Many of the Gender and Sexuality Studies courses Davidson offers challenge how students think about the world around them, but the Queer Russia class is one of the few that focuses specifically on gender and sexuality in other countries. Both aspects of the interdisciplinary course are highly relevant to the political and cultural discussions happening in the world today: “Queer” for the adjacent debate regarding who should be allowed to say the former slur, and “Russia” for the surrounding questions about human rights and suspicious election activity.
According to the course’s professor, Roman Utkin, Queer Russia aims to “challenge stereotypical ideas of Russia” and “examine an alternative cultural history.” A similar version of the course that combined Gender and Sexuality Studies with Russian Studies had been offered in the past by Utkin’s predecessor, Dr. Irina Erman.
The diversity of thought present in the course was evident at the symposium this past Saturday, “Queer Russia: Gender, Sexuality, & Race,” during which nine scholars of the field presented lectures on topics of queer law, queer canon, and queer media in Russia. Sponsored by the Russian Studies Department, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, Dean Rusk International Studies Program, and the Williamson Endowment, the symposium lasted for eight hours, culminating in a viewing of the film A Day in the Life of … (dir. Olga Privolnova, Alina Rudnitskaia, and Kristina Kvitko, 2014), a documentary about how the anti-gay laws affect the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ Russians.
Friday night opened with a keynote address from journalist, author, and activist Masha Gessen, who asked, “Why the gays?” The symposium certainly attempted to unpack complex questions and concepts in a short amount of time. Professors from Middlebury College, the University of Pennsylvania, Williams College, and more attended the event.
Utkin expressed hope that the symposium would give students “a taste of what it’s like to be an academic and to expand knowledge past the syllabus.” It was also an equally enriching experience for the visiting speakers, many of whom had not met or spoken to one another before. Professor of Slavic and East European Languages & Cultures at Ohio State University Jennifer Suchland remarked that they “don’t ever really get to have this sort of intense discussion.”
Utkin characterized the symposium’s guests as being “leaders in what they do, each in different disciplines and in different stages of their careers.” In the intimate setting of the Carolina Inn, students diligently took notes as terms such as “universalizing,” “heteronationalism,” “queer temporality,” and “Skoptsy” flew across the room. Whether or not they were phased by this onslaught of information, everyone in the room seemed to hang on to each new word. Some students even posed questions of their own to the panel, such as Rosalind Major ’18, who inquired, “Why did most Russian poets who were canonized refer to queerness in a Western sense?”
For the students in Queer Russia, both the course and the symposium offer unique opportunities for intellectual growth. For those who are from Russia, like Evgeniia Mikhailova, a second-year visiting student, the class reveals a different side to a culture they thought they were familiar with.
Mikhailova reflected, “The readings are very effective. I’d read the canonical works of these authors, but some of the works we’re reading now [are ones] I’d never heard of.”
Other students find the course equally engaging and challenging because it intersects with several different disciplines and tackles international topics. Sarah Heffner ’21 appreciated its accessibility, in spite of how niche it is: “A lot of people from different areas of study can find it interesting and can [make use of] it.”
Ryland Pitts ’20 also enjoyed how the symposium demonstrated the versatility of the topic, noting that it “was not just focused on Russia, but also its spheres of influence”: political, global, economic, etc.
The course’s interdisciplinary nature was evident at the symposium as Aleksandr Kondakov discussed anti-gay legislation’s influence on hate crimes, Polina Barskova reflected on traditional and contemporary queer Russian poetry, and Julie Cassiday analyzed queer performativity in film. As Daisy Jones ’19 summarized, Queer Russia, by nature, is about “people coming from the different departments and research of English/literature, gender and sexuality studies, and Russian society and culture, and I think the symposium mimicked that.”
In short, Queer Russia provides students with the opportunity to reevaluate their worldviews, to expand their knowledge of little-known topics, to challenge dominant narratives, and to take an interdisciplinary approach to their learning.