University of Rochester Professor Kathleen Parthé's book exploring the impact of literature on Russian politics and national identity is one of only two works in Slavic Studies named to the annual list of Outstanding Academic Titles compiled by Choice, a publication of the American Library Association. The prestigious list, called the "Best of the Best," contains only 10 percent of the 6,600 works Choice reviews each year, with selections based on criteria that include overall excellence, importance in the field, originality, distinction as a first treatment of the subject, and value to undergraduate students.
Parthé's book, Russia's Dangerous Texts: Politics Between the Lines (Yale University Press, 2005) is the first book since the collapse of the Soviet Union to re-evaluate Russian literary history. Looking at 150 years of literature under Communist and, before that, czarist regimes, Parthé examines 10 commonly held beliefs that have defined written works and the reading public in Russia. Though Russians are believed to read more than other national groups, for example, she cites famous authors' complaints about a lack of serious readers and references to "junk reading." While encouraged to avoid the state, some writers, she points out, sought contact with the czar and, in the 1930s, with Stalin, believing they could influence the powerful with their words.
Literary publication was a major national event, Parthé notes, and readers acquired books to gauge the feelings of their fellow citizens. In Soviet times, some texts passed the censors and reached millions of people through sanctioned publication; other works were copied privately and passed around in secret. At the same time, works by writers like Tolstoy from Russia's 19th century "Golden Age of Literature" continued to be available and widely read.
Parthé explores changes in Russian literary tradition since the collapse of the Soviet Union—for example, writers now are subject to prosecution for obscenity or support of neo-fascism rather than opposition to authority—and she considers whether the Russian national character, formed by its literary tradition, will now change.
Russia's Dangerous Texts is being translated into Russian and is scheduled to be published by St. Petersburg University Press next year. Parthé is professor of Russian and director of Russian Studies at the University of Rochester, where she has been teaching courses in Russian national identity and cultural history since 1986. She has served on the Advisory Council for the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies and as vice president of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages. Parthé is the author of Russian Village Prose and worked on a six-year study of Russian national identity at the invitation of James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, which resulted in the national report, available online, "The Search for a New Russian National Identity."