Take 5: Vladimir Alexandrov, scholar of Russian literature and culture

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Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer. Any opinions shared are not necessarily those of YaleNews.

Vladimir Alexandrov, the B.E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, grew up in New York City in a Russian émigré family and has been teaching courses on Russian literature and culture at Yale since 1986. His research and teaching subjects include 19th- and 20th-century Russian prose; Tolstoy; Nabokov; Russian émigré literature and culture between the wars; cultural and literary theory; and Russian and American relations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. He is the author of “The Black Russian” (see below), which was shortlisted for the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize in the United Kingdom and won the Yale MacMillan Center Gustav Ranis International Book Prize.

What scholarly/research project are you working on now?

A biography of Boris Savinkov (1879-1925), the Russian terrorist, revolutionary, political activist, and writer who fought the tsar, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks because he saw both the Old Regime and the new Soviet state as equally tyrannical. Savinkov’s life was as full of incredible twists and turns as the most imaginative thriller. Today he’s hardly remembered in the English-speaking world, but he was famous 90 years ago, and Winston Churchill, who was much impressed by Savinkov, included an admiring memoir of him in his book “Great Contemporaries.”

What is your most treasured classroom memory — either as a student or a teacher?

I regularly teach the big, famous novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It’s a pleasure to see Yale undergraduates embrace these works and be transformed by their beauty, power, and wisdom.

What would people find surprising about you?

One thing, probably, is that I wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology, I decided that although I’d learned enough about the natural world to suit my needs, I didn’t understand myself or other people. My solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities. This helped, and the quest continues.

Another thing is that I recently co-authored a musical called “The Black Russian,” which is based on my book of the same name.  This is a biography of the remarkable Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872-1928), the son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a multi-millionaire entrepreneur in tsarist Moscow and the “Sultan of Jazz” in Constantinople. A one-man version of the musical will be staged in New York this winter or spring.  After that, who knows?  Perhaps it will grow into a full-fledged version.

What person, living or dead, would you like to spend a day with?

Rather than someone famous — the subject of my biography, “The Black Russian.” Frederick Thomas was entirely forgotten before I came across him, quite by accident, when preparing to teach a graduate seminar on Russian émigré culture between the wars. I researched his life in libraries and archives in half a dozen countries, and I’d like to see how accurately I captured him.

What are you reading for pleasure?

Switching between two books: the first volume of Stephen Kotkin’s monumental new biography of the evil genius Joseph Stalin, “Paradoxes of Power (1878-1928),” and Hilary Mantel’s fascinating but problematically narrated historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, “Wolf Hall,” which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize a few years ago.

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