Reviews and Comments on The Russian Context

Click to view readers’ comments.

Reviewed in Russian Life, Jan-Feb 2003

The Russian Context
Eloise M. Boyle & Genevra Gerhart, eds., Slavica, $49.95

The long-awaited re-issue of Genevra Gerhart’s The Russian’s World by Slavica came with the added good news of the publication of this companion volume.

The study of a language is much more than memorizing words and grammatical rules. Mastering it requires understanding the cultural significance of terms and realities which are unique to native speakers of the language—what might be called “cultural intelligence.” The Russian’s World fleshes out the topography of Russian cultural intelligence, providing an invaluable reference on everything from holidays to first names to numbers and superstitions. The Russian Context takes us below the surface by providing copious examples of poetry, song, literature, images and more (and putting recordings of many examples and some images on an included CD). And, like Russian’s World, it is well indexed, both in English and in Russian.

For a Russophile, this can be a very dangerous book. You enter it in search of information on Shukshin, find it quickly, but are then distracted to read a lengthy article on Soviet film, then skim to the section on proverbs and try memorizing some of them... The next thing you know 45 minutes has passed.

Nonetheless, no Russophile’s reference shelf is complete without this book. Let’s hope it stays in print for some time to come.

Reviewed in ACTR Letter  (Newsletter of the American Council of Teachers of Russian), Volume 29, Number 3 (Spring 2003)
by Aimee Roebuck-Johnson at NASA

Eloise M. Boyle and Genevra Gerhart, eds., The Russian Context: The Culture behind the Language. First Edition. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, July 2002, 726 p. + CD-ROM disk (ISBN 00-89357-287-X), paper, $49.95. LC 2002002613.

The Russian Context is the result of a Herculean effort on the part of its contributors and editors.

The stated intent in the foreword is to “provide the kind of  ‘general knowledge’ that informs the use of the language and the perception of the outside world on the part of any native speaker…. The ability to comprehend what one reads or hears requires a knowledge not just of the language, but of cultural referents called forth by various words and phrases…. [t]his volume is ultimately concerned with a language and its mutual interactions with culture…. [t]he way that language itself has become part of the cultural fabric,…”.

Even though the book is a compiled work from various authors, there is a certain connectedness to the various topics. Sometimes the connection is a literary quotation, a line from a song. For example, in the Quoting Russian poetry section, Alexander Blok’s verse “Scythians” is quoted, which is expected as the section is about literary works. However, in the Russia’s History section, the author uses the same verse to describe ancient people who lived in modern-day Ukraine. These types of repetitions create a sort of thread that draws the various elements of culture together for the reader. Another example of this mixture of fields is the reference to Valentin Serov’s painting Peter I in the section describing the tsar in Russia’s History and then Serov’s inclusion in the Art and the Language of Russian Culture. This type of  “threading” allows the reader to see how knowledge of various disciplines is considered normal for a Russian, regardless of his education or profession. Titles and names are listed in both English and Russian. Dates of birth and death for all figures are listed.

The CD-Rom allows for searches of certain words, which is nice when you can’t remember the whole quotation.

Part One

A Framework for the Russian Context: Russia's History (William J. Comer)

Giving the highlights of Russian history is no easy task. This chapter contains jokes, proverbs, quotes, references to original sources. Quotes from War and Peace that illuminate the period when nobles were heavily in debt. Included on the CD-Rom are poems read in Russian that illustrate the period for Russians; there are also recordings of Stalin and Lenin reading speeches at key times in Soviet history. The author gives lists of major periods, as divided by Russian historians. Professions that led to last names, much like Smith in English, are listed. Images include photographs, post cards, engravings, paintings. Other informative lists include: lists of civilian ranks and their military counterparts, the differences between Old Belief and Reformed Orthodoxy, and definitions of military terms. Slavophiles, Westernizers, The People’s Will—all major philosophical movements that shaped Russian identity and are debated to this day—are detailed in the context of their time period. Through the coup of 1991, events and people of history are covered. Although this 12-year gap could be criticized, it’s most likely, given the ultimate goal of the text, that the author intended to elaborate on the moments and figures of history that form a kind of unspoken canon for the educated Russian person. Given the complexity of the past 12 years in Russia, the final verdict is probably still out for many Russians on how to view the changes that have happened.

Part Two

Contexts in Language. Literature. Quoting Russian Poetry (Valentina Zaitseva)
This section contains short biographical notes on major poets and quotes lines from their works that most educated Russians are likely to know, even though they may not know which work the quotes come from. A very nice addition of the author to the quoted works is the description of which social situations would trigger the quote from a Russian person. As with the previous section, this section includes paintings, photos, drawings, as well as literary anecdotes.

Contexts in Language. Literature. Quoting Russian Prose (Valentina Zaitseva)
Well-known characters from Russian literature are described, both in their literary context, as well as the modern references that advertisements, newspaper headlines and quotes, and jokes have made to them. A wide range of authors and works are listed, many with photographs or drawings, and the significance of most authors is mentioned. Major works of literature familiar to educated Russians are summarized and recognized quotes are mentioned. The last authors to be mentioned are Solzhenitsyn and the Brothers Strugatsky and the author concedes that "enormous changes...have had a profound effect on the publishing life of Russia.... It is too soon to tell how many other authors and works...may lose their place...and which ones will regain their position in calmer times."

Contexts in Language. Children's Literature (Robert Rothstein and Halina Weiss)
The material in this section is possibly the most difficult of all for a learner of the language, usually at a university, to obtain, since Russians receive it, store it and rarely share it explicitly with any foreign adult. This base of knowledge, gained as children from family or teachers, is almost never an element of a university education. With this topic, especially, the recordings on the CD are invaluable. The author has included summaries of stories with excerpts, details about the authors and main characters. Particularly interesting is a list of world literature familiar to the educated native speaker.

Contexts in Language. Proverbs (Olga T. Yokoyama)
Proverbs are given in the context of how they are used in speech and how Russians perceive them. The author describes how proverbs express ideas and show connectedness between the speaker and the listener, calling them “haiku with a philosophical message”. The wordplay of rhythm patterns and its connection to grammar is described. Proverbs from various periods/eras of Russian history are divided into three groups, depending on the level of difficulty for those outside the Russian culture to understand. There is also a group of proverbs that are common in English with no Russian equivalent.

Part Three

Contexts of Spectacle. Theater in Language (Eloise M. Boyle)
The variety of theater in Russia, as well as the history of theater are described. Important figures in theater and theaters, including contemporary ones, are shown in pictures, photos and descriptions. The author gives examples of major plays, both Russian and foreign, and their characters, along with quotations from important plays. At the end of the chapter, terms used in connection with the theater are listed.

Contexts of Spectacle. Music and Dance (Thomas J. Garza)
In the beginning of the chapter, the author gives a short course in music theory terminology. The names of orchestral and folk instruments and parts of a theater along with their drawings. Secular, folk and church music in various periods of Russian history are included. Well-known musicians, composers, musical works, dancers and choreographers are listed in English and Russian and shown, in many cases, in photographs. The author covers opera in a few paragraphs and then transitions into contemporary popular music. This section includes famous songs from various genres, including folk, romance, classic “old”, war, Soviet. Famous singers and bards are listed with their most famous creations. Children’s music (lullabies and birthday songs) is included along with national anthems and holiday music.

Contexts of Spectacle. Art and the Language of Russian Culture (James D. West), with Appendix (Michael Ivanov)
The author treats works of art as symbols of Russian culture, often repeated in contemporary or popular images, such as editorial cartoons. He describes such images as “visual grammar”, representing more than words or images alone. The connection between works of art and contemporary culture in the mind of the educated Russian is explored. The author shares images and faces of art that Russians recognize in any context. The author of the appendix offers words and expressions associated with art and its styles.

Contexts of Spectacle. Popular Entertainment (Ludmila Pruner)
Famous films and the most well-recognized studios, film festivals, directors and actors are listed and described. Terms commonly-used when speaking about films are offered in context. Each decade is listed with the types of films that were most common, as perceived by Russians. Quotes used in everyday speech, as English speakers quote Monty Python, are given for the reader. Television programs for adults and children, popular advertisements, comedy formats and the circus are described in detail, focusing the reader’s attention on the base that Russians share. Especially valuable is the list of recommended films for students of Russian.

Part Four

Contexts in Reality. Geography (Genevra Gerhart)
Physical divisions of Russia of various kinds are described and illustrated by maps in the text and on the CD-Rom . The information is current, including a list of the 21 present republics. In the post-Soviet period, it has been of particular importance to keep abreast of the name changes in Russian geography, which the author lists separately; she also provides the names of people from a city: from Omsk—îìè÷è, and so on. Virtual tours of Moscow and St. Petersburg are available on the CD-Rom. Extra features, such as songs about certain regions, add interest to the factual information about geography. Information about all the regions of Russia is useful for those readers who cannot travel to every part of Russia; the overview will help them get a sense of the Russian’s perception of his own country: what is the Russian’s Mississippi? Where does he consider the breadbasket of Russia to be? With regard to how people of the Caucasus region or Ukraine are viewed, the author describes what ideas Russians have about these southern people. History is throughout this section and of interest is the list of famous explorers for Russians, both their own and foreign.

Contexts in Reality. Government and Language (Lawrence Mansour)
For the student of Russian culture and politics, this shorthand description of Russian political parties, of branches and structures of government and their spheres of influence, of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, of the president’s role and authority, and of the military is invaluable. Besides short, coherent descriptions with Russian terminology glossed, this section details the everyday elements of a soldier’s life (including a recording of marching commands) and levels of ranks. Of particular interest to students traveling to and living in Russia are sections on: kinds of identification for civilians (what Russians use instead of their driver’s license for identification?); how Russian government classifies marriages, daycare and divorces; and how living arrangements, specifically registration, are managed in Russia today.

Contexts in Reality. Science as Language (Olga T. Yokoyama), with Appendix (Alexander Prokhorov)
This author focuses not only on scientific language, which is clearly useful for those in scientific fields dealing with Russians, but on its inclusion into the everyday speech of educated Russians whose backgrounds and education are not scientific. She describes, in general terms, the kind of courses that public school education covers for Russians and the kinds of prefixes, suffixes, and roots such Russians recognize easily; such a description is of interest for American educators. For linguists and philologists, as well as the general reader, the author describes the process of either calquing, borrowing or introducing scientific words into Russian, making suggestions about how to sleuth out the meaning of words based on their morphology. This section, like the others, contains quotations from literature and anecdotes that show how science-specific jargon makes itself a part of layman’s language. One informative quote in the section is connected with Russian humor and how difficult it is for the student of Russian to understand:
It is not surprising that from the point of view of many Americans, ‘Russian humor’ is notoriously unfunny: a good deal of it involves untranslatable linguostylistic play…deeply rooted in cultural and historical associations carried by Russian vocabulary.

1. A Note on Transliteration
2. Geographical Designations
3. Periodical Titles
4. Finding Russian Content on the Internet
5. Using the CD-ROM
6. Bibliography
7. About the Authors


Index of First or Famous Lines
Russian Index
English Index

All words in Russian are bolded and stress is marked, both of which aid the student of Russian language in his attempt to internalize the language so spontaneous to the native speaker.

Reviewed in Rusistika 28, Autumn, 2003
by Andrew Jameson, Chair, Russian Committee, Association for Language Learning UK, and Reviews Editor at Rusistika, the UK journal for Russian teachers

The Russian Context: The Culture behind the Language
Eloise M Boyle and Genevra Gerhart, eds.
Slavica, Bloomington, 2002. 726 pp., illus., appendices, bibliog., index, CD-Rom.
ISBN 0-89357-287-X (pbk) $49.95

This encyclopaedic work, which follows on from Genevra Gerhart’s The Russian’s World (reviewed in Rusistika 21), attempts to present a statement of the contextual information all Russian native speakers know, and which Western students of Russian do not know, and therefore lack when setting out to use Russian in the Russian situation. And it is not just a statement - the book is planned as a didacticised learning experience, which, if you read it carefully, will give you, the English learner of Russian, the necessary context that you lack. There is no pretence that you will learn more than a fraction of the average Russian’s contextual knowledge, but you will learn about many obvious events and references, in English and Russian, in history, literature (including children’s literature), proverbs, the arts and popular entertainment, geography, government and science. The Russian terms appear in bold in the English explanatory text. The book is described as for the serious student of Russian, but few British Russianists would be so bold as to say they already know everything in this volume. The accompanying CD-Rom contains the text of the book PLUS clickable full colour illustrations and sound clips as indicated in the margins. The Russian Context scores highly on literary references; offers an illuminating article on the “packaging” of proverbs; has a detailed section on music and painting; and a useful article on film quotes, potentially a very large subject. And for the understanding of much of modern newspaper content, the section Government and Language is essential with its explanation of the structures of the legislature, executive and judiciary, the “power agencies” and local governmental services. The final section on Scientific Language includes such interesting topics as how scientific terms have penetrated everyday speech, and the formation of terminology, as well as an introduction to some basic terms in physics, chemistry and biology. As in the case of The Russian’s World, every Russian department should have a copy of this book.

Reviewed in SEEJ, vol 47, No 1, p 147
by Arna Bronstein and Aleksa Fleszar, University of New Hampshire

The Russian Context: The Culture behind the Language
Eloise M. Boyle and Genevra Gerhart, eds.
Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2002. 726 pp. + CD-Rom. $49.95

The editors, Eloise M. Boyle and Genevra Gerhart, successfully tackle a Herculean task, that is, to give non-native speakers of Russian the cultural context of the rich language which educated Russians possess. Cultural context gives any language its depth; without this knowledge, a speaker can use a given language competently, but he/she will, at best, miss the cultural richness of a particular expression, and, in the worse case, misinterpret the speaker's intention. The editors, in the preface, explain that they "looked for the information most educated Russians have about their world, and their attitudes toward it. What emerged is common knowledge, that is, the knowledge about the world expected of an educated Russian - a linguistic definition that applies both to the people and the culture in which they live" (vii). The editors successfully accomplished their goal and offer us a truly remarkable work that will be invaluable to educators and students alike: a cultural competency handbook and reference.

The text is a series of essays on a wide range of topics, e.g., history, the arts, geography, government, and science; the authors of the essays are experts in their fields, and their ability to give their audience as much information as possible within the context of this text is commendable. The amount of information contained in this book is remarkable, and we know of no other text which compares. The editors state in the Preface: [T]his book is an approximation: sometimes more information than is necessary is presentented, sometimes less... There will be omissions of truth and commissions of error": (viii). They need not apologize to educators and students of Russian, since they have given the field a valuable source of information.

Where else would one find not only information about a famous painting (e.g., Repin's work "Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan on November 16, 1581"), an image of that painting (some in the text, many on the CD-Rom included), and then examples of how that painting is used as a backdrop for humor and irony in the current press? Where can one read a selection of well-known (to native Russian speakers) quotations from classical Russian literature and see examples used in current speech and in the press, e.g., "Vyp'em s goria. Gde zhe kruzhka?" Proverbs (e.g. "Volka boiatsia - v les ne khodit".) are explained in terms of their origins and their connections to Russian culture, then shown in their current usage. Boyle and Gerhart list proverbs by topic (historical and modern) with English equivalents (if they exist) and any differences between the two languages. This section alone could be used as a text for an entire course. Boyle and Gerhart also discuss literary figures, and they include portraits (as well as photographs of more modern writers) which help to bring each artist alive to a non-native speaker of Russian (e.g., Esenin with Isadora Duncan, 1922).

Boyle and Gerhart blend art together with history to show how each influenced the other, and how both are intertwined in the mind of native speakers. All historical periods, figures, concepts, locations, titles, movements, and quotations are given in the original Russian and translated into English, starting with such relatively simple equivalents as Thaw [ottepel'], to an explanation of "SEV". This will be quite helpful for faculty when teaching history/culture/literature in the original and for students when discussion is in Russian.

In their discussion of literature, Boyle and Gerhart offer many examples of the practice of using well-known literary quotations in current marketing and advertising, which gives the reader invaluable insight into modern Russia and its daily culture. Literature is divided into three sections: poetry, prose, and children's literature (which includes folklore, pre-revolutionary, Soviet, and World Literature). In addition, theater, music and dance, art, and popular entertainment (film, television variety shows, and stand-up comedy) are included. Each section provides some history of the given art form and discusses its place in modern Russia from Mussorgsky to Grebenshchikov, from Petipa to Baryshnikov, from Eisenstein to Mikhalkov and to "Pole chudes."

The essay on "government and language" contains the Russian for all major political leaders, for the various branches and bodies of government, and for current political parties. Governmental agencies, the branches of the government, the armed forces (including ranks and basic commands in Russian), the highway patrol, and the court system are also included. All of this information can be especially useful as educational institutions implement the concept of language across the curriculum and interdisciplinary and cultuiral studies.

The inclusion of "science as language" is particularly interesting as it is a topic rarely, if ever, included in a discussion on language and culture. This essay is based on word formation, which aids in language-building skills that students must incorporate. Some information on the etymology of certain scientific words is provided and an interesting discussion follows on how their use and role have changed with time. The Appendices include useful information on many topics, including transliteration, geographical designations, a list of periodicals, internet links, and a good bibliography. An index of first and famous lines is also quite useful. The CD-Rom (included with the book) is an important component of the text as it includes paintings/portraits (in color on the CD), maps for the geography essay, and an extensive audio component including excerpts from the literature and music sections as well as the voices of Lenin and Stalin. It helps the reader to become more intimately acqainted with icons (both positive and negative) of Russian and Soviet culture. The CD worked with no problems on the Macintosh operating system, although one folder was empty.

Very few errors or omissions were noted, although the Russian subject index is listed as the English subject index. There is also scant information about Socialist Realist art, still an important segment of Russian culture and society since several generations were educated under the Soviet system. This does not, however, detract from the text as a whole.

Although the price may be daunting, we recommend that students purchase this text when they begin their study of Russian; they will use it each and every semester. As Barry Scherr states in his Foreword, "whether examined casually or studied intensively, The Russian Context will guide each person toward a deeper understanding of the language and the culture" (vi). We recommend this text as a "must have" for Russian programs in English-speaking countries.

Click to view readers’ comments.