Professors Take Students
'Between the Pen and the Axe'
"Between the Pen and the Axe: Art and Cultural Politics in Soviet Russia," a new course team-taught by Joe Darby, assistant professor of musicology, and Anna Kaladiouk, assistant professor of English, is a humanist's dream.
The interdisciplinary, general education course examines Russian literature, music, visual arts, and film of the Soviet period (1917-1991).
In the course, Anna and Joe say they hope to show students the interdisciplinary nature of the humanities by exploring how cultural ideas can be reflected concurrently across a number of media.
"We would like our students to develop a more nuanced way of thinking about the relationship between politics and culture in and beyond Soviet Russia," says Anna. "We want them to see that even in the most liberal and democratic of states art is never entirely free from political influence, and that even most repressive political regimes depend on a relatively willing support and cooperation of culture."
Among topics discussed in class are the early Soviet avant garde, socialist realism in theory and practice, cultural politics under Stalin, censorship and self-censorship, and the reshaping of memory in post-Soviet Russia. In discussing these topics, says Joe, there is also the opportunity to teach students how to read and analyze a number of different media.
A class in early February began with the showing of a segment of Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera (1929), a film made out of a montage of black and white images. "What are the implied ideological and political messages?" Joe asked the class before showing the film.
Man and the Movie Camera made use of what were considered to be radical editing and cinematic techniques to portray a typical day in urban areas throughout Russia. In the film, Vertov celebrated the joys of work and the rhythm of workers and machines, but also revealed the importance of people in an increasingly industrialized society. Man and the Movie Camera, explained Joe, is an important example of constructivism in film.
Students noted that Vertov often superimposed the face of a person over a working machine, perhaps to show that although Soviet Russia was advancing through the use of technology, it was a workers' state. The discussion also explored a scene in a movie theatre in which the audience watches a film about a film - Vertov's comment on reality and fiction - and whether, in the end, the film is optimistic.
In the second half of the class, the theme shifted to music and Dmitri Shostakovich's commission by the Soviet State to write a symphony in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the October revolution. To October (1927) is composed of three orchestral episodes and a choral finale based on a poem by Alexandr Bezymensky. The imagery and the constructivist ideology of the music can be examined through Shostakovich's mathematical approach to melody and rhythm, Joe explained. So he teaches a lesson on how to read music notation. The lesson reveals how in To October Shostakovich explored a new and, Joe said, unusual system of composition to create a sense of darkness before the revolution. Hidden in the piece, too, is a touch of humor: a trumpet tune most students recognized - "Happy birthday to you."
Joe earned his Ph.D. in musicology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with a dissertation on the symphonic music of Shostakovich. He has edited two anthologies on 20th-century music and has given scholarly presentations on the intersection of music and politics in Soviet Russia.
Anna earned her Ph.D. in Comparative literature from the University of California, Davis, with a dissertation on "Reformed Characters: The Nineteenth-Century English and Russian Novel and the Discourse on Penal Reformation." She has published articles on 19th-century Russian and English literature and culture.