Amanda’s Russia

For years now, my dear friend Amanda has spoken to me about her many trips – some solo for research, some with Davidson students – to Russia. The challenges and joys of traveling to a place she knows well, loves and with which she is intellectually engaged make for wonderful stories. Traveling with this group of colleagues for two weeks allowed me the opportunity to take a step inside my dear friend’s world…. Read More

The Missing + The Present = The Story

In 2002 I had the priviledge of participating in a Jessie Ball duPont Summer Seminar for Liberal Arts College Faculty at the National Humanities Center.  The seminar I engaged in was entitled, “You Must Remember This: The Creation and Uses of Cultural Memory.” One of the pivotal moments of that three-week experience was when the artist Fred Wilson spoke with us about his work in creating museum exhibits where juxtapositions of objects, or lack thereof,… Read More

Body as archive

  Before our trip, I always believed that modern dance was a relatively new import to Russia, and one that was still trying to gain a foothold in its cultural landscape.  With its angular lines and challenging themes, the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky is sometimes described as some of the earliest “modern” dance, but his work, which all premiered on the stages of the Ballet Russe in Paris, never made an impression… Read More

Navigating “Normal”

Striving for Normalcy On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to teach my seminar on Reminiscence at 2:30PM. In the wake of the 9-11 attacks, I emailed my students to tell them that I would be in the classroom at the appointed hour and would be ready to hold class or to just talk, but that they were not required to attend. All of the students showed up, saying that they… Read More

Crisis of Identity?

Soviet symbolism is everywhere in Russia today, but the Soviet Union is gone. The more official monuments we visited, the more I became aware of the challenge this poses for national identity. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs down the street from our Moscow apartment is decorated all over with hammer and sickle medallions and stars — no one is scraping them off or covering them. Some of the stars on the Kremlin have been… Read More

Preserving America’s National Cuisine

On the way back from visiting the Anna Akhmatova apartment museum (quite moving, by the way) on our last group day in St. Petersburg, Shaw and I stopped for lunch in a little cafe called “Ketch Up Burgers.” It was a fairly random choice–pretty much the first place we saw on our way home that looked like they might have an English language menu. Upon entering, a tiny waitress (hearing us talking… Read More

Peter, Paul, and Robben

In February of 2005 I visited Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The island holds the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison. Two days ago I visited the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia. The island holds a prison that has held Lenin’s older brother, Gorky, Trotsky (the latter two were both held in cell 60 according to Shaw’s memory), and many others…. Read More

Heroic Defenders of Leningrad Memorial

On our way back to St. Petersburg from Catherine’s Palace, we took the opportunity to stop at the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad Memorial. Given the time of day we arrived, the closing time of the underground museum, and the time remaining on our tour bus, we had to sprint through a space that invited reflection. The memorial is located where citizens of Leningrad dug a trench as the last line of defense… Read More

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