Visualizing Russia’s Kaleidoscopic History

Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world, covering more than ten million square miles and spanning 11 time zones. With its immense size and varied landscapes it’s a nation known not only by its unique beauty, but also for its storied history.

Joan Neuberger, professor of history, takes readers on a journey through Russian history–from the ancient Kiev period (860-1240) to contemporary post-soviet society (1991-present)–in “Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture” (Yale University Press, 2008).

The book, edited by Neuberger and Valerie Kivelson, professor of history at the University of Michigan, covers the entire sweep of Russian history. Through a tapestry of more than 100 visual resources, including icon paintings, popular prints, news and art photographs, folk art, films and advertisements, the book provides a comprehensive account of Russian people and their culture.

Filled with essays from a wide range of renowned scholars, the mixed-media book illuminates the complexities of how Russians visually represented themselves through various forms of images, such as paintings, portraits and wartime posters, and how they used these images to exert or overturn social and political power.

Neuberger is the author of “Hooliganism: Crime, Culture and Power in St. Petersburg, 1900-1914” and “Ivan the Terrible: The Film Companion.” She co-authored “Europe and the Making of Modernity, 1815-1914” and co-edited “Imitations of Life: Two Centuries of Melodrama in Russia.”

Learn more about the sights and sounds of Russia at the university’s annual Russia Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. , Feb. 21. The event, sponsored by the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, offers “immersion experience” in Russia’s culture, language, traditions and history. Local area high schools, as well as schools from other Texas cities are invited to participate. All presentations are conducted by volunteer faculty members and graduate and undergraduate students.

Interview with a Vampire Expert

Fans of the “Twilight” vampire/romance series by Stephanie Meyer don’t have long to wait for their next Edward fix. The film based on The New York Times bestselling books opens this Friday, Nov. 21.

Since the release of the concluding book in the saga, “Breaking Dawn,” vampire expert Thomas Garza, chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the university, has been helping the media make sense of the series’ appeal.

We asked Dr. Garza a few questions to help readers decode the popularity of the vampire. Keep reading to learn why the legend of the vampire has never died.

What’s the story behind the popularity of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series?

My impression from the first volume is that these are quite well written novels of slight complexity, but quite good characterizations, especially for younger readers. They are, by Meyer’s own admission, based on larger literary tropes from the great Western canon, such as Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet”), Emily Bronte (“Wuthering Heights”) and Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice”), so they capitalize on known successful literary “recipes.” They are certainly harmless and are quite reasonable reads, especially for the pre-teen set.

How do modern incarnations of vampires (such as Meyer’s) differ from historical depictions?

Historically, the basic rule is: A vampire is a creature that takes its sustenance from another living creature, and in doing so, weakens or kills it. Everything else is literary and historic license. True, most of the trappings of vampire stories have their roots in historic fact: garlic, wolfbane and other herbs were used to cover the smell of a decomposing corpse (thus the undead would not like these…). In many cultures, heretics were considered to be vampires after death, hence the repulsion to crosses; a “soul-less” creature like the undead would neither cast a shadow, nor be reflected in a mirror.

Fangs come about only after the vampire bat is discovered in the New World. More traditionally, a vampire bite would simply be animalistic, getting through the flesh to the blood, so retractable fangs seem to me to be a bit of a Hollywood stretch (i.e., it looks good on film!). My only qualm with the recent spate of new novels and films is that the vampire backstories are very uncharacteristically “western,” rather than having a more invested “global” history, involving Asia, Africa, and then Europe. In this regard, Anne Rice does a very good job.

Why are Americans in particular so fascinated by the concept of the vampire at this point in our history?

At the base of the romance with the vampire is an essential question of life and death: What happens to us after we die? And, crucially, is there any way to cheat death? We love to think of extending our youthful love of life for all eternity, and that’s precisely what the modern vampire is all about. Indeed, since Tod Browning’s 1931 “Dracula,” not only is the vampire immortal, s/he’s suave, sophisticated, attractive and — very importantly — foreign! Bela Lugosi starts the trend picked up by Christopher Lee, Raul Julia, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to make the vampire both romantic and attractive. After all, what better way to take a victim over to the dark side than through seduction!

What does the legend of the vampire reveal about Slavic history and culture?

There are many Slavic historical documents that focus on the origins of the vampire story, beginning as early as 1047. From literature, though, classic Russian vampire stories from the 19th-century, like Gogol’s “Viy,” Turgenev’s “Phantoms,” AK Tolstoy’s “The Family of the Vurdalak,” and 20th-century works such as Pelevin’s “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia,” and Lukyanenko’s “Night Watch” trilogy show the longevity of the subject in the literature. There are also many non-Slavic “revisitings” of the original stories, like Stoker’s “Dracula” (based on the Vlad ‘Tepes’ Dracula of Romania), and Rice’s “Vampire Armand” (based on a Kievan vampire story).

Why are you as a scholar so fascinated by the legend of the vampire?

After visiting the Transylvanian ruins of Castle Dracula in 1989 as a Foreign Service Language Supervisor, I was genuinely affected by the place and the story of Vlad Tepes. My childhood fascination with Dracula now had a historical base and I decided then to read as much as I could find on the subject. Since then, I created the “Vampire in Slavic Cultures” course to try to get students interested in our region and to see the intricate connections between religion, history, culture, literature and film in telling this amazing story in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Professor Garza is chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREEES). He has served as an expert consultant for the History Channel’s docudrama “Vampire Secrets,” HBO’s vampire documentary “True Bloodlines,” and the feature film “30 Days of Night.” Learn more in the story “Vampires Never Die.