Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer
Vital voices from a nation under siege
He is a poet and novelist. But when Russia began its full-scale invasion of his country last year, Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan found himself composing sentences about a reality that he said was "beyond metaphor."
"The shelling of Ukrainian cities began, the destruction of our country began. We faced a choice—either hold out and survive or be annihilated. I never thought I would construct a sentence like that on my laptop," Zhadan reflected in an essay this year.
Zhadan is among the authors who will be taught this fall in a class at Rutgers University–New Brunswick devoted to the literature of Ukraine, in conversation with literary and pro-democracy movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
The School of Arts and Sciences elective course—"Special Topics: Ukrainian Literature in Translation—Coming of Age”—will be taught by visiting lecturer Serhii Tereshchenko, a literary scholar who grew up in Ukraine and was doing research there when Russia launched its invasion in February 2022.
“What had long felt like psychological pounding by the Russians turned into actual military pounding,” said Tereshchenko, who is about to complete his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics from Columbia University. “It stopped being abstract.”
The course, too, will be anything but abstract, covering mostly contemporary literature and films that explore Ukraine's social and political transformation since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. As the course title suggests, the works will be read and discussed in English and will have a unifying theme of individuals maturing into adulthood.
Register for the course here.
The course reflects a break from Russia-centric approaches to teaching East European literature—a movement emerging at many schools in the wake of the 2022 invasion, said Chloë Kitzinger, a professor and acting director of the Program in Russian and East European Languages and Literatures (REELL).
“There is talk of a fieldwide decolonization,” Kitzinger said. “Among other things, that means finding ways to view this very complex region that aren’t through Russian eyes, as is often the case in the U.S.”
Rather than focusing solely on Ukraine’s relationship to Russia, the course will explore Ukraine as an intricate and diverse region with a broad literary tradition while introducing students to pro-democracy movements within and beyond Ukraine’s borders.
“We are not reading extremists, we are not reading fundamentalists,” Tereshchenko said. “We are reading the people who want to live in a democratic society, and they aspire to that.”
Kitzinger said the focus on mostly contemporary writers makes the course particularly engaging and relevant. She noted that in addition to Zhadan, students will read other acclaimed literary figures now writing and commenting on the war such as Oksana Zabuzhko and Yuri Andrukhovych.
“This is material of our time,” Kitzinger said. “And that is one thing students are going to get a lot out of—reading living literature at this moment they too are living through.”
In addition to contemporary Ukrainian writers, students will read authors such as the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, who received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the iconic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.
The new course comes as REELL seeks to launch a minor in East European Studies to accommodate the growing number of students who want to learn about the region. A number of Rutgers students have Eastern European roots and command of their heritage languages. Among these languages is Polish which has been taught at Rutgers for many years, drawing a growing number of students throughout SAS.
“The student interest is definitely there,” Kitzinger said.
REELL is part of the Department of German, Russian, and East European Languages and Literatures in SAS.
In a written proposal, Kitzinger and REELL colleagues note that the new minor seeks to foster a better understanding of Eastern Europe’s diverse cultures and communities.
“Many of these polities have been subject to political and military control or violence by the Soviet or Russian governments, and they are often occluded by Russocentric scholarly approaches to the region,” the draft proposal reads. “We see the creation of this minor as a pressing issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”