He would read anything,” Frazier says, “and then say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ He was always interested, always inquiring, always open to different possibilities.”

Slonim’s advocacy of Tsvetaeva is emblematic of his democratic approach to literature. Until the 1960s, Tsvetaeva was largely unknown in Russian émigré communities, known for their aesthetic and political conservatism. Many émigrés considered her work too radical. (Slonim had once written of “the revolutionary spirit” in her “strange and unusual poetry.”) Tsvetaeva’s politics (or lack thereof) also gave her no place in Soviet Russia, Frazier says. Slonim, however, championed her work and published her writing in Volya Rossii, including her now-famous poem The Pied Piper. Slonim remained her strong advocate and friend until her suicide in 1941.

Slonim’s ability to connect with people—intellectually and personally—extended to his work as a professor. Donnee Joelle Sander ’63 recalls his thick Russian accent and a generous laugh that reflected the enjoyment he took from interacting with students. “He took us seriously and one could feel that, too,” she says. “He attended to each of us because he was palpably eager for us to learn and grow intellectually and in terms of life’s important values.

“His teaching was never slipshod, never hurried. He allowed us time to think out issues in terms of literature and, in donning sessions, what we were experiencing in our personal lives. He brought literature alive. All the characters were right next to us—in our midst. Literature was something we literally learned life from, seeing it as more than just story.” Sander became a writer and painter after graduating from Sarah Lawrence, and she and her husband named their first son after Slonim.

During the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, Slonim testified before the Jenner Committee, whose members inquired as to the existence of communists at Sarah Lawrence. Slonim’s response served as a candid endorsement for the College: “I do not think that communist propaganda and the so-called communist infiltration is possible at Sarah Lawrence. ... [We] have an alert student body which would not let anybody indoctrinate them, [and] our method of teaching is based on independent research and freedom of thought and discussion.”

Given his narrow escape from the Bolsheviks in 1918, Frazier says, "One can only wonder if Slonim didn’t also derive considerable amusement from the irony of the entire situation.” After Slonim’s testimony, President Harold Taylor wrote an effusive letter—one of many such letters—to express his respect for Slonim and to increase his salary.

When Frazier began her research into Slonim, she came across his Wikipedia page in Russian (he doesn’t have one in English) and quickly noticed it incorrectly stated he taught at St. Lawrence. “It was the first time I’ve ever corrected something on Wikipedia,” she says, laughing. “There’s a reason it’s Sarah Lawrence, not St. Lawrence. He grew up deter-mined to transform an authoritarian state and to empower people and students to learn.” The Sarah Lawrence pedagogy was a perfect fit for Slonim, Frazier says. “The idea of independent work, of self-directed work—that kind of do-it-your-self thing,” she says. “If you want to learn, let's learn."

On the occasion of Slonim’s retirement in 1962, the College sent out a fundraising request with a statement from Slonim —which President Karen Lawrence would quote five decades later in her 2014 commencement address—that read in part: “I like a school where learning is a mutual process of give and take, and education is aimed at a better knowledge of life and of ourselves. ... I like the feeling of a common enterprise, of a common effort the success of which depends on all of us—teachers and students in equal measure.” In retirement, Slonim settled in Geneva, where he continued writing and worked as a consultant for Sarah Lawrence’s program in Switzerland.

A half century later, Frazier is proud to teach Russian and comparative literature at the same college where Slonim taught. She likes to believe her democratic teaching style reflects his as well. Her current First Year Studies course, “Dostoevsky and the West,” includes all but one of Dostoevsky’s major novels but also works by Honoré de Balzac, J.M. Coetzee, Charles Dickens, Ralph Ellison, Victor Hugo, Akira Kurosawa, Walker Percy, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

“Sarah Lawrence faculty members are given an enormous amount of freedom to teach what they want,” Frazier says. “You had better give students something real, which is meaningful and anchored in serious and disciplined thought. Slonim did that, but he did so while still giving his students the freedom to learn. This is progressive education at its best. He’s the ideal of what we’re trying to do.”