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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.

Jessica Merrill

Nathaniel Knight

Jamie Nadel

Meeting Schedule

10/06/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
A Multispecies Marine Environmental History of the Russian North in Different Climate Regions
Julia Laius, Columbia University


This paper examines the history of the Russian North through the lens of human interactions with other species inhabiting the marine environment. The colonization of this region was closely connected with a search for marine resources in the White and Barents Seas: salmon, cod, herring, seal, or walrus among others. I analyze the role of these species in the economy and culture of the area in periods of environmental and climactic change. Drawing on examples from the history of the Solovki Islands, I trace the process of ‘environing’ – transforming ‘nature’ into ‘environment’ and consider how this process has been reflected in different economic, political and cultural encounters. The multispecies perspective provides a particularly valuable framework for discussing the phenomenon of climate change, specifically the ‘warming of the Arctic’ in the 1920s-1930s. This significant warming trend showed convincingly that climate could undergo rapid change. The shift posed a challenge not only for scientists but also for Soviet political and economic leaders. However, it was non-human oceanic species who, by the considerable alterations in migration patterns, provided the most obvious proof of the significance of this warming. This case allows us to observe the agency of marine species as well as the rhetoric that was used to describe human-animal interactions. By examining such cases, we can envision more clearly the meaning and impact of environmental change and human disruptions such as the introduction of invasive species, not only for people but also for non-human species. I hope through my work to show how environmental historians can interpret these changes within the framework of multispecies history.

12/13/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
The Revolution of the New Narod: Popular Will and Post-Socialist Television, from Perestroika to 1991
Pavel Khazanov, Rutgers University


In August 1991, in their successful standoff against an abortive military coup by the Soviet Communist Party, Russian liberals somehow came to believe that the archetypal conflict of the enlightened few versus the teeming masses did not have to remain perennially true for Russia. By 1993, such hopes felt crushed, and for thirty subsequent years the fear of an illiberal nation has motivated many in the liberal camp to turn a blind eye to, or even help erect modern Russian authoritarianism. Despite this outcome and its brutal consequences for Russia and Eastern Europe, where did the hopes of 1991 originate? Did the liberals squander the potential of post-Soviet Russia’s founding event because they poorly understood its late Soviet origins? My talk will broach these questions by considering the case of the popular Perestroika-era television show A Look (Vzgliad) and its successor media conglomerate ViD, which played an outsized role in Russia’s public sphere from the late 1980s through the 1990s. I will argue that A Look and ViD articulated a political imaginary of an industrialized, urbanized, educated “new narod,” which they understood as a majoritarian collective committed to values like spontaneity, discursive pluralism, and private ad hoc association for open-ended mutual gain. I will highlight the late Soviet origins of ViD’s political belief in reformist popular will. Finally, I will try to explain why from the vantage point of the team at A Look and ViD, the triumph against GKChP forces in August 1991 looked like the triumph of the “new narod,” and why that feeling of triumph dissipated so soon after this inaugural event of post-Soviet history.

02/02/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Recipe for Catastrophe: Chernobyl, Invasive Species, and Communism's Collapse in the Black Sea Region
Taylor Zajicek, Columbia University


This talk will trace the Black Sea’s rise and fall as a global catastrophe. From the mid-1980s, regional and international observers concluded that the sea was not only dirty—it was dying. Moreover, they warned, the Black Sea’s fate foretold a planetary crisis of marine pollution and biodiversity loss. The Black Sea’s newfound notoriety broke with two traditions. First, for much of its human history, the region was an Other, not a harbinger. Second, by the mid-2000s, the worst predictions about the sea’s death largely faded. What happened? How to explain these shifts—culturally, scientifically, and ecologically? This talk will argue that catastrophic thinking about the Black Sea was the product of three events, or “accidents” in the 1980s: the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an invasion by nonnative comb jellies, and communism’s collapse. The first two shined a spotlight on the Black Sea’s long-running ecological troubles. The third—the Cold War’s end—made international environmental cooperation seem both possible and fashionable. Yet from the mid-2000s, Kremlin revanchism disrupted this regionalist optimism and with it, the Black Sea ecosystem’s utility as a mobilizing cause. In this way, the talk will consider the relationships among geopolitics, ecology, and science, while introducing the presenters’ larger book project: an environmental history of the Black Sea region, from 1930 to today.