Blog – Andrew D. Kaufman https://andrewdkaufman.com Educator, Author, Innovator Sun, 30 Sep 2018 14:00:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 How Tolstoy Can Save Putin’s Soul https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/09/30/how-tolstoy-can-save-putins-soul/ https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/09/30/how-tolstoy-can-save-putins-soul/#respond Sun, 30 Sep 2018 14:00:01 +0000 https://andrewdkaufman.com/?p=438 [PICTURE OF PUTIN AND DOSTOEVSKY, OR JUST PUTIN] If only Putin preferred Dostoevsky over Tolstoy, the relationship between Russia and the West would be much kinder and more productive.   Two Competing Visions for Russia The drama being played out right now between Russia and the West isn’t merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of…

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[PICTURE OF PUTIN AND DOSTOEVSKY, OR JUST PUTIN]
If only Putin preferred Dostoevsky over Tolstoy, the relationship between Russia and the West would be much kinder and more productive.

 

Two Competing Visions for Russia

The drama being played out right now between Russia and the West isn’t merely geopolitical. It’s a deep-seated drama of the national soul that’s been around for centuries. And Russian literature is the place we see it in full flower. You see, the question Vladimir Putin is grappling with is the one that recurs throughout the 19th century Russian lassics: What is the source of our national greatness?

In approaching this question, Putin, whose two favorite writers happen to be Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, has two distinct traditions to choose from: Dostoevsky’s belief in Russian exceptionalism or Tolstoy’s belief in the universality of all human experience, regardless of one’s nationality, culture, or religion. Alas, he has chosen Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy.

Dostoevsky believed that Russia’s special mission in the world is to create a pan-Slavic Christian empire with Russia at its helm. This messianic vision stemmed from the fact that Dostoevsky thought Russia was the most spiritually developed of all the nations, a nation destined to unite and lead the others. Russia’s mission, he said in 1881, was “the general unification of all the people of all tribes of the great Aryan race.”

This sort of triumphalist thinking was anathema to Tolstoy, who believed that every nation had its own unique traditions, none better or worse than the others. Tolstoy was a patriot—he loved his people, as is so clearly demonstrated in War and Peace, for example—but he was not a nationalist. He believed in the unique genius and dignity of every culture. One of the hallmarks of his writing from the beginning was his capacity to uncover the full-blooded truth of each one of his characters, no matter their nationality.

In his Sevastopol Tales, which were inspired by his own experiences as a Russian soldier fighting against the combined forces of the Turks, French, and British in the Crimean War of the 1850’s—in the very region recently re-annexed by Russia—Tolstoy celebrates the humanity of all his characters, whether Russian, British, or French.

Unfortunately, amid all the spiritual turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians have tended to cling more to the starker, messianic vision of Dostoevsky than the calmer vision of universal humanity Tolstoy espoused, finding the latter perhaps a tad too democratic, humanistic, and soft for their hardened tastes. After all the tragedies of 20th century Russian history, and the humiliations of the past 20 years in particular, many ordinary Russians are seeking unequivocal proof of their national worthiness—indeed superiority—among the family of nations.

Putin and the People

It is precisely that contingent of the population that Putin plays to. He rarely quotes Tolstoy in his speeches, yet often quotes 20th century Russian messianic philosophers such as Solovyev, Berdyaev, and Ilyin, who were themselves influenced by Dostoevsky’s brand of nationalism, and took it to a whole new, sometimes virulent level. Putin has called the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people. In a television interview a few years ago he went so far as to say, “There are enough forces in the world that are afraid of our strength, our ‘massiveness,’ as one of our sovereigns said. So they seek to divide us into parts.” In a bellicose Federal assembly address in March, he assured his countrymen that this would never happen, promising that Russia has already tested a new generation of “invincible” nuclear weapons.

Since then, he’s softened his belligerent tone and adopted a more conciliatory, even at times pathetic, stance: Russia, his rhetoric now sometimes goes, is the unfortunate victim of a big misunderstanding, and, aw-shucks, if only everyone would please stop rushing to judgment and give them a chance, he could explain everything.

Listening to Putin speak these days, you’d hardly guess that it was 2018 and Russia is about to hold the largest military drills in almost four decades, continues to occupy Crimea and foment discord in eastern Ukraine, and that the Russian government has been shown to be behind the recent assassination attempt on Putin critic Sergei Skripal, or the meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, or a major online misinformation campaign about vaccinations. You’d think that it was 1941 and Hitler had just attacked; or even 1812 as Napoleon crossed the Nieman River to invade Russia. Both of these events remain firmly rooted in Russian national consciousness to this day, which is one reason why Putin’s xenophobic words find such resonance among the majority of the Russian public.

Fear of foreigners runs deep in Putin’s own blood. One of his brothers died of diphtheria during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II. His maternal grandmother was killed by the Germans in that war. And his maternal uncles disappeared at the front without a trace. Given Russia’s past and Putin’s biography, then, this perceived need to assert Russian superiority in a hostile world makes perfect sense.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace 

But genuine strength, as Tolstoy understood so well, comes from humility, not hubris. That is a central message not only of Sevastopol Tales, but of War and Peace, which memorializes Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812. If Putin draws on the trope of a country under siege in order to justify Russian bellicosity and his own tight grip on power, then Tolstoy uses that self-image to illustrate a very different point: Russia’s greatness, he believed, stems from the ability of its people to maintain their dignity in the face of aggression and keep a clear moral compass in even the very worst of times.

This is the sort of greatness exhibited by characters like the unnamed Russian soldier who, during the mayhem of the Moscow occupation, steps outside of his assigned duties to help a shopkeeper protect his store from looters; or of a teenage girl who insists that her family leave behind their possessions during the Moscow evacuation in order to make room in the carriages for wounded soldiers; or of a poor, elderly servant who gives a 25 ruble note of her own to a stranger who shows up at the doorstep saying he is a relative of the family she serves.

It is also the sort of greatness embodied in Russian Commander-in-Chief Kutuzov, who is beloved by his troops and compassionate toward his enemies, even refraining from attacking the wounded, departing French army, as some of his generals and members of the court urged him to do. It’s no coincidence that Nelson Mandela, who read War and Peace during his incarceration on Robben Island, would later call it his favorite novel, and single out Tolstoy’s Kutuzov as an exemplar of humane and effective leadership.

And then there’s Pierre Bezukhov, that big-hearted, bespectacled Russian count who at the beginning of the novel inherits the largest fortune in Russia. After that, he enters into a disastrous marriage, becomes a leading Freemason before growing disillusioned with its politics, botches his attempts to free the peasants on his estate, and eventually winds up as a French prisoner of war during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.

Just when he believes things can’t get any worse, Bezukhov is brought before a firing squad. Prepared to die, he discovers, miraculously, that he has been escorted there only as a witness. Still, the sight of the blind-folded factory worker being shot in the head (which Pierre well realizes might just as easily have been him) is enough to shatter every illusion he’s ever had about his own power, every ounce of his faith in “the world’s good order, in humanity’s and his own soul, and in God.”

Yet he survives, both physically and spiritually, and emerges from captivity neither cynical nor bitter, but with a redoubled commitment to the ideals of compassion and compromise he has always believed in. “‘I don’t say we should oppose this or that. We may be mistaken,’” he tells his wife after the war, upon returning from St. Petersburg, where Pierre has been trying to unite conservatives and liberals, who are at each other’s throats over the future direction of the country. “‘What I say is, let’s join hands with those who love the good, and let there be one banner—active virtue.’”

Why Putin Needs to Read Tolstoy

The only real inspiration Putin seems to have taken from War and Peace, unfortunately, is from neither Kutuzov nor Pierre Bezukhov, but from the character of Napoleon himself. The French emperor arrogantly imagines himself to be the ultimate geopolitical strategist, and never more so than when he achieves his long-awaited goal of conquering Moscow. But what did that victory cost him? Nine tenths of his army, for one thing, on the long, winter march out of Russia. For while enjoying their wartime booty in Moscow, Napoleon and his army were using up the very provisions they needed to get back to Europe. Tolstoy’s message—which seems to have been entirely lost on Putin—is that when we think we’re winning, we may in fact be losing, or even planting the seeds of our own destruction.

Putin’s conquest of Crimea and assassination attempts and online misinformation campaigns and meddling in the U.S. elections may seem to him right now like masterful strategic moves to re-establish Russian hegemony, but a few years or even months down the road it could well prove to be his country’s undoing. With his economy continuing to reel from the pressure of sanctions, Russia becoming more ostracized internationally, and the looming administrative and cultural challenges of reintegrating Crimea back into Russia, Putin’s Napoleonic gambit has already cost his country dearly—not just economically and politically, but spiritually, as well.

If Dostoevsky unintentionally laid the philosophical groundwork upon which Putin now stands, then Tolstoy offers the solution. He provides an alternative path that can lead Russia back to its own highest ideals, back to its deservedly proud place among the family nations. But that is the path of humility, not hubris. As Tolstoy writes in War and Peace: “There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, and truth.”

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Crime and Enlightenment: Important Lessons Teens Teach Me About Life https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/08/30/crime-enlightenment-important-lessons-teens-teach-life/ https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/08/30/crime-enlightenment-important-lessons-teens-teach-life/#respond Thu, 30 Aug 2018 14:25:55 +0000 https://andrewdkaufman.com/?p=315   The Inmate, the Student, and Tolstoy The gate closes behind me with an iron thud. I walk down the hallway, enter the classroom, and take my seat, flanked by the prison guard on my right, and on my left the chaplain and library administrators. Fifteen pairs of male eyes—wary, curious, bemused, intense—look at me…

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Crime and Enlightenment: Important Lessons Teens Teach Me About Life by @andrewdkaufman #Life #LifeLessons

The Inmate, the Student, and Tolstoy

The gate closes behind me with an iron thud. I walk down the hallway, enter the classroom, and take my seat, flanked by the prison guard on my right, and on my left the chaplain and library administrators. Fifteen pairs of male eyes—wary, curious, bemused, intense—look at me from above identical orange jumpsuits that hang off the men, loose and wrinkled, like plastic garbage bags.

The reality of the moment hits me. What could I possibly say about Tolstoy that will matter to these men? Here to teach a seminar on Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, to the inmates at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center, I quickly chuck the introductory lecture I’ve planned. Something different is needed, something more immediate—something more… Tolstoyan. But when nothing more ingenious comes to mind, I finally ask: “What did reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich mean to you?”

A moment of uncomfortable silence is followed by light shuffling and shifting in chairs. Then a young man in the back row tentatively raises his hand. “I had to come to this jail, you know, this situation,” he says, “to see what I did. But I learned something from this story I can use when I get out.”

Another man, around fifty, adds: “If we take this time for granted by not growing our relationship with God, we’re not going to be able to change our lives. It’s too late for Ivan, but it’s not too late for us.”

Now more hands shoot up. “People don’t think inmates can read or comprehend this,” says one prisoner. “But we can.”

“How you treat people,” says a man in his forties, “you know, how Ivan treated people as judge—that’s how he was gonna get treated as a patient.”

And another: “It speaks to me. See, we’re all gonna die, right? This just…this just speaks to human beings about real issues we’re all gonna deal with.”

In the course of this hour and a half session, I watch Tolstoy’s novella do precisely what great literature is meant to do: tear down the walls of race, class, and gender, piercing social stereotypes and ideologies of all stripes, and speaking to something profound, universal, felt by everyone in this prison classroom. The character of Ivan Ilyich, a careerist judge living in 1880’s Russia, could not be more removed socially, economically, and culturally from the world inhabited by the inmates at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center.

Yet his story struck a powerful chord in these men, inspiring them to open up to a stranger about bad decisions they’ve made, people they’ve hurt, opportunities they’ve squandered, or perhaps never had to begin with. It has reminded some of the friends and relatives they’ve watched die; encouraged others to see their world anew, to glimpse fresh possibilities for their future. For everyone in this room, though, it has made us feel a little more connected as human beings.

Crime and Enlightenment: Important Lessons Teens Teach Me About Life by @andrewdkaufman #Life #LifeLessons Crime and Enlightenment: Important Lessons Teens Teach Me About Life by @andrewdkaufman #Life #LifeLessons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Student is Me

In all my twenty years of teaching Russian literature, few classrooms have ever been more instructive than the one I experienced that day at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center. As thrilling as it was almost unsettling, that day’s experience would lead directly to the most important journey of my teaching career. What if, I wondered, I were to create a class in which my own undergraduate students were put into a prison environment? What if I were to give students at the University of Virginia, one of America’s most privileged universities, the opportunity to sit down side by side with young criminals their own age, and lead them in discussions about Russian literature?

“Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership” created that opportunity, where my undergraduate students now meet weekly with residents at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center and grapple alongside them with the fundamental question: How does one find purpose and meaning in life? The catalyst for that endeavor are short classical works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other Russian greats. Little did I know when I launched this course back in 2010 that the student who would end up learning the most would be…me.

That surely has had something to do with the fact that the teaching of the Books Behind Bars course has coincided with my own journey toward middle age— as well as toward fatherhood—an experience shared by a handful of the young inmates I work with in the program.

When I listen to committed teens less than half my age reflect on the prospect of never again playing with their toddler boy, of not being present at their daughter’s wedding, I feel these young men’s pain as if it were my own. I hear Mark*, a bright, animated eighteen-year-old with deep facial creases suggesting weariness well beyond his years, tell the harrowing tale of his violent crime committed as part of a gang initiation. I see the shame and sadness in his eyes as he describes what he did and explains how his father and siblings abandoned him after he was sentenced to the juvenile correctional center for attempted murder.

And I wonder…How would I respond if one day I were to receive the news that my son had done such a thing? For me, Mark’s story is the tale not of a young criminal, but of a son and his father—his entire family, really—unable to bear witness to the sins of one of their own, let alone accept responsibility for them.

Crime and Enlightenment: Important Lessons Teens Teach Me About Life by @andrewdkaufman #Life #LifeLessons

Where is My Sonya?

I met Mark a few summers ago, when, as an extension to the Books Behind Bars program, I spent seven weeks reading and discussing Crime and Punishment with a small group of these youth and a few UVA students. Mark and these young men devoured Dostoevsky’s novel with a passion and urgency I’ve rarely encountered as a teacher. Like so many of the other works we read, Crime and Punishment became a tool for them to confront their own most important questions: Who were they?; Why had they committed their crimes? Were they worthy of being loved?; How would they live their lives moving forward?

As I explored these and other questions with the teenage residents among my students, Crime and Punishment became a new book for me, as well, raising urgent personal and social questions I could no longer ignore. There’s something about discussing the world’s greatest novel of crime and redemption in a juvenile correctional center with a bunch of incarcerated teenagers that makes the book and the characters, well, come alive. Nowhere perhaps is the book’s spiritual center better illustrated than in the scene, two-thirds of the way through the novel, where the 20-year-old Raskolnikov confesses to the prostitute Sonya that it was he who murdered the old pawnbroker and her sister. Sonya listens in horror, yet without judgment, and then literally embraces him. Raskolnikov is shocked by her reaction:

“You’re so strange, Sonya—you embrace me and kiss me, when I’ve just told you about that. You’re forgetting yourself.”

“No one, no one in the whole world, is unhappier than you are now!” she exclaimed, as if in a frenzy, not hearing his remark, and suddenly burst into sobs, as if in hysterics.

Sonya then proceeds to assure Raskolnikov that she will stay by his side, even if he is sent to prison in Siberia, which eventually he is. One of the inmates, a guy with a flair for the histrionic, read this scene aloud, playing up its undeniable melodrama, so much so that we couldn’t resist a group chuckle. Still, its significance was not lost on any of us, least of all Mark.

“Where’s my Sonya?” he said quietly, after a prolonged silence. “You know? Where’s the person who’s gonna see the very worst of what I’ve done, and still love me?”

The residents were called back to their cells, and we never got to finish the conversation that day, but Mark’s question has stayed with me ever since: Where is his Sonya?, I wonder. Where is the person with a heart capacious enough to love him in spite of what he’s done, to embrace him in all his harrowing, complex humanity? You see, Mark’s question is Dostoevsky’s question—his challenge, really—to all of us.

It’s also a challenge that I confront personally every time I look in the mirror these days. Sure, there’s still a more or less vibrant 49-year old guy looking back at me, but he’s now got gray hairs on his temples, creases on his forehead, and darkening semi-circles underneath his eyes, especially after a poor night’s sleep. He’s someone who has had enough time to amass his share of mistakes and regrets, who has failed to live up to his own highest ideals. And I sometimes wonder: Can I love that person?

The correctional center residents have shown me that I can.

Crime and Enlightenment: Important Lessons Teens Teach Me About Life by @andrewdkaufman #Life #LifeLessons

Redemption Is Here, Now

I’ll never forget the day when Mark struggled to fight back tears while sharing a picture of his infant son who was born while he was in confinement. And I saw the fire of determination in Mark’s young eyes to fix what’s broken in his life, so that one day he may meet his son and hold him in his arms.

Nearly every one of these guys has been dealt a raw deal by life—being abused by their parents, growing up without parents at all, contending with extreme poverty, or by simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But what has amazed me is the consistency with which they take responsibility for their own mistakes, acknowledge the dysfunction in their lives, and desire to change it. Some of the guys I’ve worked with have made good on those intentions. They have been released and are now either gainfully employed or enrolled in college.

Above all, they have helped me to rediscover the wisdom contained in Tolstoy’s words: “Man is flowing. In him there are all possibilities: he was stupid, now he is clever; he was evil, now he is good, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man.”

 

*Mark is a pseudonym.

 

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Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/08/15/ten-russian-novels-read-better-human/ https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/08/15/ten-russian-novels-read-better-human/#respond Wed, 15 Aug 2018 16:37:54 +0000 https://andrewdkaufman.com/?p=361 As President Trump and Vladimir Put get chummy amid political turmoil at home, serious accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and a general sense of social malaise in both countries, Americans and Russians alike have a lot to think about these days. Both nations would do well to get beyond their ideological differences…

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As President Trump and Vladimir Put get chummy amid political turmoil at home, serious accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and a general sense of social malaise in both countries, Americans and Russians alike have a lot to think about these days.

Both nations would do well to get beyond their ideological differences and follow the example of generations of readers, who in troubled times have turned to Russian literary masterpieces for solace, insight, and inspiration. In fact, given the current state of the world, we all could benefit from following that example.

Russian Lit Classics 

All of these ten works of fiction below are acknowledged classics of Russian literature. With the possible exception of Ulitskaya’s The Funeral Party, published only recently, all of these books have stood the test of time. What they also have in common are great stories, artistic prowess and originality, and the capacity to engage readers in deep, personal reflection about life’s most important questions. These books will make you think and feel and grow as a human being.

“Read the best books first,” Henry David Thoreau once admonished, “or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

So, here they are, some of the best Russian books I suggest you read first:

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

Eugene Onegin (1833) by Alexander Pushkin
In this lesser-known masterpiece of Russian fiction, Alexander Pushkin combines an engrossing love story, an encyclopedia of early 19th-century Russian life, and one of the wittiest social satires ever penned. And he does so entirely in verse! At once playful and serious, ironic and passionate, this novel in verse is the starting point for most college survey classes on modern Russian literature, because in it Pushkin creates the template for nearly all of the themes, character types, and literary techniques that future Russian writers would build upon. It’s no accident that Pushkin is often dubbed the father of modern Russian literature, and Eugene Onegin is considered his most representative work.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

A Hero of Our Time (1840) by Mikhail Lermontov
Often referred to as Russia’s “first psychological novel,” A Hero of Our Time tells the tale of Pechorin, a young, charismatic, womanizing rebel without a cause, who has fascinated and disturbed readers for more than a century and a half. The novel consists of five interlinked stories that delve into Pechorin’s complex soul from multiple perspectives. The result is an unforgettable portrait of Russian literature’s first antihero, who leaves a wake of destruction in his path, even as he charms and fascinates characters and readers alike.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev
This deeply felt and poetic novel subtly captures the social and familial conflicts that were emerging in the early 1860s, a time of great social upheaval in Russia. The book set off a journalistic firestorm with its powerful portrayal of Bazarov, a steely-eyed and passionate young nihilist who is as recognizable today as he was in Turgenev’s time.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy
Often hailed by critics as the greatest novel ever written, this epic tale traces the fortunes of five aristocratic families living through Russia’s wars with Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century. War and Peace is many things: a love story, a family saga, and a war novel, yet at its core, it is a book about people trying to find their footing in a ruptured world and about humans trying to create a meaningful life for themselves in a country torn apart by war, social change, and spiritual confusion. At once an urgent moral compass and a celebration of the deep joy of living, Tolstoy’s epic is also the Russian classic for our time.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In this emotionally and philosophically intense story of patricide and family rivalry, Dostoevsky explores as deeply as any Russian writer has the themes of faith, evil, and meaning. The novel describes the different worldviews of the three Karamazov brothers—the monastic Alyosha, the sensual Dmitry, and the intellectual Ivan—as well as their lecherous father, whose mysterious murder and its investigation become the focal point of the riveting, final third of the novel.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

Doctor Zhivago (1959) by Boris Pasternak
Inspired by War and Peace, this historical novel tells the tale of a poet-physician Yuri Zhivago, who struggles to find his place, his profession, and his artistic voice amid the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. A masterpiece of evocative prose as beautiful as the Russian countryside it depicts, Doctor Zhivago takes readers on a journey of love, pain, and redemption through some of the harshest years of the 20th century.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

And Quiet Flows the Don (1959) by Mikhail Sholokhov
Often compared to War and Peace, this epic historical novel traces the fate of a typical Cossack family over a tumultuous 10-year period, from just before the beginning of World War I to the bloody civil war following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Early 20th-century Russian history comes alive in Sholokhov’s well-developed and relatable characters who must contend not only with a society under siege, but ill-fated romances, family feuds, and a secret past that still haunts the present.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

Life and Fate (1960) by Vasily Grossman
This sprawling epic does for mid-20th century Soviet society what War and Peace did for 19th century Russia: It interweaves the tale of an epochal event, the horrific siege of Stalingrad during World War II, with the private stories of characters from all layers of society whose lives are violently uprooted by the forces of war, terror, and Soviet totalitarianism.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
This short, harrowing, yet strangely hopeful masterpiece tells the story of a single day in the life of an ordinary Soviet labor camp inmate, of which there were tens of millions in the Soviet Union. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience as one of those prisoners, this book is authentic, full of rich detail, and devoid of sentimentality, which intensifies its powerful emotional impact.

 

Ten Russian Novels You Need To Read To Be a Better Human by @andrewdkaufman

The Funeral Party (2002) by Lyudmila Ulitskaya
This English-language debut of one of contemporary Russia’s most important novelists describes the bizarre and touching interactions among a colorful cast of Russian émigrés living in New York who attend the deathbed of Alik, a failed, but well-liked painter. At once quirky and trenchant, The Funeral Party explores two of the biggest “accursed questions” of Russian literature—How to live? How to die?—as they play out in a tiny, muggy Manhattan apartment in the early ’90s.

 

Have you read any of these already, and if not, which would you like to add to your bucket list? I look forward to hearing your thoughts below.

 

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Why Now Is The Time To Give War and Peace a Chance https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/07/25/now-is-the-time-to-give-war-and-peace-a-chance/ https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/07/25/now-is-the-time-to-give-war-and-peace-a-chance/#respond Thu, 26 Jul 2018 03:32:49 +0000 https://andrewdkaufman.com/?p=349   Summer, for many of us, offers a few of those long, unbroken stretches of time that, unlike the rest of our hurried, fragmented lives, positively cry out for a great big, abiding read. So perhaps this is the moment finally to tackle War and Peace. Widely acknowledged as the greatest novel ever written, War…

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Why Now Is The Time To Give War and Peace a Chance by @andrewdkaufman #Tolstoy

Summer, for many of us, offers a few of those long, unbroken stretches of time that, unlike the rest of our hurried, fragmented lives, positively cry out for a great big, abiding read. So perhaps this is the moment finally to tackle War and Peace. Widely acknowledged as the greatest novel ever written, War and Peace is also a perennial bestseller, with new editions appearing regularly, almost a century and a half after its first publication.

Here are just a few of the reasons Tolstoy’s epic continues to entertain, enlighten, and inspire readers of all ages and backgrounds, and why you, too, may want to consider putting it at the top of your summer reading list:

1. It’s a mirror of our time.

At its core War and Peace is a book about people trying to find their footing in a world being turned upside down by war, social and political change, and spiritual confusion. The existential angst of Tolstoy and his characters is entirely familiar to those of us living at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and his novel has important things to say to us in this moment.

Over and over again the book shows how moments of crisis can either shut us down or open us up, helping us to tap into our deepest reservoirs of strength and creativity.

2. It’s a riveting history lesson.

If you like history, you’ll love War and Peace, which depicts a transformative era in a way that continues to stir and enlighten readers. Tolstoy brings the past alive by taking you inside the forgotten little moments of everyday life that historians often overlook. He’s so successful, in fact, that many Soviet soldiers who were given sections of War and Peace to read in their barracks during World War II claimed to have been more moved by Tolstoy’s descriptions of the war than by the battle taking place before their very eyes.

And because of War and Peace, most Russians have regarded the war of 1812 and the famous, bloody battle of Borodino as a unique Russian victory. Tens of thousands of their countrymen were slaughtered at Borodino, but that battle happened to anticipate Napoleon’s fateful retreat from Moscow—a turn of events that would change the course of European history forever and that Tolstoy described as powerfully as any historian ever has.

3. It’ll help you understand Russia today.

If you want to understand why Russians today have such a complicated relationship with the West, read War and Peace. The novel’s description of Napoleon’s failed attempt to conquer Russia in 1812 would become a deeply ingrained cultural trope that future Russian leaders drew on to illustrate both their country’s greatness as well as her vulnerability to outsiders.

Putin is drawing on precisely that idea when he tries to convince his people that they’re under threat from the West, evening blaming the crisis in Ukraine on Western interference. But in War and Peace, there is also a message of universal humanity that transcends politics altogether. Tolstoy offers a model of patriotism free of nationalism that Putin would do well to heed.

4. It’s one of the wisest self-help books you will ever read.

War and Peace isn’t just a great novel. It’s also a guide to living. What Tolstoy offers is not so much a set of answers to life’s every situation as an attitude toward living. He invites us not to settle for the prescriptions of others, but to join him and his characters in their quest for deeper meaning, to keep asking the important questions and seeking out authentic experience on our own.

History, Tolstoy tells us, is what happens to us. Destiny is what we do with it.

5. It’s an engrossing read.

War and Peace revolutionized the modern novel, in part, by packing in more human experience than any other work of fiction had ever attempted. Henry James called Tolstoy “a monster harnessed to his great subject—all of life.” In 361 cinematic chapters of a few pages each, he moves seamlessly back and forth between ballrooms and battlefields, marriages and massacres, private lives and public spectacles.

You see, hear, and feel everything in Tolstoy’s world: glistening sunrises, whining cannonballs, exhilarating troika races, glorious births, brutal deaths, and everything in between. If a human being has ever experienced it, War and Peace depicts it.

6. You’ll get to know a lot of fascinating people.

Almost 600 of them, in fact. How often do you have the opportunity to meet that many people from so many different walks of life? Each one of them, even the minor ones, is utterly recognizable and fully alive. Nobody is all good or all bad in War and Peace, which is what makes these characters so real, so human. Even Napoleon himself, the closest thing to a villain in the novel, is, at least, interesting.

There are even a few moments when Tolstoy allows us to glimpse into his soul and feel his pain, as when Napoleon surveys the corpse-strewn battlefield of Borodino, only to realize the full extent of his cruelty, as well as his impotence. As a writer, Tolstoy follows his own injunction to “relate, portray, but do not judge,” and in so doing, he creates characters that live and breathe.

7. It’ll make you feel better about being alive.

This book chock full of moments of human brutality, of battlefields drenched in blood, also contains some of the most powerful moments of transcendent bliss you’ll encounter in world literature: Prince Andrei, seeing the gorgeous immensity of the universe for the first time while lying prostrate on the battlefield; or Natasha, when she dances and sings, as if nobody were watching; or Nikolai Rostov, immersing himself animal-like in the thrill of the wolf hunt.

“Man is flowing,” Tolstoy once wrote. “In him, there are all possibilities: he was stupid, now he is clever; he was evil, now he is good, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man.”

Why Now Is The Time To Give War and Peace a Chance by @andrewdkaufman #Tolstoy

The world, Tolstoy shows us in his greatest novel, is a mysterious place where things aren’t always what they seem, today’s tragedy often paving the way to tomorrow’s triumph. That’s the message that inspired an incarcerated Nelson Mandela, who called War and Peace his favorite novel, and it’s one that can comfort and inspire readers in our own troubled times.

 

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Changing How Juvenile Offenders See Themselves—One Book at a Time https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/07/13/changing-how-juvenile-offenders-see-themselves-one-book-at-a-time/ https://andrewdkaufman.com/2018/07/13/changing-how-juvenile-offenders-see-themselves-one-book-at-a-time/#respond Fri, 13 Jul 2018 05:06:35 +0000 https://andrewdkaufman.com/?p=378   Duane is an eloquent 19-year-old who enjoys discussing world history and Russian literature. He has taught himself to count in multiple foreign languages and hopes to be an ambassador someday. This is not your typical teen — or youth inmate. He immersed himself in liberal arts while serving a sentence at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional…

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Changing How Juvenile Offenders See Themselves—One Book at a Time via @andrewdkaufman

Duane is an eloquent 19-year-old who enjoys discussing world history and Russian literature. He has taught himself to count in multiple foreign languages and hopes to be an ambassador someday.

This is not your typical teen — or youth inmate. He immersed himself in liberal arts while serving a sentence at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Virginia. He plans to go to college, sharing with fellow residents at a Beaumont event that “this place is not the end for us.”

Rehabilitating Juvenile Offenders 

Duane is among a small group of juvenile offenders who, through works they’re studying, learn that they can change their life’s course. But Duane is rare among a very large population of committed youths, most of whom don’t believe that’s possible.

There were about 70,000 youths in corrections nationwide on any given day in 2010. The average yearly cost to rehabilitate one juvenile offender in 2008 was $66,000 to $ 88,000, according to statistics from the American Correctional Association and the Annie E. Casey Foundation report. This amounts to more than $4.6 billion per year, conservatively speaking, yet 75 percent of these offenders will be re-arrested within three years, and half or more convicted of a new offense. So whether our system is rehabilitating these youths is questionable at best.

In 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared ready to do something about it. They released a new set of guidelines for improving the education of incarcerated youths. “This announcement,” Holder said, “is born of the recognition that in this great country, children — and I mean all children — deserve equal access to a high-quality education. And this is no less true for children who are in the juvenile justice system.”

But what exactly this high-quality education was to consist of was far less clear from Holder’s and Duncan’s report, and four years later, their aspirations of transforming the lives of incarcerated youth remain unrealized.

Educating Juvenile Offenders 

Many committed youths receive vocational training and the opportunity to attend high school classes and earn their GEDs. But society has failed to expose these youths to educational experiences that would fundamentally change the way they think, act and feel about themselves, the world and their role in it.

I have witnessed such transformations over the past nine years while teaching an undergraduate course I created at the University of Virginia called “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership.” My students join correctional center residents in discussions related to classic works of Russian literature.

The questions at the heart of these conversations —

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • How should I live?

— are the ones teenage inmates most need to be thinking about. They need an education that doesn’t just teach them things but also transforms their worldview. Sadly, confinement in a secure facility can encourage them to become better criminals, not better people. Reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is helping to change that. And because this is part of a university class, it costs the Department of Juvenile Justice nothing.

Changing How Juvenile Offenders See Themselves—One Book at a Time via @andrewdkaufman

Data about this course being collected by a research team at U-Va. indicate that the vast majority of the residents taking the class have shown increased interest in attending college. At least two have enrolled in college.

Many of these youths said they weren’t taken seriously as students even before they arrived at Beaumont. No wonder many of them don’t trust their ability to succeed. They are, on average, more than two grades behind their non-incarcerated peers. But my U-Va. students treat them as peers who have something of value to contribute to conversations about literature and life.

Course residents report greater success with job interviews within the facility and more self-confidence about facing similar interviews once released. Some report better impulse control and more effective decision-making as a result of life lessons learned through reading and discussing the literature.

But perhaps most striking are residents’ accounts of how the course gives them a sense of freedom and personal worth. These feelings, often hard to come by in prison, prepare them for the transition to life beyond bars.

Life Beyond Bars 

At a celebration a few months before he was released, Duane described to a room full of Beaumont and U-Va. class participants what this experience meant to him.

This course “really opens up another window for us to look out of and a door for us to walk out of . . . we can be able to do something like this in the near future.”

Society should do everything it can to open new doors for young men to walk out of juvenile corrections and stay out. We can begin by offering them educational opportunities that change not just what they know, but how they think.

(This article was originally published as an op-ed in the Washington Post.For more on this program and Dr. Kaufman, see this most recent article in The Washington Post (July 2018). 

 

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