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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

Meeting Schedule

10/14/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
6:00 PM
Another Russia: Studies in the History of the Russian Emigration
Oleg Budnitskii, HSE University (Moscow)


Contrary to Georges Danton’s aphorism, “The motherland cannot be carried away with you on boot soles,” the Russian emigrants of the “first wave” (1918-1940) created “another Russia” abroad. The book by Oleg Budnitskii, a historian of Russian emigration, describes this community’s political and social life as they built their lives abroad while plotting a return. One of the book’s subjects is the fate of Russian money abroad: “Kolchak’s gold,” finances of the imperial family and the Petrograd loan treasury (pawnshop) that ended up in the hands of the White General Petr Wrangel and became the source of his army’s financing. Another section examines the emigrants’ search for ways to defeat Bolshevism, from hoping for its evolution or decomposition from within to contemplating terror. The most extensive part of the book is devoted to the history of emigration during World War II. Some anti-communist Russian emigres followed the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” even if the friend was Adolf Hitler. Others believed that the war would fundamentally alter Soviet power for the better and tried reconciling with it. Finally, the book contributes portraits of prominent yet little-studied emigration figures, including diplomats, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and writers.

11/04/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
I Should Apologize?': Jews as Funny Readers
Gabriella Safran, Stanford University


People who associate with Jews from the former Soviet space tend to know the joke about the telegram from Trotsky that Stalin reads in a sincere monotone but Rabinovich voices with the correct skeptical intonation. This famous joke is only one example of the humorous folkloric and literary narratives, produced in Russian, Yiddish, and English from the late 19th century and into the 20th, that depict Jews as voicing written texts, and responding to them, in startling ways. On the one hand, such stories about the distinctively emotional reactions of unsophisticated readers confronting new media or genres – not only telegrams but also newspapers or operas – are told about many groups other than Jews. On the other hand, the speech style of Rabinovich – or the protagonists of stories by Sholem Aleichem, S. An-sky, Zalman Schneur, and Leo Rosten – could be understood as authentically Jewish in that it echoes the style of rabbinic argumentation, where readers passionately defend their interpretations and where an unpunctuated Aramaic phrase in an ancient text might be voiced first one way, then another. In telling these stories, writers and comedians cautiously negotiated the difference between more and less denigrating depictions of Jews, now rejecting and now reappropriating the available stereotypes. This talk draws on Michael Herzfeld’s notion of “cultural intimacy” to argue that stories about Jews as funny readers provide ways to imagine appealing modes of Jewish distinctiveness.

12/02/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Historical Finitude—Discursive Infinities: Some Russian Symbolist Models of the Self
Jessica Merrill, Columbia University


This talk addresses the question posed by Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutic narratology: how can we understand the relationship between historical cultural narratives and individuals’ interpretations of their lived experience? It will focus on the relationship between fin-de-siècle metanarratives of finality (decadence and apocalypticism), and models of the self in time as articulated in the inward-looking poetry and prose of K. Bal’mont, Z. Gippius,and P. Ouspensky. Each articulated a conception of the self as endlessness, modeling this notion on strategies for producing a potentially infinite, looping discourse. This temporal model of the self is analyzed as both dependent on and resisting cultural narratives of finality. It is also considered in relation to the cyclical and spiral models of time widely employed in historically oriented Symbolist writings (e.g. A. Blok, A. Bely).

02/24/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Tolstoyan Dissident Conscience and the Terrorist Confessions of Vera Figner
Vadim Shkolnikov, Columbia University


Conscience has a history: in different periods conscientiousness has been exemplified through very different forms of social behavior. As the self-anointed “conscience of Russian society,” the nineteenth-century intelligentsia added a particularly important and dramatic chapter to the history of conscience, by extending the logic of conscientiousness to unprecedented extremes—pioneering tactics of modern revolutionary terrorism as conscientious violence. Thus, in my larger project I examine how the same principle of conscience, which accounted for the intelligentsia’s idealized, quasi-mythical status as “beautiful souls,” also accounted for the turn to terrorist violence: the terrorists essentially remained “beautiful souls.” In particular, the Hegelian thematics of conscience and the beautiful soul—which were an obsession for the early Russian Hegelians of the 1830s and 40s (Stankevich, Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen)—serve as the unifying thread that runs through the intelligentsia’s complex and turbulent history, leading up to the violent acts of Vera Zasulich, Narodnya Volya, and the Socialist Revolutionaries. Moreover, inasmuch as the intelligentsia’s culture of conscientiousness served as the common foundation for the development of Russian realist literature, as well as revolutionary terrorism, the writings of the great realists (Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy) can be read as both a vital source and a reflection of the intelligentsia’s evolving self-understanding, as it moved toward violence.

Within this context, my talk will focus on a specific phase in the history of conscience, exemplified by two remarkable “beautiful souls,” Leo Tolstoy and Vera Figner, a member of the executive committee of Narodnaya Volya. Although Tolstoy is well known for his doctrine of non-violence, I will attempt to show how, in late works such as The Kingdom of God Is within You and the novel Resurrection, he articulated a distinctly dissident paradigm of conscientiousness, on which the moral integrity of revolutionary terrorism would be based. There was a mutual influence between Tolstoy and the terrorists. In turn, I will offer a reading of Figner’s extensive memoirs (her “confessions”) as a nuanced expression of subjectivity and conscience—predicated on the Tolstoyan model.