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SL1: Introduction to Russian Culture

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.


This paper offers an interdisciplinary overview of key issues in Russian history, literature, the visual arts, and linguistics from the medieval period to the present. The paper is designed to introduce students to the analysis of a wide range of cultural artifacts and practices: its primary sources and prescribed texts include not only literary and historical documents, but also icons, buildings, paintings, posters, films, and monuments. The primary sources, topics, and methodologies explored in this paper are intended to provide both ab initio and post-A-level students of Russian with a solid foundation for more specialised study in Part IB and Part II.

The paper consists of seven topics (including one optional Linguistics topic) and one set text, Mikhail Lermontov's Geroi nashego vremeni [A Hero of Our Time]. The topics examine historical, literary, visual and linguistic materials produced between the 14th century and the present. They are presented in chronological order, each emphasising a different theme. Lectures will address both the immediate historical contexts and cultural impact of prescribed topics and texts, as well as their continuing resonance within contemporary Russian cultural debates.

Paper SLA3 (required of all students in Part IA, Option A) and Paper SL1 (required of all students in Part IA, Option B) follow the same course of lectures, but supervision arrangements, reading lists and examinations for the two papers have been designed to accommodate the differing language skills of students in Options A and B.

A mandatory organizational meeting for all students taking SLA3 and SL1 is ordinarily held on the Wednesday preceding the start of Michaelmas term.  Details of time and location are made available by the Slavonic Studies Section a few days before the meeting.


1. From Princedom to Tsardom
2. Linguistics (optional)
3. History and the State
4. The National Idea
5. City and Revolution
6. Ideology and Discourse
7. Identity after Communism

Preparatory reading: 

In order to be ready for the rapid pace of SL1: Introduction to Russian culture, please read the following before the start of the Michaelmas term:

1.    An overview of Russian history from the medieval period to the present

  •  Two good, basic (short) introductions are:
  •   Geoffrey Hosking, Russian History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012)
  •    Stephen Lovell, The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2008)

2.    Some background on Russian literature: 

  •   Caryl Emerson, The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (Cambridge, 2008): this book may be overwhelming as a whole before you have begun the course, but you would do well to look at Chapters 3 and 4 before you arrive, as these will provide useful background for the material we will be covering in the first term.

3.    ALL of Mikhail Lermontov, Geroi nashego vremeni [A Hero of Our Time] IN RUSSIAN. Please use the Bristol Classical Press edition, or a similar edition that is accented, glossed and annotated.
4.    As many as possible of the following (in Russian): 

  •  Alexander Pushkin, ‘Медный всадник’ [The Bronze Horseman, Bristol Classical Press edition recommended]
  •  Ivan Turgenev, ‘Певцы’ [Singers] from Записки охотника / A Huntsman's Sketches
  • Anna Akhmatova, ‘Реквием’ [Requiem]

All of the above may be found in their entirety online. A quick Google in Cyrillic will lead you to the relevant links.

Teaching and learning: 

Lectures will be held weekly in Michaelmas and Lent, and occasionally twice a week. No formal lectures will be offered in Easter. Students are urged to attend all lectures, as they provide the essential historical, cultural, and conceptual contexts for the work to be discussed in supervisions and examinations.

Students in SL1 will have three supervisions in Michaelmas, four in Lent, and three in Easter. All supervisions will be organized centrally through the Slavonic Studies Section. 

Students enrolled in SL1 will receive access to the Moodle site for this course after they receive their Raven ID.  The Moodle site contains links to course materials, handouts, essay titles, supervision tasks, past examination papers and many other learning resources.


The examination consists of three sections.

Section A:  A commentary on an extract drawn from Lermontov's Geroi nashego vremeni.

Section B: Three short responses, each of which will analyse either a brief extract from one of the primary texts assigned for the paper OR an image selected to complement the visual works studied in the paper. Of the three short responses, at least one response must analyse a written text and at least one most analyse an image.

Section C: Each candidate will write one essay question, selected from a list of seven pairs of questions (one pair for each topic).

*Students in SL1 must make substantive reference to material produced before 1800 in at least one answer in EITHER section B OR in section C.

Individuals with Raven passwords may download copies of recent examination papers from the Faculty Moodle site.

N.B. This paper was redesigned in 2010-2011 and again in 2023-2024; readings for the paper vary slightly each year in between.  In preparing for the examination students should rely only on the most recent reading list.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Anna Berman

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