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BA Politics and Russian / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

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Course unit details:
Russian Literature and Society from Pushkin to Putin

Unit code RUSS20700
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 5
Teaching period(s) Full year
Offered by Russian & E. European Studies
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course unit examines the interplay between Russian literature and Russian culture, society and politics from the early 19th-early 21st centuries. Organised around the changing settings and media through which Russian literature has developed—and through which it has been consumed—over the last two centuries, the unit examines Russian literature not just as a cultural artefact but also as a social institution and (to use Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s formulation) as a ‘second government’. This approach facilitates an understanding of the development of Russian literature itself, including key movements, authors and works, whilst also highlighting the important socio-political roles that literature has played in country where writers have long had to contend with censorship, repression and frequent shifts in the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.


  • To survey the development of Russian literature over the course of the early 19th-early 21st centuries;
  • To examine key movements, authors and texts in their social, historical and cultural contexts;
  • Within these contexts, to consider the environments in which Russian literature has developed and the multiple artistic, cultural, philosophical and political roles it has played;
  • To explore the complex relationship between Russian literature and Russian culture, society and politics over the course of the past two centuries.



Semester 1

Week 1: Course Introduction


Weeks 2-5: The Salon

This section of the course unit will focus on the development of Russian literature and the rise of Russian romanticism  (e.g. Pushkin, Lermontov) in the  first third of the 19th century. Key issues to be considered include Russian intellectuals' consciousness of the 'insignificance of Russian literature' (Pushkin) prior to the 19th century; the limits of literacy and the shaping of literary publics; and the noble salon as a site of both social interaction and cultural exchange.


Weeks 7-12: The ‘Thick Journals’

This section of the course unit will focus on the emergence and development of Russian literary prose (e.g. Gogol’, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy) in the mid- to late 19th century. Key issues to be considered include the role of the tolstye zhurnaly ('thick journals') in the development of the Russian 'public sphere' (Habermas); the rise of the raznochintsy (intellectuals from heterogeneous social backgrounds) and socially engaged literary criticism; and literature as a site of social, political and philosophical debate.


Semester 2

Weeks 1-5: The Tribune and the Drawer

This section of the course unit will focus on the development of Russian literature from the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) to the end of the Stalin era (1953). It will consider the ways in which a range of authors (e.g. Blok, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) sought to work creatively within the constraints imposed by censorship and/or to subvert those constraints by writing 'for the drawer' (that is, for posterity rather than for contemporary publication).


Weeks 6-8: The -izdats: samizdat ('self-publishing'), tamizdat ('publishing "over there"'), magnitizdat ('tape-recorder publishing')

This section of the course unit will focus on the development of literature in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras (1954-1982). It will examine ways in which the boundaries of acceptable public discourse shifted over this period; and, correspondingly, ways in which various writers (e.g. Solzhenitsyn, Ginzburg, Vysotsky, Galich, Daniel') negotiated these shifting boundaries both through self-censorship and by using unofficial channels for the dissemination of their works.


Weeks 9-10: The RuNet

This section of the course unit will focus on the post-Soviet period, when Russian society experienced the 'double shock' of the collapse of the Soviet system and the rapid rise of the internet. In this context, it will consider the changing role of literature, including debates over the 'death of the book'; and ways in which the RuNet (Russian-language internet) has impacted upon the development, distribution and consumption of Russian literary culture.


Week 11: Course Conclusion

Teaching and learning methods

One lecture and one seminar per week.


Medium of language:

English. However, students on programmes involving Russian as a named subject will be expected to engage with some primary sources in Russian.

Knowledge and understanding

On successful completion of the course unit, students will have:

  • A broad understanding of the development of Russian literature from the early 19th century to the early 21st centuries;
  • An in-depth understanding of key movements, authors and texts;
  • A thorough understanding of the relationship between Russian literature and Russian culture, society and politics during key periods in Russia's history;
  • An understanding of Russian literature as a cultural practice, a social institution and Russia's 'second government'.


Intellectual skills

On successful completion of the course unit, students will have acquired and developed:

  • Their skills in analysing literary texts, drawing on a range of theoretical approaches and critical terms;
  • Their ability to explore and appreciate the cultural, social and political roles that literature can play;
  • Their understanding of the impact of proscriptive and prescriptive censorship practices on literature as well as on debates about literature.

Practical skills

Through assessed coursework; in-class discussions; and feedback from and interaction with both the instructor and their classmates, students will develop skills in:

  • Conducting independent research effectively, using a range of approaches and tools;
  • Communicating ideas effectively and presenting cogent arguments in both oral and written form;
  • Assessing the relevance, provenance, objectivity and timeliness of secondary sources;
  • Understanding and applying feedback to improve mastery of skills and knowledge and to reflect upon and improve performance.


Transferable skills and personal qualities

On this course unit, students will develop:

  • The ability to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts;
  • The ability to conduct focused research and to assimilate, summarise and present information clearly and concisely;
  • The ability to work constructively as part of a group;
  • The ability to take responsibility for their own learning;
  • The ability to manage their time and other resources effectively;
  • The ability to communicate their views cogently and compellingly, both orally and in writing.

Employability skills

All of the transferable skills and personal qualities listed above are valuable employability skills.

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Response Paper (Semester 1, Week 8)


750 words


Essay (Semester 2, Week 8)


2000 words


Written Exam (May/June Exam Period)


2 hours




Assessment task


Written Exam

2 hours


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Individual written feedback on the Response Paper, plus oral feedback upon request


Individual written feedback on the Essay, plus oral feedback upon request


Individual written feedback on the Written Exam, plus oral feedback upon request



Recommended reading

Cornwell, Neil, The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature (London: Routledge, 2001)


Cornwell, Neil and Nicole Christian, eds., Reference Guide to Russian Literature (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998)


Dobrenko, Evgeny, and Galin Tihanov,  A History of Russian Literary Theory and Criticism: The Soviet Age and Beyond (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011)


Emerson, Caryl, The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)


Wachtel, Andrew and Ilya Vinitskii, Russian Literature (Cambridge: Polity, 2009)


Walicki, Andrzej, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 178

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rachel Platonov Unit coordinator

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