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Understanding 20th Century Russian History Through Literature: A Workshop for High School Teachers


Historical Timeline. February and October Revolutions, 1917. Civil War and war communism, 1918-21 ... and Lara due to civil war and threats of political ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Understanding 20th Century Russian History Through Literature: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Understanding 20th Century Russian History
Through Literature A Workshop for High School
  • By Gina M. Peirce
  • Assistant Director, Center for Russian and East
    European Studies
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • Workshop given on October 9, 2006 at
  • Gateway Senior High School, Monroeville, PA,
  • in cooperation with the Allegheny Intermediate

  • Name, School, Subject and Grade Level Taught
  • Why are you interested in 20th century Russian
    history and literature? How much background do
    you have in these subjects?
  • What do you hope to learn from this workshop?

Historical Timeline
  • February and October Revolutions, 1917
  • Civil War and war communism, 1918-21
  • New Economic Policy proclaimed under Vladimir
    Lenin in 1921, officially ended under Josef
    Stalin in 1929
  • Soviet Union established, 1922
  • Great Terror under Stalin, 1934-38
  • Pact signed with Nazi Germany in 1939 USSR
    invades and annexes territories on its western
  • Germany attacks USSR and Great Patriotic War
    begins, 1941

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)
  • Grew up in Moscow, studied philosophy, then began
    writing poetry in 1914
  • Initially supported Bolshevik Revolution,
    published several poetry collections and
    autobiographical stories in 1920s and 30s
  • Disillusioned with Communist ideals after
    Stalinist terror and purges, feared publishing
    own work and began publishing translations
    instead (most famously Shakespeares Hamlet)
  • Wrote his masterpiece novel, Doctor Zhivago, in
  • Soviet authorities would not allow novels
    publication first published in Italy in 1957

Boris Pasternak, continued
  • Doctor Zhivago then translated into many
    languages, but never published in USSR until 1987
    under Mikhail Gorbachev
  • Pasternak awarded Nobel Prize in Literature in
    1958, but was threatened with deportation and
    refused the prize under pressure from Soviet
  • Died shortly after, in 1960
  • 1965 film version of Doctor Zhivago (much
    simplified from the novel) became blockbuster
    around the world, but also not shown in USSR
    until shortly before breakup of Soviet Union

Themes of Doctor Zhivago
  • Story of life of fictional doctor and poet, Yuri
  • He and wife Tonia are from affluent families,
    must struggle for survival (along with most
    Russians) after 1917 Revolution
  • Accounts of First World War and Russian Civil War
    through Zhivagos eyes (serves as doctor in each,
    though unwillingly in latter case after captured
    by partisans)
  • Conditions of life in Moscow contrasted with
    provinces (town of Yuriatin and its environs in
    Ural Mountain region of Russia)
  • Love affair with Lara Antipova, woman from modest
    background whose husband leaves her to become a
    partisan commander in the Civil War

Themes of Doctor Zhivago, continued
  • Much of novel consists of Zhivagos musings on
    love, art, history, etc., but also contains many
    realistic details of Russian life during this
    turbulent period
  • In Doctor Zhivago, Everyone is reduced to a
    primitive, prehistoric level of bare subsistence
    … even as they participate in one of the
    defining historical moments of the twentieth
    century … The raw facts of history in Doctor
    Zhivago are about death and ruin and, indeed,
    physical and metaphysical homelessness. (Edith
    W. Clowes, Doctor Zhivago A Critical Companion,
    Northwestern University Press, pgs. 38-39)

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago
  • Chapter 6 Zhivagos return to his home and
    family in Moscow in summer 1917 (between the two
    Russian revolutions), after serving as a doctor
    for Russian troops in First World War
  • Descriptions of chaotic conditions in Moscow and
    references to housing crisis/redistribution of
    space, economic hardships experienced by
    population as basic goods became scarce (pgs.
  • Dinner party for Zhivagos homecoming, featuring
    a duck given to him by an eccentric he met on the
    train returning from the war front

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued
  • The large duck was an unheard-of luxury in those
    already hungry days, but there was no bread with
    it, and because of this its splendor was somehow
    pointless it even got on ones nerves. The
    alcohol (a favorite black-market currency) had
    been brought … in a medicine bottle with a
    glass stopper … But the saddest thing of all
    was that their party was a kind of betrayal. You
    could not imagine anyone in the houses across the
    street eating or drinking in the same way at the
    same time. Beyond the windows lay silent, dark,
    hungry Moscow. Its shops were empty, and as for
    game and vodka, people had even forgotten to
    think about such things. (p. 175)

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued
  • Account of Bolshevik Revolution, pgs. 190-195
  • Unusually cold winters characterized by famine,
    1917-19, as private enterprise was driven
    underground and no effective state-controlled
    distribution system yet established (pgs.
  • Civil War and war communism period, barter and
    black market trade widespread as people tried to
  • Zhivagos family decides to move temporarily from
    Moscow to his wifes familys former estate in
    the Urals to survive by growing their own food
    description of Yaroslavsky train station (p. 210)
    shows further evidence of social disorder and
    breakdown of countrys transportation system

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued
  • At end of novel, Zhivago returns to Moscow during
    NEP period (1922), having been separated from his
    family and Lara due to civil war and threats of
    political persecution
  • Description of effects of removing ban on private
    enterprise (p. 473) and social classes in
    theoretically classless society
  • Zhivago and his unofficial third wife Marina
    chopped wood for a good many of the tenants on
    the different floors. Some of them, particularly
    speculators who had made fortunes at the
    beginning of the NEP and artists and scholars who
    were close to the government, were setting up
    house on a comfortable scale. (p. 479)

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued
  • One more example of housing crisis
  • Gordons room was part of a curious structure,
    which had once been the premises of a fashionable
    tailor … The premises were now divided into
    three. By means of floor boards an extra room had
    been fitted into the space between the lower and
    the upper levels. It had what was, for a living
    room, a curious window, about three feet high,
    starting at floor level and with part of the gold
    letters remaining. (p. 480)
  • Many more examples of this type in Zoshchenkos

Mikhail M. Zoshchenko (1894-1958)
  • Grew up in St. Petersburg, studied law
  • Served in First World War
  • Served in Red Army during Russian Civil War
  • Attempted various jobs including postmaster and
    cobbler (repairing shoes), 1919-22
  • Published first stories in 1922 published in
    Soviet satirical press starting in 1923 until
    most satirical publications were shut down around
  • Fell out of favor with Soviet authorities and was
    subjected to Communist Party harassment from 1946
    until his death

Background Information NEP
  • New Economic Policy introduced by Vladimir
    Lenin in 1921 to recover from economic
    devastation of Civil War period
  • Permitted some private agriculture, private
    traders and craftspeople
  • Businesspeople known as NEPmen gained
    reputation for greed and lack of cultural
    sophistication (somewhat like new moneyed class
    or New Russians in 1990s)
  • NEP accompanied by tolerance of literature by
    fellow travelers, or writers whose works were
    not openly anti-Soviet but not necessarily
    favorable toward Soviet system
  • NEP ended in late 1920s after Stalin consolidated
    power private enterprise then eliminated

Soviet Cultural Policy During NEP
  • Central Directorate for Matters of Literature and
    Publishing (Glavlit) created 1922, had to
    approve publication of any printed material
  • Relatively permissive at first, but laid
    foundation for later, much stricter censorship
    under Stalin
  • Debate among literary critics throughout 1920s on
    whether since the Soviet state had set up the
    proper legal procedures for uncovering and
    eradicating social ills, satirical literature was
    no longer necessary (Jeremy Hicks, trans., The
    Galosh and Other Stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko,
    Angel, pg. 9)
  • Satire remained enormously popular with the public

Zoshchenko and Soviet Satire
  • In 1922-28, seven satirical magazines in Moscow
    and Petrograd/ Leningrad (formerly St.
    Petersburg) had combined print run of over half a
    million copies
  • Approximately equal to daily circulation of
    official Communist Party newspaper, Pravda
  • Zoshchenko estimated to have sold 100 million
    copies of his stories
  • Huge popularity attributed to his simple writing
    style, use of colloquial language/slang, timely
    subject matter to which many people could relate

Zoshchenkos Audience
  • Stories appealed to many Soviet citizens who had
    just completed basic literacy courses through
    Bolsheviks literacy campaign --illiteracy was
    widespread in society composed mainly of peasants
    before Revolution
  • Many people migrated from countryside to major
    cities after Revolution in search of work, then
    faced problems similar to those of Zoshchenkos

Themes of Zoshchenkos Stories
  • Confusion of ordinary Russians over new Marxist
    political vocabulary characters often try to
    use this vocabulary and make humorous mistakes
  • Overcrowding and housing shortage in cities due
    to rapid influx of people
  • Shortages and poor quality of consumer goods as
    emphasis was placed on developing heavy industry
  • Widespread theft, bribery and corruption,
    conflicting with declared ideals of socialist
  • Bureaucratization of Soviet life

A Favorite Topic The Communal Apartment
  • To deal with housing shortage, Communist
    government converted many large apartments into
    communal apartments
  • Several families shared a kitchen and bathroom,
    with each family having only one room of their
  • Separate rooms often created by adding thin
    plywood walls, causing lack of privacy
  • Many conflicts among strangers forced to share
    such close quarters a favorite target of
    satirical literature

Reading and Discussion of Zoshchenkos Short
Stories Small Groups
  • Group 1 Crisis and Guests
  • Group 2 Nervous People and Hard Labour
  • Group 3 Red Tape and Of Lamp-shades
  • Read and discuss the selected two stories in your
    small group.
  • Give a brief synopsis of the two stories to the
    entire group.
  • Comment on what the stories illustrate about
    Soviet life in the 1920s under NEP.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-)
  • Studied physics and mathematics at Rostov
    University and completed correspondence course in
    literature, 1936-41.
  • Served as officer in Soviet military during Great
    Patriotic War against Germany, 1942-45. Arrested
    at the front for making critical comments about
    Stalin in personal correspondence. Sentenced to
    eight years of hard labor.
  • Confined in prison camps, 1945-53, including a
    camp in Kazakhstan for political prisoners only
    in 1950-53. Conditions in this camp would be
    reflected in his famous story One Day in the Life
    of Ivan Denisovich.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (continued)
  • Spent three years of exile in Kazakhstan before
    being permitted to return to European Russia in
  • After Stalins death in 1953, new Soviet leader
    Nikita Khrushchev begins de-Stalinization
    campaign in 1956 and denounces Stalinist terror.
    In the context of this cultural thaw,
    Solzhenitsyn is permitted to publish Ivan
    Denisovich in the Soviet literary journal Novy
    Mir in 1962 (but it is later banned).
  • After Khrushchev is ousted and replaced by Leonid
    Brezhnev in 1964, Solzhenitsyn is prevented from
    publishing most of his work in the Soviet Union
    and can publish only abroad.
  • Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature, 1970.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, continued
  • Deported to West Germany, 1974.
  • Moved to Vermont, USA, 1976.
  • Upon collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the
    1974 charge of treason against Solzhenitsyn was
  • Moved back to Russia in 1994.

Background Information The Soviet Gulag System
(from http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulag)
  • Penal system of forced labor camps operated by
    the NKVD (secret police)
  • Held political prisoners as well as common
  • Most located in remote areas of Siberia or
    Central Asia
  • Some camp facilities set up as early as 1918 as
    extension of labor camps operated in tsarist
  • GULAG (Russian acronym) officially established as
    a department of the secret police in 1930
  • Major growth of prison camp population through
    1930s as prison labor was used for
    industrialization efforts

The Soviet Gulag System, continued
  • Mass arrests during Great Terror in 1937-38 led
    to hundreds of thousands being sentenced to long
    prison terms for counterrevolutionary
    activities, mostly arbitrarily
  • Over 1.5 million people in Gulag system by 1939
  • Gulag population declined during Second World
    War, as hundreds of thousands of inmates were
    conscripted into military service
  • Increased again after war, to 2.5 million in
    early 1950s, including hundreds of thousands of
    former soldiers accused of treason for such
    offenses as being having been captured by
    Germans, liberated from concentration camps by
    Americans, etc.

The Soviet Gulag System, continued
  • Gulag system declined after Stalins death in
    1953, most camps closed down by end of 1950s
  • GULAG officially dissolved in 1960
  • 18-20 million people were held in Gulag at some
    point during Stalinist period, with over 1.6
    million documented deaths
  • Deaths resulted from disease, malnutrition,
    overwork and exposure (due to inadequate food,
    clothing and medical care), and brutal treatment
    by guards and fellow prisoners
  • Once released, former prisoners were often
    prohibited from living in major Russian cities or
    holding a wide range of jobs, so they could not
    return to former homes and occupations

Background Information on One Day in the Life of
Ivan Denisovich
  • Solzhenitsyn sought to portray a typical day in
    the life of an ordinary camp inmate, the peasant
    Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
  • Wrote in Russian 19th century realist tradition
    The great Russian prose writers of the last
    century took pride in the way their works
    addressed and reflected the actual historical,
    social, or moral conditions of their homeland.
    Literary achievement was not seen in the ability
    of a powerful imagination to create a vivid
    fictional world … but rather in the writers
    skill in selecting, shaping and ordering the data
    of reality. Alexis Klimoff, One Day in the
    Life of Ivan Denisovich A Critical Companion, p.

Background Info on One Day…, continued
  • Story takes place in January 1951 at a Special
    Camp for political prisoners in Central Asia
  • Special Camps allowed prisoners to write only two
    letters home per year, and denied them even token
    payment for hard labor performed
  • Ivan Denisovich is imprisoned for treason after
    having been briefly captured by Germans during
    the war (he escaped) many fellow prisoners for
    similar reasons
  • Story is told from Ivans viewpoint as a simple,
    honest man without strong political beliefs who
    is mainly concerned about day-to-day survival

Excerpts from One Day…
  • First 12 pages morning routine, reveille,
    illness, cold (p. 10 prisoners not made to work
    outdoors if temperature was under 41
    degrees C, 41.8 degrees F! Length of workday
    mentioned later in book 11 hours.)
  • There is no worse moment than when you turn out
    for work parade in the morning. In the dark, in
    the freezing cold, with a hungry belly, and the
    whole day ahead of you. You lose the power of
    speech. You havent the slightest desire to talk
    to each other. (p. 28)

Excerpts from One Day… continued
  • Since hed been in the camps Shukhov had thought
    many a time of the food they used to eat in the
    village whole frying pans full of potatoes,
    porridge by the caldron, and … great hefty
    lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till
    their bellies were bursting. But he knew better
    now that hed been inside. Hed learned to keep
    his whole mind on the food he was eating. Like
    now he was taking tiny little nibbles of bread
    … Dry black bread it was, but like that nothing
    could be tastier. How much had he eaten in the
    last eight or nine years? Nothing. And how hard
    had he worked? Dont ask. (p. 50)

Excerpts from One Day… continued
  • Shukhov … no longer knew whether he wanted to
    be free or not. To begin with, hed wanted it
    very much, and counted up every evening how many
    days he still had to serve. Then hed got fed up
    with it. And still later it had gradually dawned
    on him that people like himself were not allowed
    to go home but were packed off into exile. And
    there was no knowing where the living was easier
    here or there. (p. 178)
  • Last line of story Just one of the 3,653 days
    of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra
    three were for leap years. (p. 182)

  • Various challenges and opportunities with using
    these texts as a teaching tool
  • Historical details in Doctor Zhivago are embedded
    in a very long and complex narrative assigning
    entire book could be appropriate for an advanced
    literature class, but less so for history/social
  • Using film version might be helpful to provide
    students with outline of story, while using
    excerpts from novel such as those we read to
    point out realistic historical details that were
    not emphasized in film

Conclusions, continued
  • Zoshchenko stories are short and easily
    digestible, but will require some background
    information to be presented by teacher or through
    other, factual reading assignments
  • Students could be asked to respond by writing
    their own humorous short stories about, for
    example, what they think it would be like to live
    in a communal apartment
  • Satire humanizes Soviet history that is usually
    presented very seriously may help students to
    see beyond ideological conflicts and view
    Russians as ordinary people with problems they
    could imagine having

Conclusions, continued
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short
    text (in its entirety, with some background information
    provided by teacher
  • Could be used to provoke broader discussion on
    authoritarian vs. democratic political systems
    and justice systems (arbitrary punishment of
    ordinary people for offenses such as treason)
    can any similar contemporary examples be found?
  • Could also stimulate creative writing assignments
    focusing on life in prison camps (e.g., imagine
    that you are spending a day in the Gulag and
    describe your experiences)

Conclusions, continued
  • Other ideas for how you might use any of these
    materials in your classroom? Discuss.
  • What kind of follow-up would you like to see from
    this workshop? For example, a website maintained
    at Pitt where you could submit ideas or lesson
    plans you developed on this topic links to other
    information resources related to this topic
  • Resources currently offered by Pitt/REES for K-12
    educators resource lending library, school
    visits program, outreach newsletter, other
    professional development workshops for all world
    areas through UCIS
  • Outreach World, www.outreachworld.org

  • Clowes, Edith W., ed. Doctor Zhivago A Critical
    Companion. Evanston, IL Northwestern University
    Press/AATSEEL, 1995.
  • Klimoff, Alexis, ed. One Day in the Life of Ivan
    Denisovich A Critical Companion. Evanston, IL
    Northwestern University Press/AATSEEL, 1997.
  • Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago. Trans. Max
    Hayward and Manya Harari. New York Pantheon,
  • Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day in the Life of
    Ivan Denisovich. Trans. H.T. Willetts. New York
    Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991.
  • Zoshchenko, Mikhail. The Galosh and Other
    Stories. Trans. Jeremy Hicks. London Angel,

Contact Information
  • Gina Peirce
  • 412-648-2290
  • gbpeirce_at_ucis.pitt.edu
  • www.ucis.pitt.edu/crees
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