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The Seminar on Slavic History and Culture was founded in 1968 on the initiative of the renowned scholar of Russian literature and specialist on Dostoevsky, Robert Belknap. It was initially conceived as a broad exploration of history, literature, and arts of the Slavic peoples, to include topics from economic development to religious and philosophic thought. Today, after many years bringing together the Slavic studies community in the New York City area, our Seminar continues to bridge the disciplines of literature, language, and history, with a focus on original research across the range of Russian and East European history, as well as a lively exploration of the contemporary literary and artistic scene. We are pleased to welcome a dynamic group of graduate students who bring their energy and enthusiasm to our meetings.

Professor Catherine Evtuhov

Professor Mark Lipovetsky

Tomi Haxhi

All seminars will meet over Zoom for the 2020-2021 academic year. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change. 

Meeting Schedule

09/18/2020 Online Meeting
3:00 PM
Tolstoy and the Romantic Myth
Andrei Zorin, University of Oxford (England, UK)


Tolstoy as a writer, thinker and a person was shaped by the basic Romantic mythology launched by Rousseau and Schiller in the second half of the eighteenth century, further developed by nineteenth century authors and in different shapes prevalent in European culture for more than a century. As demonstrated in the seminal dilogy of M.H. Abrams The Mirror and The Lamp (1953) and Natural Supernaturalism (1971), this mythology was based on a synthesis of the classical myth of the Golden age, and the biblical stories of the expulsion from Eden and the prodigal son. The romantic hero saw himself as irrevocably cut by his own transgression from primordial bliss by his own transgressions the reflection of which was preserved in his childhood memories, and longed to recreate the lost fullness of being through love, artistic creativity, return to nature or immersion in a national heroic past.

Tolstoy was born into this mythology. He imbibed it from his orphaned childhood, the atmosphere of Yasnaya Polyana, family estate, where he grew up, the works of his favorite writers and behavioral and emotional models provided by his seniors. This utopian vision was dominant in his early works. Later he was constantly expressing, verifying and challenging the Romantic myth in his lifestyle, prose, religious teaching and social theories trying to adjust it to the new social, intellectual and technological environment. Tolstoy’s final escape and death can be regarded as the inevitable conclusion of this quest no less consistent, powerful and artistically expressive than the best pages he wrote.

11/20/2020 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
In the Broken Mirror of Iraïda Barry: Reflections on Constantinople’s 'Russian' Moment
Valentina Izmirlieva, Columbia University


Few cities in the world have fascinated the Russian political imagination more than Constantinople. For centuries, the Russians called it “The City of the Tsar” (Tsar’grad) and dreamed of reclaiming it for Eastern Christianity from Muslim Ottoman rule. In a cruel political twist, that fantasy of a Russian Constantinople was fulfilled in the 1920s not as a dream but as a nightmare. In three distinct waves, more than 200,000 subjects of the former Russian Empire found refuge along the Bosporus, and for a brief but consequential moment the City of the Tsar became almost “Russian,” albeit in a form that no one could have wished for or foreseen.

Constantinople’s importance for the dispersion of Russian communities, ideas and culture in the 1920s is undeniable, and yet compared to Russian Paris, Berlin, New York and Shanghai, Russian Constantinople has been remarkably understudied. Similarly, the role of the Russian refugees in the history of modern Istanbul has only recently begun to receive the serious scholarly reflection it deserves. This lecture proposes to explore the city’s “Russian” moment through the “broken mirror” of Iraïda Barry’s unpublished memoirs Mirror Shards.

Born in Crimea as Iraïda Vyacheslavovna Kedrina (1899-1978), Barry arrived in Constantinople in November 1919 as part of the second refugee wave after the defeat of General Denikin’s Army in Southern Russia. Unlike most of her fellow travellers, she stayed in the city, where she married into a local Levantine family, became one of the first female sculptors in the new Turkish Republic, and wrote a sprawling memoir that she bequeathed before her death to the Bakhmeteff Archive at Columbia University. By focusing on Barry’s struggle for self-representation, the lecture offers some preliminary reflections on the way Constantinople’s “Russian” moment transformed both the refugees and their hosts, pushing against traditional models for making sense of forced migration as a global experience, past and present.

02/05/2021 Online Meeting
3:00 PM
The American Steppes: The Unexpected 'Russian' Roots of Great Plains Agriculture, 1870s-1930s
David Moon, York University (England, UK)


This talk offers a new perspective on the relationship between the United States and the Russian Empire/Soviet Union by presenting examples of Americans learning from expertise and experience in the Russian and Soviet states.

The talk offers a transnational history of two regions - the Eurasian steppes and the Great Plains of North America - that share similar environments and environmental histories. Both were semi-arid grasslands that were plowed up to grow grain by settlers at the expense of the indigenous populations. The process began earlier in the steppes; hence there was prior experience for Americans to learn on.

Key roles were played by migrants who crossed the Atlantic. Farmers (mostly ethnic Germans) from the steppes brought types of wheat suitable for the environmental conditions in the Great Plains. Jewish immigrants had the language skills and scientific training to act as conduits for Russian scientific expertise.

Transfers of crops, agricultural sciences and techniques were facilitated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which collaborated with its Russian and Soviet counterparts across the 1917 divide. From the late 1920s, the U.S. Soil Survey classified the soils of the Great Plains as chernozem, using a term and scientific methodology pioneered in the steppes in the 1870s. During the Dust Bowl, the U.S. Forest Service planted shelterbelts of trees to protect land from erosion drawing on techniques developed in the steppes. Another import (accidental) was the tumbleweed, an invasive species that paradoxically became an icon of the American West.

Based on archival research and field work in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, this talk explains the unexpected “Russian” roots of Great Plains agriculture.

04/02/2021 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
Antisemitism as a Political Problem: Cases from Twentieth-Century Russia and Eastern Europe
Laura Engelstein, Yale University and Princeton University


Shulamit Volkov characterizes antisemitism in pre-World War I Germany as a “cultural code,” elaborated in tandem with rising German nationalism, that marked opposition to the liberal project. The liberal project did not get very far in the Russian Empire. The autocracy’s collapse opened the door to its one brief chance at power, but then also doomed it. Yet antisemitism in late imperial Russia followed the same contours as in the West, evolving after the 1870s from a strategy of administrative containment into an instrument of popular mobilization. To what was this activist antisemitism in Russia opposed? What kind of “cultural code” did it represent in the imperial Russian context and once that empire had fallen apart?

This talk will draw on the argument of Laura Engelstein's latest book – The Resistible Rise of Antisemitism: Exemplary Cases from Russia, Ukraine, and Poland – to reflect on these questions. It will suggest three modes in which antisemitism functioned: as, indeed, a marker of anti-liberalism; as an answer to socialism, but also its mirror image; and later as a framework for anti-Soviet mobilization. Across the arc of revolution, from 1905 through the Civil War, antisemitism was a key feature both of imperial Russian political culture and of the militant nationalism resisting imperial domination. Along the way it met with organized opposition on the part of Jewish leaders and their liberal and democratic allies, who succeeded in making antisemitism a political liability, though they did not succeed in protecting the vulnerable Jewish population from its dire effects.

Notes: In memory of Viktor Efimovich Kel’ner (1945-2021)