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Musings of a Russophile
People often ask how I became a Slavist. The answer is: Almost purely by accident. It is true that my mother's parents were Jewish immigrants from southern Russia and Poland, but that fact, somewhat exotic for a girl from downeast Maine, did not influence my decision. Like most teenagers, my mind was not on the past, but the present, and especially on love. My introduction to things Russian came through the mother of my first serious boyfriend. Stuck in Orono, Maine, where only the birch trees reminded her of her native land, Tatiana Nikolaevna worked as a research scientist at the University of Maine. Her son Nikolai and I met during summer apprenticeships at the Bangor Daily News. In my last year of high school, Tatiana Nikolaevna began to teach me Russian. When I followed Nick to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I signed up for second-year Russian classes. Nick and I broke up, but I fell in love with Russian literature and have spent my adult life studying and writing about it.

I begin with this anecdote about myself because what happened to me will soon be impossible for students at most Canadian universities. In a few years the University of Toronto may have the only Ph.D. program in Russian literature in Canada. Many universities no longer offer a full undergraduate degree in Russian. One after another, as professors retire and are not replaced, Russian programs across the country are closing down, or amalgamating with other "minor" literature departments. The story of a student at Queen's University is typical. His parents are diplomats stationed in Russia, and he would like to study Russian himself. Queen's, however, is phasing out its Russian program, so he will not be able to do a minor concentration in Russian as he had planned.

Universities do not exist, of course, to satisfy the wishes of a lovesick girl or even of one serious young man. They are public institutions that are supposed to produce educated, informed, and skilled citizens. There is no plot to do away with Russian. One after another, individual universities are deciding that cost-cutting and efficiency require that they dispense with marginal programs. Checking student enrolment figures, they conclude that Russian studies, no longer popular after the end of the Cold War, can go. At least some administrators do not make final decisions based solely on student numbers. They understand that every serious university for undergraduates needs a classics department, even if few students choose to major in classics. It is not self-evident, however, that Russian departments fit into this core curriculum. In recent years, moreover, some academics have been undermining the humanities from within. These people claim that writers, poets, and philosophers represent only their own cultures and times; that they have nothing to offer us today except a glimpse into their peculiar historical circumstances. Students need not study different cultures and deans need not pay for them to do it if one course after another comes to the same inevitable (and boring) conclusion. The "consumers" of such courses shrink inevitably to students from the relevant ethnic backgrounds. Russian departments, I should add, are especially vulnerable to this challenge because of the fall of the Soviet Union. No-one likes a loser, and the Russian Idea, once so admired in different version on the Left and the Right, is now old-hat.

The unintentional end result of decisions taken by various universities may be the death of Russian studies in Canada. Perhaps not every Canadian university can justify a full-fledged Russian program. There are reasons, however, why Canada should continue to train specialists in Russian studies, and this requires offerings in Russian at all major universities, undergraduate programs at many of them, and a few good graduate programs.

The fact is that the people who buck the trend and do study Russian will find themselves very much in demand in a few years. We need Russian programs in the first place because we want to do business with Russians, all 150 million of them. For that we need Canadians fluent in the Russian language and familiar with the culture. Our government also needs homegrown experts on one of the world's largest nations, whether we are at peace with it or not. Berlitz courses in the language and a few Russian novels read in a world literature course will not produce these experts. In order to train them, we need specialists in working Russian departments who can guide students from their natural and unselfconscious immersion in Canadian life to an appreciation of a foreign and not entirely Western people. While we are accomplishing this eminently practical task, we provide benefits not easy to measure but perhaps equally important. People who learn a foreign language and culture become more thoughtful about their own circumstances. Russian politics makes students more appreciative of democratic rights that they simply take for granted until they have studied a people with a tragic history different from our own. This is as true today, during Russia's experiment with political democracy and Wild West capitalism, as it was ten years ago.

Then there are the benefits of studying Russian literature in depth. A few years ago, I began to ask myself why Russian literature should have attracted me so much. As a kid, I had loved reading, and I had planned to major in English literature at university. I wondered if my ultimate choice of career had been entirely accidental, without any real inner motivation. There was no doubt that I had learned from my exposure to a foreign culture, but lessons about tyranny or mismanagement and corruption are available from many of the world's peoples. To this extent, I was glad that I had stepped outside my own country and culture, but I wondered if I should not have been focusing most of all on understanding it and myself. I also realized that I would have to justify my chosen life's work not only to myself, but to increasingly skeptical students.

Since then I have tried to apply the lessons found in Russian books to my own life here in Canada. Like every individual, my personal experience is very narrow in comparison to the accumulated experience and wisdom available in literature. The great Russian novelists provide insights unmatched by any psychology magazine that I might pick up at the supermarket, any TV show I might watch, or even any expert I might consult. How does Anna Karenina choose between her son and her lover? Is she a victim of society or a tragic heroine responsible for her own death? Is there such a thing as a truly happy family? Why do we like the naughty and unfaithful Stiva Oblonsky so much? Why do people like the peaceable Pierre Bezukhov in War & Peace welcome the chaos and destruction of war? Is Ivan Karamazov guilty of patricide because he subconsciously desires his father's death? Can people really sacrifice themselves for others, or do they always act in their own self-interest? If you think these questions are easy to answer, then you haven't read the novels that pose them. Reading them is both exciting and humiliating, because they challenge the pat solutions that we acquire from our particular circumstances.

The whole modern Russian experience offers a unique and necessary perspective on contemporary life. It is no accident that the immensely popular Oliver Sacks acknowledges as his mentor a Russian neurologist, A. R. Luria, who believed in taking the subjective responses of his patients seriously; or that in a recent column in the Globe and Mail, Robert Fulford cites the Russians as the chief influence on V. S. Pritchett, the English short-story writer famous for the humanity of his portraits. Russia came late to modernity, and scrambled to catch up in the early decades of the nineteenth century. After a failed political rebellion by aristocrats against absolutism in 1825, literature, journalism, and eventually philosophy displaced politics as the arena in which a new, modern relationship between the individual and society would be forged. When in The Bronze Horseman Pushkin's little man threatens the statue of Peter the Great; when Gogol shows us his petty bureaucrats so crushed by authority that they seem to have all dignity squeezed out of them; when the little clerk in Dostoevsky's first publication protests against Gogol's portrayal of him as a slander (in Poor Folk); when Dostoevsky and Tolstoy go on to investigate the dependence of self-love on the opinions others have of us: all these works are creating and exploring a new world in which the individual thinks of himself as separate from the community and precious in and of himself. Russian writers defend this individual, and at the same time raise questions about the justice of his claims on society. That is why, Hollywood to the contrary, Anna Karenina is not simply destroyed by unfeeling social conventions. Anna refuses to take this way out-although Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, and now Sophie Marceau do so in her name-because she senses that when she gives up her obligations to others she also relinquishes her humanity. Tolstoy at the same time makes the strongest case to show the corruption and hypocrisy of Anna's high-class friends, and the genuine power of the attraction between herself and Vronsky. Novels like Anna Karenina convinced many Russian scientists that literature, which depicted human life as felt and perceived by individuals rather than as analysed from the outside by detached observers, was a healthy corrective to the scientific method. As a result, Russia had its Pavlovs, with their determinedly materialistic and deterministic view of behaviour, but also its Lurias, who have inspired writers like Oliver Sacks.

Great literature is not just for academics like me, and not primarily for us. It is a guide to life that no amount of technological training can replace. Not a day goes by when I do not use my Russian "book" knowledge to try to understand the world around me. Such knowledge is cumulative both for individuals and for societies, but, sadly, it can also be lost. This is especially true of the civilizing wisdom provided by the humanities and communicated by reading and teaching. Russian studies make a vital contribution to the humanities here in Canada, and it would be a shame to see them ended. 

Donna Orwin teaches Russian literature at the University of Toronto, and is the editor of the Tolstoy Studies Journal.


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