Whatever image you have of Russia, your ideas will almost certainly be challenged—and broadened—by the groundbreaking research and teaching of professor Edyta Bojanowska, a scholar who is exploring the multiethnic world of the 19th-century Russian empire.
A Multiethnic Country
Multiethnic? Empire? Those aren’t words always associated with the Russia of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Yet the Russian empire of the 19th century included Finland, Poland, Ukraine, and massive areas of Central Asia and the Far East—none of which were ethnically Russian, notes Bojanowska.
“We tend to think of Russian literature as a literature mostly about the Russians, yet this is in fact a literature that has long grappled with questions of multiethnicity, colonization, and imperial expansion,” says Bojanowska, director of the Program of Russian and East European Languages and Literatures in the Department of Germanic, Russian, and East European Languages and Literatures, part of the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick.
Originally from Poland, Bojanowska came to the United States as an undergraduate and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. She received the top award in her field for a book about Nikolai Gogol, published by Harvard University Press, and was recently awarded a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, to work on her next book project, tentatively titled Empire and the Russian Classics. The book will explore imperial themes in the work of major Russian writers of the second half of the 19th century, such as Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.
“Relevant to Their Own Lives”
Russia may be a world away from Rutgers, but Rutgers students, she has found, are drawn to the serious explorations of moral dilemmas in the work of Tolstoy and others—a topic she is developing into a School of Arts and Sciences signature course called “The Good Life.”
“I love being able to touch my students not only intellectually, but also in a way that’s really relevant to their own lives,” she says. We sat down to talk to Professor Bojanowska about her teaching and research.
What do today’s students think of Russia?
There’s less of a template of expectations about what to make of Russia now than there was during the Cold War. Many of our younger students don’t know much about the Soviet Union—for them, it’s the distant past. But they find an exposure to Russian culture very rewarding. The students are surprised by Russia’s exoticism and fascinated by its ambivalent relation to Europe. They are also taken with the idea that Russians may approach everyday life as well as moral and political questions in a completely different way than we do in America.
Why study the Russian language?
There’s really no better way to open your mind to another culture than to study its language. And the more foreign the language, the better. With Russian, you really get exposed to very different ways of conceptualizing the world. It’s the language of a country that’s entering the global networks in every way—politically, economically, culturally. And it’s a very beautiful language. To hear Russian poetry recited is an incredible aesthetic experience.
What short stories or novels would you recommend to someone unfamiliar with Russian literature?
You can’t go wrong with the 19th-century classics: Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, or Tolstoy. There’s no better way to get a sense of the quirkiness of Russian literature than Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground or Gogol’s story “The Nose.” Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Little Dog” is, in my view, the most amazing love story in all of world literature. Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilich” is a haunting read. His Hadji Murat, a novella that critiques Russia’s imperial conquest of the Caucasus, richly resonates with America’s own current military entanglements overseas. It’s an astounding work of art.
What are some of the reasons why you like working at Rutgers?
There’s an incredible energy and commitment to research and to the students. I really enjoy working with the colleagues in my department. Meeting them was a major draw for me in coming to Rutgers. It’s an incredibly harmonious and collegial group of people, all devoted to both research and teaching. I also really value my connection to the Program in Comparative Literature, where I teach graduate courses and have the opportunity to interact with colleagues from many different disciplines.
What stands out about teaching Rutgers students?
I love how outspoken my students are, how open they are to sharing their ideas. I have taught at Harvard, but it’s only at Rutgers that I have had a student say to me, in the middle of class, “I disagree with what you just said.” I love this. Teachers live for this. Students are engaged in a very lively way with what they’re learning, and they generously share their ideas and opinions. I really love it.
What Her Students Say
“Professor Bojanowska was my favorite of all my professors my freshman year. I would get my graded essays returned to me with almost as much of her own text on it as mine. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I mean to say that she never was passive as a grader. I think that reflects how much she genuinely wanted to craft us into better writers and with how much passion she treated the art of writing.”
—Rutgers sophomore Grant Geary
“Professor Bojanowska’s well-rounded approach to teaching literature provided me with a solid background in Russian history and culture and allowed me to fully relate to the works we read in class. Her instruction on analysis and academic writing proved essential to my success as a college student. Her encouragement and support during office hours brought my academic writing to a new level.”
—Eliza Desind SAS’13
“Without a doubt, Professor Bojanowska was one of the best professors I had at Rutgers. I took several classes on Russian literature with her, and in each she showed how deep and full her knowledge is. From this alone I learned a great deal, but her positive attitude and genuine desire to help every student contributed just as much to her being a great professor. I frequently sent her long emails asking questions I had or making comments on what I had read, and she always responded in detail, encouraging me to continue asking questions and thinking about my ideas. I can honestly say that she has been an inspiration for me as someone pursuing Russian literature in graduate school.”
—Kyle Barry SAS’12