Postgrad Interviews

Anna Berman

Anna Burman

Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature and Culture Slavonic Studies, Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages, Cambridge University
https://www.mmll.cam.ac.uk/dr-anna-berman

Dissertation: Siblings: The Path to Universal Brotherhood in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Advisor: Caryl Emerson, 2012.

1. Why did you choose Russian culture for your profession?
There was never a moment when I "chose," but instead a series of events that followed one from the next and ultimately landed me in a Slavic PhD program.  I started studying Russian in high school not because I had any burning interest in Russian, but because my school had an excellent Russian teacher (much better than the French teachers).  After learning Russian for a couple years, I wanted to do a homestay or something in Russia, but in the late 1990s, no programs for high school students included Russia.  But then my family saw that Earthwatch (a non-profit that allows lay people to go on expeditions to help researchers with their work) had a project called "Witches and Hobgoblins of Rural Russia."  So when I was around 17, my parents let me go with a Russian folklore collector to a rural village to help with her research.  And I totally fell in love with the babushki in the village! I ended up becoming very close with this folklorist and working with her for many years, traveling to villages from Smolensk and Bryansk provinces in European Russia, down to the Cossack region in Volgograd and Rostov provinces, and out to Siberia in the Irkutsk province. 
 
After my first village experience, the next big thing that happened was that I read War and Peace (in English) and fell in love with Tolstoy.  And from there it was obvious that I would keep studying Russian in college.  Learning the language did not come easily to me, so I decided I needed to spend a semester in St. Petersburg my junior year to really get myself to the point where I was comfortable speaking.  I expected it to be really hard and painful... but instead it was an absolute joy.  I had a wonderful host family (I am still in touch with my host sister) and made many great friends.  So after that it was logical that I would want to return to Petersburg when I graduated to spend a Fulbright year (split between studying art history and going on folklore expeditions).  And that led to an MPhil in Cambridge... and then a PhD... and here I am, still studying Russian literature.  I've always wanted to be a teacher since I was small, so being a professor has been the ideal job, getting to share things I love with students.
 2. What was your brightest recollection from your graduate student’s years?
​Oh my gosh, there are so many!  I was in the rather unusual situation of being a cohort of one, and my first year several professors were on leave, so Caryl Emerson offered to do an independent reading course with me on opera adaptations of Russian literary classics (I had started studying opera during my MPhil).  I have never worked as hard for any course, reading a libretto, watching an opera, listening several times through the music, and then reading as much secondary material as I could find and writing a paper each week.  I remember running into Caryl in the hall the first week and she said: "This course is going to kill both of us.  Drop by, I have more readings for you."  And so it went :)  After that, we started going to all the Russian operas performed at the Met for the rest of my time in grad school and those outings were a total highlight.
 3. What literary work (or any work of art) would you like to recommend to a newcomer who is interested in Russia as the key to the culture?​I don't know if there's one "key to the culture" (if there were, it would be a lot less interesting).  Just in terms of wonderful things to read, War and Peace will always be my favorite, though it may not be the easiest place to start.

 4. What are you currently working on?
​I'm currently finishing up two projects.  The first is editing Tolstoy in Context for Cambridge University Press. Their "Literature in Context" series focuses on the contexts around authors that shaped their lives/writing and that they in turn influenced.  So it's been exciting to bring together contributors from different fields ranging from history of science to musicology, art history, political theory, specialists on education, on the Doukhobors, etc. together with Tolstoy scholars to produce the volume.
 
My second project is a monograph that looks at the Russian and English nineteenth-century novel, focusing on family plotlines.  The basic argument is that the Russians and the English had fundamentally different conceptions of what the family was, and that this in turn shaped the way they constructed narratives.  Working on it has been a great excuse to read over 100 novels (roughly 50 from each country) and to trace the patters I found and then to look for explanations for these patterns in family history.

Lindsay Marie Ceballos

Lindsay Marie Ceballos

Assistant Professor of Russian and East European Studies, Lafayette College

Dissertation: Tragic Thinking in Early Russian Modernism: Minskii, Merezhkovski and Briusov. Advisor: Michael Wachtel, 2015.

1. Why did you choose Russian culture for your profession?
To be honest, it felt like a random development in my life. Random does not mean it was bad or meaningless, though. I began reading Russian literature in translation at the age of 14. As a teenager I was drawn to things I didn't understand and so Russia offered a variety of challenges: the culture itself was alien to me and its philosophical content opened up the world to me. If my professors at Wesleyan had not been as amazing and supportive as they were, I might have ended up studying music, which was my plan B when I entered college. Only after graduate school did I realize that as a mixed-race person, Russian culture must have appealed to me because of its historical identity between east and west. But I like that what I do still remains a bit of a mystery to me.

 2. What was your brightest recollection from your graduate student’s years?
In the Slavic department I have fond memories of Michael's Pushkin seminar, which I took my first year. It was the course where I learned to scan poetry and the myth of Pushkin as a simple, clear poet was totally destroyed for me. I ended up writing an essay on his sonnet "Madonna" that I later published. Returning to Pushkin - to his prose this time - is something I would like to do at some later point.

 3. What literary work (or any work of art) would you like to recommend to a newcomer who is interested in Russia as the key to the culture?

This is a hard question. I would choose either Tarkovsky's Mirror or something by Chekhov. Those are my keys to the culture, at least.

 4. What are you currently working on?I am finishing a book manuscript currently entitled, Reading Faithfully: Russian Modernist Criticism and the Making of Dostoevsky, 1881-1917. I'm also working with some colleagues on a volume of previously untranslated Symbolist criticism on realism.

Yuri Corrigan

Yuri Corrigan

Associate Professor of Russian & Comparative Literature, Convener of Russian, Boston University
https://www.bu.edu/wll/profile/yuri-corrigan

Dissertation: Chekhov’s Existentialism: The Ethics of Outsideness. Advisors: Ellen Chances and Caryl Emerson, 2008.

1. Why did you choose Russian culture for your profession?
A semester abroad in St. Petersburg turned into a several years of odd jobs in Russia, which left me in my mid-twenties wondering how to get back to the West. And then I discovered that PhD programs paid you (and not you them) to read books – including Russian ones – and to go to classes and come up with ideas and write about them. I remember looking at the Princeton Slavic department website at an internet café and breaking out into a nervous sweat. That was probably the moment.
 2. What was your brightest recollection from your graduate student’s years?
Summers of funded study in Poland were paradise. Futurism with Olga Hasty. Pushkin with Michael Wachtel. Chekhov with Ellen Chances. Russian Religious Thought with Caryl Emerson and Ksana Blank. Evenings with the other graduate students at Jamie McGavran’s room at the Old GC discussing either literature, philosophy, or our own unhappiness. It turns out I was happy but didn’t know it.  
 3. What literary work (or any work of art) would you like to recommend to a newcomer who is interested in Russia as the key to the culture?
I don’t have an original answer to this question. In my 19th-century survey, we spend the first few weeks with Pushkin’s Belkin Tales and Gogol’s Petersburg Tales. Feels like it works, so I haven’t tried to fix it.

 4. What are you currently working on?
A Russian literary history of the concept of “soul.”

James McGavran

james mcgavran

Associate Professor of Russian, Kenyon College
https://www.kenyon.edu/directory/jamie-mcgavran/

Dissertation: Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Poetics of Humor. Advisor: Michael Wachtel, 2008.

1. Why did you choose Russian culture for your profession?
I fell in love with the literature as an undergraduate, pretty much as soon as I read my first poems and stories in the original. Getting into Princeton's graduate program was certainly a pivotal moment in my life; for a while I stubbornly and shortsightedly resisted the idea of a traditional academic career, but the decision to devote myself to the study of Russian literature (esp. poetry) was essentially made.
 2. What was your brightest recollection from your graduate student’s years?
There were so many! I would highlight studying Futurism with Olga Hasty (and Mark Pettus, Yuri Corrigan and I painting our faces before one seminar), Pushkin and Symbolism with Michael Wachtel, and Tolstoy and Bakhtin with Caryl Emerson. I also fondly remember a "Kreutzer Sonata" event I was lucky enough to take part in. And of course milestones like passing generals and finishing my dissertation were also pretty memorable.
 3. What literary work (or any work of art) would you like to recommend to a newcomer who is interested in Russia as the key to the culture? An impossible question, because that one magic text is going to be something different for everyone. I'll name a few works of various genres, eras, and styles: Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman," Bely's "Petersburg," Gogol's "The Overcoat," Tsvetaeva's "Новогоднее", Ven. Erofeev's "Moskva-Petushki." I think if a person hates all of those, Russian literature may not be their cup of tea.

 4. What are you currently working on?
Translations of Osip Mandelstam's six longest and most complex poems, with line-by-line commentary and visual aids.

Gabriella Safran

photo of Gabriella Safran

Eva Chernov Lokey Professor in Jewish Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Senior Associate Dean (SAD) for Humanities and Arts in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University
Dissertation: "Narratives of Jewish acculturation in the Russian Empire: Bogrov, Orzeszkowa, Leskov, Chekhov." Adviser: Professor Caryl Emerson (1998)

1. Why did you choose Russian culture for your profession?

Initially, because I found the Soviet Union and its utopian thought fascinating. And being in school in the Gorbachev period, it was exhilarating to see the country change and open up.

2. What was your brightest recollection from your graduate student’s years?

I loved my seminars with Caryl and Michael and the feeling of connection to the other grad students. Since I was in the second class after the program reopened, we had the sense of being on the ground floor, inventing the program along with the faculty.

3. What literary work (or any work of art) would you like to recommend to a newcomer who is interested in Russia as the key to the culture?

Gogol's "The Nose."

4. What are you currently working on?

I am finishing a monograph about listening and the use of other people's words in mid-19th-century writing about the Russian Empire. I am hoping soon to start a new project about humor and Jewish speech style. Also, I do a lot of administrative work!

Emily Wang

emily wang

Assistant Professor, Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures, University of Notre Dame

Dissertation: Civic Feeling: Pushkin and the Decembrist Emotional Community. Advisor: Michael Wachtel, 2016.

 

1. Why did you choose Russian culture for your profession?
I started Russian almost by accident – I was already really interested in Russian literature, but I also wanted to study Italian and a million other things. I stayed in Russian because I loved the community of Wesleyan’s Russian program, not just the wonderful professors, but also the other students, including several of my closest friends. Learning about the Russian literary tradition, especially the ways different writers influenced and responded to one another, felt almost like joining another community (if not always an entirely peaceful one!)  Since teaching was another one of my interests, I took a chance at applying to graduate school, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have continued finding opportunities to learn and teach professionally.
 2. What was your brightest recollection from your graduate student’s years?
There were a lot of great moments. I can’t forget about the séance some of us held to contact the spirits of all our favorite writers I was in my first year, or when Geoff (then fellow graduate student and current husband) baked a honey cake for Lyceum Day and brought it to our Pushkin seminar. Also, Roman Osminkin’s poetry performance was an amazing experience. All that coursework had prepared me not only to write a pile of essays, but also to get his jokes! 
3. What literary work (or any work of art) would you like to recommend to a newcomer who is interested in Russia as the key to the culture?
In the year between my college graduation and the year I spent in Moscow, I liked to carry around bilingual poetry anthologies (like Obolensky’s Heritage of Russian Verse and Smith’s no-longer-so-contemporary Contemporary Russian Poetry; Ugly Duckling Presse also publishes some of these). Like a lot of Americans, I was intimidated by poetry for a long time because until college, I rarely read it outside of class. But lyric poems actually makes great incidental reading, because they’re usually short and if you have a translation, you don’t have to look up any words. Perfect for the metro! For nonnative speakers of Russian, reading poetry can also help you internalize those tricky word stresses.
 
I also love teaching (and watching) my favorite movie, Georgii Daneliia’s Mimino.

 4. What are you currently working on?
I just finished a draft of a book based on my dissertation, which considers the political role emotion plays in political poetry from the era of Pushkin and the Decembrists. I’ve also started working on a second project about racial and ethnic ambiguity and the myth of the “great Russian poet,” starting with Pushkin. For part of it, I’ve been collaborating with an American historian at Notre Dame, Korey Garibaldi. Despite their storied twentieth-century rivalry, the United States and the Russian Empire (as well as its successor states) have always had so much in common.