Russian literature famously probes the depths of the human soul. These 36 half-hour lectures delve into this extraordinary body of work under the guidance of Professor Irwin Weil of Northwestern University, an award-winning teacher at Northwestern University and a legend among educators in the United States and Russia.
Professor Weil introduces you to such masterpieces as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Gogol’s Dead Souls, Chekhov’s The Seagull, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and many other great novels, stories, plays, and poems by Russian authors.
You will study more than 40 works by a dozen writers, from Aleksandr Pushkin in the 19th century to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the 20th. You will also investigate the origin of Russian literature itself, which traces to powerful epic poetry and beautiful renderings of the Bible into Slavic during the Middle Ages.
All of these works are treated in translation, but Professor Weil does something very unusual for a literature-in-translation course. For almost every passage that he quotes in English, he reads an extract in the original Russian, with a fluent accent and an actor’s sense of drama.
You may not understand Russian, but there is no mistaking the expressive intonation, rhythm, and feeling with which Professor Weil performs these passages. At one point, reciting verses from Russia’s most famous poet, he advises: “Listen to it once as a piece of music, and you will sense the linguistic genius of Pushkin.”
Classics of Russian Literature explores Russian masterpieces at all levels—characters, plots, scenes, and sometimes even single sentences, including:
- Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which has one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, setting the stage for a novel that probes the tragic dimension of a subject—adultery—that had traditionally been treated as satire.
- Gogol’s Dead Souls, with a concluding passage beloved to all Russians, in which the hero flees the scene of his fiendishly clever swindle in a troika—a fast carriage drawn by three horses—to the author’s invocation, “Oh Rus’ [Russia], whither art thou hurtling?”
- Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, whose long chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” is a gripping, haunting, mystifying parable that is often studied on its own, but that is all the more powerful in this great novel, which addresses faith, doubt, redemption, and other timeless themes.
The Golden Age and After
The central core of the course covers the great golden age of Russian literature, a period in the 19th century when Russia’s writers equaled or surpassed the achievements of the much older literary cultures of Western Europe. The age commenced with Pushkin, developed with the fantastic and grotesque tales of Gogol’, and grew to full flower with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—who at the time were considered in Europe to be lesser writers than their talented contemporary Turgenev. As the 20th century approached, Chekhov’s exquisitely understated plays and stories symbolized the sunset of the golden age.
Gorky straddled the next transformation, linking the turmoil preceding the Russian Revolution with the political oppression that affected all artists in the newly established Soviet Union from the 1920s on. You examine the brilliant revolutionary poet Maiakovsky; the novelist Sholokhov, who portrayed the revolution as a tragedy for the Cossack people; the satirist Zoshchenko, who used Soviet society as food for parody; and Pasternak, who produced beautiful poems and a single extraordinary novel. Your survey ends with Solzhenitsyn, who became the most influential literary voice speaking out against the tyranny of the Soviet system.
Inside, Outside, and Behind the Scenes
Professor Weil uses intriguing details to bring these authors and their works to life. For example, readers of English translations are probably unaware of the symbolic names that Russian writers routinely give their characters, names that are especially evocative in Russian:
- Roskol’nikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, is named after the term for “schism,” signifying a person who is separating himself from society. Dostoevsky gives other characters names that mean “mud puddle” and “intelligence,” again, representing the person’s inner nature.
- Iurii Zhivago, the hero of Doctor Zhivago, has a family name that is an older Russian form of the word “alive.” Pasternak uses a grammatical case that emphasizes the animate nature of the noun, signifying life as it should be experienced.
In addition to such internal details that enrich your understanding of the text, Professor Weil also points you to outside resources, from films and operas to recommended attractions that you may wish to see if you travel to Russia:
- In order to get a sense of the powerful rhythms of Pushkin’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin, readers who don’t know Russian can turn to Tchaikovsky’s famous operatic adaptation, which magnificently catches the meter and texture of the poem.
- A trip to Moscow should include a visit to Tolstoy’s house, now preserved as a museum. There you will get a vivid sense of the contradictions in this man’s life—in the marked contrast between the comfortable Victorian furnishings preferred by his wife and family and the Spartan austerity in which he closeted himself to write, a style that came increasingly to define his life.
Professor Weil also recounts behind-the-scenes stories, many of which relate to his own experiences in Russia. These anecdotes add a new dimension to your appreciation of the works covered in this course:
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s moving novella about life in a Soviet forced labor camp, might never have appeared in print had not the mercurial Soviet premier Khrushchev found the story spellbinding. After reading the manuscript, Khrushchev admitted that it was one of the few literary works that he had managed to finish without sticking himself with pins to stay awake. The resulting publication stunned the Soviet reading public and the world.
- “The History of an Illness,” a short story by Zoshchenko, gently lampoons the Soviet health care system, with which Professor Weil has personal experience from his visits to the country. He describes some of the maddening features of Soviet medicine, including a propensity to treat every illness with vodka.
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