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These are the Special Subject options available in 2022-23. These are indicative of the course offerings for the sub-faculty, so applicants should note that not all options will run in all years, and some course content might change. 


Gender and Representation in Russian Culture from 1800 (Hilary Term)

Convenor: Dr Josephine von Zitzewitz

Since the 1980s, study of gender and identity has been one of the liveliest areas of Russian cultural history. Among particular issues of concern have been the rediscovery of work by forgotten women writers, and discussion of the particular characteristics of this; analysis of ‘the feminine’ as a construct, and of its connections with the representation of national identity (especially in the governing myth of ‘Mother Russia’); study of the representation of sexuality and the development of ‘queer theory’ and LGBTQ+ studies; and examination of the link between normative concepts of gender identity and self-expression in literature and other forms of writing, and also in the visual arts (painting, film, etc.).

Those taking the course may specialise in any one area of women’s writing in its relation to cultural history over a longer time-span (for example, women’s memoirs, 1890-1970); or they may consider several different topics with reference to a specifically denominated historical epoch (for example, women’s writing, representations of sexuality in the visual arts, and concepts of gender identity in the era of Romanticism); or they may wish to examine women’s writing and feminist criticism in dialogue with masculinity studies and queer theory. They are urged to contact the Convenor well in advance of their arrival in Oxford in order to discuss possibilities, and to obtain a list of preliminary reading in gender theory and in Russian cultural history.


The Russian Experience of Modernity 1905-45 (Michaelmas Term)

Convenor: Professor Philip Bullock

The experience of modernity in this period, encompassing as it does revolutions and civil war, two world wars, the establishing of a new society and its subsequent repression, required a radical shift in artistic perceptions and cultural sensibilities. This course will consider the nature of writers’ responses to social rupture, the disparate approaches elicited by an evolving political and philosophical discourse and by the rapidly changing relationships between individuals, and between the state and the individual. From the last years of the Silver Age to the imposition of Socialist Realism, literature, whether in formal poetic ‘schools’, loose associations of prose writers, or in the work of individuals, reflected a conscious search for new forms and found expression in experimental writing over all genres. A wide-ranging, thematic approach will be adopted to the study of the period, allowing students to build on their previous studies whilst exploring new authors. Depending on students’ academic background, it may also be possible to consider literature’s dialogue with the other arts in the period (music, cinema, theatre, the visual arts), and the relationship between Western theories of modernism and the avant-garde and the Russian/Soviet context will be critically interrogated.


Late Soviet and Post-Soviet Russian Literature (Hilary Term)

Convenors: Professor Polly Jones and Dr Tamar Koplatadze

Glasnost, perestroika, the abolition of censorship and the disintegration of the USSR have brought about fundamental changes in the circumstances of Russian literature. External factors such as political and economic instability, the possibility of travel abroad, changes in the role of literary journals, the collapse of the Union of Writers, Booker and associated prizes, the advent of the computer, have all conditioned authors’ subjects and working methods. Although the legacy of the social command and the habit of writing in opposition died hard, the period has produced much experimental writing, post-modernist or avant-garde in nature, as well as more conventionally realistic works. Previously taboo subjects such as the religious revival and explicit sexuality were frequently treated; questions relating to gender were discussed; events and writing of the Soviet period were revisited, and the need to amend or amplify the historical record was keenly felt. The significantly diminished role of the creative intelligentsia in society, together with an overall lack of direction and coherence, has added to the unpredictability and excitement of the latest literature. The course will attempt to cover as many of these aspects as possible, while allowing specialisation in areas of particular interest to those following it.


Literature and Culture of the Russian Enlightenment (Michaelmas Term or Hilary Term)

Convenor: Professor Andrei Zorin

Based on a wide range of literary, historical and philosophical sources this course will address issues of literary and intellectual history of the Enlightenment in Russia, including: the development of national identity and the problem of nationalism; the growth of the public and private spheres; the history of translation and translation theory; the comparative aspect of the Russian enlightenment; the problem of the canon and the idea of periodisation; individual identity and the rise of notions of the self in biography and diary writing.

Pushkin and Romanticism (Michaelmas Term or Hilary Term)

Convenor: Professor Andrew Kahn or Professor Andrei Zorin

During the Soviet period, discussion of Pushkin’s relationship with the Romantic movement was made problematic by the canonical status of realism. In recent years, however, both Russian and Western scholars have begun to take a more intensive interest in this topic, and some stimulating studies have appeared, whose insights will be incorporated into work for this course. Study will address itself to genres (dealing, for example, with frame narratives, fragments, Pushkin’s adaptations of the eighteenth-century formal ode), and to themes (for example, national identity and the history of Russia; expression of the self and of gender relations; the Romantic landscape and colonial literature); a comparative approach, drawing on participants’ knowledge of other European literatures, will be actively encouraged. The precise texts to be studied are to be agreed with course tutors, but might include, for example, Evgeny Onegin, Boris Godunov, ‘Egipetskie nochi’, Povesti Belkina and Istoriya sela Goryukhina, Istoriya Pugacheva and Kapitanskaya dochka, Kavkazskii plennik and Bakhchisaraiskii fontan, as well as a selection of Pushkin’s lyric poems.

Rise of the Russian Novel (Michaelmas Term or Hilary Term)

Convenor: Professor Andrei Zorin

The first half of the nineteenth century sees a range of experimentation with prose forms by a number of leading writers. Only later, in the 1850s, does the Russian Realist tradition establish itself with the early novels of Goncharov and Turgenev. But from the 1820s, as the ‘Golden Age’ of poetry gave way to prose, writers such as Pushkin, Gogol’ and Lermontov began to explore the possibilities of the novel in verse, ‘folk’ tales, ‘society’ tales, the prose cycle, framed narratives, historical fiction, the epic and the psychological case-study. Many of these works parody or extend the conventions established in earlier — often translated — works, and discover a Russian identity for these genres. This course, which coincides more or less with the reign of Nicholas I, (1825-55), concludes with the pre-exile works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy’s autobiographical trilogy, and Turgenev’s Huntsman’s Sketches.

Russian Lyric Poetry, Themes and Forms (Hilary Term)

Convenor: Professor Andrew Kahn

The modern Russian poetic canon is exceptionally rich and diverse. It is full of formal experimentation, original voices, and has proven to be historically and political alert at all times (sometimes underground, sometimes from abroad) and in complex dialogue with the nation’s history, European art forms, and larger artistic movements.   The course will consist of four sets of primary texts organized under a thematic rubric. Rubrics include Identity/Consciousness, Nature, Art and Objects, Cycles. Given the time available, the approach to texts will be more synchronic than historical with an emphasis more on lines than lives (to use a distinction G.S. Smith articulated). There is an ample and methodologically diverse scholarly tradition that in itself repays study, especially at the postgraduate level, as an education in different schools, including Formalism, Structuralism, semiotics, inter-textuality, visual poetry, and, of course, New Criticism. One aim of the M.St. option is to encourage the taker to consider (and apply) major approaches in the study of lyric poetry, Western and Russian. The anthology per topic will contain approximately 20 poems, drawn chronologically from various periods and movements.  The selection of texts will aim to help the graduate student form a rounded view of the depth of the tradition and to become acquainted with major, second-tier and even minor poets who have written interesting poems.

The list of proposed works of poetry will favour poets from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but may also reach back to the nineteenth century.  Written work will normally consist of a dossier of four pieces of writing, one per topic, with an option to make one of these a method essay.

The Gulag and the Russian Literary Process (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Polly Jones

This course contextualises the explosion of Gulag prose in the second half of the 20th century within broader historical and literary traditions of Russian prison narratives, emphasising its intertextuality and hybridity of genre. Students will be encouraged to draw on trauma theory and studies of Holocaust literature, as well as cultural historical approaches to Russia’s confrontation and repression of the memory of Stalinism (Etkind, Jones, Adler, Khapaeva). Some background reading on the Gulag and on dissidence and samizdat will be helpful.

We will begin by considering some of the foundational 19th-century texts about incarceration (Dostoevskii, Chekhov), and then analyses early Stalin-era depictions of prisoners before the theme became taboo (the Belomorkanal project). The bulk of the course then focuses on the myriad ways in which the Gulag was depicted in published and (mostly) unpublished prose from the 1960s to the 1990s. Texts from this period available for close analysis include: the ‘official’ Khrushchev-era Gulag narratives of Soviet writers such as Shelest (the first writer to write about the camps in three decades, in 1962) and D’iakov; the published and samizdat/tamizdat Gulag prose of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Ivan Denisovich, V kruge pervom, Arkhipelag Gulag); the banned prison narratives of Vasilii Grossman (Vse techet; Zhizn’ i sud’ba), Varlam Shalamov (Kolymskie rasskazy) and Giorgii Vladimov (Vernyi Ruslan), all belatedly published during glasnost; and the émigré critique and reinvention of the Gulag literary tradition of Sergei Dovlatov (Zona).


Comparative Perspectives on Polish Literature (Hilary Term)                                      
Convenor: Dr Karolina Watroba

The precise focus of this course will be agreed between the tutors and the students. Possible topics include:

  • Polish Modernism in the European Context: Zofia Nałkowska's "Choucas"
  • Jewish Literature in Central Europe: Bruno Schulz and Franz Kafka
  • Metaphysical Detective Fiction: Witold Gombrowicz
  • A Female Gaze on Animal Studies: Olga Tokarczuk