“If you want to be happy — be,” Leo Tolstoy wrote. And if students are inclined to explore Russian writers like him, Cal Poly’s Russian Literature club says, do!
What began as four friends’ late-night chats and sporadic meetings in the library blossomed into Cal Poly’s first Russian Literature Club.
Russia’s rich literary tradition and complicated identity resonated with theatre arts and accounting junior Caleb Winkleblech, inspiring him to establish a space for conversation. A focus on Russian literature distinguishes the group from an ordinary book club, Winkleblech said.
“None of us really knew that much about Russian lit when we started,” political science junior and club treasurer Sophie Moore said.
The club’s first meetings were random, if they happened to be at the same party on a weekend night.
”We would all convene in a bedroom for 20 minutes and just talk about Russian lit and our half-joking, half-serious ideas,” Moore said.
From a shared love of reading, fascination with Russian art’s nuances and these ideas, the Russian Literature club was born.
“I just relish the opportunity to talk to others about books,” Winkleblech said.
Winkleblech believes that making space for people to do something they like is a great way to cut up the monotony of classes and work, and gives him something to look forward to.
The club meets every other Wednesday on Zoom at 8 p.m. to talk about books by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, to name a few.
Currently, they are focused on Fydor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s common in Russian Literature Club to find professors, faculty and students alike lit up from within over discussion of metaphors and history of the literature.
Thoughtful, interesting new friends and a cut against the practical success culture of the polytechnic world are the prizes for joining Russian Literature Club, according to Cal Poly English professor Dr. Robert Inchausti. For more than 20 years, Inchausti has taught Russian Literature in translation at Cal Poly, and often provides his own contextual and historical insight to the club’s discussions.
“[Russian Literature sees] their writers as sages … even prophets. Meaning is not on the page, or on the screen, but something you must make up in your head,” Inchausti said. “And since we all experience life differently, it’s also open to discussion with multiple perspectives within the narrative itself.”
From Russia’s complex history of suffering and triumph comes profound conclusions about life, inspiring a niche specificity to the club that’s gathered a group of students and made discussions a blast, according to English junior Stephen Shoemaker. At first, it shocked Shoemaker that a club focused on literature would attract a majority of non-English majors.
“Students who want to talk about books can come from anywhere,” Shoemaker said.
For English majors like Shoemaker and senior Neha Kual, the club presents the unique chance to explore outside the bounds of Cal Poly’s English department’s focus on American and British literary tradition.
“I’ve always wanted to read authors like Nabokov and Dostroevsky,” Kaul said. “Russian literature has such a rich collection of classics.”
Meetings are full of lively discussion of themes, cultural impact and the context behind the story, with movie nights watching Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita to top it off, according to Kaul.
This club is an inclusive celebration of literature, according to Moore, where commitment to the hefty literature is rewards students of all fields of study with stimulating conversation about art and life’s biggest questions.
“I like how [Russian Literature Club] is pretty free form. We are basically just friends who read books together, but the fact that it is Russian lit specifically pushes me to choose things that I otherwise might not reach for,” Moore said.