Related disciplines

At a time of great crisis in Russia and in Ukraine, the study of Russian remains essential to the understanding of Russian politics, history, and culture. It is also an easy move from Russian to the study of other Slavic languages, including not just Ukrainian but also Belarusian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, etc.  The goal of the Russian language classes at Sarah Lawrence College is to teach students to speak, comprehend, read, and write a 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 write and film skits in small groups. In the second-year course, reading is also emphasized. Our texts range from avant-garde plays, children’s literature, and folk tales to poetry and short stories—often paired with filmed and recorded versions. 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 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.

While students of Russian are strongly encouraged to spend a semester or, ideally, a year abroad, the war in Ukraine has significantly changed the possibilities. Prior to the war, Sarah Lawrence students regularly attended 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. In the last year, our students have continued their study of Russian in Bishkek, Kyrghyzstan, as well as Daugavapils, Latvia; programs in Georgia, including in both Tbilisi and Batumi, also offer good options.

The Russian program includes courses taught in translation as part of the literature curriculum. Current and recent literature courses include: Double Thoughts and Double-Consciousness: Russian and African-American Literature; Signs of the Material World: Dostoevsky and 19th-Century Science; Dostoevsky and the West; The 19th-Century Russian Novel; and Intertextuality in the 20th-Century Russian Novel.

Students of Russian also pursue their interest in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia in many other areas of the College. While conference work can always be directed toward the student’s field of interest, courses focusing either entirely or in part on Russia and/or other areas in Eastern Europe and Eurasia are regularly offered in a number of disciplines, including history, film history, art history, and politics.

Russian 2024-2025 Courses

Beginning Russian

Open, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

RUSS 3001

At a time of great crisis in Russia and in Ukraine, the study of Russian remains essential to the understanding of Russian politics, history, and culture. It is also an easy move from Russian to the study of other Slavic languages, including not just Ukrainian but also Belarusian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, etc. To learn a new 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 change. As English speakers find themselves in 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 they 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 both 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. Note that students are required to meet with the Russian assistant weekly in addition to class; attendance at our weekly Russian Table is strongly encouraged.


Intermediate Russian

Intermediate, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

RUSS 3510

Prerequisite: one year of college-level Russian or the equivalent

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. While students are welcome to include films and/or music in their conference work, my hope is that we will use that time to focus on the written language. Whatever their individual focus, students will be asked to read short texts, including song lyrics and/or screenplays as well as short stories, with the aim of appreciating a very different culture and/or literature while also learning to read independently, accurately, and with as little recourse to the dictionary as possible.


Major Figures in 20th-Century European Poetry (in Translation)

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

Against the backdrop of the bloodiest half-century in human history, Continental European culture produced an astonishingly rich and diverse body of lyric poetry. Robert Frost famously remarked that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” But the unmistakable genius of modern European poetry survives its passage into English (inevitable losses notwithstanding), thanks in no small part to the inspired efforts of its translators. In this course, we will learn to hear the voices they have made available to English-language readers, often comparing multiple translations of a single poem or referring to the original in opposing-page editions. We will read selections from at least 12 poets translated from seven languages, including: Cavafy, Valéry, Rilke, Trakl, Pessoa, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Lorca, Cernuda, Montale, and Celan.


The 19th-Century Russian Novel

Open, Seminar—Fall

Henry James called them “baggy monsters”; for the Vicomte de Vogüé, they were not Romans, but Russians. This course will argue that the Russian novel is marked above all by its persistent posing of the question of form. We will begin with Bakhtin’s theory of the novel and also with Tolstoy’s essay, “A Few Words About War and Peace,” which claims that War and Peace is not a novel but only the latest in a long line of 19th-century Russian non-novels, including Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. We will read all of these works and more, as we attempt to answer the double question that Tolstoy raises—not just “What is the ‘novel’?” but also “What do we mean by ‘Russia’?”


In the Shadow of Russia: Language, Literature, and Identity in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus

Open, Seminar—Spring

The conflation of Russian nationalism and Russian imperialism that so often marks our understanding of cultural production in the Russian and Soviet empires, as well as in the post-Soviet space, has often gone unnoticed in the West. As the extraordinary resistance of Ukraine in the face of current Russian aggression makes clear, a remapping of that literary landscape is long overdue. This course will draw on some historical context while centering our attention on the extraordinary flowering of contemporary Polish, Belarusian, and Ukrainian literature. We will begin with the Polish context and Adam Mickiewicz’s long narrative poem, Pan Tadeusz (1834), written at a time when Poland had been wiped off the map as an independent state. We will then shift to the 20th century to take in cultural production in and around World War II, still a touchstone for this part of the world, including the blend of the real and the fantastic in the short stories of Bruno Schulz, as well as Andrzej Wajda’s tribute to the Solidarity movement in his 1977 film, Man of Marble. We will then turn to the 21st century and two novels by the 2018 Nobel prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk: Flights (2007) and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009). In our reading of Ukrainian literature, we will again start with a 19th-century poet, Taras Shevchenko, as well as Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian who has long been read as a canonical figure in the Russian tradition. We will then jump to the late 20th and early 21st centuries with Oksana Zabuzhko’s influential Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), as well as works by writers including Evgenia Belorusets, Serhiy Zhadan, and Andriy Kurkov. We will end the course with a brief look at the Belarusian tradition, starting with World War II and the short stories of Soviet-Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau (in Russian, Vasil Bykov), as well as Soviet-Ukrainian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s adaptation of Bykau’s The Ordeal in her 1977 film, The Ascent. We will then read Voices From Chernobyl (1997) by another recent Nobel prize winner, Svetlana Alexievich, before finishing with Alhierd Baharevich and the extraordinary decision of his translators to echo Baharevich’s own use of two different languages in Alindarka's Children (2014)—in Petra Reid and Jim Dingley’s 2020 translation, the Russian language of the novel is translated into English and the Belarusian into Scots.