Undergrads Open a Window to Russia's Past
Working side-by-side with graduate and post-graduate students, Slavic studies majors explore pieces of Russian history.
The rare collections of Soviet-era artifacts, Russian literature, phonograph recordings, and Perestroika kitsch possessed by the Institute for Modern Russian Culture (IMRC) were only available for study to graduate students and doctoral candidates — until recently. For John Bowlt, professor of Slavic studies in the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences and the institute director, opening the collections to his undergraduate students was not only a logical decision, but an easy one.
“Right now, there seems to be less interest in Russia, in general, in America. There’s not a necessity as there was in the old days to know about the enemy — because Russia’s no more the enemy of America,” Bowlt said. “So therefore we have to counter that by trying to find more people whose interest in Russia might be kindled.”
The students in his Russian culture course, which is focused on literature and art from the 19th and 20th centuries, affirm that Bowlt has succeeded. Three of his students from last semester are currently supported by the College’s SOAR (Student Opportunities for Academic Research) program — which awards fellowships to conduct research that will culminate in publication or a collection, in collaboration with a faculty sponsor — and now work in the institute. Senior Haley Reed assists curator Oleg Minin, Ph.D. ’08, in cataloging the extensive Ferris Collection of Sovietica, which includes such items as a permit to attend a parade in the Red Square, Communist party membership cards, bronze and porcelain busts of Stalin and Lenin, a Gorbachev matrushka doll, and post-Soviet era trinkets.
“It’s a very fascinating time in Russian history, and Soviet era,” Reed said. “We, in the West, were very closed off — so it’s interesting to see a window into it. It’s also interesting to see what Russian people thought American tourists would want to buy.”
Reed measures, photographs and describes each artifact in as much detail as possible. Once assigned to a section such as bronzes, porcelains or posters, the item is numbered, which is how it will be found in the online catalogue Reed is compiling for her SOAR project.
“It’s a blessing and a curse, in a way,” Reed said, “because there’s so many different things that it would be impossible to really organize it perfectly, but it’s amazing how much they have here, I wish more people could come see it.”
Overseen by Mark Konecny, the institute’s assistant director, sophomore Philip Meyer’s work at the IMRC is focused on updating the institute’s Web site, which will incorporate Reed’s catalogue of photographs in addition to gramophone recordings, a searchable database of the institute’s collections and materials for the classes taught by Bowlt.
“[Working on the Web site] gives me the opportunity to see a little bit of everything,” said Meyer, who came to the College as a history major, before deciding on a double major of Russian and international relations. “It’s really oriented towards the general public.”
Tiffany Schallert, a senior, works closely with Ph.D. candidate Adele Di Ruocco, and is currently examining the Ladyzhensky collection, which relates to author and poet Boris Pasternak, best known outside of Russia for his book, Doctor Zhivago.
In addition to books, the collection includes photographs, which Schallert has been studying. “They really give you a window into this person. He [Pasternak] never smiles, in any of them. You kind of get an idea of how difficult his life was.”
The opportunity for that insight is precisely why people seek out Bowlt at the IMRC, and Bowlt is the reason so many students have developed a fascination with the Russian culture. Neither Schallert, Meyer nor Reed had heard of the IMRC prior to attending the College, but were drawn in after taking the Russian culture class.
In the future Bowlt hopes to organize a music room downstairs in the IMRC where interested parties can listen to Russian gramophone recordings, and perhaps even set up a small cabaret theater.
“By opening up the institute to more undergraduates, I think we’ll be able to spread the word about Russia,” Bowlt said. “It’s weird, it’s bizarre, it’s magic, and we try to transmit those ideas, especially to undergraduates today.”
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