The goal of the Russian language classes at Sarah Lawrence College is to teach students to speak, comprehend, read, and write a fascinating language with a logic very different from that of English. Oral proficiency is the focus of the first-year class, culminating in end-of-semester projects where students, in small groups, write and film skits. In the second-year course, reading is also emphasized. We include short stories and poetry, as well as texts paired with films. Topics, texts, and authors covered in the advanced class vary widely, and student input is strongly encouraged. Past syllabi have included works by authors such as Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Tsvetaeva, Bulgakov, and Pelevin, as well as films. Student work in class and conference is also supplemented by weekly meetings with the language assistant and by a variety of extracurricular activities, including a weekly Russian Table, Russian opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and excursions to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa.”

Students of Russian are strongly encouraged to spend a semester or, ideally, a year abroad. Sarah Lawrence students regularly attend a variety of programs, including: Middlebury College’s School in Russia, with sites in Moscow, Irkutsk, and Yaroslavl; Bard College’s program at the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg; the Moscow Art Theatre School Semester through Connecticut College; ACTR in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Vladimir; and CIEE.

The Russian program also offers courses taught in translation as part of the literature curriculum. Recent literature courses include: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul: Pushkin and Blackness, Serfs and Slaves, Black Americans and Red Russia; Dostoevsky and the West; The 19th-Century Russian Novel; and Intertextuality in the 20th-Century Russian Novel. More generally, students of Russian also pursue their interest in Russia and Eastern Europe in many other areas of the College. Conference work always may be directed toward the student’s field of interest. Courses focusing either entirely or in part on Russia and/or Eastern Europe are regularly offered in a number of disciplines, including history, film history, dance history, and philosophy.

Russian 2022-2023 Courses

Beginning Russian

Open, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

To learn another language is to open yourself to another worldview, both as you gain entry into another culture and as your own sense of self is transformed. In another language, you are still you; but the tools that you use to create and express that identity do change. As English speakers find themselves in Russia and learning Russian, they first need to come to terms with an often complicated grammar. We will tackle that aspect of our work through a degree of analytical thought, a great deal of memorization, and the timely completion of our often lengthy, biweekly homework assignments. Even as I encourage students to reflect on the very different means of expression that Russian offers, I also ask that students engage in basic—but fully functional—conversational Russian at every point along the way. Our four hours of class each week will be devoted to actively using what we know in pair and group activities, role play, dialogues, skits, songs, etc. As a final project at the end of each semester, students will create their own video skits. In addition to class, students are required to meet weekly with the Russian assistant; attendance at our weekly Russian Table is strongly encouraged.


Intermediate Russian

Intermediate, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

At the end of this course, students should feel that they have a fairly sophisticated grasp of Russian and the ability to communicate in Russian in any situation. After the first year of studying the language, students will have learned the bulk of Russian grammar; this course will emphasize grammar review, vocabulary accumulation, and regular oral practice. Class time will center on the spoken language, and students will be expected to participate actively in discussions based on new vocabulary. Regular written homework will be required, along with weekly conversation classes with the Russian assistant; attendance at Russian Table is strongly encouraged. Conference work will focus on the written language. Students will be asked to read short texts by the author(s) of their choice, with the aim of appreciating a very different culture and/or literature while learning to read independently, accurately, and with as little recourse to the dictionary as possible.


Specters of the Subject: Hauntologies of Ghosts, Phantasms, and Imaginings in Contemporary Life

Advanced, Seminar—Fall

“The future belongs to the ghosts,” remarked the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1996. His interlocutor, Bernard Stiegler, phrases the main idea behind this statement: “Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts.” With the advent of the internet, various forms of social media, and the ubiquity of filmic images in our lives, Derrida’s observations have proven to be quite prophetic, such that they call for a new field of study—one that requires less an ontology of being and the real and more a “hauntology” (to invoke Derrida’s punish term) of the spectral, the virtual, the phantasmic, the imaginary, and the recurrent revenant. In this seminar, we consider ways in which the past and present are haunted by ghosts. Topics to be covered include: specters and hauntings, figures and apparitions, history and memory, trauma and political crisis, fantasy and imagination, digital interfaces, and visual and acoustical images. We will be considering a range of films and video, photography, literary texts, acoustic reverberations, internet and social media, and everyday discourses and imaginings. Through these inquiries, we will be able to further our understanding of the nature of specters and apparitions in the contemporary world in their many forms and dimensions. Students will be invited to undertake their own hauntologies and, thus, craft studies of the phenomenal force of specters, hauntings, and the apparitional in particular social or cultural contexts.


The Path to Putin

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Vladimir Putin has now been the dominant figure in Russian politics for more than 20 years. He has presided over the creation of an autocratic system of government in his country that is very different from the system that the friends of democracy hoped would emerge in Russia after the collapse of Communist Party rule. He has also made Russia one of the most unpredictable and feared state actors on the international scene. This course will attempt to shed light on the Putin phenomenon by placing him, his regime, and his policies in their historical context. We will examine the political culture of the Soviet Union in its final decades and the role played in the Soviet system by the KGB, the internal security and espionage apparatus in which Putin and many of his closest associates began their careers. We will trace the demise of single-party rule and the crack-up of the Soviet empire under Mikhail Gorbachev, the final president of the USSR. We will examine the reign of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia and the man who anointed Putin his successor in 1999. We will look at the revisionist narrative of Russian and Soviet history elaborated by Putin and other influential figures during the past quarter-century. We will examine Putin’s dealings with the “Near Abroad” (the now-independent republics that used to be components of the Soviet Union), especially Ukraine. We will look at the long history of Russia’s highly ambivalent attitudes toward the West and at various manifestations of this ambivalence in contemporary Russia. Finally, we will explore some of the rival theories recently put forward about the ultimate nature of the Putin regime, its internal dynamics, and the aims of its aggressive conduct toward its neighbors and Western rivals.


Signs of the Material World: Dostoevsky and 19th-Century Science

Open, Seminar—Spring

“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 says; Lebeziatnikov, in Crime and Punishment, attempts to educate the prostitute Sonia by lending her a copy of G. H. Lewes’s pioneering work in physiological psychology, The Physiology of Common Life. Ivan Karamazov rejects non-Euclidean geometry, while his brother Dmitrii worries that chemistry will displace God: “Move over a little, Your Reference, 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 view of the interrelationships of mind and body and mind and material world. We will consider Dostoevsky’s response in the context of the very many of his contemporaries engaged in a new discourse of science, including his main ideological opponent, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, as well as writers whose more sophisticated approach helped shape Dostoevsky’s own: Balzac, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Dickens, George Eliot. We will also read some of the scientists and science writers whose works both influenced and were influenced by 19th-century European literature, including Darwin; French philosopher Auguste Comte and physiologist Claude Bernard; American philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce; and the English George Henry Lewes—the last-named not just a favorite of the fictional Lebeziatnikov but the common-law husband of the real George Eliot. As part of the Sarah Lawrence Interdisciplinary Collaborative on the Environment (SLICE) Mellon course collaborative, we will also finally put our own bodies and minds to work in the material world. While students are welcome to devote conference time to further work in literature and/or the intersections of literature and science, fieldwork addressing current issues in the environment is also encouraged. Over the course of the semester, we will also bring Dostoevsky and the insights of 19th-century science and politics to a wider audience as we participate in two two-week interludes devoted to climate justice and involving collaborative projects and research together with students and faculty from across the College and at Bronx Community College.