Classics of Russian Literature

Course No. 2830
Professor Irwin Weil, Ph.D.
Northwestern University
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Course No. 2830
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Course Overview

Russian literature famously probes the depths of the human soul. These 36 half-hour lectures delve into this extraordinary body of work under the guidance of Professor Irwin Weil of Northwestern University, an award-winning teacher at Northwestern University and a legend among educators in the United States and Russia.

Professor Weil introduces you to such masterpieces as Tolstoy's War and Peace, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Gogol's Dead Souls, Chekhov's The Seagull, Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, and many other great novels, stories, plays, and poems by Russian authors.

You will study more than 40 works by a dozen writers, from Aleksandr Pushkin in the 19th century to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the 20th. You will also investigate the origin of Russian literature itself, which traces to powerful epic poetry and beautiful renderings of the Bible into Slavic during the Middle Ages.

All of these works are treated in translation, but Professor Weil does something very unusual for a literature-in-translation course. For almost every passage that he quotes in English, he reads an extract in the original Russian, with a fluent accent and an actor's sense of drama.

You may not understand Russian, but there is no mistaking the expressive intonation, rhythm, and feeling with which Professor Weil performs these passages. At one point, reciting verses from Russia's most famous poet, he advises: "Listen to it once as a piece of music, and you will sense the linguistic genius of Pushkin."

Classics of Russian Literature explores Russian masterpieces at all levels—characters, plots, scenes, and sometimes even single sentences, including:

  • Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which has one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, setting the stage for a novel that probes the tragic dimension of a subject—adultery—that had traditionally been treated as satire.
  • Gogol's Dead Souls, with a concluding passage beloved to all Russians, in which the hero flees the scene of his fiendishly clever swindle in a troika—a fast carriage drawn by three horses—to the author's invocation, "Oh Rus' [Russia], whither art thou hurtling?"
  • Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, whose long chapter "The Grand Inquisitor" is a gripping, haunting, mystifying parable that is often studied on its own, but that is all the more powerful in this great novel, which addresses faith, doubt, redemption, and other timeless themes.

The Golden Age and After

The central core of the course covers the great golden age of Russian literature, a period in the 19th century when Russia's writers equaled or surpassed the achievements of the much older literary cultures of Western Europe. The age commenced with Pushkin, developed with the fantastic and grotesque tales of Gogol', and grew to full flower with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—who at the time were considered in Europe to be lesser writers than their talented contemporary Turgenev. As the 20th century approached, Chekhov's exquisitely understated plays and stories symbolized the sunset of the golden age.

Gorky straddled the next transformation, linking the turmoil preceding the Russian Revolution with the political oppression that affected all artists in the newly established Soviet Union from the 1920s on. You examine the brilliant revolutionary poet Maiakovsky; the novelist Sholokhov, who portrayed the revolution as a tragedy for the Cossack people; the satirist Zoshchenko, who used Soviet society as food for parody; and Pasternak, who produced beautiful poems and a single extraordinary novel. Your survey ends with Solzhenitsyn, who became the most influential literary voice speaking out against the tyranny of the Soviet system.

Inside, Outside, and Behind the Scenes

Professor Weil uses intriguing details to bring these authors and their works to life. For example, readers of English translations are probably unaware of the symbolic names that Russian writers routinely give their characters, names that are especially evocative in Russian:

  • Roskol'nikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, is named after the term for "schism," signifying a person who is separating himself from society. Dostoevsky gives other characters names that mean "mud puddle" and "intelligence," again, representing the person's inner nature.
  • Iurii Zhivago, the hero of Doctor Zhivago, has a family name that is an older Russian form of the word "alive." Pasternak uses a grammatical case that emphasizes the animate nature of the noun, signifying life as it should be experienced.

In addition to such internal details that enrich your understanding of the text, Professor Weil also points you to outside resources, from films and operas to recommended attractions that you may wish to see if you travel to Russia:

  • In order to get a sense of the powerful rhythms of Pushkin's masterpiece Eugene Onegin, readers who don't know Russian can turn to Tchaikovsky's famous operatic adaptation, which magnificently catches the meter and texture of the poem.
  • A trip to Moscow should include a visit to Tolstoy's house, now preserved as a museum. There you will get a vivid sense of the contradictions in this man's life—in the marked contrast between the comfortable Victorian furnishings preferred by his wife and family and the Spartan austerity in which he closeted himself to write, a style that came increasingly to define his life.

Professor Weil also recounts behind-the-scenes stories, many of which relate to his own experiences in Russia. These anecdotes add a new dimension to your appreciation of the works covered in this course:

  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn's moving novella about life in a Soviet forced labor camp, might never have appeared in print had not the mercurial Soviet premier Khrushchev found the story spellbinding. After reading the manuscript, Khrushchev admitted that it was one of the few literary works that he had managed to finish without sticking himself with pins to stay awake. The resulting publication stunned the Soviet reading public and the world.
  • "The History of an Illness," a short story by Zoshchenko, gently lampoons the Soviet health care system, with which Professor Weil has personal experience from his visits to the country. He describes some of the maddening features of Soviet medicine, including a propensity to treat every illness with vodka.
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36 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Origins of Russian Literature
    Russian literature has its national and spiritual origins in the territory around the ancient city of Kiev, which adopted Christianity in the 10th century with a 100-year-old, magnificent translation of the Bible into Slavic. x
  • 2
    The Church and the Folk in Old Kiev
    One of Russia's most precious literary productions is The Tale of Prince Igor, a 12th-century epic recounting the daring, doomed raid of a Kievan prince against the neighboring Polovetsians, precursors of the Tatars. x
  • 3
    Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, 1799–1837
    The first of five lectures on Russia's greatest poet discusses Pushkin's upbringing and the influences that molded his character and literary style, making him, in his own words, "the Mozart of the 19th century." x
  • 4
    Exile, Rustic Seclusion, and Onegin
    In the 1820s, Pushkin began work on a long poem, a "novel in verse," called Eugene Onegin. Inspired partly by Byron's Don Juan, it became an endless source of inspiration for later writers and composers. x
  • 5
    December’s Uprising and Two Poets Meet
    After reading Shakespeare in French translation, Pushkin wrote the historical tragedy Boris Godunov, based on the life of a Russian tsar whom many people accused of rising to the throne by using murder. x
  • 6
    A Poet Contrasts Talent versus Mediocrity
    Pushkin's drama Mozart and Salieri probed the psychological dimensions of the supposed murder of Mozart by his rival Salieri and inspired the 1980s play and film Amadeus. In Egyptian Nights, one can see elements of Pushkin in the character of Charsky. x
  • 7
    St. Petersburg Glorified and Death Embraced
    The concluding lecture on Pushkin explores his narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, about a poor man pursued by an equestrian statue of Peter the Great. Somewhat later, Pushkin was fatally wounded in a duel provoked by a man flirting with his wife. x
  • 8
    Nikolai Vasil’evich Gogol’, 1809–1852
    The first great master of Russian prose, Gogol' gloried in extensive, often bizarre imagery. In delightfully different ways, The Nose, The Inspector General, and The Overcoat each deal ironically with absurd situations. x
  • 9
    Russian Grotesque—Overcoats to Dead Souls
    Gogol's most famous novel, Dead Souls, concerns the confidence scheme of Chichikov, who buys ownership of dead serfs to use as collateral for a large loan, in the course of which Gogol' creates a gallery of grotesque characters. x
  • 10
    Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, 1821–1881
    The first of six lectures on Dostoevsky probes the early life of this celebrated chronicler of eternal themes and extreme states of mind. Dostoevsky's first novel, Poor Folk, is a heartrending, sometimes cruel, account of life among the lower classes in St. Petersburg. x
  • 11
    Near Mortality, Prison, and an Underground
    Arrested for his political views, Dostoevsky was condemned to death and put in front of a firing squad, only to be reprieved at the last second. The experience had a searing effect on the author. Some years later, after many difficult experiences, he produced his most consistently cruel work, Notes from the Underground. x
  • 12
    Second Wife and a Great Crime Novel Begins
    Under a draconian deadline, Dostoevsky dictated his novella The Gambler in a month, and then married his stenographer. Around this time, he began work on a story that would grow into the novel Crime and Punishment. x
  • 13
    Inside the Troubled Mind of a Criminal
    Continuing the analysis of psychological portraits in Crime and Punishment, this lecture focuses on the double murder at the heart of the novel and the gradual unraveling of what had appeared to be the perfect crime. x
  • 14
    The Generation of the Karamazovs
    Dostoevsky's last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, tells a story of family conflict and moral struggle. The book's most celebrated chapter, "The Grand Inquisitor," is as mystifying as it is unforgettable. x
  • 15
    The Novelistic Presence of Christ and Satan
    The Brothers Karamazov includes a celebrated interview with the Devil, and the conviction of the wrong brother for patricide. Dostoevsky died shortly after finishing the novel. x
  • 16
    Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828–1910
    The first of six lectures on Tolstoy explores his early life and works, including a remarkable account of childhood, adolescence, and youth, and a series of realistic stories based on his experiences in the Crimean War. x
  • 17
    Tale of Two Cities and a Country Home
    Tolstoy's most famous novel, War and Peace, was inspired at least partly by his reaction to the return to European Russia of some of the Decembrists previously exiled to prison in Siberia, and evolved into a sprawling saga centered on the great Napoleonic invasion of 1812. This lecture introduces some of its major characters. x
  • 18
    Family Life Meets Military Life
    What happens when decent family people meet the hideous bloodshed of the most massive war that Europe had yet seen? In War and Peace, Tolstoy paints a huge canvas in which even the smallest detail is astonishingly lifelike. x
  • 19
    Vengeance Is Mine, Saith the Lord
    After War and Peace, Tolstoy turned to an entirely different theme: adultery. Anna Karenina tells the story of a respectable married woman who goes through tortuous confusion and enters into a passionate affair that has tragic consequences. x
  • 20
    Family Life Makes a Comeback
    A parallel plot in Anna Karenina involves a character named Levin, whose name clearly links him to the author, Lev Tolstoy. Like Tolstoy, Levin is preoccupied with the search for happiness and spiritual fulfillment. x
  • 21
    Tolstoy the Preacher
    The final lecture on Tolstoy probes two late novellas, The Death of Ivan Il'ich and The Kreuzer Sonata. The aging Tolstoy grew increasingly obsessed with moral and religious problems. He died in 1910 after fleeing his wife and home. x
  • 22
    Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, 1818–1883
    In his day, Turgenev's reputation surpassed that of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, especially in Western Europe. This lecture examines his Notes of a Hunter and First Love. The latter is a tender and beautiful evocation of adolescent passion. x
  • 23
    The Stresses between Two Generations
    In Turgenev's best known novel, Fathers and Sons, he addresses many of the most hotly debated issues of the day, including anarchism, socialism, feminism, and science. Turgenev experienced painful ambivalence in determining his own position on these issues. x
  • 24
    Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, 1860–1904
    Chekhov is renowned for capturing the subtleties of deep human feelings in his plays and short stories. This lecture examines one of each: The Seagull, a formative drama of 20th-century theater, and the poignant story The Darling. x
  • 25
    M. Gorky (Aleksei M. Peshkov), 1868–1936
    As a popular writer and public figure, Gorky came to symbolize the transition between two different political and social systems, separated by the Russian Revolution. His autobiographical sketches are a moving account of the 19th-century Russia that he knew. x
  • 26
    Literature and Revolution
    In the 1920s, Russian writers came under control of the Soviet system. Gorky, despite some misgivings, stayed loyal to the revolution. Many times he tried to protect writers and intellectuals from the murderous fanaticism of officials. x
  • 27
    The Tribune—Vladimir Maiakovsky, 1893–1930
    The brilliant poet Maiakovsky stoked the fires of passionate socialism with his evocation of the sun to visit the proletarian poet, his cry for a creative surge from "the army of the arts," and even, with some ambivalence, in his paean to the Brooklyn Bridge. x
  • 28
    The Revolution Makes a U-Turn
    In 1929 Maiakovsky completed a very ambivalent and moving play, The Bedbug. Woody Allen's film Sleeper is, in part, inspired by this work. One year later, Maiakovsky played Russian roulette with a loaded pistol and lost. x
  • 29
    Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov, 1905–1984
    The novelist Sholokhov saw the revolution as a tragic force that wiped out a whole community, the Cossacks. In the first part of And Quiet Flows the Don, he gives a vivid picture of pre-World War I Cossack life. x
  • 30
    Revolutions and Civil War
    The second part of And Quiet Flows the Don gives a remarkable picture of what it's like to experience war and revolution. In later life, Sholokhov won a Nobel Prize and shockingly called for the execution of some dissidents. x
  • 31
    Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko, 1895–1958
    Arguably the most popular writer during the Soviet era was the satirist Zoshchenko, who crafted stories that shed a ridiculing light on the many hypocritical and often downright crazy aspects of Soviet propaganda and life. x
  • 32
    Among the Godless—Religion and Family Life
    Zoshchenko's stories capture the religious piety that survived amid state-promoted atheism. He was also a master at portraying the comforts and vexations of family life amid housing shortages and other external pressures. x
  • 33
    Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, 1890–1960
    Principally a poet, Pasternak partly coped with the dangers of the Stalinist era by translating Shakespeare. In the thaw after Stalin's death, he wrote a politically charged novel on the revolution, Doctor Zhivago. x
  • 34
    The Poet In and Beyond Society
    Doctor Zhivago focuses on its hero's growing isolation in a country torn by war, revolution, and ideology. The novel has breathtakingly beautiful natural descriptions of Russia. x
  • 35
    Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, Born 1918
    In 1962 an unknown high school math teacher electrified the world with a novella called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which told the truth about the Soviet Union's slave labor camps. Solzhenitsyn went on to recount other horrors of the Stalinist era. x
  • 36
    The Many Colors of Russian Literature
    Reviewing the territory covered in the course, this lecture points out that Russian literature opens a wide window into the ways of the world and the human condition, enlightened by the writing of Russia's greatest authors. x

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  • 232-page printed course guidebook
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  • 232-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Irwin Weil

About Your Professor

Irwin Weil, Ph.D.
Northwestern University
Dr. Irwin Weil is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University, where he has been teaching for more than 40 years. He earned his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. at Harvard University. Professor Weil has received several teaching awards, including the Northwestern University College of Arts and Sciences Award for distinguished teaching, the...
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Reviews

Classics of Russian Literature is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 75.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Classics of Russian Literature I love this Great Course. I'm not through with it yet, but I've absorbed so much because Great Courses has made it SO MUCH more interesting than similar courses I had of Russian Literature, in college. I've bought around six other courses from Great Courses this year & will continue to do so. I'm now getting a MUCH BETTER education than I had as a young person. Know you will, too.
Date published: 2018-12-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Best if You Speak Russian Like many TGC students I suspect, I have read (and reread) the well-known classics like “The Brothers Karamazov”, “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina” , “Crime and Punishment” and some miscellaneous Pushkin poetry. It was only through the cinema that I became familiar with Gorky (The Lower Depths by both Renoir and Kurosawa), the stage (Chekov) and opera that I became familiar with the prose of Pushkin (Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin). Of course as a member of the West I felt obliged to read Solzhenitsyn. As impressed as I was (and am) with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I remained ignorant of much of the rest of Russian literature. Thanks to Professor Weil some of that ignorance has been modified. His 36 lectures seemed to cover the scope of the subject, although having read the other reviewers, I accept that much was left out (as admitted by the Professor). And herein lies the rub. I thought that the lectures on the novels and writers with whom I was already familiar lacked come degree of depth. I would have preferred more analysis and less plot description. To be sure Dr. Weil did bring out some points of which I was unaware or had given no thought, even on works that I had read more than once. But for works that I had not read (e.g. “And Quietly Flows the Don”), I liked that I got a lot of plot summary. Plus the historical and cultural background that he provided that gave me quite a bit of background necessary for proper understanding of the work (e.g. the Cossacks in the aforementioned novel). A dilemma for the course: what level of prior knowledge should the instructor assume? In the end I think that Professor Weil hits about the right mark. Even on works that I had read (but had not enjoyed so much) such as those by Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, Professor Weil added quite a bit to my understanding of the author and the background that caused the books to written. There is quite a bit of history (much unnecessary I thought) and cultural (almost all necessary) information provided as the course goes along. In the end these positives are enough to give the course high marks. There are of course a few elements that don’t quite hit the expected standard. For example, beginning at lecture three (Pushkin) Professor Weil does a lot of recitation of the poetry in Russian. Now this is fine if the prereqs for the course are Russian 101 and 102, but not helpful for the rest of us. To be fair a bit of the rhythm and sonority of the language is helpful in understanding why Pushkin should be considered a great poet, but for me at least, the recitations in Russian went on long after I had heard as much as was going to helpful to a non-Russian speaker. (note that I understand this may not be a fair criticism and I might not have the same view were this a course on Garcia Lorca and the recitation were in Spanish). And while I think it charming that Professor Weil felt that he could sign a bit of Boris Godunov (again to give us a bit of the feel of the language) and his singing was reasonably good, there was a bit too much of this as well. Finally, a criticism of omission. I am not competent to know which greats have been left out, but at least two reviewers have mentioned the grievous omission of Bulgakov. I looked him up and think that MtLogan’s comment on this must necessarily be correct. I will now put “The Master and Margarita” on my reading list. All in all get this course, but I’d say that having watched the video, the audio would be fine.
Date published: 2018-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Phenomenal Professor Needed a bit of a refresher course— the last time I took a course with Dr. Weil wa 1982!
Date published: 2018-08-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Um, um...and rambling I have several courses and this is my least favorite. Although the individuals and works covered are very interesting on their own, this professor is one of the worst. The lectures lack organizational structure, the professor stutters repeatedly to the point of distraction and fails to identify or emphasize main ideas. I also find some of his treatment of female characters and relationships to be sexist.
Date published: 2018-06-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from By no means an introductory class I rated this class three stars because the professor is very knowledgeable and well versed in the topic but the class requires that one know a lot about Russian history, literature, and politics prior to coming to the class. I would rather see the title "Advanced Discussion of Russian Literature" or "Intermediate Understanding of Russian Literature" something like that. The class is not an introduction nor even a survey class. For example, the professor often speaks in Russian. As someone who has no background in Russian that just lost me. So I could not rate the class higher than a three.
Date published: 2018-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course You know how to recognize a great class? When you are sad it's over and wish there was 'just one more' lesson. That's the way I felt when I finished this course. The professor is passionate about this subject and that comes through in his delivery. Scattered throughout the lessons, Professor Weil will deliver a passage in its original Russian, for the poetic experience. I don't speak Russian, but the rhythm still comes through. The lessons are a mix of the presented author's biography, a synopsis of their work, and something akin to a "book report" on a particular work or two. The format works well, but a few times I got lost and couldn't tell if we were talking about the author's life or a subject in his book. That's probably the only negative comment I would have of the whole course and it will partially land on me since I would generally be doing mindless chores while listening to the presentation. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this course. It caused me to head to the book store and buy a couple volumes from new (to me) Russian authors. What more can you ask for from a class but to start you down a path of your own expanded discovery?
Date published: 2018-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broadning For years, "Dr. Zhivago" has been my favorite novel. After reading "War and Peace" I wanted more insight about the breadth of Russian literature. This course is excellent! It covers Russian literature from the 12th Century, spans the golden age of Russian literature as written by Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and concludes with Soviet-era literature. Dr. Weil brings the subject to life with the historical and social background of the era. He reads selections in Russian--which I cannot understand, but reading in the original language made me appreciate the rhythm, meter, and inflections of Russian. He sings Russian folk songs with his melodious bass voice. This course is a treat and broadened my knowledge of literature.
Date published: 2018-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Pleasure from Beginning to End I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that Chekhov only received one lecture (while Maiakovsky got two...what's up with that?) and Lermontov and Leskov didn't even make the cut. However, if they'd included every great poet or novelist of Russian literature, this course would have gone on forever. And because that's my only complaint, I give this course 5 stars. It was truly a pleasure to listen to, especially as I was driving or sitting down with a cup of coffee. I'm already familiar with Russian literature generally, but this course introduced me to several new writers (especially in the Soviet period) and taught me new things about old favorites like Dostoevsky. I loved the anecdotes about the writers, the background details about their political and social situations, the excerpts from the poems, and even the musical bits. It was all very colorful and engaging, and you can hear Prof. Weil's passion for the subject in each lecture. I'm especially happy that he didn't hesitate to quote the original Russian texts (followed by translation, of course). Now my to-read list has suddenly become much longer. Excellent lecture series, highly recommended!
Date published: 2017-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Buy without hesitation. Really excellent. The professor is probably the best scholar that can be found about the subject. He knows Russia very well. His comments about Russian critique are very well informed. A very erudite and entertaining teacher.
Date published: 2017-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Course My degree is far removed from literature or history, but this course is absolutely fascinating. The instructor is superb. I am on the edge of my seat during each lecture.
Date published: 2017-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from By far the most enjoyable I've purchased 40 courses from The Great Courses and have worked my way through just about half of them. Hands down, this was the most enjoyable, featured my favorite instructor, and the course motivated me to purchase and read the most number of works cited in the journey of its 36 lectures (and I'm only sorry it stopped there. I would have ecstatic if it had gone an additional 36). Dr Weil is simply superb - a gifted storyteller, a talented voice actor, and he uses his wonderful singing voice to convey his insight via a dimension not typically risen to by university professors. As if that wasn't enough, he reaches out to you at whatever level you may be at in familiarity with Russian Literature, and brings you up and along on a journey of insight, history, outrage, sympathy, comedy and tragedy that is as vast and varied as Russia itself. This is a joyful learning experience on so many levels and so enjoyable you will wish that he had taught a follow-up course on the many Russian authors and works he had to leave unaddressed by necessity. The best purchase I've made so far.
Date published: 2017-05-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Big Novels in Little Lectures If you’ve always wanted to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina or Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, but you’ve never had time to read such massive tomes, then this course is for you. If you HAVE read them, you may want to buy it anyways to remind you of what’s in them. The course heavily favors the three big giants of nineteenth-century Russian literature: Alexander Pushkin (5 lectures), Fyodor Dostoevsky (6 lectures), and Leo Tolstoy (6 lectures). Together the three receive almost half the coverage of this 36-lecture course. By contrast there are only two lectures each for Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovski, Mikhail Sholokhov (famous for And Quiet Flows the Don), Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Anton Chekhov gets just one. Even so, this course provides listeners with a wealth of good stories. There are also interesting sidelights on the latest years of some of Russia’s literary heroes. You know how sometimes one says, “Oh, if only he had lived a longer life and produced more great works?” The composer Mozart would be a good example. Well, in some cases the authors lived so long they undermined their own reputations. Tolstoy became increasingly ascetic and hostile to sexuality, but offended the Russian Orthodox Church into excommunicating him, abandoned his family and then died of pneumonia. Sholokhov gave comfort to Soviet repression in the 1960s when he openly supported the government’s arrest of two dissident writers. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia as a hero after the fall of Communism, only to get a TV talk show in which he did all of the talking and refused to let his guests get in a word. Professor Weil does a reasonably good job presenting the works, reading selections of poetry in the original Russian so that listeners can get a taste of the poets’ skill. This is especially the case for Pushkin, Mayakovski and Pasternak. Alas, I can’t understand Russian. More oddly, Weil sings some passages. In Lecture 33 he even sings in English a section of the “Sycamore Tree” song from Othello, which Pasternak translated into Russian. Weil’s voice is reasonably pleasant, but he probably won’t be invited to perform at the Met anytime soon. I have a few quibbles. The first two lectures cover the Kievan period with a discussion of the Lay of the Host of Prince Igor, but then there is absolutely nothing until Pushkin springs forth suddenly from nowhere after the early Muscovite centuries. It is as if no Russian writer put pen to paper from 1300 to 1800. Furthermore, Weil at least twice refers to Ivan IV (the “Terrible”--1533-84) as the first Tsar, but it was in fact Ivan III (the “Great”—1462-1505) who first took the title after his marriage to a Byzantine princess who was the niece of the last Emperor in Constantinople, Constantine XI Palaeologus. The final lecture isn’t very interesting, merely repeating certain points in earlier lectures without offering a new perspective. Otherwise I enjoyed the course well enough, and I recommend it.
Date published: 2017-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I got into this quickly I find this course really engaging. Although it is about literature, it naturally includes a lot of history. The professor is interesting. I love his recitations in Russian.
Date published: 2017-03-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Russian Literature Is Addictive I bought this course several months ago. The professor is certainly animated about his subject matter. The only real criticism I have of the course is that the professor tends to ramble a bit on his subject and there seems to be the expectation that you at least know a little Russian history before coming into the course. I knew very little about Russian literature when I started this course and now I want to go out and purchase a few of the novels that were talked about during the lectures.
Date published: 2017-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Do not rush through Russian Lit This course needs to be savored. It is good all-around intelligent material. Do rush to get it and then enjoy!
Date published: 2016-12-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional course I'm US born and raised with limited knowledge of the Russian language and literature. My wife grew up in the Soviet Union. We watched this series together and thoroughly enjoyed it. Professor Weil clearly loves the Russian language, literature, culture, and people. For each author he discussed the historic background and some of that author's more notable works. He recited portions of some in perfect Russian with great feeling. Including some poetry and even sang a few songs. Made me wish I could read the literature in the original, as he has. Our only suggestions for improvement would be to cut back on the the use of "of course" and "as a matter of fact."
Date published: 2016-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A good introduction I took a great deal of time to get through this course because I kept stopping to read the books being discussed (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace), but I'm glad I did. I think I got much more out of the course this way. I even listened to some of the lessons twice, once before and once after I read the book. The professor is a most interesting person. He read some of the material in Russian, so we got an idea of what the language sounds (like (my education on Russians didn't get this far)), and he is an excellent singer. He says nothing about the to-do over Sholokov; reportedly, his later novels were ghostrwitten him,, but the professor was short of time: he noted that he had only been able to sample the enormous breadth of Russian literature. I had some idea of this, as I had bought a Cambridge Guide on Russian literature, and there wee many authors this course didn't mention. Maybe The Teaching Company will hire him to make another course!
Date published: 2016-06-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Promising Content With Disappointing Presentation After developing a recent interest in Russian literature, I was sadly disappointing when I began listening to these lectures. The material covered in the syllabus seemed fresh and exciting (how could it not be when including giants like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky!), but the presentation of this material was sadly lacking. Below are a few thoughts, both positive and negative, that one might want to consider before purchasing this course. Perhaps the best way to express my disappointment in the presentation of this course is to say that professor Weil lectures as if he doesn't expect his audience to have read the texts before class. As a result, each lecture cannot progress past anything but a bare summary of the plot of each book. There is little analysis, commentary, or insight that moves beyond the plot summaries one might find on Wikipedia or Sparknotes. If you want to know a summary of many Russian classics, then this course might be for you, but if you are like me and you want to read the texts before engaging in discussion about them, then you may find better resources elsewhere. Second, professor Weil employs a lot of the Russian language in this course, which may be frustrating to those who know only a small amount of the language (or none at all). He constantly urges his audience to appreciate the "music" of the language. Indeed the language is beautiful, but he fails to appreciate the connection between the sound of the language and its meaning, as if reading the text fluently in Russian were an acceptable substitute for actually lecturing and analyzing the works themselves. The two positive things I can think of regarding this course are first, the materials covered, and second, the brief biographical sketches Dr. Weil gives. The books themselves are amazing, and I highly recommend all the books listed on the syllabus, and I appreciated Dr. Weil's remarks regarding the authors' lives, but unfortunately the value of the course doesn't go far beyond that.
Date published: 2016-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from the most unusual audio course I have purchased Of the dozens of courses I have purchased over the years, this is unique..and that, for me, is a good thing. I was ignorant of the Russian people, their language, history, etc. Prof Weil pulled all of that together using the framework of literature. I actually understand the structure of Russian proper names now. And, yes, he actually sings. He is a master at comparing the rythmn of English especially iambic pentameter with the rythmn of Russian poetry and song. There is a lot going on here. I listended to a chapter, then read the handbook, then listened again before I could be comfortable with my understanding of the course material. I listen in my car as I commute. So, really, each chapter was a three trip thing for me.. Do you like the voice of the butler, Mr. Carson on Downton? This fellow is a dead ringer for him in speech. If you want to know how life chances, lust and love and war and politics have shaped Russian literature this is the course for you. I rarely write reviews. But, I want to encourage others to give this course a try.
Date published: 2016-03-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Worst Purchase Ever and Waste of Time and Money I have purchased 11 literature courses through the Teaching Company and this was by far the worst and most frustrating waste of time and money. While the topic of Russian literature is of great interest- no insights, broadened historical/literary context or erudition/wisdom was gained after labouring through a lecture. The professor rambles on - just summarizes the plot of the novel (not very eloquently at that - reading a summary on Wikipedia would be 30 times more illuminating which is also free) and gives a few anecdotes about the author paparazzi style which does not really add any knowledge about the author's development as a writer or relevance in history. Very very disappointing- having professors like these contribute to the Teaching Company reflects badly on the quality and reputation of Great Courses products and in turn makes one hesitant to make future purchases.
Date published: 2015-11-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Literature and History I listened to the audio version of this course and definitely enjoyed it. I was pleasantly surprised how much Russian history I learned from the course, most specifically, the early history. Weil does an excellent job of placing the early works in the context of the politics and religion of their age. His speaking voice is very clear and strong - the audio production on this course was excellent. (Some courses have a large dynamic range causing either the soft sounds to be too soft or the loud sounds to be too loud.) There are long passages read, and sometimes sung, in Russian. Or, at least, they seemed long to me as I do not understand any Russian. In my opinion, these passages should have been shortened, if not eliminated. However, if you know Russian, they may be more meaningful to you. As another reviewer has noted, there were a number of quite strange pronunciations. They were jarring at times, distracting me from what Weil was saying. My final criticism is that the final lecture was a complete waste: summaries of the various works he'd already discussed, including further quotes. That last lecture should have covered another classic! When it comes to the literature courses, there is contention among reviewers about which should be covered in more detail: the life and times of the author, a summary of their work, or an analysis of the work. I felt there was a good balance here. In my opinion, unless you understand the world in which an artist lived, you can't really understand the works of the artist. And, if you haven't read the particular work, a deep analysis isn't of much use. Even though I have read some of these works, it has been years and the summaries were very useful. I do recommend this course. You will learn about Russian history, literature, and politics.
Date published: 2015-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I adore this course I adore this course. I suppose for the Russian literature scholar, it might not be what was expected. But this is what I feel courses *should* be - not tearing works apart but loving what they have to offer, sharing them with enthusiasm, and connecting them to the real life that exists around any piece of literature. I bought the course mostly to get to the (shorter) works of the last 50 years or so, assuming I might skip past the older works (which seemed too simplistic) and yawn through the endlessly long Tolstoy and such. However, from lecture one I was drawn in. Yes, he does go over the stories (so you don't need to have read them), but he doesn't just say "here's the plot, this and this happened," but more like "see how this so remarkably illustrates something in all our life experiences, and notice how important this struggle was to the author or to the readers at the time, and there was even a response from the government...," and sometimes even, "you really must hear how this particular expression sounds in the Russian language..." This professor (an American) clearly loves Russian literature, knows the works inside and out, and has researched the world into which they were first published. To have all that shared with me over the CD player in my car made me feel like I took a trip to Russia, stayed in the homes of the regular people, and got to know life from a different cultural perspective. Thanks for this course.
Date published: 2015-06-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good but not great I agree with other reviewers who note that Professor Weil is engagingly passionate about his subject and has a wonderful speaking voice (he even sings beautifully at one point!). He also gives an especially nice treatment of Pushkin. Realize, however, that these lectures depend largely on engaging plot summary. As someone who has read the major Tolstoy and Dostoesvky works presented, I was disappointed that he was not more interpretive and analytical and instead tended to present just plot highlights of the novels. If you've never read the novels he discusses, this approach might be valuable; if you have read the novels, his lectures will probably leave you wishing for more. Still, though, there was something enchanting about listening to this avuncular man re-tell key episodes from major Russian works woven within bits and pieces or biography and Russian history.
Date published: 2014-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I kept listening even when I didn't understand it. By that I mean that I did not understand the Russian spoken, but I kept on listening. Why? Because Professor Weil has such passion for the Russian language and literature that it was contagious. Many of the other reviewers talk extensively about the content of the course. I agree with the comments that the first part of the course was much better than the end but this course is still worth your time. I'd rather talk about the presentation. Professor Weil kept my attention with a mix of personal stories (just a few), a history of the era that the book was written in, the plot line, and the rhythm of the Russian language used. He even sang some of the material in a pleasant, although not professionally trained, voice. Admittedly there were times when I had wished he did not recite so much in Russian but just as I was getting tired of the Russian which I didn't understand, Professor Weil switched his mode of presentation and recaptured my attention.
Date published: 2014-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mesmerizing Listening to Professor Weil's beautiful captivating voice, especially when he speaks in Russian, is a sensual experience. Serendipitously, he is a gifted story teller who seems to eat, breathe and sleep Russian literature. My only complaint is that this is the only lecture series of Dr. Weil's offered by The Great Courses. inquiringMind
Date published: 2014-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have purchased a number of Great Courses, and this is one of the three or four that are my favorites. I took four Russian literature courses at a different Big Ten university (which one can be guessed from my nickname) many years ago and fell in love with the body of work. This professor must be a real gem from whom to learn at Northwestern. I really appreciated the fact that he provided a deeper historical background leading up to Pushkin and Gogol's work. Dostoyevsky has long been my favorite among the great Russian authors, so I very much enjoyed the attention his work received, but all of the coverage up to the Soviet period was wonderful. I tend to agree with a more critical reviewerer that the coverage in the Soviet period is weaker. The absence of Bulgakov's work is particularly notable, but it is also surprising that Bely, Grossman, Tsypkin, Zamyatin, and others are not even mentioned. Nevertheless, this is a great course that I recommend wholeheartedly.
Date published: 2014-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Place to Start AUDIO I purchased this course in 2009 and really enjoy it. If you are interested in learning about and improving your appreciation of Russian literature, this is the course for you. Prior to this course, I had read here and there in Russian literature, mostly the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Professor Weil broadened and deepened my understanding and appreciation of these and the many other Russian writers, dealing as he does not only with individual works but also important background and context. I find Professor Weil easy to follow and finish each lecture looking forward to the next.
Date published: 2013-10-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from wonderful for early literature I have listened to this course twice and come back to the syllabus often. I have to agree that the first half is wonderful and then fades off for many of the reasons mentioned. It is wonderful to hear original Russian of Pushkin and tolstoy, but I must say that later in teh 20th century it does go off course a bit... Please but the course and see for yourself. but above all read the books!
Date published: 2013-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Professor you wish you had in college This course is not just about Russian literature, it transports you into the world of the culture and writers that created it. Professor Weil is a superb lecturer - eloquent, challenging, personal and in love with his subject.
Date published: 2013-06-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Begins With a Bang, Ends With a Fizzle Let's start with the bottom line. If you are interested enough in Russian literature to be reading this review, buy the course. The first half alone is worth the price of admission. Russian literature is no easy load, and Dr. Weil has done the heavy lifting for you. If you understand the language, you will appreciate the fact that he delivers so many classic passages in clear, fluent Russian. If not, you will appreciate how he demystifies the actions and reactions of characters that strike our culture as odd or inconsistent. Dr. Weil got his university education in the 1950s and 1960s from the same curriculum I did in the 1970s: namely, in a Soviet context. The Soviet Union was here to stay; Russia was gone forever, an anachronism, like Mercia and Burgundy and the independent Republic of California. Alas, Dr. Weil has not seen fit to update his knowledge since "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." Post-Revolution writers are given the same weight they were when their most significant literary value lay in their willingness to tweak the nose of the Communist Party. As a result, some writers enjoyed relevance and a certain prestige (inside, covertly, as well as outside the Soviet Union) that they simply no longer command. Dr. Weil doesn't get it. Three lectures on Mayakovsky?! An entire lecture on Zoshchenko? Two on Sholokhov, a one-hit wonder whose follow-up was so weak that some scholars believe "Quiet Flows the Don" was plagiarized? Two on Pasternak, who, stripped of the controversy, even Dr. Weil acknowledges was as fond of cheesy coincidences as a dime-store romance novelists. If you know anything about Russian literature at all, you will want to sit down for this next revelation. I'll wait. Ready? *Not a single word about Bulgakov.* His name isn't even mentioned. Why? Apparently because in Dr. Weil's academic day, as in mine, Bulgakov was unknown in the west, his works mostly suppressed by the Soviet state since his death in 1940. If you don't know Russian literature, trust me: omitting Bulgakov from a survey of Russian literature is like a course in classical music that doesn't mention Bach (who, incidentally, likewise vanished into obscurity for a long time after his death). And like the emigres from whom he learned his trade, Dr. Weil favors the ponderous, deep literature at the expense of humor. That's like tossing Mark Twain out of an American literature course. Gogol's humor is minimized or mistakenly rolled in with his grotesque. And Ilf and Petrov, brilliant satirists whose works have been filmed over and over, and whom no Russian teacher in Russia would ever in a million years neglect? Not a single mention. Not "deep" enough, apparently. Perhaps a minor quibble, but it's startling when a man with a PhD from Harvard uses (and abuses) words he doesn't know how to pronounce: scion, reprise, prescience, archipelago and Dr. Weil's overused and abused pet "banal," which he uncomfortably rhymes with a word often preceding "retentive." If you don't speak Russian, you may be irritated by the amount of Russian he uses. He invites you to feel the "music" of it, apparently not realizing that the beauty of well-crafted Russian lies almost entirely in its creative and lyrical exploitation of meanings, not phonics. And - please, Dr. Weil - don't sing. No, really. Stop it. (Shakespeare, too? In English?) Dr. Weil slips in a couple of historical and cultural howlers as well. World War 2 was (and is) not, contrary to myth, "known as the Great Patriotic War" in Russia. World War 2 ran from 1939 to August 1945 and involved many countries, including the United States. The Great Patriotic War (a questionable translation, but never mind) began in 1941 and ended in May 1945 and was fought between Germany and the Soviet Union. It was a war within a war, a strictly bilateral conflict, which is why you should never tell a Russian that the United States and Britain fought alongside her in the Great Patriotic War. Dr. Weil also misses the opportunity to explain a very meaningful facet of Russian names that would demystify many a novel for the western reader. Judging from the way he handles Khrushchev's and Stalin's names, he may not even realize himself that, in a reversal from western custom, the use of first name and patronymic (Vladimir Vladimirovich) is the respectful form used to a social superior (children to a schoolteacher, say), while use of the surname is how a superior addresses an inferior (teacher to children). "Iosip Vissarionovich - which is another way to address Stalin" -- no, it's the only way to address Stalin, if you wanted to stay alive. All of that said, get the course anyway. The first half is brilliant. Maybe a little heavy on Dostoyevsky, but Dr. Weil admits his favorite, and who am I to slow him down. Stop at Gorky if you have to ... no, listen to or watch the whole thing, Sholokhov and Pasternak and all. Just be aware there's a rest of the story.
Date published: 2013-05-17
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