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Leaving Home: New Russian Literature

Posted on April 05, 2017

In literature and in life, leaving home is a powerful theme, which encompasses stories of exclusion and inclusion, hopeful visions dashed by harsh confrontations with reality, and challenging interactions between people with different experiences and backgrounds. At a time when immigration and migration are especially charged and urgent issues around the globe, we’re glad to present the new literature in the Russia unit, all related to the theme of “Leaving Home:” In each story of new places and perspectives, both characters and readers will need to newly negotiate assumptions, stereotypes, and prejudices.

Vladimir Vertlib’s “The Bed” opens with a dream:

I dreamed I was in America. America, my father said, is a melting pot, where everyone is melted down and becomes an equal part of the whole. There are no “guest workers” there, just immigrants. Suddenly I realize it’s not a dream but reality. I’m fourteen years old and really am in America, in New York, in Brighton Beach...

As the story continues, we learn about the narrator's Russian Jewish family, the long road they took to New York, and the community they found there. As the character navigates his new life, we also see the complexity of identity: even within a neighborhood composed almost entirely of Russian Jewish immigrants, there are vast differences between characters’ backgrounds, assumptions, values, and dreams. . . Resources in the Context and Playlist tabs for this story include dozens of other accounts of immigration and migration, as well as diverse approaches to the concepts of “America” and the “melting pot.” Teaching Ideas include “New Places: Myths and Realities,” which includes some connections to contemporary immigration, and “America and New Americans,” in which students closely read and analyze the different visions of Americans held by characters in the story.

In the short story “Pears from Gudauty,” by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a mother and daughter travel to the Caucasus for vacation and listen as a neighbor rattles off her long list of slurs about nearly all of the different groups in the region. In the Playlist for the story, you can find resources about all the ethnicities and nationalities the neighbor disparages; and in the Teaching Ideas tab, you can find suggestions for helping students distinguish stereotypes from reality.

An excerpt from Yuri Rytkheu’s A Dream in Polar Fog, set in 1910 Siberia, shows how ingrained prejudices about one another’s cultures influence the interactions of a Canadian explorer and the local Chukchi people. (Teaching Ideas for this story include “Misunderstandings and Stereotypes” and “Other Lands, Other Lives.”)

In “The Only True Guide to Russia: Hidden Secrets Revealed,” Ilia Kitup—himself an emigrant from Russia—presents 1990s Moscow to “everyone who has never been to Russia,” including fantastical stereotypes and alternative versions of the city. Teaching Ideas include a lesson on cities in graphic and prose literature, and activities to help students distinguish between “Truth, Rumor, Exaggeration, and Reality.”

We hope you enjoy this literature as much as we have. Stay tuned—there will be more literature in the “Leaving Home” theme for Russia, but first, we have some exciting new stories to add to the collection from Mexico!

How have you used literature from WWB Campus to discuss themes of immigration/migration, identity, and prejudice and stereotypes? We'd love to hear about your experiences and ideas.