Between Hell and Heaven: Russian Literature Under Communism (55+)

One of the most dangerous professions in the Soviet period of Russian history proved to be that of writer. The Soviet dictatorship that claimed 60 million innocent lives physically exterminated authors together with their books. Why, under such circumstances, didn’t most writers stop writing? What drove them, often knowingly, to sacrifice their own lives and sometimes the lives of their families?

As we search for an answer, we’ll look at the social, political and cultural contexts of Stalin’s times, examining the works and destinies of such diverse writers as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam and Mikhail Bulgakov.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

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Learning outcomes

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: The turn of the 20th century

The "Silver Age" of Russian Literature on the eve of the Russian Revolution; the Russian avant-garde; the blossoming of visual arts, philosophical thought and poetry; Futurism, Symbolism, Akhmeism; Alexander Blok, Vladimir Solovyov, Andrei Bely and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Week 2: The 20s: Culture under siege

Writers' survival in a new reality; Zamyatin, The Cave; Isaak Babel, Short Stories. 

Week 3: Literature in exile

Berlin, Prague and Paris as centres of emigration for the Russian cultural elite; Tsvetaeva, Bunin and Nabokov as its three greatest representatives (short stories: Light Breathing, The Return of Chorb, The Visit to the Museum). 

Week 4: Writers' destiny under Stalin's boot

Osip Mandelstam’s poetry; Anna Akhmatova, The Requiem and Other Poems; Zoschenko, the humourist and his short stories; a fabricated case against Zochenko and Akmatova.

Week 5: The devil in Moscow

Bulgakov's extraordinary novel, Master and Margarita, the history of its creation and posthumous publication; the phenomenon of "literary widows"—women against the state, widows preserving and publicizing  their husbands' legacies; Nadezhda Mandelstam (excerpts from Hope Against Hope)

Week 6: "Labour camp" literature

Varlam Shalamov; Solzhenitzyn; Evgenia Ginzburg, as the first female witness of female camps, excerpts from her Journey into the Whirlwind.

Books, materials and resources

There is required reading for this course.

  • The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, edited by Clarence Brown, published by Penguin Classics

This book will be available from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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