Russian spies as academic pursuit

While the government is embroiled in the Russian spy investigation, Cornell students are learning from firsthand accounts how spies operated in the Soviet Union in the new course Russian Spies and Statesmen in Their Own Words.

Lynne Ikach
Lynne Ikach

The focus of the course is to analyze autobiographies of Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Victor Cherkashin, and Oleg Kalugin. Putin’s readings are from extended interviews in Time magazine and Le Figaro, while the others are memoirs.

Professor of Russian Lynne Ikach developed the course to more broadly attract students interested in Russian culture. When a friend suggested a course on spies, she knew the topic would be of interest to many, but did not want to focus on spy novels. Instead, she chose to focus on the memoirs of spies and recent leaders in an effort to understand them from their own point of view.

“I realized the tell-all type of memoirs could be fascinating. We can look at how they are constructed, what form they take, and their purpose,” said Ikach, whose research interest for the past decade has included analyzing the diaries of Leo Tolstoy and his wife, Sophia.

The course, taught in English, has 21 students (out of a class cap of 25) with a mix of class years and majors.  As they read each memoir, the students are comparing and contrasting how each figure represents himself and his nation, how much of his activities he reveals, and what questions he leaves unanswered. One of the group projects involves students imagining and staging a conversation among the five Russians.