“‘Gloomy Finland’ and the Russian Imperial Gothic”: Valeria Sobol at the Noontime Scholars Lecture

On a hot and sunny Tuesday, September 26, the current head of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Professor Valeria Sobol gave a lecture entitled “‘Gloomy Finland’ and the Russian Imperial Gothic.” The talk was a part of REEEC Fall 2017 Noontime Lecture Series, but as Professor Sobol pointed out in her opening remarks, the talk could also fit into the “1917: Ten Days that Shook the World / 2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus” initiative since it was 1917 when Finland finally gained its independence. However, the lecture took us back to the time when Finland became a part of Russia – the timeframe that is of particular interest to Sobol as she is working on her new project, Haunted Empire: The Russian Literary Gothic and the Imperial Uncanny, 1790-1850.

In her new book, Sobol explores the North-South axis (that comprises Finland, the Baltics, and Ukraine) and its place in the rhetoric of Russian Imperial discourse. However, for the lecture she concentrated on Finland and its image in Russian literary and ethnographic works of the 1840s.

Professor Valeria Sobol

Finland has always held a somewhat peculiar position in Russian imagination. In the early Russian annals, Finnic peoples were referred to as Chud that was commonly interpreted as ‘foreign’, from Russian ‘chuzhoi’. During the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721) St. Petersburg was founded and bordering Finland became a part of the narrative which is now known as the Petersburg Text. At last, as a result of the Finnish War (1808 – 09), the eastern part of Sweden became a part of Russian Empire as the Grand Dutchy of Finland. Russian authors of the time interpreted this event in Finnish history as a moment of enlightenment when unsophisticated and uneducated Finns were taught and polished by progressive and ‘European’ Russia, omitting the fierce Finnish resistance.

As a literary example of promoting the idea of assimilation, parental influence, and kinship between Finns and Russians, Sobol cites Nestor Kukolnik’s Egor Ivanovich Silvanovky, or the Conquest of Finland under Peter the Great. The story was published in the very first issue of Finskii Vestnik (Finnish Herald) in 1845. As a whole, the 1840s were marked as a period of intensive ethnographic studies after the most significant work of Finnish literature, an epic poem based on local folklore and mythology, Kalevala, was compiled and published by Elias Lönnrot in 1835. It was popularized in Russia by Yakov Grot, the first professor of Russian at the Helsinki University. Grot, as well as Kukolnik and other scholars and writers, created an idealistic image of Finland as a gloomy prehistoric place inhabited with poor, simple-hearted people. In Kukolnik’s story, Eric, a Finnish sailor, accused of black magic by both his Swedish professor and noble family of his bride, “is rescued” by the victorious Russian army so that he is able to become a part of the army and to marry his fiancée. Russia is glorified as a modern country that is not afraid of mysticism but rather honors reason, enlightenment and carries a message of brotherhood between the Finnish Eric of the past and the Russian Egor of the present and future.

However, V. Odoevsky’s The Salamander, the other story that Sobol discussed in the lecture (and to a greater extent in her new book in progress), seems to be more complex and less one-sided. The first part of the book tells a common, optimistic story of Russian influence where Russia is depicted as a Fatherland to an orphan Finn, Jakko. Thanks to Peter the Great’s progressive attitude to education, Jakko becomes an educated European. Later on, however, he is divided between his two identities as he has to choose between Elsa and Marja. His friend from childhood, lively and nature-driven Elsa, reconnects him with his Finnish roots, native land and its nature. Nevertheless, as a true product of civilization and city-life, Jakko prefers Marja, a cold and superficial daughter of his Russian benefactor with an ambiguous name Zverev (with zver meaning beast in Russian) and embraces his Russian identity under a new name of Ivan Ivanovich Iakov. While he venerates Russia’s power and grandeur of the Empire building, Elsa sees it only as a terrifying scary place. The demonic nature of St. Petersburg as a part of its myth is revisited through the perspective of a naïve and natural Finnish girl. The Gothic uncanny perception of Finland is reversed so that Petrine Russia is exposed to critique of its Imperial expansion. 

“The Imatra Waterfall in Finland” by Fedor Matveev (1819)

The second part of the book contains a number of fantastic elements and uses an image of a mystical house with a haunted room to depict modern conditions through a story of the past. Apparently, Jakko becomes dissatisfied with his life after the death of Peter I, longs for his Finnish ancestry, and finds himself as an alchemist. In one of his experiments he encounters Elsa both as a salamander and as a woman in traditional Finnish dress. She brings ruin to Jakko, eventually destroying everything with fire. Jakko’s story is told in late 1830s Moscow by a spiritual aunt to his rationalist nephew who fails to explain scientifically the screams that can be heard in a room of the old Boyar house. As it turns out, the house bought by a merchant who wants to turn it into a factory stands where once Jakko has lived and the room is in the place of Jakko’s laboratory. The mix of different times in one story allows for the discussion of good traditional pre-Petrine Russia as opposed to the evil industrial post-Petrine times.

Sobol concluded her lecture with the idea that even though Finland was not mentioned in the earlier drafts of The Salamander, Odoevsky used its image to comment on the opposition between organic unity and the urge for rationalism and mechanism in Russia’s modernity with Finland being Russia’s Imperial subconsciousness. 

Olga Makarova is a Graduate student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her interests include Russian literature and intellectual history, Bulgarian culture, translation studies and library science.   

The Possibilities of Revolutionary Art: A Gallery Conversation on “Propositions on a Revolution (Slogans for a Future)” Exhibition

As part of the “1917: Ten Days that Shook the World / 2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus” initiative observing the hundredth anniversary of the October Russian Revolution, the Krannert Art Museum (KAM) is hosting an exhibition entitled “Propositions on Revolution (Slogans for a Future).” The exhibition, which is on view until December 22, 2017, is curated by Kristin Romberg, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

From right to left: Kristin Romberg, Jaleh Mansoor, Tameka Norris, and Terri Weissman

Taking the October Revolution as a point of departure, the exhibition looks broadly at revolution from the perspective of a diverse group of artists, including the Russian collective Chto Delat, Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco, and Vietnamese collective The Propeller Group. The exhibition features a variety of media, with a particularly rich collection of video-based works. Inviting visitors to experience all the possibilities that video offers, the exhibition includes Jennifer Moon’s TED-style talk projected on an entire wall, the operatic performance of Chto Delat on a screen with headphones, and, as part of The Propeller Group’s Television Commercial for Communism, a conversation around a table playing on five screens arranged in a circle in the center of the gallery, mimicking the camera positions from which it was recorded. Interestingly, however, one of the most striking works on display is a series of photographs from an artist who is known primarily for filmmaking. Tacita Dean, an English visual artist, created the series by blowing up black-and-white photos from old disaster postcards. The photo portfolio is entitled “The Russian Ending,” a reference to the early Danish film industry, which would produce two endings for one movie: a happy ending directed toward American audiences and the sad one for Russian theaters. On each photograph are various notes for framing and editing, suggestive a film director’s storyboard.

On September 22, 2017, a conversation about the exhibition was held in the gallery space at the Krannert Art Museum, featuring curator Kristin Romberg; Tameka Norris, contributing artist and Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Iowa; Jaleh Mansoor, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia; and Terri Weissman, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois. The conversation echoed the central questions raised by the exhibition itself: What is revolution? How does an event become a revolution, and who shapes that label? What role does any given medium – painting, film, photography – play in depicting, narrating, agitating, or forging revolution?


In her introduction to the talk, Romberg discussed how the idea for the exhibition developed out of her own research into revolutionary Russia and the Constructivist movement in particular. She argues that the seemingly propagandistic slogans that accompanied the Revolution were not mere prescriptions to be followed, but rather a process of co-authorship that encouraged discussion over what a group’s shared standpoint should be. This form of collective authorship as a process of debate and discovery forms the basis for an exhibition that highlights art collectives (Chto Delat, The Propeller Group) and directs attention to how film is edited (Dean’s annotated photos, Coco Fusco’s mix of real and fictional footage).

Accordingly, a major theme of the discussion among the four panelists was revolution as a historical process rather than merely a discrete event on a timeline. As Mansoor pointed out, this process is visible in the ways that revolution affects art, when power shifts and those who were previously marginalized try to “inscribe [themselves] as a subject” in art. The panelists agreed that the exhibition challenges the adage that “history is written by the victors.” Mansoor identified Tameka Norris’s work in the exhibit – consisting of bedsheets recovered from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina mounted on rectangular wooden frames – as belonging to the “aristocratic lineage” of painting but also subverting it, not unlike Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko famously declared the “end of painting” following the Russian Revolution. Likewise, Norris explained how revolutionary art destabilizes the binary of high and low art, noting that a painting may provoke a visceral response much like a pop song, regardless of whether the audience can understand color theory or music theory, and that rap music may not “translate” to everyone, but rather requires some audiences to “do the work” to understand it. As reflected in the exhibition, these possibilities of revolutionary art are not dependent on a single historical incident, but are part of broader cultural processes of transformation.

The “Propositions on Revolution” exhibition can be found on KAM’s main level in the Rosann Gelvin Noel Annex, Light Court, and West Gallery. It is sponsored by the 1917: Ten Days that Shook the World / 2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus Initiative; Center for Advanced Study; School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics; Center for Global Studies; and Krannert Art Museum.

Exhibition website
Library Guide on the exhibition
1917: Ten days that shook the world / 2017: Ten days that shake the campus website

Morgan Shafter is a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on translation studies and Russian literature and art from the late Soviet era to present.

“Universal Prostitution and Concrete Abstraction: The Biopolitics of Abstract Art, 1888-2008,” Jaleh Mansoor

Professor Jaleh Mansoor, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, delivered a lecture entitled “Universal Prostitution and Concrete Abstraction: The Biopolitics of Abstract Art, 1888-2008” as the opening lecture of the Krannert Art Museum Exhibition “Propositions on Revolution (Slogans for a Future)”, which is headed by Professor Kristin Romberg (UIUC) and is part of the “1917: Ten Days that Shook the World/2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus” initiative. Professor Mansoor specializes in the history of modern and contemporary cultural production, focusing specifically on twentieth century European art, Marxism, Marxist feminism, and critical theory. Her first book is Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia (Duke University Press, 2016), which, broadly speaking, examines the connection between abstract art and social transition in postwar Italy. Following her own introduction by Professor Kristin Romberg, Professor Mansoor introduced new work that examines aesthetic abstraction through the lens of Marxist and feminist theory.

Professor Mansoor began her lecture by developing a framework that links Marxist-feminist theory to artistic form. She described the emergence of the proletariat in the nineteenth century, and introduced the concept of “universal prostitution” to characterize patriarchal capitalism. She further integrated this concept into Marxist-feminist scholarship, particularly that of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, that notes the gender split under capital and the move in the nineteenth century from patriarchy to capitalist patriarchy and from oppression to exploitation. In conjunction with this discussion of the unequal gender dynamics endemic to capitalism, Professor Mansoor stated that the flaneur emerged in the nineteenth century in response to the worker-prostitute, who is subjugated to and by the wage and its reconstitution of everyday life. After a discussion of Baudelaire and the flaneur, Professor Mansoor noted the lack of a female flaneur in his works and questioned if there could be a “flaneuse” given the unequal market and labor statuses among men and women. In her characterization of the period, as well as under capitalism in general, she identified a dual war between labor and capital, as well as between the sexes. This dual war served as the background to her fundamental assertion that “aesthetic abstraction in the late nineteenth century originates in and enters in[to] a mimetic relationship with and against real abstraction, by which I mean the capitalist mode of production and ontological shifts it demands, where people become the proletariat, places become cities, and things become commodities.” Furthermore, Professor Mansoor argued that abstraction issues from a misrecognition of the relationship of labor to capital, as well as from “the uneven entry of sexed and gendered bodies into modernity,” and these dynamics permeate every mode of cultural production, including at the level of the grapheme (the individual mark or stroke of paint applied to a surface).

Edouard Manet’s “The Balcony” (1869)

Using this framework and argument, Professor Mansoor closely analyzed several works by Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Edouard Manet’s “The Balcony” (1869), and she conducted an extensive analysis of Georges Seurat’s “The Models” (1888). The form of the Impressionist painter Morisot’s art enabled her to cross boundaries that were prohibited for her to cross in the artist’s own life. Professor Mansoor contrasted the free, uninhibited strokes that characterize Morisot’s work with the artist’s own depiction in art as being bound and restricted. Edourd Manet’s “The Balcony” serves as an example of Morisot’s representation, and the painting shows her visually confined to the domestic sphere by the foregrounded balcony railing. Professor Mansoor integrated this painting into Marxist criticism and the scholarship of Jonathan Crary on the family and private property in the nineteenth century, which determined women’s role in the capitalist economy and society. Against these determining external factors, Professor Mansoor sees Morisot’s brushstroke itself as a site of agency and potential contestation of the surrounding socio-economic circumstances. In her words, “the mark marks the struggle between external restraint and self-determination, [it is] a microcosm of the civil war between forms of determination.” According to Professor Mansoor, Seurat’s “The Models” offers both the story and the programmatic demonstration of abstraction’s beginnings in its late nineteenth century character. The painting depicts three nude or semi-nude figures posing in an art studio, with the Seurat’s own “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884) in the background. Professor Mansoor stated that the painting is brazenly self-reflexive, most clearly in its nesting of the artist’s own work in the background, but she also argued that Seurat’s self-reflexive turn is inscribed at the level of the grapheme. In addition, she argued that Seurat’s pointillist method is a way of internalizing disciplinary labor, which casts abstraction in art as a response to the industrial assembly line and suggests solidarity between the artist and the machine worker.

Georges Seurat’s “The Models” (1888)

Professor Mansoor integrated her work into Marxist-feminist theory, as well as into the extant art historical scholarship on the artists she discusses and the grapheme, while also creatively gesturing to future directions of her work. One such proposition involved the examination of the use of abstract art and artists in technological fields to float new advances in artificial intelligence (e.g., Google’s Seurat) as a way of discussing abstraction in contemporary cultural production. In short, Professor Mansoor’s lecture described an ambitious and intellectually rigorous project that relates “aesthetic” abstraction to “real” abstraction in a Marxist-feminist framework.

LeiAnna X. Hamel is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian and Yiddish literature and culture. 

Select Courses in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, Spring 2018

Note: The courses listed below are not an exhaustive list of courses being offered on the REEE region.

Please see course explorer for additional classes.


ARTH 541/SLAV 525: Aesthetic Technologies of the Russian Avant-Garde

Lilya Kaganovsky and Kristin Romberg

M 2-4:50 pm, Flagg 404


This course takes as its primary focus the radical transformations of aesthetic technologies in painting, photography, film, literature, poetry, and related media produced by the Russian avant-garde in the period from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the beginning of the Second World War. This course is organized as a primer on the technologies of seeing and representing as they appear in Soviet film, literature, poetry, and the visual arts of the 1920s and 1930s. Topics will include: “trans-sense” (zaum), estrangement (ostranenie), montage, collage, attraction, factography, mastery or conquest of space through vision (osvoenie), and socialist realism.


LAW 657: International Human Rights Law

Francis Boyle

[time and location TBA]


Based primarily on a series of contemporary “real world” problems, the course introduces the student to the established and developing legal rules and procedures governing the protection of international human rights. Its thesis is that there exists a substantial body of substantive and procedural International Human Rights Law, and that lawyers, government officials, and concerned citizens should be familiar with the policies underlying this law and its enforcement, as well as with the potential it offers for improving the basic lot of human beings everywhere. Additionally, the course presupposes that the meaning of “human rights” is undergoing fundamental expansion, and therefore explores Marxist and Third World conceptions of human rights as well as those derived from the liberal West.


NPRE/GLBL/PS 480: Energy and Security

Clifford Singer

T 12:30-1:50 pm, Transportation 101; R 12:30-1:50 pm, Transportation 101 OR R 2:00-3:40 pm, 340 Armory


Security and supplies of energy, mineral resources, and water. Evolution of the importance of various fuels in conflicts (including coal, oil, uranium, and natural gas) starting with the Franco-Prussian Wars. Theories of international conflict and examination of the role of individual leaders versus institutional factors in the precipitation and outcome of pivotal wars. Econometric analyses relevant to past and projected future energy use.


REES 201: Introduction to Eastern Europe

Judith Pintar

TR 12:20-1:50, [location TBA]


This survey course explores the part of the world that falls under the broad term “Eastern Europe,” a problematic label that is defined in various geographic, political, and cultural ways. Taking a socio-historical approach to a region and its empires which stretch from the Balkans to Sibera, we will travel through 2000 years of transformational history. You will have the opportunity to choose one country to be the focus of your personal research. You will also participate in scholarly, cultural, and creative activities within a larger regional group.



SLAV 399: The Life and Times of Vladimir Putin

Richard Tempest

MWF 1-1:50 pm, Gregory Hall 205


This course examines the figure of Russian president Vladimir Putin against the backdrop of imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet culture while exploring his connection to real-life characters and plots from a variety of Russian and Western sources. The defining traits of Putin’s Russia as well as the poetics of his charismatic national and international presence will also be explored. A representative selection of relevant artistic productions is covered, from classic Russian poetry and prose to gangster movies, rock, pop, and hip hop. No knowledge of Russian required.


SLAV 525 G: Medieval Epics and Modern Forgeries: The Igor Tale in its Contexts

David Cooper

W 2-4:50 pm, [location TBA]


Since its discovery in the late eighteenth century, the Slovo o polku Igoreve (the Igor Tale) has occupied a central but isolated place in Russian literary history. Received as a secular national epic, Slovo stood out as unique in the canon of medieval Russian literature and as singularly important to the forging of a modern Russian national literary identity. These features led to suspicions concerning the authenticity of the work from the very beginning. In this course, we will read the text of Slovo closely (in the Old East Slavic/OCS) and examine its features as a literary work in comparison to related Kievan period texts, to other “authentic” medieval epics, to oral epic traditions, and to later “forgeries.” We will examine the debates over Slovo’s authenticity and explore how arguments on both sides shed light on the nature of medieval literature and how that literature was received (and transformed) in the age of developing nationalism.

Call for Papers: Russian and East European Jewish Cultures Junior Scholar Workshop

The Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois invites submissions for the Russian and East European Jewish Cultures Junior Scholar Workshop, to be held in Champaign, Illinois, on May 21 and May 22, 2018. The workshop is open to advanced graduate students and early career scholars (in their first three years after the PhD). Abstracts and papers should highlight the critical methodologies used in the work. Selected papers will be pre-circulated among the participants, to maximize opportunity for discussion. Participants will also have an opportunity to meet with the Slavic Reference Service.

To be considered, please send your 400 word abstract and CV by December 15, 2017, to eavrutin@illinois.edu and hlmurav@illinois.edu. We will then inform participants who have been selected and ask you to develop a paper of no more than 8,000 words (excluding notes). The workshop will pay for participants’ hotel expenses and meals. Modest travel subsidies may be available.

Revolutionary Film series: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

As part of the University of Illinois’s “1917: Ten Days That Shook the World /  2017: en Days that Shake the Campus” program series, a group of dedicated students and film buffs gathered in the Armory on September 29 to watch Esfir Shub’s pioneering 1927 Soviet documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie dinastii Romanovykh). Commissioned and produced for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Shub’s film tells the story of the final years of the Russian Empire, the First World War, and the revolutionary events of 1917. Our screening was introduced by Marina Filipovic, a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures whose dissertation includes a chapter discussing Shub and her work. Marina’s introduction highlighted the pathbreaking nature of Shub and her documentary.

Born in 1894, Shub started out in literature and theatre, where she worked with both famed director Sergei Eisenstein and Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, before becoming a film editor in 1922. In 1926, she was commissioned to produce a film about the revolution. Other directors, including Eisenstein, were at the time making avant-garde films that were difficult for ordinary viewers to comprehend, whereas Shub’s work was more realistic and intelligible for wider audiences, with less of a distinct artistic authorial voice.

Shub decided to look through archival film footage to make her film on the Revolution. There were numerous problems with this approach, including a lack of material, extensive damage to much of the film she wanted to consult, and the need to purchase additional material to supplement what existed in Soviet archives. Shub invested a massive amount of time and research into her film, reviewing 60,000 feet of film despite including only one tenth of that in her final product, including a significant amount that she filmed herself.

Nevertheless, as one of the first women in the Soviet film industry it was extremely difficult for her to gain the recognition her work deserved. She was denied royalties from the success of The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and it took an intervention by Mayakovsky himself just for her to be credited as its director. Despite her struggles at the time, we now recognize this film as one of the best early examples of a documentary composed by compiling archival film clips with some framing narration, in this case with intertitles providing context for each scene. The pioneering nature of her work helps explain its dramatic success at the time, beloved in the Soviet Union for its wide appeal and its pro-Bolshevik narrative of the Revolution.

The film divides into three acts: a depiction of pre-revolutionary life, Russia’s experiences in the First World War, and the 1917 Revolution. Shub’s vignettes of Imperial Russia focus on the empire’s deep inequalities, pointing out its political domination by the upper classes. She rapidly cross-cuts between images of the gentry enjoying tea and being waited on by servants, compared to peasants working in the fields; or wealthy nobles on a pleasure cruise dancing until they perspire, compared to the lower classes perspiring from arduous agricultural and industrial work. For a ten-year celebration of how the revolution overthrew an unjust and corrupt regime, Shub’s work would have been an ideal fit with the Bolshevik narrative of 1917.

A still from the film

She then portrays the horrors of war, from graphic shots of dead soldiers to images of hardship on the home front. Once again, she stresses the sacrifices made by ordinary Russians while the generals and aristocrats work at luxurious desks or laugh and converse far from the front. Finally, she moves to the revolutionary year of 1917, where she highlights the role of the masses of workers and soldiers in the fall of the old regime. Condemning politicians of all stripes in Russia’s Provisional Government as well as the moderate socialist leaders of the Petrograd Soviet, Shub’s film sets the stage for the Bolshevik seizure of power despite ending before October. As Marina mentioned in the Q&A session, her film builds up “the inevitability of the Bolshevik Revolution.” Shub’s film serves as a sort of Soviet-approved short course in the revolution, as revealing of attitudes towards the old regime and 1917 in the Soviet 1920s as it is about the revolution itself.

In our Q&A, we discussed the difficulty of distinguishing Shub’s filmed material from the archival footage, given that it is blended in with no distinctions. In addition, Marina pointed out how Shub’s editing style highlighted the difference between the slow, deliberate time before 1914 and faster-paced shots of soldiers, peasants, workers’ marches, and so on in the war and revolution, emphasizing the speed and vitality of popular action. Perhaps most importantly, we discussed how Shub first established the idea of film as memory-keeping, its own kind of archive. In composing a documentary by compiling archival film (rather than primarily filming new material on a subject), she helped invent the modern documentary genre. Even today, it is easy to recognize the value of her work to modern audiences unaccustomed to seeing the Russian Empire and its revolutionary years in motion. The positive responses from our audience in the Armory demonstrated that Shub’s work remains striking a century after the events she documented.

Felix Cowan is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include poverty, inequality, and newspapers in Imperial Russian cities during the revolutionary era.

REPOST: The Russian Revolution from Behind Bars

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of NewsNet (News of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies).

As scholars, we sometimes ask ourselves whether what we study and teach matters outside the walls of academia. When the public thinks at all about the meaning of the Russian Revolution at its centenary, judging by scattered op-ed pieces and reviews of some of the new books on the subject, the assessments have mostly returned to familiar, and mostly negative, arguments about the leaders of the revolution and the tragedy of communism. Questions of meaning and relevance for those involved and us today have often been overlooked.

But this was not the case for the incarcerated men we taught in courses on the Russian Revolution at Danville Correctional Center, a medium security men’s prison in Illinois, as part of the Education Justice Project of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Of course, prisons and prisoners made their appearance in the first days of the revolution when crowds stormed the Peter and Paul and Shlisselburg fortresses in Petrograd to free their inmates. In many parts of the empire, jails and police stations went up in flames. Some of the beneficiaries of this revolutionary act responded exuberantly to the crowd’s invitation to “join us in freedom.” One released prisoner recalled, “I was overcome by an inexpressible, incommunicable feeling of joy, my heart hammered, it was ready to burst and fly away, to be engulfed by this whole mass of people and never to be separated from them… Hurray! Long live the revolution!”1 The emotion in this response was as important as the facts of what happened. The revolution unleashed a flood of feelings, ranging from hope to fear, from joy to anger, from enthusiasm to disappointment.

These personal and subjective experiences were also prominent in the way our incarcerated students encountered the revolution. Historical experiences of inequality and injustice, traumatic encounters with power and violence, the madness of the street, the emotional toll of oppression, and dreams of freedom and a new life—though unfolding a century ago in distant Russia— were certainly not lost on these incarcerated men, who persistently asked hard questions about why the history of a century ago in another land might matter to us now.

One of us, Andy Bruno, became involved with the program as it was getting off the ground in 2008, first as a tutor and then as an instructor, while the other, Mark Steinberg, has recently finished a class timed to mark the centennial of the revolution. Introducing these students to the world of 1917 and the debates about its contentious outcomes was invigorating for both of us. Rarely have we seen students so engaged, so philosophical, so hungry for the life of the mind, and so eager to draw lessons from the past. As one student put in his final paper, studying the Russian Revolution was “a search into humanity, theirs and my own.”

Since the beginning of the year, students in the most recent class pondered the ideas, hopes, and disappointments that animated the revolution across the empire. The course focused on human “experience”: what people lived through and understood, how they made sense of events and choices; the role of belief, faith, and desire in all of this. Stories of individual experience in the streets, in villages, in the corridors of revolutionary power, in the distant corners of the empire served as windows for exploring the weightiest issues of the day, including justice, freedom, power, democracy, and the future.

Students were at first dismayed by the “madhouse” (as one student put it) complexity of the revolution. In time, they came to appreciate the reality of historical complexity. This also meant eschewing simple moral lessons about who is good and who is evil in difficult times. And it meant recognizing how people with distinct experiences—women, non-Russians, workers, soldiers, peasants, intellectuals—can differently understand contested ideas such as democracy or justice.

The earlier class took a slightly different approach. It used historiographical interpretation to encourage the students to “think” through the revolution and learn the art of scholarly debate. Was the revolution a workers’ uprising? A Bolshevik coup led by a steadfast Lenin? The evil doings of that maniacal monk Rasputin? The revenge of rural society for generations of oppression? A cultural re-enactment of the French Revolution? The collapse and rebirth of a decrepit empire? The emergence of a new modern state forged in war? A propagandistic project of memory creation?

These are some of the rich tapestry of explanations that have been advanced over the last century by historians trying to account for Russia’s upheavals. Students at Danville proved remarkably apt at dissecting some of the logic and implications of historians’ competing claims.

One of our favorite moments came when discussing an influential research article by Peter Holquist that contends that mass surveillance should not be attributed simply to Russian authoritarianism or Bolshevik totalitarianism. Across Europe and the United States, the First World War spawned the modern monitoring of populations by states. Revolutionaries in Russia were to a considerable degree following a transnational pattern.

The class looked around at each other and their surroundings after talking through this argument. “You mean the modern state focuses on population surveillance,” said one of the students, considering the guard outside of the room. “Well, obviously,” he continued with the agreement of his peers. In a moment, these incarcerated students cut to the heart of how the techniques of control that accompanied modernity are ones they experience every day.

While many taking classes in the Education Justice Project were eager to join an intellectual community regardless of the content, others were in fact more skeptical about the value of studying the history of a country on the other side of the world from a century ago. Professional historians are not used to justifying the worthiness of their subject matter, especially when it involves such cataclysmic events as revolutions and wars. These classroom encounters made us think freshly about history and, indeed, about the purposes and methods of our work. Engaging with the question of the relevance of the revolution for people in prison led to some of the greatest insights, including for us.

There are many reasons to teach about the Russian Revolution in prison, but high among them is that it serves as an avenue for contemplating a distinctive, yet familiar, set of experiences, emotions, and desires. At the heart of these is surely the question of humanity—theirs and ours. Recognizing that their humanity was debased inspired people to challenge and overturn tsarism and capitalism ago. Desiring a life in which their humanity is respected, including by themselves, motivates many incarcerated students today. Freedom, which elated the released prisoners of the Russian Empire, is a dream of more than broken shackles: it is also often a vision of a life in which human dignity and capacities can thrive. This is a potent aspiration for many men and women behind bars. Our current criminal justice system makes this hard to attain, even for those who have served their time. Reforms to harsh sentencing and restoring the abrogated rights of the formerly incarcerated could go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of a more humane order without the chaos of revolution.


Andy Bruno is an Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University and author of The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History.




Mark D. Steinberg is a Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Vice President and President-Elect of ASEEES in 2018, and most recently author of The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 and of the forthcoming ninth edition of Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia.