Russian programme

This programme consists of two courses on Old Russian -- "Russian Historical Grammar" (Tijmen Pronk) and "Voices on Birchbark. Messages from Medieval Russia: Daily Life and Communication" (Jos Schaeken) -- and a double class on Russian literature: "How To Be an Alien -- From Tolstoy and Nabokov to Sinyavsky and Pelevin" (Lena Lubotsky). Please note that if you want to follow the course on Russian literature, you will need to sign up for both slots 3 and 4.

Time slot 1: Russian Historical Grammar (9.30 - 11.00)

Tijmen Pronk (Leiden)

Course description
This course will give an overview of the historical grammar of Russian and provide historical explanations for some of the most striking features of Russian grammar, such as the distinction between hard and soft consonants or the system of verbal aspect. It will cover the development of Russian from its Proto-Slavic roots to the present day language. The focus of the course will be on the development of Russian phonology and morphology.
Questions that will be addressed during the course include the following:

How does Russian differ from the other Slavic languages and how can these differences be explained historically?
Which aspects of Russian are relevant for the reconstruction of Proto-Slavic?
How can the development of Russian be traced in Old Russian and younger Russian texts?
How did Russian change over the last 200 years?
How did dialectal differences within Russian arise?

Basic knowledge of Russian is strongly recommended.

Time slot 2: Voices on Birchbark. Messages from Medieval Russia: Daily Life and Communication (11.30 - 13.00)

Jos Schaeken (Leiden)

General information
The famous corpus of birchbark documents gives us a direct insight into every-day life in Novgorod from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. The bulk of the texts consists of private letters from person(s) to person(s) dealing with the daily concerns of urban life: housekeeping, family matters, legal affairs, and, most of all, financial transactions and business in general.

A typical example of the many letters involving money is no. 246 (second quarter of the eleventh century):

"From Žirovit to Stojan. It is the ninth year since you swore on the Cross in my presence, but you haven’t sent me the money. If you don’t send me four and a half grivnas, I’ll have the property of the most distinguished Novgorodian confiscated on your account. Better send [the money] in a proper way."

An example of a letter on a more personal note is no. 43 (end of the fourteenth century):

"From Boris to Nastas’ja. As soon as this letter arrives, send me a man on a stallion, because I have a lot of work here. And send a shirt; I forgot a shirt."

Course description and goals
The master class offers an intensive introduction in the language, contents and context of birchbark documents. In the first class meetings, we will cover general topics: the historical and sociolinguistic situation of medieval Novgorod; the practical and philological aspects of writing on birchbark; the most salient Novgorod-Pskov linguistic features within the context of historical Slavic linguistics. In the second half of the week, we will read and analyse a selection of birchbark documents, mainly on the basis of the commentaries in Zaliznjak’s fundamental Drevnenovgorodskij dialekt.


  • basic reading knowledge of modern Russian
  • basic knowledge of historical Slavic linguistics
Course materials
Photographs, drawings, transcriptions, and Russian translations of the birchbark letters. Online available online here.
A.A. Zaliznjak, Drevnenovgorodskij dialekt, Moscow, 2004 (2nd edition). Also available here (under "biblioteka"). 

Time slot 3 + 4: Master Class Russian Literature: How To Be an Alien -- From Tolstoy and Nabokov to Sinyavsky and Pelevin (14.00 - 15.30 + 16.00 - 17.30)

Lena Lubotsky (Leiden)

Course description
During the course we will be reading the work of very different artists, written in different times and even in different countries. All these writings share the same theme, however -- their protagonist is surrounded by the wall of incomprehension, incomprehension either by the outside world, or by his direct surrounding, or by his friends, or by his own family.

The participants should read the texts (which can be downloaded from here) in advance. In class we'll be concerned with interpreting the texts.