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1.1: Why the 1920s?

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    The materials presented in this book were developed for an advanced-level contentbased Russian language course at Portland State University entitled “Russian Literature of the Twentieth Century: The 1920s.” Literature of this period is a major part of the Russian canon, but is notoriously difficult for learners of Russian to read in the original, due both to its stylistic complexity and the relative obscurity of its historical, political, and cultural references. And yet, this decade is crucial for understanding Russia – not only in the Soviet period, but also today. This was the period, after all, when Mikhail Zoshchenko, Isaak Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Andrei Platonov meticulously documented the birth of the “New Soviet Man,” his “newspeak” and Soviet bureaucratese. Given the pronounced “Soviet nostalgia” in the political discourse of contemporary Russia, the “Soviet Person” still needs to be studied, and literature provides the best window into this Person’s world. The 1920s was the period when Alexandra Kollontai, a Marxist revolutionary and a diplomat, wrote essays and fiction on the “New Soviet Woman,” and her legacy in contemporary Russia remains relevant. This period saw the creation of numerous satirical works – but today’s learner needs guidance to understand the essence of this satire, whether pro-Soviet or critical of the Soviet experience. This was also the period when Babel experimented with creating a literary representation of dialects (e.g., Odessa Russian or Jewish Russian). These varieties of language have not disappeared. Bureaucrats still use some form of bureaucratese. Numerous contemporary TV shows imitate the dialects that Babel described. Moreover, Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog gave rise, due largely to its film adaptation, to catch-phrases that still appear throughout contemporary Russian media, satirical contexts, and everyday conversation, in the speech of ordinary citizens and politicians alike.

    Thus, the Russian literature of the 1920s does not belong exclusively to the past, but has relevance and interpretive power for the present. Clearly, American students who wish to pursue a career in humanities, media analysis, analytical translation, journalism, or international relations must understand this period and the linguistic patterns it established. They need to learn to “read between the lines,” to see political nuances; to identify humor and propaganda; to pinpoint a political stance; to differentiate between educated, non-standard, or bureaucratic registers; to learn that language (including Russian) is not monolithic, but includes a variety of dialects and idiolects. All of this teaches students to detect hidden messages about texts and their speakers, and ultimately aids in the development of other interpretative skills, beyond the analysis of literature.

    Portland State University is home to the Russian language Flagship, one of eight intensive Russian Flagship programs in the country that provide “undergraduate students with pathways to professional-level proficiency in Russian” (https://www. The Flagship program places robust expectations on its students and faculty: students are expected to achieve ACTFL’s Advanced Low level of Russian proficiency prior to their final year (which takes place abroad), i.e., by this time they should be able to “demonstrate the ability to narrate and describe in the major time frames of past, present, and future in paragraph-length discourse … [and] use communicative strategies such as rephrasing and circumlocution.” (ACTFL 2012: 6). With these goals in view, we might ask: how can discussion of literature be combined with rigorous language pedagogy expectations? How can one teach 1920s prose in a language class, if the prose is decidedly different from everyday speech due to its poetic devices, figures of speech, and allusions; if the prose, that is, can hardly serve as an imitative language model for a learner? This textbook aims to offer a solution to the problem, proposing language assignments that would, on the one hand, help students transition to ACTFL’s Advanced proficiency level, but at the same time promote meaningful engagement with literary texts. It also aims to offer a solution for multilevel classes that include heritage Russian speakers, Intermediate High, Advanced, or even Superior-level readers, the latter being “generally aware of the aesthetic properties of language,” but not necessarily familiar with the “texts in which cultural references and assumptions are deeply embedded” (ACTFL 2012: 21). In particular, the book will make clear that the methods used by Olga Kagan and her coauthors in their textbooks focusing on film (Cinema for Russian Conversation), nonliterary contexts (Russian: From Intermediate to Advanced), or literary texts of a less complex nature (Sofia Petrovna) – are likewise useful and applicable to the linguistically challenging poetic prose of the 1920s. As in Cinema for Russian Conversation, the assignments in this textbook are multilevel ones. Some check the basic comprehension of texts and elicit narration (which is appropriate for ACTFL’s Intermediate High students), while others ask students to attend to style and figures of speech, or detect irony or nonstandard dialects – activities challenging enough for heritage speakers and for ACTFL’s Advanced High or Superior level students.

    1.1: Why the 1920s? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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