To know Russia, know its classic novels

Caryl Emerson has made more than 40 trips to Russia and Eastern Europe, most of them under cold war conditions. A professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Princeton University, Dr. Emerson teaches courses on 19th-century Russian novels, including Alexander Pushkin's classic in verse, "Eugene Onegin"; Leo Tolstoy's epic, "War and Peace"; and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's psychological thriller, "Crime and Punishment."

A conviction that "kids ought to have better teachers earlier" prompted Emerson to start her career teaching Russian at the secondary-school level.

When she found that there wasn't a large demand for Russian in high schools, she earned a PhD and eventually found a home at Princeton in New Jersey, where she has taught for most of her career.

Although her small department attracts only a few majors every year, Emerson has forged a reputation as one of the university's most compelling lecturers, and her classes attract students from a variety of disciplines. Last fall she was asked to address the student body in a ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Throughout her career, which has spanned nearly four decades, teaching undergraduates has remained Emerson's true passion. She subtly weaves profound philosophical thinking into each of her lectures, and sparks lively debate in small-group discussions.

When her students connect with 19th-century texts in a personal way - and leave her courses thinking more deeply about their own lives - she believes she's done justice to the texts she has studied with such devotion.

Excerpts from her recent conversation with the Monitor follow.

On what sparked an interest in Russia:

I went on a trip to the Soviet Union with my grandmother in 1956. That was three years after Stalin died, and it was a very gray and scary country at the time.

We were carefully watched, and this was very exciting to me because I was the sort of adolescent who felt that America had too many freedoms, and that we were taking most of them for granted. I felt that studying a country that was politically unfree gave me a better - and less voyeuristic - position as a student of it.

If you study a wholly free country, then you are simply a tourist. Then in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, when I was teaching and taking groups overseas, we really could do valuable things for the [Russian] culture: take documents out of the country, establish contacts with writers and dissident groups.

It was dangerous, but also exciting. I was fascinated by some of the hardships there.

On the resonance of 19th-century texts for 21st-century students:

Russian literature is one of those that, although grounded well in its own experience, is universal.

What's going on inside the heads of these Dostoyevskian and Tolstoyan heroes are questions of happiness, personal morality, virtue - and there's no human alive who doesn't worry about those questions.

Novels are wonderful conduits for philosophy. Philosophical thought doesn't often grab you as a personal investment until you have some sort of fictional plot wrapped around it. But if we can identify with a character who is living out the results of a moral choice, or a moral quest, then we feel threatened. The voice of your conscience begins to speak up, and you feel you must respond.

On what Russian literature means:

Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy don't require any particular training to understand.

In fact, if you asked any great writer or poet whether they wanted to be taught via lecture classes, assignments, and secondary literature, they would say 'No, just read me again, don't read about me.'

Especially in Russia, the great artist of the 19th century was supposed to directly contact the reader. I want to help people maximize their own personal experience, so that you ask the types of questions that the texts want you to ask of your own life.

You have to design an attitude in literature, the way you design a building in architecture or develop an ear in music training. Literature is a fine art, and the real learning has to be dialogic, between student and student, or student and teacher.

On the relationship between Russia's literature and its history:

It strikes me that the real wisdom of cultures has to be in literature - especially [in] Russia. The country simply doesn't have a literature outside her history, and the literature is a great deal more than entertainment.

The Russians are a very philosophical people. This has been deeply ingrained in them, which is one of the reasons the Communists were able to tap such genuine enthusiasm.

Whether they were always that way and thus produced Dostoyevsky, or they read Dostoyevsky and became that way, it's hard to know. Great writers [whose works] become classics in their own culture are both a product of and a contribution to those stereotypes.

The Russians really believe in reading their literature and taking their identity from it. So while it would be hard to find an "American" text that we could all agree was "American," it's not hard to find a Russian text. Start with Pushkin and end with Dostoyevsky and you can combine them and form an identity.

On the influence of the West in Russian culture today:

I think a lot of people assume that if you're studying a culture, you're interested in what's happening right now.

In fact, I'm not especially interested. Any time you have an intact culture, one with a strong self-image - even a culture that has been tormented in a lot of ways - and you open it up indiscriminately to all sorts of pressures, it takes some time to discover itself.

As Solzhenitsyn said in 1991, when the Iron Curtain began to rise, all the slop from the West flowed in first. This is the problem with the free world: The things it most easily exports are its least valuable aspects - junk food, junk pulp literature, junk values.

There are excellent values in the West, like liberal democracy, but those are the product of a thousand years of integral development on the soil of Western countries. They don't import. The whole problem with liberalism is that it doesn't happen quickly. Well, McDonald's and pornography happen quickly.

It's sad to see an ancient culture bombarded. But I also don't think it will last for long, and there won't be anything like a total westernization.

The Russian people are going to want something that's more their own.

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