Review: Russian Literature

Russian Literature
Russian Literature by Catriona Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kelly takes an interesting approach here, by focusing on the life, works, and legacy of Alexander Pushkin, as a window into the changing role of literature in Russian society over time. It is thus very different from the chronological summary of Russian writers that one might have expected from the title. But as the author notes, other books (such as Victor Terras’s Handbook of Russian Literature) already cover the whole field fairly well, and it would have been difficult indeed to squeeze any kind of meaningful summary into 200 small pages.

Although some important writers are barely mentioned if at all, the book does manage to cover many important aspects of Russian history, including gender roles, the multi-ethnic empire, and religion. She pays the most attention to how the “Pushkin myth” has evolved over time, and how through all the tumult of Russian history, with only brief lapses, he has retained a remarkable level of influence in both official and unofficial culture. Moreover, Pushkin’s literary successors, whether they sympathized with him or not, have all had to deal with this legacy in their works.

I enjoyed the book very much, although I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read at least some Pushkin before. It was especially interesting for me to read this as I was moving to Moscow for the year to teach English. Today I went to Pushkin’s apartment on the Arbat, which is packed with artifacts, paintings, books, and a docent in every room, despite the fact that the poet only lived there for a couple months.

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The Past Five Years

You, my loyal readers, who have been checking my blog every day for updates, will surely be overjoyed to see the current post.🙂

Why now? I have moved to Moscow for the year to teach English, and as I embark on new travels and new travails, it seemed an opportune time to resurrect this old beast.

So what have I been doing for the past five years?

I’m afraid if you want the full story, you’ll have to ask me in person, or piece it together from various hints that may or may not be scattered throughout the upcoming posts.

A few highlights though: after receiving a master’s in history from the University of Illinois, I worked as a freelance tutor and translator; I also began translating Alexander Veltman’s novel The Wanderer.

More about all of this shortly.

Horn orchestras

At Yale I sang in the Yale Russian Chorus, where I was introduced to a great variety of sacred and secular music from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere. This year I have enjoyed learning the balalaika—the quintessential Russian folk instrument—by playing in the Russian Ensemble at the University of Illinois. But a whole repertoire of Russian music remained unknown to me until recently: the роговая музыка or “horn music.”

Drawing of a group of men in military uniforms holding long musical horns.

The first horn orchestra was founded in 1751 by J. A. Mareš, a Czech musician. The style of music enjoyed general popularity through the eighteenth century but subsequently began to decline, although it was still featured at the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896. During the Soviet period, the practices of horn music were gradually lost.1

The key feature of this music was that the horns could produce only one pitch each. This apparently created a purity of sound that many-holed wind instruments couldn’t match, but this limitation demanded great precision in the timing of the notes. The orchestras could be made up of more than a hundred players, usually serfs or soldiers, who were each assigned multiple horns.2

In recent years, several groups have begun to resuscitate the art form by fashioning instruments based on museum models. One is the Российский роговой оркестр (Russian Horn Orchestra), which appeared last year on a St. Petersburg television program, playing several songs and answering viewers’ questions. It’s worth taking a look; if you don’t understand Russian, you can skip through to the musical sections: They mostly seem to play popular western classical music pieces (e.g., Bolero), but there are some more period pieces sprinkled in, such as the March of the Jäger Regiment. (If you do speak Russian, keep an ear out for the point halfway through when the conductor explains that his group doesn’t have women players because their lungs are “too fragile.”)


1 Russian Wikipedia, s.v. “Rogovaia muzyka,” accessed February 24, 2011,
2 Grove Music Online, s.v. “Russian Federation,” by Marina Frolova-Walker, accessed February 24, 2011,

New Blogs for Old

I’m sure many of you have struggled with the great proliferation of blogs in recent years. Some are simply delightful ways of wasting your time; others may be useful professionally; but in every category there seem to be dozens of blogs worth following. Blog aggregators and RSS help somewhat, but I still have not found a perfect solution myself to share with you.

Instead, I’d like to add to your problems by suggesting some blogs that I have found interesting. Here are a few different categories, each with one blog that I have been following for a year or more and one that I have discovered in the past few weeks.


Old: Tenured Radical

I learned about this first from my sister; I believe it is one of the better-known history blogs. The posts are consistently provocative, often dealing with politics, queer studies, or questions of equality in academia. In particular, several of the recent posts on teaching have been quite insightful. Another feature of this blog is the use of pseudonyms for various places and people (Zenith = Wesleyan, Oligarch = Yale, etc.)

New: Executed Today

This won “Best Writer” in the Cliopatra Awards, which prompted me to check it out. As it sounds, it features the description of one historical execution every day. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s not always morbid either. The coverage of times and places is extraordinary, and the categories menu on the right allows you to group executions by method, century, or country, among other criteria. Selecting Russia, for instance, reveals ten more than seventy different executions, ranging from the 1689 burning of the German mystic Kuhlmann to the 1957 execution of the Lithuanian partisan Ramanauskas-Vanagas. Also interesting are his thoughts on historical bias and the meaning of execution on his “about” page.


Old: Language Log

The most prominent linguistics blog, this is regularly updated and covers a wide variety of topics. Among the more prolific contributors are Mark Liberman and Ben Zimmer, who often post on language use in the media, Geoffrey Pullum, who comments on descriptive and prescriptive grammar, and Victor Mair, who writes about Chinese language and translation.

New: Christopher Culver’s Linguistics Weblog

I discovered this blog after reading an Amazon book review. Some entries are a little esoteric (one recent one begins with the disclaimer “This post might not interest readers who don’t know the Romanian translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom…”). But historians of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union should check out his posts on the Mari people and on Orthodoxy, while the general reader may enjoy his translations of verse and stories from Turkic and Finnic languages.


Old: A Hamburger Today

Not for vegetarians, this blog features reviews of a variety of hamburgers, ranging from the simple burger stand style to deluxe burgers with foie gras (or even French fast-food burgers with foie gras). My favorite posts are the recipes by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who devotes extraordinary effort to recreating burgers from various places (going so far as to have In-n-Out burgers shipped overnight from California).

New: The Red Cook

A blog about Chinese home cooking, written by a software engineer living in New York. He goes into good depth about ingredients and techniques, and like all good food blogs, his has excellent pictures. The title refers to the dish “red cooked pork”, which I am looking forward to trying soon.

I hope to find out what blogs all of you are frequenting!

P.S. I’ve debated whether to include blogs like these in my links list on the sidebar, so for now I’ve just included people I know. If I know you, let me know if you would like your blog to be added or taken off!

Tons of Hummus

Last year I worked at a community health center in Vancouver, Washington, assisting with various aspects of their health education program, including diabetes support and tobacco cessation. I particularly appreciated the chance to work with the large Russian-speaking community in the area.

I hope to write more later about some of the more interesting aspects of my work and its connections to my current academic interests. For now, however, I just wanted to link to the blog started by the almuni from our year about our lives after AmeriCorps (it has no official connection to the clinic or to AmeriCorps). There are several interesting posts so far: some personal, and others related to the larger questions of health and social justice that we discussed in our group meetings.


One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season is the music. I recently had the good fortune to go caroling through the streets of Urbana with some friends, for which we were rewarded with cookies and good cheer from all around. Singing carols for me brings back memories from my childhood, as well as a host of literary associations. To my mind, some of the best depictions of Christmas celebrations are Washington Irving’s stories. If you celebrate Christmas, you may want to read the whole set, which contain the idyllic accounts of the narrator’s travels throughout the English countryside. I will quote just a small snippet:

While I lay musing on my pillow, I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted forth an old Christmas carol, the burden of which was,

Rejoice, our Saviour he was born
On Christmas Day in the morning.

I rose softly, slipped on my clothes, opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs. They were going the rounds of the house, and singing at every chamber-door; but my sudden appearance frightened them into mute bashfulness. They remained for a moment playing on their lips with their fingers, and now and then stealing a shy glance, from under their eyebrows, until, as if by one impulse, they scampered away, and as they turned an angle of the gallery, I heard them laughing in triumph at their escape.

A typewriter sitting on a desk next to a windowAs always, in writing this post I wanted to know more about the word carol, which led me to discover its link with an important feature of my academic life, the carrel. In fact, these two words are etymologically the same, both having developed from the Middle English sense, a “ring dance with accompaniment of song” (according to the OED). The word ultimately seems to derive from the Greek χορός, or “chorus.” The spelling carol was later restricted to Christmas songs or hymns, while carrel came to refer to the “ringed” enclosures found in monasteries. Its current use, for the small cubicles in libraries (the picture above is of my carrel) brings to mind the “monkish” aspects associated with academic study. This word’s connotations of seclusion and seriousness are in curious opposition to the much more communal and joyful associations of carol. I hope in the new year to achieve a greater equilibrium of carols and carrels in my life: to join in the full appreciation of friends and family, while at other times being able to “turn off” the outside world in order to concentrate on my reading and writing. These few days of December for me, however, are a time to tip the balance towards carols, and on that note, I wish you all a merry Christmas!


The Oxford English Dictionary recently redesigned its website. The design is in general much slicker, allowing the reader to more easily jump between entries, view timelines of word usage, and consult the Historical Thesaurus, a classification of words in the dictionary. The opening of the new site was accompanied by the usual quarterly update on recent revisions and additions.

I have long been a fan of the OED, appreciating both the quaintness of some of the original definitions that remain from the first edition (1884–1928) and the comprehensiveness of the ongoing revisions. The result is a sort of temporal heteroglossia,* the different styles competing for prominence, sometimes within a single entry.

The OED is also an archive of sorts, and as such can be useful to historians. The dictionary covers more than 600,000 word forms, and aims to provide a quotation of the first written instance of each word. For instance, by looking up the word borsch (the East European beet soup), we find that the first recorded use attributed to the police magistrate John Paget in 1884: “Let. 2 Sept. in Mem. & Lett. (1901) ii. vi. 346   A real Russian dinner—first there was a strange thing called Borsch.”

Apart from looking up individual words, you can also use the advanced search tools. I tried searching for words borrowed from Russian before 1800 and got 94 results, some of which were false positives but most of which are highly interesting. The quotations and definitions in many of them highlight the exoticness of the things defined for the English-speaking reader; one amusing example is the word barometz. The word is apparently derived from the Russian баранец, which means “little ram”:

A spurious natural-history specimen, consisting of the creeping root-stock and frond-stalks of a woolly fern (Cibotium barometz) turned upside down; formerly represented as a creature half-animal and half-plant, and called the Scythian Lamb.

Anyone can contribute to the OED. They are particularly interested in antedatings, i.e., earlier quotations for words (for example, in the previous edition the word dictionary itself was dated to 1526; a quotation is now given from c. 1480). So, if you see an unusual English word in anything old you happen to be reading, be it a 1950s magazine or a eighteenth-century opera libretto, check the OED to see if you can provide an antedating!

*This word, one translation of Bakhtin’s term разноречие, is surprisingly not in the OED yet (probably because the editors are focusing on the second half of the alphabet).