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 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.

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 also offers 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 2023-2024 Courses

Beginning Russian

Open, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

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

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 screen plays 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.


Double Thoughts and Double Consciousness: Russian and African American Literature

Open, Large seminar—Fall

The Russian and African American literary traditions are marked by intersections as well as by affinities. As the African American press was already well aware in the 19th century, the great Russian poet and founder of the Russian literary tradition, Alexander Pushkin, was of partly African descent—a fact that he celebrated in his own writing. As, again, both Russians and African Americans recognized, the parallel institutions of serfdom and slavery ended at almost the same time: Serfs in Russia were emancipated in 1861; slaves in the United States, in 1863. In the 20th century, the Soviet experiment proved enormously appealing for African Americans seeking to escape the limitations of American racism; and, while Soviet writers explored issues of blackness, Black Americans traveled to the USSR. As significant as these points of intersection are, the two traditions are most strikingly marked by a similarly complicated approach to literary identity—what Fyodor Dostoevsky called “double thoughts” and W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” Just as African American writers in the 20th century wrote from a position on the margins of American culture, so Russians in the 19th century wrote from the edge of a European tradition that didn’t—and, in many respects, still doesn’t—include them. Besides Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Du Bois, writers/cultural figures considered in this class will include Nikolai Gogol, Edward P. Jones, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Paul Robeson. Note: As part of this “large seminar,” students will meet for biweekly conference in groups of three-to-five to pursue a course of reading intended to extend and deepen our class work. While students will be invited to offer their own suggestions, topics for small-group conferences might include: Serfdom and Slavery (Peter Kochin, Orlando Patterson, serf and slave narratives); Folk Authenticity (Gogol, I. S. Turgenev, Charles Chesnutt, Hurston); Black Americans and Red Russia (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, the 1936 Soviet film Circus, M. I. Tsvetaeva, M. A. Bulgakov); Russian Revolution and Utopian Dreams (N. G. Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky, A. Platonov); More Dostoevsky and/or Dostoevsky in other comparative contexts, including Richard Wright and French Existentialism; War and Peace and Russian identity; Ukraine/Eastern Europe Writes Back (A. Kurkov, S. Zhadan, E. Belorusets, O. Tokarczuk, S. Alexeivich, V. Martinowich)....


Concepts of the Mind: How Language and Culture Challenge Cognitive Science

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

How does the human mind represent the world? And how do these representations vary across people? Could knowing a different language change how we experience time or even how we see color? Even seemingly simple concepts like “in” vs. “on” mean different things in different cultures, and words like “one” and “two” may not be linguistically universal. Indeed, the very course description that you are reading makes culturally-specific assumptions about psychology and implicitly assumes objectivity. At the same time, humans seem to share certain core experiences, such as perceiving events, creating categories, and recalling the past. Which aspects are shared, and which are unique? In this course, we will draw on research from psycholinguistics, cognitive development, and cultural psychology to learn cognitive science in a larger context. Critically, we will consider how each of those fields have been severely constrained by an emphasis on white, Western, industrialized experiences. We will investigate the broader social and ethical consequences of these assumptions and explore insights and challenges that emerge when we step out of this limited perspective. We’ll draw on primary and secondary sources, including research articles, literature, videos, raw experimental data, and audio recordings. Students will develop projects in conference work that combine their interests with the course content, such as designing an experiment to test cross-linguistic differences in visual attention, analyzing vocabulary from languages other than English, or replicating and reinterpreting an existing experiment using culturally-responsive practices.


Creative Nonfiction

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Fall

This is a course for creative writers who are interested in exploring nonfiction as an art form. We will focus on reading and interpreting outside work—essays, articles, and journalism by some of our best writers—in order to understand what good nonfiction is and how it is created. During the first part of the semester, writing will be comprised mostly of exercises and short pieces aimed at putting into practice what is being illuminated in the readings; in the second half of the semester, students will create longer, formal essays to be presented in workshop.