Cat’s Cradle: OU Drops Russian Literature

In 2019, the third chapter of the John Wick franchise graced the movie screen, following the titular hitman’s continued adventure in his quest for revenge. The opening scene of the film sees John Wick going to the library and discovering Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s “Russian Folktale”.

For most viewers, the presence of the book was a unique device to advance the plot (serving as both a reserve of equipment and a weapon). The last time OU included a course on Afanas’ev folk tales was in the spring of 2019.

Aleksandr Afanas’ev was a Russian ethnographer and folklorist who worked to catalog and publish almost 600 Russian folk tales in several volumes. His work cataloging Russian folk history has earned him comparisons with similar cataloguers like “The Brothers Grimm”.

Contemporaries of Afanas’ev, authors like Leo Tolstoy and literary collective works of Anton Chekov were canonized. Tolstoy’s works feature on many must-read lists. While Chekov’s theories on writing lead to the principle of “Chekov’s pistol”.

These authors retain their relevance even today, with author George Saunders including them in his writing novel “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.” Saunders describes the importance of these authors in every literary moment with the following quote, “[Russian literature is] a literature of resistance, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under the constant threat of censorship, at a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment and execution. Often the mundane stories of Russian life were deeply rooted in the subject of humanity and subjected these works to intense scrutiny around the turn of the century.

The Russian Revolution brought new eyes to folklorists as all writing was brought under the Union of Soviet Writers. The idea was to place all literature – including folklore – under one strict publishing banner. The goal was to foster a socialist culture, ranging from fairy tales to novels.

Following Stalin’s rise in Russia, there was extensive censorship of the arts. Criticism of the government itself was often censored and equated with dissenting thought. The only party-approved literature without the need for censorship was fairy tales.

Fairy tales contain cultural norms built into morality tales. The stories of greedy kings being punished and the power of the working class matched the socialist ethos of the USSR.

Comparatively, the literature of the time took on new layers of complexity. Due to strict censorship processes under the guise of editing, portions of novels have been removed. To preserve the meaning of their novels, authors have often turned to speculative fiction – science fiction and magical realism – to hide meanings behind layers of metaphor.

The most popular duo of this period was Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The brothers have written a large body of acclaimed science fiction that has been adapted across media and translated into multiple languages.

Their most famous novel, “Roadside Picnic”, depicts human encounters with extraterrestrial beings. The narrative is marked by its layers of metaphor, which have worked to hide the themes of the text, including the meaning of human existence, society and classism.

The OU’s recent choice to eliminate Russian entirely from the course catalog is a misstep for the university. Opportunities to experience new cultures and languages ​​are lost to students, while a nation’s rich literary history is relegated to the fringes of the school curriculum.

The content of this article serves only as a small foray into a larger Russian network. Without a Russian agenda, the OU has lost a connection to this history, at a time when we need to understand Russia the most, as Russia’s war in Ukraine is fueled by old Soviet practices. The lack of Russian course offerings hopefully marks a small period in the history of Ohio University, as a whole world of art has been taken away from a generation of students.

Benjamin Ervin is studying English Literature and Writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him at [email protected]