The sublime and the grotesque

As half the group headed off to the Museum of the Defense & Blockade of Leningrad this morning, and the other half went to the Russian Museum, I couldn’t help but think of Victor Hugo’s “Preface to Cromwell,” an essay which served as the primary articulation of Romantic theatrical theory (France, 1830). In that essay, Hugo rejects neoclassicism’s focus on idealized beauty and instead calls for the juxtaposition of the sublime and… Read More


It turns out that Nicholas II Is back!  Former president (and current prime minister) Dmitry Medvedev is widely viewed as a reincarnation of Nicholas II.  So say tour guides who revile Nicholas as a weak-willed and utterly devoid of character (thus the apparently scandalous portrait by Serov above, showing not an emperor but a weakling fading to grey) and those who adoringly fawn on the last tsar as their darling “Nicky.”  Friends… Read More

Changes in the Neighborhood

I’ve travelled and lived in this city for varying periods over the past three decades, the longest stretch being 12 months on a Fulbright grant back in 1998-1999.  That was a hard year for Russia, with the fall of the ruble and ensuing “krizis,” bombings in Moscow, renewal of war in Chechnya, and a rotation of 4 different prime ministers, culminating in the appointment of the previously obscure Putin. Without ever having… Read More

What would you do?

What would you do if you lived in Putin’s Russia?  Really?  Are you sure? An old friend who does not reside in the capitals made the overnight train trip to spend the day with me yesterday.  We walked the city, visited the Yusupov palace, and talked and talked over cups of tea.  Eventually, we couldn’t avoid politics.  Unlike my former Russian assistant who surprised me in Moscow with her virulent anti-western sentiment… Read More

Russian Curry

On our last day in Moscow I decided to take folks to the enormous souvenir market at Izmailovskii park.  As we walked by row after row of apparently matryoshka dolls, Shelley stopped and pointed at one guy whose nesting dolls featured American sports teams.  After laughing about how funny it would be if they had Golden State Warriors, we suddenly realized that they DID.  Then we joked about how funny it would… Read More

A World Split Apart?

In my seminar each fall, “Russia & the West” we always cover the controversial 1978 Harvard commencement speech by Soviet dissident writer and Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The audience was caught off guard when his resistance to the Soviet regime did not translate into support for the United States, which had granted him asylum.  Instead, he used his platform to bemoan the consumerism, individualism, and legalism he saw in the West as… Read More

The Americans

  I admit it. I’m a fan of the Fx show about Soviet agents living undercover in 1980s DC. Sometimes the intense and sincere devotion to the cause (however hazily defined) of the female lead Elizabeth has struck me as particularly unlikely. Tonight I had a rather disconcerting evening that made me rethink that criticism. I can’t even discuss in too much detail for now other than to say that a friend… Read More

Davidson connections

The day began with Davidson connections: First, emails back and forth with three former Russian assistants (AT in Davidson lingo), working out plans for later this week.  Each one a Muscovite with cherished memories of a year on our campus and each all grown up with jobs and families of their own.  We then headed into a warm sunny morning to meet Konstantin R. (Davidson ’99) for breakfast in a lovely cafe… Read More

Like it’s 1985 . . .

As I prepare to lead my faculty colleagues to Russia, most of them for the first time, I can’t help but reflect on my own first visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg almost thirty years ago. Of course, that trip wasn’t to “Russia” per se, but to our Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. It was 1985. I was a sophomore in high school and among the legions of other idealistic young… Read More