Tag Archive for Russian Department

Battle for the Future: Smolkin-Rothrock on the Spiritual Life of Soviet Atheism

(Story contributed by Jim H. Smith)

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Its official name was the Century 21 Exhibition, but it was better known as the Seattle World Fair, and it seemed to be an unambiguous statement about America’s aspirations for its future. Boasting a futuristic monorail and an iconic Space Needle whose elevators were piloted by female attendants wearing excessive blue eye shadow and costumes out of a Hollywood sci-fi feature, it came to hold totemic significance for a nation whose philosophical differences with the Soviet Union were being sorted out against the majestic backdrop of outer space.

One of the first visitors to the 1962 fair was Soviet cosmonaut German Titov, the second Soviet man in space after Yuri Gagarin, the youngest spaceman (a record that stands to this day), and the first to orbit the Earth repeatedly. In his homeland Titov was nothing less than a demi-God.

During a news conference in Seattle, Titov was asked whether his adventures in the cosmos had altered his worldview. “Up to our first orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin no God helped build our rocket,” said the cosmonaut, who perceived the subtext of the question. “The rocket was made by our people. I don’t believe in God. I believe in man, his strength, his possibilities and his reason.”

It was, says Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European studies, a statement that bespoke the essence of the Soviet Union’s long, strange struggle to supplant traditional religions throughout the empire with “scientific atheism.” If it provoked an outcry across America, well, that was Titov’s intent.

During the 1960s, as Smolkin-Rothrock notes, Titov and his fellow cosmonauts “were the public face of Communism on the world stage, and their triumphs and charisma put forward a confident image of a Communist state that could solve all problems and answer all questions, material and spiritual.”

On Oct. 18, Smolkin-Rothrock delivered this year’s prestigious Sherman Emerging Scholar Lecture at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Her address, which began with the Titov story, offered an analysis of Communism’s little-known efforts to manage the collective spiritual life of the Soviet people.

Smolkin-Rothrock Delivers Lecture on Soviet Atheism

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European studies, tutor in the College of Social Studies, delivered the Sherman Emerging Scholar Lecture titled “A Sacred Space: The Spiritual Life of Soviet Atheism” Oct. 18 at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

Paul Townsend, chairman of the History Department at N.C. Wilmington, said Smolkin-Rothrock was chosen because her work “explored the connections between art, culture and history.”

A native of Ukraine, Smolkin-Rothrock studied at Sarah Lawrence College and received her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. She has published articles on “scientific atheism” and the Soviet space program.

 More information on her talk appeared in the Oct. 15 StarNews. Read more about Smolkin-Rothrock in this December 2010 Wesleyan Connection article.

Meyer Participates in Russian Paper’s 100th Anniversary

Priscilla Meyer, professor of Russian language and literature, chair of the Russian Department, professor of Russian and Eastern European studies, presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Valery (Lawrence) Wainberg, editor of the oldest Russian-language newspaper in the United States, The New Russian Word. Meyer participated in the 100th anniversary of the newspaper's existence and the 21st anniversary of the founding of the Russian division of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). The celebration took place at the Park Avenue synagogue in New York in June.

Meyer Author of Russian, French Literature Book

Meyer book

Priscilla Meyer, professor of Russian language and literature, is the author of How the Russians Read the French: Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, published in January 2009 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

In How the Russians Read the French, Meyer shows how Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lev Tolstoy engaged with French literature and culture to define their own positions as Russian writers with specifically Russian aesthetics and moral values. Rejecting French sensationalism and what they perceived as a lack of spirituality among Westerners, these three writers created moral and philosophical works of art that answered French decadence and “desacralization” with countertexts drawn from Russian literature and the Gospels.

Meyer argues that each of these great Russian authors takes the French tradition as a thesis, proposes his own antithesis, and creates in his novel a genuinely Russian synthesis rather than an imitation of Western models.