American Students Should Read Russian Literature. Yes, Even Now. 

American Students Should Read Russian Literature. Yes, Even Now. 

As I was finishing up my humanities sequence of 100- and 200-level General Education Requirements in my first year, I began planning my humanities classes for further years. Looking through the list of 300-level electives, I was intrigued by a class titled LIT 388: The Russian Novel and Short Story, yet a look through NJIT’s class schedule revealed that this course has never been scheduled.  

Inquiries with the Department of Humanities and Social Science revealed that the course has not run and is being removed from the course catalog, as there was never enough interest to warrant it. This is a great shame, because Russian literature is unspeakably rich and provides a unique window into a culture that few Americans have an adequate understanding of. Nowhere else are subjects such as suffering and the darkness of the human soul explored so deeply. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was sentenced to execution and saved at the last minute, is especially skilled at this. His most famous novel, “Crime and Punishment,” portrays a character who initially thinks that crimes are committed only by extraordinary people: criminals, but upon committing crimes himself, realizes that even the most ordinary man can commit crimes. Two voices battle in his head: one of amoral and materialistic reasoning, and the other one being his conscience, which also reflect the devil and God respectively. Or take Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” in which a man travels the countryside hoping to purchase serfs who have passed away. However, the documents do not yet reflect their deaths, and the book throws the entire concept of humanity into question.  

But what about the war in Ukraine? Should those of us in the free world really reward this crime by exploring the perpetrator’s culture? This view overlooks countless facts.  

First, the people are not their government. Millions of people have fled Russia this year alone, while even more left in prior waves. The legendary Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was an outspoken critic of the brutal imperial suppression of the November Uprising in Poland and worked to free Greece from Ottoman rule. The countless Russian writers in exile between the first and second World Wars, including but not limited to Ivan Bunin, Joseph Brodsky, and Vladimir Nabokov, likewise show that Russian literature cannot be equated with the government in Moscow.  

Secondly, the war will eventually end. At that point, we as people will need to learn how to live on this planet together. Why shouldn’t we start preparing for this now, lest there arise yet more division between us?  

Finally, and perhaps most paradoxically, countless Russian authors have full or partial Ukrainian ancestry. Gogol was born in Poltava Governorate in the Ukraine region of the Russian Empire, while Alexander Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the most widely known anti-Soviet writer, had a Ukrainian mother. Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko, widely popular in Ukraine for his nationalist views, spent most of his adult life in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, the Urals, and other non-Ukrainian parts of Russia. His last residence in Saint Petersburg is now a museum that can be visited with prior arrangement. This integration of the Russian and Ukrainian people applies not only to literature. To give just one colorful example, the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on New York’s Upper East Side was vandalized with red paint in a Russophobic hate crime, even though half of the parishioners are Ukrainian, according to its spokesperson.  

I believe that Americans should read Russian literature, even now. That is why I want to spread awareness about the subject and prove to the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences that Lit 388: The Russian Novel and Short Story is worth running. Please fill out the attached Google Form by scanning the QR code below if you have any interest in this subject. The course can satisfy a 300-level General Education Requirement in History or Humanities, count as a free elective, or be taken out of pure interest. Responses to the Google Form are what I intend to use to demonstrate interest in the course. 

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Matthew Fleishman

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