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SL14: Russian Culture from 1895 to the Death of Stalin

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

The Russian twentieth century was an age of transformations - of revolution, of the Soviet Union, and of its collapse. In cultural terms, it was extraordinarily rich and varied.

This paper covers the period from the first ‘revolution’ in 1905, through 1917, to the death of Stalin in 1953. It travels from the poetry, film and theatre of the ‘Silver Age’, through the revolutionary experiments of avant-garde writers and film-makers, to the feel-good ideological texts of Stalinist Socialist Realism. In the fraught political arena of Soviet Russia, literature and culture were formed in relation to state imperatives, which could be accepted or rejected, but which were difficult to ignore. The texts that we study in this paper provide a wide variety of responses to the particular contexts of early twentieth-century Russia, and reveal the remarkable creativity that flourished, perhaps paradoxically, in that world.

This paper offers the chance to tackle texts of different kinds (novels, poetry, drama, short stories), work with different media (written texts, film, visual and performing arts), and different modes of cultural enquiry (literary criticism and theory, intellectual and cultural history).

The paper is divided into two sections. Section A examines two set texts: Isaac Babel’s cycle of Civil War stories Konarmiia (1926) and Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master i Margarita (1928-1940).  Section B offers four thematic topics. Each of these topics will require you to think across disciplinary boundaries, to make connections among texts produced in a range of media, and to explore both verbal and visual modes of cultural expression. 




Set Texts

Isaac Babel’, Konarmiia (1926)

Mikhail Bulgakov, Master i Margarita (various editions)




Topic 1: Crises of Representation

Please note that prior to every supervision you will have a discussion with your supervisor in which particular sources are recommended/selected.

Recommended primary sources:

Anton Chekhov, Diadia Vania; Vishnevyi sad.

Selected poetry by Aleksandr Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandel'shtam (see below under ‘Preparatory Reading’)

Aleksandr Blok, Balagan (play); Vsevolod Meierkho’d, ‘O balagane’ (about the staging of that play)

Extracts from Blok, “Krushenie gumanizma”; “O naznachenii poeta”


Topic 2: Opportunities: Revolutions in Art and Society

Recommended primary sources:

Selected poetry by Velimir Khlebnikov (see below); Futurist manifestos: ‘Poshcheshchina obshchestvennomu vkusu’; ‘Slovo kak takovoe’. Optional: Vladimir Maiakovskii, ‘Vladimir Maiakovskii: Tragediia’

Sergei Eisenstein, Stachka (1924); Visual art by Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin.

Maiakovskii, Misteriia-Buf (1B read only prologue).

Evgenii Zamiatin, “O literature, revoliutsii i entropii’.


Topic 3: New Minds, New Bodies

Recommended primary sources:

Iurii Olesha, Zavist’ (novel, 1927)
Mikhail Zoshchenko, Rasskazy (short stories from the 1920s: see especially: Grimasа NEPa, Bania, Krizis, Aristokratka).

Aleksandra Kollontai, Liubov’ pchel trudovykh (novel, 1924)

Boris Barnet, Dom na Trubnoi (film, 1927)

Abram Room, Tret’ia Meshchanskaia (film, 1929)

Topic 4: Stalin’s Subjects

Recommended primary sources: 
Abram Room, Strogii iunosha (film, 1936)
Grigorii Aleksandrov, Svetlyi put’ (film, 1940)

Aleksandr Medvedkin, Novaia Moskva (film, 1938)

Ivan Py’rev, Partiinyi bilet (film, 1936)

Andrei Platonov, Dzhan (novel, 1932)

Dziga Vertov, Tri pesni o Lenine (film, 1934)


Preparatory reading: 


Students who are planning to take SL14 are advised to read the following texts in preparation for the Michaelmas Term:

Anton Chekhov, any (or all) of the four plays, especially Diadia Vania; Vishnevyi sad
Poetry by Aleksandr Blok (including 'K Muze', ‘Kak tiazhelo khodit' sredi liudei’, ‘Utikhaet svetlyi veter’, ‘Dolor ante lucem’, ‘V restorane’); Anna Akhmatova (including ‘Vecherom’, ‘Mne ni k chemu odicheskie rati,’ ‘Szhala ri ruki pod temnoi vual'iu’); Mandel'shtam (‘Zvuk ostorozhnyi i glukhoi’, ‘Silentium’)
Isaak Babel’, Konarmiia
Also Blok's play Balagan

You could also watch:
films by Sergei Eisenstein (Stachka; Bronenosets Potemkin)
films by Abram Room (Tret’ia Meshchanskaia; Strogii iunosha)
films by Boris Barnet (Dom na Trubnoi)

If you have time, you can also read ahead towards the Lent term:
(especially) Mikhail Bulgakov, Master i Margarita
Iurii Olesha, Zavist’
Andrei Platonov, Dzhan


Balina, Marina and Evgenii Dobrenko, eds..  Cambridge Companion to 20th- Century Russian Literature.  CUP, 2011.  This book contains many chapters that will be relevant to specific topics in this paper, and would be a useful text to refer to consistently throughout the year.  Available HERE from computers in the domain

AND/OR Emerson, Caryl.  Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature.  Cambridge, 2008 [see especially Chapters 7-8].

Full reading list

Please see SL14 Course Handbook for details.

Teaching and learning: 

Teaching will consist of 16 lectures (8 in each of Michaelmas and Lent terms) and 4 2-hour seminars (in Easter Term). Students will have 10 supervisions. The lectures are designed to provide a general background for the course, and it is therefore intended that ALL lectures will be useful to all students.


Candidates for Part IB:[1] 

A 5-hour timed online examination.

Answer three questions. You should answer NO MORE THAN TWO questions from Section A.. Answers in Section B must be comparative, and no more than ONE question may address only visual sources. 

For each answer you should write no more than 1,300 words.


Candidates for Part II

The examination will consist of TWO parts:


1) Lent term Coursework Essay

Answer ONE question from a list that will be released at the end of Lent term.

You should write no more than 1,800 words.

Essays will be due for submission at the start of the Easter term (the precise date and time to be announced in due course.)


2) Easter Exam

A 3-hour timed online examination.

Answer ANY TWO questions. In considering your examination materials for SL14 as a whole (including coursework), please ensure that NO MORE THAN ONE essay treats only one text. All other essays must be comparative, and NO MORE THAN ONE can treat only visual sources.

For each answer write no more than 1,500 words.



Write a 3,000-word essay on ONE of the starred questions from either section A or section B. Your answer must treat more than one text. 

Candidates for this paper may not draw substantially on material from their dissertations or material which they have used or intend to use in another scheduled paper. Candidates may not draw substantially on the same material in more than one question on the same paper.[3]


[1] [For papers offered at both IB and II, ensure both IB and II templates are included]

[2] [The 3000-word single essay option is at paper convenors'/examiners' discretion: please delete as appropriate.]

[3] [Please ensure this paragraph is given unamended, as it is a Faculty requirement.]


Sample examination paper


Course Contacts: 
Prof Emma Widdis
Mr Joshua Heath