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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


SL 20th Century: Self-Creation in 20th-Century Russian Culture

It was the Russian Formalist critics who first argued for drawing an analytical line between a work of art and its biographical creator – a theory that has since become central to western criticism. But they also laid the groundwork for analysing how artists fashioned their lives in artistic ways. This module takes those two theoretical strands as the starting point for an investigation of selfhood and storytelling across 20th-century Russian literature and literary criticism. Profiling a range of writers and their autobiographical, deceptively autobiographical, or first-person works, it examines how some sought to insulate life from literature while others creatively conflated those categories. At the same time, it puts both theoretical approaches into practice by exploring the works as self-contained texts and products of their political, social and cultural contexts. How did the Soviet state’s politicization of the arts, and the real-life consequences of putting pen to paper, shape understandings of the relationship between life and art? Could drawing a line between life and art offer a means of escape or resistance? Or did blurring it provide more effective cover? When were efforts to turn life into art informed by efforts to aestheticize reality itself?

The module is open to students with a very good knowledge of Russian.

Indicative Primary Readings

  • Venedikt Erofeev. Moskva-Petushki.
  • Lidiia Ginzburg. Zapiski blokadnogo cheloveka.
  • Vladimir Maiakovskii. “Kofta fata,” “Ia sam,” “Vo ves’ golos,” “Iubileinoe,” suicide note.
  • Nikolai Ostrovskii. Kak zakalialas’ stal’.
  • Abram Terts (Andrei Siniavskii). Liubimov.


Suggested Background Reading

  • Boym, Svetlana. Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Dobrenko, Evgeny. The Making of the State Writer: Social and Aesthetic Origins of Soviet Literary Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.
  • Dobrenko, Evgeny. Political Economy of Socialist Realism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Engelstein, Laura, and Stephanie Sandler, eds. Self and Story in Russian History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Tear Off the Masks!: Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Groys, Boris. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Harris, Jane Gary.  Autobiographical Statements in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. 
  • Hellbeck, Jochen. Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Kharkhordin, Oleg. The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Lahusen, Thomas. How Life Writes the Book: Real Socialism and Socialist Realism in Stalin’s Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
  • Nakhimovsky, Alexander D., and Alice S. Nakhimovsky, eds. The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History: Essays. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Olney, James, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Paperno, Irina, and Joan Delaney Grossman, eds. Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.Paperno, Irina. Stories of the Soviet Experience: Memoirs, Diaries, Dreams. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.Suny, Ronald Grigor, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia: The Twentieth Century. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.




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