Buckwheat and Caviar

April 6, 2015
Professor Yvonne Howell's new course focuses on sustainability in the context of Russian science and literature

By Anna Allen, '16

As part of the River City Sustainability Faculty Fellowships program, a program that aims to integrate sustainability across the curriculum, UR faculty members have been encouraged to create courses with the idea of sustainability and environmental protection in mind. The goal is to expose students to a variety of perspectives on the subject.

The founders of the initiative probably didn’t anticipate a course that would explore sustainability from halfway around the world. But that’s exactly what modern literatures and cultures professor Yvonne Howell, whose area of expertise is Russia, created with her First-Year Seminar Buckwheat and Caviar: The “Sustainable” Planet in Russian Science and Literature.

“Russia occupies one sixth of the earth’s landmass. That’s a lot of territory that potentially needs to be sustained,” Howell says. “I am primarily interested, both philosophically and scientifically, in how Russians have approached issues of the environment.”  

Exploring sustainability through science and literature allows Howell to share her expertise in with her students. “I decided we would talk about the Russian idea of sustainability, both in science and in literature. That enables me to talk about things I know a lot about — one is Russian literature and the other is the history of Soviet science,” she says.

As a basis of discussion about the philosophy and ethics of sustainability, the class read Doctor Zhivago, which opened a dialogue about the meaning of sustainability. “It’s not just about recycling,” Howell says. “If we say we’re concerned with sustainability that implies we have some idea about what we’re trying to sustain. Is it a completely natural environment? On the contrary, are we trying to sustain a lifestyle of some sort? Are we trying to sustain oceans, forests, global temperatures?”

“Russian novels tend to be about these rather fundamental philosophical issues of ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What do we care about?’ ‘What matters?’ And only when you’ve answered those questions can you talk about really what you’re trying to sustain,” says Howell. “Doctor Zhivago is full of these kind of spiritual, philosophical questions.”

In addition to reading Russian literature, the class is studying famous Russian scientists Vladimir Vernadsky and Nikolai Vavilov. “The two Russian scientists we study came up with some of the most important concepts that we use in the West today when we talk about sustainability,” says Howell. “Vernadsky was one of the key people to theorize the notion of what he called the noosphere, or the idea that through our human creativity and technology, we are changing the geological and biological systems of the planet.”

With the modern tendency shifting towards monoculture, biodiversity — an idea introduced by Vavilov — is becoming an important concept in sustainability.

“Vavilov developed essentially what we call today biodiversity — the idea that the survival of the planet depends on us having adequate diversity in available seed strains,” says Howell. “Unless you have a whole lot of other varieties available, you can potentially wipe out an entire food crop that millions of people depend upon.”

Howell says the toggle between Russian and Soviet cultural history and issues of biodiversity and global warming makes the course interesting to teach, and fun for students. “We’re learning a lot about another culture and a historical period and place that is often short-changed in the American curriculum,” she says. “But at the same time we’re constantly talking about issues that everyone in the class is aware of in their own personal experience.”

“We need to be aware of the different perspectives in other parts of the world,” says Howell. “I think this awareness helps us understand the larger picture, particularly when it comes to the environment.”