Ludmila Shtern, scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and published author, presented her new book Return to the Old New World at the WSRC early in November. The book is currently in manuscript in Russian and is sitting on the desk of a Russian publisher in Moscow. The volume summarizes Shtern’s observations of the changes that have taken place in Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union. She has collected a number of stories and experiences spanning from 1990-2010, during which period she has been to Russia twelve times.
Shtern was born in Leningrad in the Soviet Union (now Saint Petersburg in Russia). She emigrated to the US in 1976 with her family and has lived in the US since then. She did not return to Russia until 1990. Given these circumstances her views on Russia have changed somewhat as she has gained a new lens to observe her home country. Her recollections have been shaped by her Russian heritage as well as by her American perspective; this combination brings highly interesting and complex contrasts to her writing.
Shtern’s very well received previous book about the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet Joseph Brodsky has made her a recognizable figure in Russian literature, which has led to invitations to many well-known events and locations. Her last trip to Russia was filled with such important literary events. These stories of spectacular events and meetings with celebrated figures in Russian literature were the focus of her presentation. In her speech, Shtern spoke about one experience in particular, which she added to her book as the final chapter, giving the meaning of the title of the book a slight twist. In this chapter, she discusses the tumultuous week she spent in St. Petersburg on her last visit to Russia. She had been invited to an international gathering commemorating Brodsky in St. Petersburg. Highly suspicious events took place at this event and for the rest of her stay in St. Petersburg, which Shtern summarized in an intriguing fashion. Her encounters and experiences of this week left her shaken up and uncertain of her opinion on modern Russia.
In Shtern’s story, told with great wit and suspense, she discusses her personal changes in attitude coming from America. She ended her presentation by acknowledging that in her eyes, Russia has not changed much even after all that has happened since 1990. Even though her book is entitled Return to the Old New World, her final chapter states that it really is a “Return to the New Old World.” In her writing, Shtern has captured her experiences confronting questionable behavior and a sense of distrust still remaining in Russian culture, hidden beneath the well advertised new face of Russia. Her captivating words and richly detailed account, engaged her audience fully, leaving nearly everyone personally invested in the story, which led to an enthusiastic discussion trying to solve the mystery of Shtern’s story. The group was forced to end it without finding a solution. The audience left the presentation with puzzling questions still lingering in the room.