From the Classroom: Teaching Russian Texts in European History Courses

This semester I’m teaching a new course entitled “Sex in Modern Europe,” which I developed on the basis of some research I did a few years ago when co-authoring a book with Annette Timm. The course has seven two-week units: 1) Sex, History, and Theory, 2) Sex, Enlightenment, and Revolution, 3) Sex, Cities, and the Industrial Revolution, 4) Sex and Empire, 5) Sex and Total War, 6) The Long Sexual Revolution, and 7) Sex in Contemporary Europe.

There are several interesting (and a few frustrating) challenges in this course, which has no prerequisites and enrolls 25 students from a wide variety of backgrounds.  There are only four history majors and a couple of undecided first and second year students.  The rest are basically science, engineering, and humanities majors taking the course as an elective.   In sum, most of the students have not taken European history (or for that matter history of any kind) since high school, and only a few of the students have taken any course on gender or sexuality. The problematic aspects of this heterogeneity of academic backgrounds are evident (let’s just say that after starting off the course with Foucault, Rousseau, and some libertine authors from the 18th century, I had a plaintive request for more pictures and film clips).  But there is also the potential to recast the European history narrative in interesting ways for students taking their first college history course.

One of the opportunities that I’ve pursued has been to bring Russia more centrally into the discussion of European history.  I do this in a variety of small ways throughout the course, but I also did it in a bigger way in the unit on Sex and Empire. The scholarly literature on this topic is firmly centered around the experience of European maritime empires, but I wanted to integrate the Russian imperial experience too, so this was what the two weeks of readings for the students looked like:

Week Seven – Empires and Exoticism – March 7-11

T – Reading: Annette Timm and Joshua Sanborn, Gender, Sex and the Shaping of Modern Europe, chp. 3, 95-130

R – Reading: Lenore Manderson, “Colonial Desires: Sexuality, Race, and Gender in British Malaya,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7, no. 3 (January 1997): 372-388; Richard Phillips, “Heterogenous Imperialism and the Regulation of Sexuality in British West Africa,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, no. 3 (July 2005): 291-315; Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, pp. 41-78

Week Eight – Empires and Exoticism– March 21-25

T – Reading: Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time, all

R – Reading: Susan Layton, “Ironies of Ethnic Identity,” and Jane Costlow, “Compassion and the Hero: Women in A Hero of Our Time,” in Lewis Bagby, ed., Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time: A Critical Companion (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2002): 64-105.

Teaching Lermontov allowed me the opportunity to broaden the geographical scope of the course.  I got to introduce students to the region by discussing some of the imperial conflicts between the Russians, Ottomans, and Persians in the early nineteenth century and by describing the social, religious, and cultural particularities of the North Caucasus.  I also lectured a bit on Russian Romanticism, the formation of the intelligentsia, and the centrality of colonial experiences for Russian literature.

Hero of Our Time, despite being short enough to assign for one class session, provides very rich material.  The sexual themes in the book – such as Pechorin’s nearly fatal attraction to a very young girl (and accomplished smuggler) in “Taman” – are evident even to the most novice readers.  Most of our discussion, however, centered on the parallels between the stories of “Bela” and “Princess Mary.”  On the basis of these two stories, I posed this question to the students – is Male to Female the same as Colonizer to Colonized?  I did not assign Said in this course, but students did know from the other readings that this was a common way that contemporaries conceptualized the colonial relationship in gendered terms.  Once the discussion had begun, several students quickly picked up on the ways that Lermontov’s text might support this interpretation of colonialism.  The treatment of Bela as an exploitable commodity (equivalent to a horse) and the deadly games for pre-eminence and dominance in “Princess Mary” both provided evidence for a strong correlation between sexual and imperial conquests in the Age of Empire.

What I particularly like about Lermontov, however, is the way that he also allows us to get beyond what we might call “vulgar Orientalism” in our discussions with our students.  It’s important to point out the structural similarities between sexual and imperial dominance in the nineteenth century, but it’s also important to see how this simplistic model was challenged at the time. For professors considering the use of Lermontov in this way, I strongly recommend Susan Layton’s work, which is really excellent on these themes

Here’s the way Megan Ohlmacher, one of my students, put it in a reaction paper:

This week’s readings, primarily focusing on the theme of colonialism and sexuality through the examination of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, were quite useful in seeing how interactions at the time of colonialism may have played out, and how people may have felt about these interactions.  Although at first, I felt a little bit overwhelmed by the themes and a lack of ability to pick out the importance of colonialism in the story itself, I feel that even after a brief discussion in class that the perceptions I made simply about interactions between genders carried over directly to the discussion of colonization.  In addition, interestingly, I had a difficult time finding a hero in the story, but after discussion, it seems that this may have been the purpose of the author in order to get the reader to think about the true purpose of colonization.

In addition, I feel that the metaphor between male :: female and colonizer :: colonized was interesting and helpful in understanding the relationships between all of the characters.  One thing that I found particularly interesting after reading the critiques, that I did not get a chance to bring up in class, has to do with the contrast between the women.  There are two different sets of women in the story, those who appear to have control (“undine” and Vera) and those who appear to have been controlled (Princess Mary and Bela).  Now, it is the prediction of imperialism and society, that the Europeans and males have the greatest control and power.  In this story we see that “undine” and Vera appear to have more power on the outside, but that in fact Princess Mary and Bela may be as powerful in driving Pechorin’s actions as the others.  They clearly affect Pechorin’s feelings and drive him to the point of conquest, which that suggest that women are behind many aspects of male and colonial power, thus giving them more power than would appear on the surface.

Megan raised a number of important points. I would rephrase one of them in this way: what does Pechorin want and how do particular women inflect those desires?  For a man bent on sexual conquest, he is peculiarly ambivalent about sex itself.  For an elite Russian among the “savages,” he is also increasingly ambivalent about the relationship between Russians and the people they are colonizing.  One of the interpretive keys we can provide to students who have read the book is that the five vignettes in the book are not presented in chronological order.  In particular, the striking first story in the book – “Bela” – introduces us to Pechorin not at the start of his imperial/sexual travails but at the end.  We can perhaps see his attempt to conquer Bela, then, not as rapacious plundering (as we are inclined to at first), but as Pechorin’s last-ditch effort to save himself from the toxic, soul-stealing clutches of elite Russian society by “going native.”  This effort collapses upon contact with colonized peoples themselves.  Bela dies at the end of the story, and Pechorin, now terminally demoralized, soon departs for Persia and dies off stage.

Pursuing this line of reasoning opens up a whole new set of questions to explore with students about the nature of imperialism and the effect of the colonial project, not just in the Russian case, but more broadly for other empires as well.  Colonial spaces are places of conquest and exploitation, of course, but they also are imaginative spaces of escape, opposition, and individual experimentation for those in the metropole.  Lermontov’s exploration of these themes is very helpful in articulating these issues.  So too is his brutally honest description of the ways that both types of imperial imagination are usually failures: destructive to colonized peoples and ultimately unfulfilling to the colonizers. For all of these reasons, Hero of Our Time is a work that fits in very well with this European history course and, I expect, with many other types of European history courses as well.


My thanks to Megan Ohlmacher for granting her permission to use her work in this post.

About Joshua Sanborn

Professor and Head, Department of History Chair, Russian and East European Studies Program Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
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