2023-2024 Catalog

CL 163 Back in the USSR: Encounters with Soviet Russia on the Page and Screen

The aim of this culture survey is to introduce you to how the Soviets saw the West and the way the West -- Americans and Western/East-Central Europeans -- saw the Soviet Union. Cold War cultural hostilities, still very much a part of how the West perceives Russia today, have had a retroactively distorting effect on our understanding of what the Soviet-West encounter looked like prior to World War II. Intellectuals, writers, artists, and activists like Arthur Koestler, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Margaret Bourke-White, and John Steinbeck traveled to the USSR to see what this "Great Experiment" portended for the international leftist movement. Fellow travelers or card-carrying members of the Communist Party, these writers -- many of them African-American or suffering from gender discrimination -- were fascinated by the founding of a new state which claimed to have erased social and class difference in order to remake the world. This claim was of course not so simple; authoritarianism under Stalin, de-legitimized by its consequent show trials, executions, and GULAG sentences, embittered many leftists. We'll be working on answers to the following questions: What tools do we have to retrace and reconstruct this cultural movement toward a revisionist glimpse of the USSR? How did the Soviets themselves perceive the West, and later, Western antagonism, toward their ideology and cultural revolution? As we examine photo-journalism, travelogues, comics, and film on this encounter, the verb "to see" is meant to be taken literally and figuratively: how do members of these cultures imagine and intellectually conceive of one another? What is really behind the "othering" both the West and the Soviets committed against one another? What grey areas can we identify in this cultural meeting and what larger conclusions can we draw about cultural encounters? In textual works, such as fiction or memoirs, we will trace the construction and reconstruction of these cultural anxieties and outright stereotypes. Recent tensions between Russia and the West return to the Cold War era in tone and vitriol. Our task is to follow the inception of these trends in the Soviet period and, most importantly, to call into question the simplicity of the East/West dichotomy. [H, W, GM2]

Cross Listed Courses

REES 163