Saturday, September 20, 2014

Back to the Symposium Racket

For the second time, I told myself I would never go to any sort of conference or travel by air, ever again. And it looks like, to paraphrase an ancient Indo-European myth, three will hopefully be the charm.

Alright, when I got promoted to full professor I assumed that my naturally lazy and exploitative nature would kick in and I would just stop writing and travelling to academic events. My work on Tolstoy has been plodding along, although I doubt I'll get anything published that will be considered "Slavic studies." Eventually I could get a book out, but it would be way beyond the realm of what slavists normally do, incorporating eastern mysticism and European pacifist movements. And that's if I ever figure out how to tie all that together.

So, I was fooling around with that stuff when a listserv which I no longer belong to (in hindsight I should have never joined it) put up an announcement over the summer about a symposium, "Georgia at the Crossroads." I don't know much about Georgia, but I was involved in a bunch of events that were started by the Saakashvili government; in fact, I participated in a couple of them, and one of the Georgian government's decisions allowed me to write my second book.

Out of boredom, I put together a proposal to analyze those events. However, since the announcement clearly says, "selected papers will be published," and since my last experience with a conference that promised all papers would be published, where the organizer hasn't even replied to my inquiries about said publication, left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and because I'm pretty much sick of writing on the Caucasus, and because the conference is in Waco, yes you heard that right, Waco, and because I really didn't plan on getting on a plane ever again, I shelved it but kept the proposal.

So first I felt a bit guilty since my promotion was based to a large degree on my contribution to Caucasus studies. The college clearly hopes I'll continue to work in the field. Then they reminded me that I now have a larger fund for "academic development" than I ever had before, so I decided I should go ahead and attend this symposium, even though my paper is unlikely to get published since it's really a sort of peripheral issue. It will at least give me something to write in my annual report, though.

And after that, no more travel, no more conferences, really.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Russian Enrollments Up

Last year I was beginning to get worried. My first year Russian class was only eleven, the smallest it had been in many years. And of that eleven, only six were good candidates for second year. Of the six, four continued. Since one is studying in St. Petersburg this semester, I would only have had three if it weren't for two exchange students and one student who had to skip second year Russian last year and is taking it now.

But this year I have eighteen in first year, the highest it's been since Oxy added Arabic into the program. Of that eighteen around twelve are good candidates for second year.

I asked the class if Putin's shenanigans had anything to do with their decision to study Russian, and no one raised their hand. Still, I think Russia's behavior recently has brought Russia back into the consciousness of young people after more than two long decades of neglect.

We haven't finalized our approval for the new department, either. Once that's done and the new major is on the books I'm hoping enrollments will go up a little more.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A New Year

I haven't written much here, primarily because this is intended as an academic blog and, well, I didn't really want to think much about academics over the summer. I spent most of my time playing and recording music.

We had our academic fair on Friday, and I had several inquiries about Russian language, something that generally never happens. The inquiries were mostly from foreign students though, so it wasn't a good gauge of how enrollments will go. That I'll only find out on Tuesday.

We have to finalize our proposal for the new department and major this semester. That's the next step toward revitalizing the languages at the college and hopefully establishing a program that will ensure the survival of the Russian program after my departure. Up until recently I was convinced that, should I leave for some reason, the college would simply eliminate Russian from the curriculum. I don't think that will happen now, but more work remains to make sure it doesn't happen in the future.

I'm the fourth professor of Russian at Occidental. The program was founded in the 1960s by Gilman Alkire, who retired sometime in the 1980s. The second professor, Cynthia Ruder, left for the University of Kentucky after only a few years here for reasons I'm not aware of. The third wasn't up to the job and was denied tenure in 1999. When I took over the program, it was a shambles, and I was told no one believed it could survive two years. I was able to increase enrollments and save the program, but with the addition of Arabic (something I proposed very early on and enthusiastically support) Russian enrollments have dropped by about 30-40 percent. The big question now is whether Russian belligerence on the world stage will spark interest again. I doubt it will to the degree that the Cold War did; those enrollments were generated by the ideological struggle the US government framed as "good vs. evil," and since that propaganda method has been directed toward the Islamic world now, and since our current president is oblivious to the threat Russia poses to world stability, I don't see a new boom. But perhaps there will be a bubble.

Language placement exams are today. So far I know of four students who are coming, which is more than showed up in the last five years combined. So it looks hopeful.

One sad thing about this year: my longtime colleague and supporter Larry Caldwell has all but retired. He's teaching one course on Tuesday evenings this semester and that's it. I may be able to keep our perennial course, "The Russian Experience," going with different collaborators, but it will never be the same.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Syllabus for RUSN 282, "Slavic Pagan Culture and its Legacy"

RUSN 282
Slavic Pagan Culture and its Legacy
Professor Richmond
Office: Johnson 410
Office hours: MWF 12:50-1:50
Phone: x2636

Course Goals:
            This course will give you a firn foundation in the origins of Slavic, and particularly, Russian
traditional culture, the beliefs of the Slavic peoples prior to Christianization, and the ways in which these
beliefs continued on their own and fused into Christian doctrine in the recent past in Russia. In addition,
you’ll learn about the ways in which Russian writers, painters, and composers adapted pagan beliefs
into their works in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
            You’ll also learn the sources of Slavic paganism in ancient Indo-European culture and how
variations of these same beliefs permeate western culture to this very day.

Course Requirements:

Midterm: The midterm will be on October 22 and will cover all material up to that date.

Presentation: During the semester I will divide the class into six groups. Each group will closely examine
one of the assignments in Unit Three and present it to the class. This is not a graded assignment, but if
you don’t complete your section it will negatively affect your final grade. I’ll give out more specific
instructions as this unit approaches.

Final: The final exam will be comprehensive.

Research Project: The research project will consist of two components: 1) a 12 page, double spaced
paper; and 2) an accompanying multimedia project in Oxy’s Global Crossroads that outlines your
thesis and key points of evidence and argumentation. Media resources for the Crossroads project
can be drawn in part from an archive of images (and quotations?) developed for the class, and used
in regular weekly discussion posts. The projects are due Friday, November 21.

Midterm: 35 percent
Research Project: 25 percent
Final Exam: 45 percent

Required Texts:

For purchase:
Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief. M. E. Sharpe.
W. F. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight. Penn State Press.
Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Vintage Press.

All other texts (listed in the syllabus) are on Moodle.

Course Schedule

Unit One: Gods, Men and Beasts

Wednesday, August 27: Codes

Friday, August 29: Authority
Reading: David J. Hufford, “Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered
                        Theory of the Belief in Spirits” (Moodle)
            Question: What do you believe to be fact, even though you haven’t investigated it yourself?

Monday, September 1: Labor Day Holiday

Wednesday, September 3: Homeland  
                        1. Shan M. M. Winn, “Quest for a Homeland” (Moodle)
                        2. “The Three Kingdoms” (Moodle)
            Question: What does “homeland” mean to you? Where is your homeland?

Friday, September 5: Three’s the Charm
                        1. Andrew Porter, “The Trinity and the Indo-European Tripartite Worldview” (Moodle)
                        2. The Primary Chronicle, pp. 59-61, 64-77, 87-93 (Moodle)
            Question: What examples of things being grouped in threes can you come up with?

Monday, September 8: Graves
            Reading: P. Kuzentsov, “An Indo-Iranian Symbol of Power in the Earliest Steppe Kurgans” (Moodle)
            Question: Do cemeteries serve any purpose?

Wednesday, September 10: Bears
            Reading: Shepard and Sanders, The Sacred Paw,” Chapter 3 (Moodle)
            Questions: Think of a couple of examples of bears in modern popular culture.

Friday, September 12: Earth
            Reading: Joanna Hubbs, “The Worship of Mother Earth in Russian Culture” (Moodle)
            Question: How would a matriarchal society differ from a patriarchal one?

Monday, September 15: Sky
                        1. Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 3-18
                        2. Shan M. M. Winn, “A Collision of Cultures” (Moodle)

Wednesday, September 17: Wolfmen
1. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy, pp. 3-6, 35-38, 181-189, 215-217 (Moodle)
                        2. Margaret Stutley, Shamanism: A Concise Introduction, pp. 94-98, 111-112 (Moodle)

Friday, September 19: Thunder
            Reading: The Primary Chronicle, pp. 93-98, 110-117 (Moodle)
            Question: Does the United States government use religion as a means of control?

Monday, September 22: Signs
            Reading: Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 19-50

Unit Two: Myths, Tales and Spirits

Wednesday, September 24: Olga’s Revenge
            Reading: The Primary Chronicle, pp. 78-87

Friday, September 26: Heroes and Villians
1. “Koshchei Without-Death” (Moodle)
2. “Ilya of Murom and Nightingale the Robber” (Moodle)
3. “Dobrynya and the Adventure of the Pavillion” (Moodle)
                        4. “The Baba Yaga” (Moodle)

Monday, September 29: Armageddon
            Reading: “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” (Moodle)

Wednesday, October 1: Wizards
1. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 3
2.  Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 83-124
2. The Russian Primary Chronicle, pp. 134-135, 139, 150-154, 173-174 (Moodle)

Friday, October 3: Guardians
            Reading: Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 51-63
Monday, October 6: Sanctuary
            Reading: Video: Old Russian Wooden Architecture (link on Moodle)

Wednesday, October 8: The Forbidden Zone
                        Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, pp. 64-82
                        W. R. S. Ralston, Songs of the Russian People, “Demigods and Fairies” (Moodle)

Friday, October 10: The Undead 
            Reading: Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death, pp. 29-65 (Moodle)

Monday, October 13: Fall Break Holiday

Wednesday, October 15: Hysteria
            Reading: Jan L. Perkowski, The Darkling, “Slavic Testimony” pp. 75-100 (Moodle)

Friday, October 17: Dracula
                        1. Readings: Jan L. Perkowski, The Darkling, “Slavic Testimony” pp. 100-126 (Moodle)
                        2. “The Tale of the Warlord Dracula” (Moodle)

Monday, October 20: Midterm Review

Wednesday, October 22: Midterm

Unit Three: Power to the People

Note: During this section of the course, we will be having discussions on your research projects.

Friday, October 24: Signs and Omens
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 5, sections 1-4

Monday, October 27: Predictions
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 6

 Wednesday, October 29: Curses
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 7

Friday, October 31: Talismans and Amulets
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 8

Monday, November 3:  Numerology
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapter 11

Wednesday, November 5:  Alchemy and Astrology
            Reading: The Bathhouse at Midnight, Chapters 13, 14, 15

Unit Four: Legacy

Friday, November 7: The Pagan Capital of Russia
            Reading: Powerpoint Presentation “St. Petersburg” (Moodle)

Monday, November 10: Nikolai Gogol I: Gogol Retells the Legends
1. Nikolai Gogol, “St. John’s Eve” 
                        2. Nikolai Gogol, “The Night Before Christmas”
                        3. Nikolai Gogol, “The Drowned Maiden”

Wednesday, November 12: Nikolai Gogol II: Gogol Remakes the Legends
1. Nikolai Gogol, “The Terrible Vengeance”
                        2. Nikolai Gogol, “Viy”

Friday, November 14: Film: Nikolai Gogol, Viy, the Spirit of Evil

Monday, November 17: Film: Nikolai Gogol, Viy, the Spirit of Evil

Wednesday, November 19: Nikolai Gogol III: Gogol’s Tragic Ghost
            Reading: Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat”

Friday, November 21: Guest Lecturer, Dr. Mark Konecny: Paganism and the Avant Garde
            Reading: TBA

Monday, November 24: Film: Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring”
            No reading

Wednesday-Friday, November 26-28: Thanksgiving Holiday

Monday, December 1: The Last Sorcerer
            Assignment: Guess who I’m talking about

Wednesday, December 3: Review

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Moscow Subway Tragedy

To my Russian friends,

My heartfelt condolences after the tragedy on the Moscow Metro. I hope none of your loved ones were among the victims.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ukraine, Land of Khorilka

Rather than retell the story of the Holodomor—Stalin’s’ deliberate starving to death of around six million Ukrainians—and other tidbits from the Bolshevik house of horrors known as the Soviet Union, I thought I’d chronicle the one trip I made to Ukraine in early April 1995.

My ex-wife and I were in Moscow, teaching at the A. M. Gorky Literary Institute and living in the Institute’s dormitory in a really run-down part of town. (The stories I have of that place would make a good blog post or three, but some other time). One of the students, a Ukrainian playwright, was putting together a conference on theater in a sanatorium just outside Kiev and invited both of us. My wife worked on drama, as it turned out, but all I knew was a few whacky futurist plays. Nevertheless, I wrote up a proposal for “The Non-Existent Futurist Theater” and went as well.

It didn’t start off well. Just before the conference I got food poisoning and almost died. It was only thanks to the efforts of a young Georgian doctor who was assigned to the dorm that I survived at all. We ended up going a day later than expected, but our playwright friend met us at the train station in Kiev and escorted us to the sanatorium.

I believe it was north of Kiev, but I can’t be sure. It was called the “Zhovten” (“October,” big surprise there), and sat right on the banks of the Dnieper:

On our first full day there we were given a tour of the city. I’d been living in Moscow for a few months and couldn’t help but notice the difference. First of all, when you’re in Moscow you really get the feeling you’re not in Europe. By contrast, Kiev struck me as an Eastern European city. It’s hard to explain why; maybe the architecture, maybe the relative cleanliness, don’t know. In addition, the people weren’t as pushy (admittedly, this is mainly a feature of Muscovites more than Russians as a whole) and there were no drunks stumbling in the streets, a pretty common feature in Moscow in 1995.

The economic situation was pretty much the same as in Russia, though. When I arrived in Moscow in January the exchange rate was 3800 rubles to the dollar. By Early April it was close to 5000 rubles to the dollar. But imagine my surprise when I went to a currency exchange office in Kiev, handed the cashier a $20 bill, and he handed back two huge stacks of “kupony,” some strange interim currency that Ukraine using at the time. I was a multi-millionaire for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, when I went to a drugstore to buy a toothbrush (I’d left mine in Moscow), I found that one toothbrush cost $2 million kupony. Now that’s some hyper-inflation.

The conference was strange. There was a constant hubbub about informants, and an older lady was identified as an “ultra-nationalist” sent there to report on who was speaking Ukrainian, who was speaking Russian. I doubted that, since she acted pretty aloof and made no secret of her dislike of Americans, while an informant would probably play a much friendlier role. (To be fair to her, at the end of the conference she said goodbye very nicely and asked us to return soon). Weirder than that, however, was the way my host treated two young Ukrainians, one a director and the other an actor. I learned somewhat later that they were probably a couple, but at the time they just seemed like colleagues. Anyway, on the last day of the conference our host invited us all to an island in the middle of the Dnieper River for a big drunk-fest (in fact, before the end of the conference we had drunk all the khorilka (Ukrainian for vodka) in the village). On the island I got to know, and got completely blotto with, the Ukrainian playwright Yaroslav Stelmakh:

While checking to make sure I had his name right, I learned that Yaroslav was killed in a car accident on August 4, 2001. I was sorry to see that, he was great guy.

So at this party on the island, the two young Ukrainians I mentioned showed up a bit late. After a while I noticed no one was talking to them. My wife and I thought they were nice people so we chatted with them a bit, and afterward our host told us they were informants. I couldn’t believe it, but he was adamant. The director eventually came up to us and asked if something was the matter, because no one would talk to them, and we just said we didn’t know. They left shortly afterward, looking rather downcast.

We also made some great friends at the conference, although they too were from Moscow. They were an acting troupe that performed these really strange, surreal plays by a Georgian playwright. To this day both my ex-wife and I are still friends with a few of them, particularly our dear friend Svetlana. This is me and Sveta on New Years 2001:

Epilogue to the story about the Ukrainian “informants”: A few years later we were at Sveta’s apartment in Moscow, and the director showed up. His name was Valera. Sveta told me she’d known him for years and the idea that he was an informant was utter nonsense. This is where I figured out that he and the actor (whose name I can’t remember) were probably a couple. Shortly after the conference, the actor was beaten to death by a group of thugs. While Valera didn’t come right out and say it, he intimated that it was because he was gay. A very ominous foreboding of what was to come in the future for gays in that part of the world.

Overall, by the time I left Ukraine I really liked it: liked the country, liked the people. Seeing it burning and torn apart by the recent happenings there made me sad to think that after almost twenty years the Ukrainians are still fighting with corrupt leaders, the ultimate legacy of the Soviet Union.

Monday, June 16, 2014


One of the many great things about Crescenta Valley is the annual blooming of the yuccas. Most of the year the yucca is a rather unimpressive plant:

They're everywhere in the Verdugo Mountains and, I assume, would be in the San Gabriels if they hadn't burned in the 2009 Station Fire.

Usually starting in late May, the Yuccas begin to flower, and the monocolor hills become dotted with specks of white:

Not too many of them yet, but they're out there if you look closely.

Up close they're very interesting:

I found this one, a little unusual in the it seems to have two little arms, or maybe handles:

After the flowers drop off, the stem is covered with little green balls:

And then finally just a skeleton, which stands up out of the thickets for years, apparently:

The weather's been perfect for hiking up into the Verdugos: mid-70s all day. Hopefully we still have a couple more weeks before the usually awful Southern California summer kicks in.