Guarini Institute Welcomes Professors Angela Brintlinger and Paul Robert Magocsi  

The Guarini Institute for Public Affairs was pleased to recently host two events involving Slavic culture. The book presentations — moderated by Guarini Institute Director, Federigo Argentieri — featured the work of two prominent North American scholars, Professor Angela Brintlinger and Historian Paul Robert Magocsi, who came in person to engage with the John Cabot community.  

Angela Brintlinger and Why We (Still) Need Russian Literature 
The first event, held on May 24, was the presentation of a book from Bloomsbury’s Russian Shorts series, Why We (Still) Need Russian Literature (2024), by Dr. Angela Brintlinger of Ohio State University, a member of the Guarini Institute’s Advisory Council. Brintlinger joined JCU Professors Stephanie Richards and Alessandra Grego for an engaging exchange on the relevance of Russian classics today and why reading great literature in general is fundamental to any good education.  

Angela Brintlinger
Angela Brintlinger

Although conceived earlier than the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, not as a response to it, Brintlinger’s Why We (Still) Need Russian Literature was published almost simultaneously with her appearance on Russia’s recent travel ban list. The geopolitical situation clearly complicates the reception of such a work, she noted, and described the blacklisting as one of the most ironic moments of her 30-year career as a Russian culture and literature specialist. She explained it within the context of the authoritarian history of Russia as both common and illogical, based mostly on paranoia. She spoke with feeling about the likelihood of never being able to return to a country whose culture she has dedicated her career to understanding and teaching, the sympathy she has for Ukrainians, and an urgent wish for an end to the conflict.  

Russian Classics 
The discussion of the book began with comments by Professor Richards about the overall intentions and achievements of the book. She praised Brintlinger’s attempt to address the common question of why we need the humanities in such a short volume about some of the most iconic Russian writers — Aleksandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov — who each have hundreds of books and articles dedicated to their oeuvres. Professor Richards summarized the highlights of each chapter and questions ensued.  

The issue of relatability was addressed both by Professor Richards and Professor Grego, the former asking how important it is to relate to characters and situations in literature. It seemed to her that Brintlinger suggested that it is sometimes the point to take oneself out of a familiar situation and into something very different from one’s own reality. Professor Grego posited that perhaps reading in translation actually assists readers because they can accept more easily that they might not understand everything on the page. Brintlinger responded by commenting on the advantage of spending more time with a piece if it is less relatable and how it requires a different level of engagement, which generally produces positive effects in readers.  

Paul Robert Magocsi
Paul Robert Magocsi

Certainly, the Russian classics are known for dealing with what Russians call “the eternal questions,” i.e., life and death, crime and punishment, war and peace, love and happiness, family and generational change, which are the most relatable themes in the world. Much of the discussion revolved around just how good these four authors were at writing about them, and led members of the audience to question why certain authors were more popular than others in the West (Mikhail Lermontov, for example, is read less). Brintlinger pointed out that writers who are primarily poets are generally less read outside of Russia, and also commented on translation and its effects on wider reception.  

Paul Robert Magocsi and the Massacre of Babyn Yar 
Historian Paul Robert Magocsi of the University of Toronto joined the JCU community for the second event on June 4. Magocsi is the co-editor and co-author of two books, the first of which came out in conjunction with the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the tragedy of Babyn Yar, where over 33,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis. The first, written with Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, was Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence (University of Toronto Press, 2016), an overview of Jews and Ukrainians aimed at a general public. The second, co-edited with Vladislav Hrynevych Sr., was titled Babyn Yar: History and Memory (University of Toronto Press, 2023). The volume addresses the “Holocaust by Bullets” that occurred in Kyïv in 1941 in various articles and memory pieces and is in some ways an attempt to reappropriate what Soviet propaganda had distorted for many years.  

The publication of both books was supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable nonprofit organization, established in 2008 with the goal of strengthening mutual comprehension and solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews. Magocsi is a UJE board member. 

Paul Robert Magocsi book presentation
Paul Robert Magocsi book presentation

JCU President Franco Pavoncello welcomed the guests and spoke on the importance of understanding the Jewish presence in Central and Eastern Europe’s cultural development and of remembering the tragedy of Babyn Yar. After Director Argentieri invited Magocsi to say a few words about the books, a lively discussion ensued, with many questions from the audience as well. The first question, posed by Guarini Institute advisor Amy Rosenthal, was about the subtitle of the first book. She questioned the word coexistence, as in her understanding the relationship might better be described as conflictual. Magocsi insisted on acknowledging that Jews have lived on Ukrainian territory for two millennia, but whether we go back thousands of years or to the 15-17th century when there was a real Jewish presence in medieval Kievan Rus’, there is clearly more coexistence than conflict (only 18-20 years out of 450, according to his calculations). 

Jewish and Ukrainian Coexistence 
The idea of coexistence was an undercurrent throughout the Q&A session, with distinguished Ukrainian studies Professor Giovanna Brogi providing the example of the marketplace as an apt illustration, and pointing out that in 17th century literature, for example, one finds a general xenophobia, not specifically anti-Jewish sentiments. Magocsi mentioned that, in fact, real conflict usually came from outside factors; for example, the enemy of the Haidamaks in the 18th century, and even of the earlier Khmelnytsky uprising, were the Catholic Polish ruling class.  

The idea of coexistence surfaced again in response to Sapienza University of Rome Professor Olena Ponomareva’s question about antisemitism in Ukraine today. Magocsi mentioned the unimportance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish heritage when he was democratically elected in a landslide in 2019. He also scoffed at the believability of Russia’s early disinformation campaigns about antisemitism in Ukraine as a basis for the current conflict. Nataliya Kudryk, a journalist at Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, along with writer Massimiliano Di Pasquale, lamented the spread of disinformation here in Italy as well.  

Naturally, attention was paid to the current conflict, but mostly in terms of Ukrainian national identity, which Magocsi noted was a relatively new focus for ethnic Ukrainians. He spoke of one of the few positives of Soviet culture being the de-emphasis of ethnic differences. Although, as Luigi Sergio Germani (Director of The Gino Germani Institute) pointed out, Soviet leaders such as Nikita Kruschev and Mikhail Gorbachev had institutionalized antisemitism, Magocsi clarified that it was equal opportunity repression at the time. 

The event ended with a catered reception where conversations continued to take place.  

Watch the recording of Paul Robert Magocsi talk.

(Rori Sebach)