AAASS 2006: Teaching Pushkin, a Roundtable

In November the NAPS convened a roundtable on the topic of teaching Pushkin, inviting five speakers to discuss the different ways they teach Pushkin in their American classrooms. We all work at different kinds of institutions, from small, four-year liberal arts colleges like the University of Denver, Sarah Lawrence College, and Marymount Manhattan to larger institutions like Brown University, with its engaged undergraduates and small graduate program, and the behemoth of them all, Ohio State University, with a large general education population of undergraduates and a largish PhD program in literature, culture, and linguistics.

At the roundtable, each of us offered syllabi for various courses (now available online at the NAPS website) and walked through our teaching problems and successes. It turns out that we all use Pushkin in varieties of ways—we teach him in surveys of Russian literature, courses on Romanticism—sometimes comparative Romanticism, sometimes Russian Romanticism—in topics courses like “Love and Sexuality in Russian Literature” or “Theory of Narrative,” in monograph courses devoted to Pushkin himself. We, naturally, teach him in Russian language courses and even, as discussed below, in history courses such as Nancy Frieden’s “Pushkin’s Russia.” As we talked, ideas for new courses arose on such themes as “Pushkin and Blackness” and “Pushkin High and Low.”


Undergraduates: Non-Majors

While one of the main problems in teaching Pushkin in the American classroom is the language, this was not a focus of our discussion. Many of us teach Pushkin’s prose in translation; Catherine O’Neil, for example, has taught The Blackamoor of Peter the Great and Queen of Spades to her non-major undergraduate students at the University of Denver. Prof. O’Neil has also ventured into poetry, though, using The Bronze Horseman along with Mickiewicz’s “Digression” to Forefather’s Eve to introduce ideas of the Petersburg myth in her course on “Imperial Russia: Between East and West.” Most of us also teach Eugene Onegin and are happy with James Falen’s translation, although we occasionally supplement it with stanzas from other translations to talk about the problem of translation generally and poetic translation in particular.

Angela Brintlinger teaches Eugene Onegin in her undergraduate survey class, and she maintains that EO works a lot better than Queen of Spades or The Captain’s Daughter in terms of demonstrating Pushkin’s talent without a lot of lecturing about context. She uses Romy Taylor’s exercise (see Pushkin Review, vol. 6–7) of writing Onegin stanzas, which is extremely effective in convincing the students that Pushkin really is a poetic genius. (This is harder than you’d think, they say.) She has also encouraged the non-Russian-speaking students to help her translate Russian stanzas from the novel in classroom work and finds that they enjoy hearing the Russian spoken aloud and trying to find equivalencies in English for sound texture, word and line length, parallel grammatical   constructions, and even rhymes. Prof. O’Neil has also had some luck using creative assignments, including asking the students to write an ending for the incomplete Blackamoor of Peter the Great, or when comparing Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” and Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, to write love letters for Liza and Germann.

Svetlana Evdokimova (Brown University) talked about how Pushkin’s illusory simplicity simply passes American students by, since they are more familiar with a poetics of tropes. Prof. Evdokimova gave an overarching definition to the problem of teaching Pushkin: the need for contextualization, including historical context, generic context (explaining Pushkin’s play, his dancing between his readers’ expectations and his desire to frustrate those expectations), and of course literary context. Even students who know “how to read Russian literature” are perplexed when they come into contact with Eugene Onegin, since it is not founded on realist aesthetics. Though such students may have embraced Russia’s famed “accursed questions,” they are not necessarily aware of the aesthetics of Romanticism, and they have a hard time understanding that Eugene Onegin is considerably more European than, for example, War and Peace.

In her course on “Theory of Narrative” at Sarah Lawrence, Melissa Frazier uses Pushkin and Eugene Onegin as a starting point, eventually heading toward War and Peace to explore the Russian tradition of “non-novels.” While reading the Russian classics (EO, Dead Souls, W&P), her students read other European novels simultaneously and compare the two traditions. Prof. Frazier also reads Pushkin in her Comparative Romanticism course, along with Walter Scott, Goethe, Byron, and so on. Here her syllabus focuses on the nature of the historic, the meaning of romantic irony and of  the grotesque, and the place of the Orient in high Romanticism, while also pointing out the nature of the novel as a Romantic book.


Undergraduates: Majors

Prof. O’Neil offered us several syllabi for courses for Russian majors, one entitled “Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol,” and another called “Pushkin is our all,” a monograph course. Both are taught almost entirely in Russian, with most of the readings in Russian as well. Assignments range from reading and stylistic analysis of individual poems to examining Pushkin’s note-books and writing an essay about his work methods. With students recently returned from study abroad in Russia, Prof. Frazier teaches Pushkin in the original. Highlights of her course include a reading of Kamennyi gost´ illuminated by Jakobson’s myth of the statue; students also enjoy thinking about Pushkin in the context of Tsvetaeva’s essays “Moi Pushkin” and “Pushkin i Pugachev.”


Graduate Students

At Ohio State, Prof. Brintlinger teaches two courses on Pushkin, one a kind of monograph course (“Pushkin and His Times”) and a seminar called “Pushkin in the Twentieth Century.” The latter course, which she taught while working on her book on biographies of Pushkin in the 1920s and 1930s, is somewhat heavy on that era, but has the students read and discuss both primary and secondary literature on, for example, the 1921 Pushkin Celebration, on Akhmatova’s Pushkinian subtexts and Pushkin scholarship, or on Sinyavsky/Terts and his Strolls with Pushkin. In revisiting the seminar for this roundtable, Brintlinger noted that several new scholarly works (including Stephanie Sandler’s Commemorating Pushkin and Alexandra Smith’s Montaging Pushkin, as well as her own Writing a Usable Past) would enhance the course significantly if she were to teach it again.


Beyond the (Disciplinary) Border

Pushkin himself crossed disciplinary borders and would surely have approved of Nancy Frieden’s course “Pushkin’s Russia.” Prof. Frieden, who teaches history at Marymount Manhattan College, uses Pushkin’s life and works as guides to the history, perceptions, and politics of his era.

In her “Pushkin’s Russia,” Frieden begins with the 17th century and the Time of Troubles, animating that period of history through both Pushkin’s and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Her students compare Pushkin’s philosophy of history with Tolstoy’s view in the excerpts they read from War and Peace on writing history. Frieden teaches Peter the Great through The Blackamoor of Peter the Great (to which her students, like Prof. O’Neil’s, write a conclusion) as well as The Bronze Horseman, “Poltava,” and Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa. Both Catherine II and Pugachev come alive for her students through Pushkin’s History of the Pugachev Rebellion and The Captain’s Daughter and some of Pugachev’s manifestos. They are required to compare Pushkin’s two treatments of Pugachev and analyze Pushkin as a historian.

All aspects of Russian history and culture (from government to society, from the nobility to the bureaucracy, from superstition and folk life to revolution and patriotism) are presented through the lens of Pushkin’s life and work. The reading list for the course includes Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction; Eugene Onegin; Pushkin Threefold, a volume of poems from Everyman’s Poetry, historical documents, and some scholarly articles, includinga few from The Pushkin Review. Her assignments include short essays (such as a letter to Pushkin commenting on his concept of freedom in Gypsies, or the conclusion to Blackamoor, or a diary analyzing the themes or literary aspects of each chapter of Eugene Onegin). Students also choose one of Pushkin’s contemporaries as a subject for a biographical sketch, thus expanding their knowledge of Pushkin’s period through contact with another figure of that time.



Sharing ideas about teaching Pushkin was very fruitful, and NAPS hopes to sponsor similar roundtables in the future. As for me, I’ve been teaching Pushkin in winter quarter 2007—and every colleague I meet in the elevator on my way to class (Russianists, Germanists, Polonists…) has expressed envy. Zima. Chto delat´ nam v derevne? The answer for me has been abundantly clear—read Pushkin!


Submitted by Angela Brintlinger,
The Ohio State University



Brintlinger, Angela. "AAASS 2006: Teaching Pushkin, a Roundtable."  Pushkin Review 8-9 (2006-06): 131-34.