Noontime Scholars Lecture: Kirill Maslinsky, “The Trace of the ‘Thaw’ in the Emotional Palette of Soviet Children’s Literature”

Kirill Maslinsky

Kirill Maslinsky, Fulbright Fellow at Illinois Wesleyan University and a Visiting Professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, gave the REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled “The Trace of the ‘Thaw’ in the Emotional Palette of Soviet Children’s Literature” on February 21. He presented an innovative approach to studying literature through machine learning tools and language processing. Maslinsky focused on the “Thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev, which has received renewed attention in Russian cultural studies, and how that period shaped the emotions depicted in Soviet children’s literature.

In the 1950s, two opposing camps formed within children’s literature over the issue of sincerity. The divide was instigated by Vladimir Pomerantsev, who argued in his article “On Sincerity in Literature” (1953) that literature for children should eliminate all real conflict and show no dark sides to life. His view aligned more with Anatoly Aleksin’s short story “Two Presents” (1952), in which a five-year-old child comes to understand what production is and feels joy about it. However, other scholars viewed the “Thaw” as a period of instability and contested ideas that should be depicted in children’s literature. Lidiia Chukovskaya wrote the essay “Rotten Tooth” to voice her doubts about the sincerity of emotions shown in children’s literature. She believed that the emotions portrayed were false. In her essay, she used the metaphor of the rotten tooth to argue that any falsehood was a rotten tooth that should be extracted. Another scholar, Alexander Drozdov, also criticized children’s literature from that time period, noting that characters don’t have their own personality and don’t suffer; they never experience any negative emotions.

Maslinsky’s presentation demonstrated a way to incorporate digital humanities into an analysis of Russian literature. He explored this issue of sincerity by tracing the changes in language for describing emotions that were related to Thaw-era discussions about sincere emotions in children’s literature. He focused on the emotional discourse of the Thaw as sincerity and hypocrisy. To do so, he used a method known as “machine learning”  to mine the emotional language in children’s literature and evaluate the results on graphs. For example, he searched for emotional keywords and filtered out laughing from crying. He split novels into fragments (episodes) and measured the presence of each emotional category in each fragment.

One of the observations that he was able to make from this analysis was that male and female authors addressed emotions differently. For example, during the 1950s, texts written by women represented crying more often than those written by men; more women also wrote about love.

Another method he used was measuring emotional clusters. He presented four distinct clusters that portrayed four different ways of portraying emotions. Examining these clusters of emotions, Maslinsky observed that more female authors wrote about emotions than male authors. He also concluded that works written during the Thaw depicted more social and abstract emotions, which were more realistic.

Although Maslinsky did not explicitly say so in his lecture, his method indicated a shift in the argument regarding sincerity to a gender debate. His repeated observations that more female authors wrote about emotions in their works hinted that there could be a latent cultural bias in the debate. Maslinsky posed questions that could lead his research to become a more comprehensive project that might include translations, reprints, close reading, and a study of readership (older vs. younger children). Whatever new form it takes, it would be a significant contribution to the field, especially in its inclusion of technology as a way to analyze children’s literature.

Stephanie Chung is the Outreach and Programming Coordinator at REEEC and a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.

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