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The Scorched and Depleted Earth: Terrestrial Decadence in Fin-de-siècle Russia



Collen McQuillen (University of Illinois)


Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 3:09pm


Pigott Hall 260-216



The Scorched and Depleted Earth: Terrestrial Decadence in Fin-de-siècle Russia

In Russia at the turn of the last century, prominent social thinkers, scientists, and even prose writers expressed their deep concern over changes in the country’s weather patterns: specifically, the increasing frequency of punishing heat waves and droughts was compromising Russian agriculture across the steppe. The famine of 1891-92, which followed a widespread drought in southern Russia, affected 30–40 million people and killed as many as 650,000 people living primarily in rural areas (Kelly 2016: 824). The severity of this humanitarian crisis motivated writers to chronicle the devastation, while scientists and social thinkers began to investigate its causes. Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Fëdorov, Vladimir Korolenko, Vladimir Solov’ëv, and Lev Tolstoy were among the members of the cultural class who wrote about the natural disaster, thereby joining Russian men of science and politicians who debated whether human or natural forces were to blame for the famine. While Chekhov and Tolstoy focused their attention on the social causes and costs of starvation, Fëdorov, Korolenko, and Solov’ëv wrote primarily about the drought as an environmental problem larger than humans, one rooted in the earth’s decline. This talk will focus on the latter responses and examine the discourses of terrestrial decadence elaborated by Fëdorov, Korolenko, and Solov’ëv, and their position in the debate about decline being anthropogenic, autogenic, or both.
Colleen McQuillen is an associate professor in the Slavic and Baltic Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In August 2019, she will join the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California as an associate professor. Her primary field of specialization is Russian modernism with a focus on Silver-Age literature and culture.  She is the author of The Modernist Masquerade: Stylizing Life, Literature, and Costumes in Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013) and she is currently at work on a second monograph entitled Ecologies of Modernism.