Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Two Swarthmore students were recently recognized by the National Post-Secondary Russian Essay Contest, administered by the American Council of Teachers of Russian. Abigail Graber ’08 received an Honorable Mention in Level 3 and Peter Holm ’07 received Third Place in Level 4. According to Holm, the contest was divided into four levels for non-native Russian speakers and three or four levels for native speakers.
This year’s prompt was to write an essay to a famous historical or present-day Russian. Because he had been reading “quite a few period poems and plays in praise of Peter the Great” that semester, Holm chose to write his letter to the famous Tsar congratulating him on his victory at the battle of Poltava in 1709. Graber, on the other hand, addressed hers to President Vladimir Putin. She began with flattery, but then continued on to chastize him “in halting Russian” about his oil policy and “shifty stance on democracy.”
Russian is a distinct section within the Modern Language and Literature Department with two full-time faculty members, Sibelan Forrester and Michael Pesenson, and one part-time professor, Kim Fedchak. Forrester appreciates the Russian section, despite its small size, both for its students and faculty. Says Forrester, “I love teaching here partly because the students are so good, and partly because I have such interesting, active and intelligent colleagues.” Graber suggested that the apparent weakness of the section — its size — is actually a strength. The professors are both enthusiastic and understanding and encourage discussion-based classes.
For Graber, the Russian section has become a close community and has helped build strong friendships. Holm reiterated Forrester and Graber’s sentiments, asserting how wonderful the section is. He began studying the Russian language in his sophomore year and “instantly fell in love with the language, literature, and cluture.” The section, in collaboration with Russian history courses offered, has been able to inspire a deep love for all things Russian in students such as Holm and Graber. Both have studied abroad in St. Petersburg, with Holm braving minus twenty degree celcius temperatures in January to further his Russian education.
A Russian major does exist at Swarthmore, but currently only five sophomores have declared Russian as their major or minor. For those interested in Russian literature rather than the language itself, the section offers Russian literature in translation courses. Professor Pesenson offered a Russian Novel course which attained a massive enrollment of around fourty four students last semester. Holm wholeheartedly encouraged “everybody at Swarthmore” to take a literature in translation course because “you cannot beat reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and all the other wonderful Russian writers.” He did warn all potentially effected by the siren song of the language and literature that “Russian has a way of sucking you in deeper than you thought possible.”