Russian Literature Takes U.Va. Professor, Students on Journey of Self-Discovery

November 17, 2011

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:

November 21, 2011 — Andrew Kaufman was introduced to Leo Tolstoy's novels 20 years ago as an undergraduate. "It was not love at first read," said the Slavic languages and literature lecturer in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences. "'War and Peace' felt daunting. But I read on."

Although Tolstoy wrote in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia, Kaufman recognized that they shared some of the same struggles with social and spiritual questions.

"What struck me was not only his incredible capacity to describe life as it truly happens, but also the way he engages life's questions through very identifiable characters," Kaufman said. "Each time I come back to him at various periods in my life, he's a new writer, a different writer and he speaks to me in different ways. Great writers can do that."

In his new book, "Understanding Tolstoy," published this fall by the Ohio State University Press, Kaufman introduces Tolstoy as a writer, thinker and man on a spiritual quest. He recreates Tolstoy's personal and artistic journey, instead of deconstructing it. He draws parallels between the different periods of crisis in Tolstoy's life, in Russian society and in his characters.

The book has just been accepted for the 2012 Virginia Festival of the Book, to be held March 21-25.

Kaufman said his goal for the book also is to help "readers grapple with some of the social and spiritual questions of our time. Can people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives in a fragmented world share a belief in any unifying ideal? What is the role of faith and spirituality in an increasingly advanced society? How can people come together to form deeper bonds? How do you raise a family?"

These universal questions of humanity and how society navigates a changing world are the same questions Tolstoy asks, Kaufman said.

"Anna Karenina" was written in "the period after the Great Reforms of Alexander II as Russia transitioned from an agrarian to capitalist society," Kaufman said.

Tolstoy's theme of family relationships runs through his work. He was living in a time when Russia was experiencing a feminist revolution and families were breaking up, Kaufman said. "He was troubled by this new value system."

War is another theme that fascinated and perplexed Tolstoy. "He had a complicated relationship with war," Kaufman said. "He understood natural violence and aggression, but he continually asked if there is a way beyond war, some way to achieve universal harmony."

A forthcoming book, tentatively titled "Give 'War and Peace' a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times," to be published by Free Press/Simon and Schuster in 2013, is partly in response to the recent financial crisis and the resulting crisis of faith, Kaufman said. "'War and Peace' is a book about a society going through a rupture and characters attempting to find their footing in unsettled times. But 'War and Peace' is ultimately about the endless cycles of crisis and harmony, life and death. For despite all the ruptures and challenges, Tolstoy believed that life is good, meaningful and worth living," he said.

"In the end, Tolstoy offers not so much answers as an attitude: He encourages us to open ourselves fully to experience, to seek out authentic personal and communal values in a world where that is sometimes hard to do," Kaufman said. "What he compels us to do is to keep asking the questions."

"Understanding Tolstoy," and a new teaching project, grew out of Kaufman's visit a few years ago to teach a prison workshop in Virginia Beach. The workshop was part of the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read Project and the chosen book was Tolstoy's novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

After being subjected to numerous security checks and sequestered during a prison lockdown as a fight broke out between two inmates, Kaufman found himself dressed in his tailored suit facing 15 men in identical orange jumpsuits staring at him. "Suddenly, I realized the normal modes of teaching weren't going to work," he said.

On the spot, he scrapped his traditional lecture-and-discussion mode of teaching and decided to have a "conversation about what the story meant to them."

"It was one of the most transformative teaching experiences I have ever had," Kaufman said. "We had a deep personal conversation about life through Russian literature."

He asked himself why the experience had been so powerful, and concluded that talking about Tolstoy in an unfamiliar environment opened him to "new experiences and understanding about the story." He then asked himself how he could bring that same experience to his U.Va. students.

In 2009 he launched an academic community engagement course, "Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership," for U.Va. undergraduates to help make humanities relevant by engaging the students through experiential learning.

As part of the curriculum, he took 15 students to the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Powhatan County, where they led sessions with incarcerated youth, talking about Russian literature.

In that environment, "discussions about freedom, social alienation, finding one's place in the world become more than academic debates," Kaufman said. "Students discover in an immediate way that these are real issues with significant consequences for people's lives."

The readings and discussions help the inmates explore what it means to lead a successful and meaningful life.

"Students know they are affecting people's lives and that their education is contributing to social change," Kaufman said.

He said he knows of at least one former Beaumont inmate who is now attending community college.

Kaufman continues to teach the course each spring, and is working to involve graduate students and offer additional sections. A research component through the Curry School of Education's Youth-Nex Center, of which Kaufman is a research affiliate, studies the impact of "Books Behind Bars" on the University students and correctional facility residents.

Kaufman and a student from the course also co-wrote and published an article about the class in Inside Higher Ed, and Ken Bain, author of the best-selling "What the Best College Teachers Do," has invited Kaufman to speak about Books Behind Bars at his Best Teachers Summer Institute.

Kaufman also brings experiential learning to the classroom for students enrolled in his more traditional courses, which have included "Tycoons, Tyrants and Tortured Souls in Russian Literature," "The Search for Self in Russian Literature," "Chekhov's Theater," "The Russian Short Story," and a fourth-year Russian language course.

Performing a Chekhov play in Russian, keeping journals and writing reflective essays about their own learning experience are some of the assignments Kaufman gives. Students also undertake team projects, which have resulted in a movie comparing the culture of alienation in 19th-century Russia and today, and a photography exhibit that explores themes in poet Mikhail Lermontov's work.

The approach is experiential, but also analytical, Kaufman said. It empowers students to honor their own journey, to come to personal conclusions and to identify for themselves what they value.

"The humanities in the end are about human beings," he said. "It's important to let students know that their experiences, their quest is critical to their understanding and analysis of the literature."

— By Jane Ford
— By Jane Ford






Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations