Bradley Gorski, a doctoral candidate in Columbia’s Department of Slavic Languages, has devoted the majority of his time at Columbia to the study of Russian literature in the wake of Soviet collapse in order to understand how culture responds to institutional upheaval. Post-Soviet literature, says Gorski, formed as a set of reactions to perceived inadequacies in the literary system. “This is true for all of the institutions around literature—new publishers, prizes, distribution networks, bookstores—but it’s also true for literature as a set of aesthetic forms and practices.”
To investigate this phenomenon, Gorski has focused his dissertation on the idea of success as it pertains to prominent post-Soviet authors. “Success can mean a lot of different things,” he explains. “For some people it means popular success, while for other people it’s the prestige of winning prizes, or a deeply committed audience, even if that audience is not big.” Gorski argues that the pursuit of literary success, and the various paths taken to achieve it, has not only established the building blocks for post-Soviet literary institutions, but also has shaped literary trends. He supports this hypothesis through an analysis of four contemporary Russian authors—Boris Akunin, Olga Slavnikova, Aleksei Ivanov, and Vera Polozkova—and their ideas of what it means to be successful, as well as the unique paths they followed to achieve literary prominence.
In his research, Gorski has remained hands on—spending as much time as possible in Russia in order to experience the literary world firsthand, and interviewing many contemporary Russian authors. In the spring of 2012, during his first year at Columbia, he even managed to convince the Harriman Institute to bring the award-winning Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin to teach a four-week mini-course at Columbia. The endeavor, which took quite a bit of persuading on Gorski’s part—“people kept telling me no, and I kept asking until someone said yes”—resulted in the founding of the Harriman Institute’s student-led Writers-in-Residence program (since then the Institute has hosted Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai and post-Yugoslav writer Dubravka Ugrešić). When Shishkin came to Columbia in the spring of 2013, the first English-language translation of his work, the 2005 novel Maidenhair, had just been published by Open Letter. In addition to teaching a four-part seminar to Columbia students, he gave a public reading of the novel together with his translator, Marian Schwartz. “It was a blast,” says Gorski, who interviewed Shishkin for the inaugural issue of Harriman Magazine in 2013. “Authors are fun, they always prove to be interesting creatures.”
The Shishkin project was Gorski’s first interaction with the Harriman Institute. “Since then, almost everything I’ve done has been sponsored by HI,” he says. Not only has he received Harriman fellowships to fund his research abroad, but he has also been able to bring scholars to Columbia for conferences and events. Most recently, in late February 2017, Gorski co-organized a conference on post-humanism in Slavic studies. “Posthumanism tries to dislocate the center of subjectivity from inside the human perspective and to think about the ways that other nonhuman matter can become more than just objects that we perceive—that objects can influence us and each other,” says Gorski. He became interested in the topic largely as the result of his study of the novelist Aleksei Ivanov, who frequently employs posthuman ideas in his work. The conference brought together both junior scholars, and some of the top scholars in the field. “It’s been an amazing opportunity,” says Gorski.
As he wraps up his dissertation, Gorski continues to amass new projects and interests. Currently, he is exploring the field of digital humanities—the incorporation of digital tools into humanities research. This year, he became digital humanities project manager for Professor Valentina Izmirlieva’s new teaching and research initiative, Black Sea Networks. He designed and maintains the initiative’s website, and is now working on a digital study of the etymological evolution of fruit and vegetable names in the Black Sea region.
*Photograph by Kate Lyn Seidel