Anna Berman

Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature and Culture Slavonic Studies, Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages, Cambridge University

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.