Nicole Svobodny

Senior Lecturer in Global Studies
Global Studies Study Abroad Advisor
Coordinator, Eurasian Studies concentration
PhD, Columbia University
BA, Brown University
research interests:
  • Russian literature, especially of nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Inter-arts connections, especially between literature and dance
  • Life-writing
  • Modernism
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    contact info:

    office hours:

    • Wednesdays, 4p - 5p

    mailing address:

    • Washington University
    • MSC 1217-137-255
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
    image of book cover

    Dr. Svobodny is a senior lecturer in Global Studies as well as in Russian literature and culture. She is the coordinator of the Eurasian Studies concentration, an advisor for the major in Global Studies, and she also serves as the Study Abroad Advisor for Global Studies.


    Dr. Svobodny teaches courses on Russian literature in translation, usually placed within a global comparative perspective. Her teaching interests include a range of genres (the novel, the short story, memoir, theatrical performance) and topics (literature and law, literature and madness, literature and other forms of media, Russia and the West). Many of her courses are Writing-Intensive, and she is committed to guiding her students through all stages of the writing process.

    Dr. Svobodny’s research has been incubated in the collaborative, creative atmosphere she cultivates in her classes. In her recent book, Nijinsky’s Feeling Mind, she argues that Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1919 multimodal project (containing his dance notation, drawings, and life-writing) presents a profound meditation on the spaces between dance and writing; it is a book about the writing process, the traces left behind, the circulation between bodily presence and the written word, the hesitation between speech and silence, and the special dynamic between reader and writer, in which the language of intimacy registers as public statement, and vice versa. By exploring the intersections of bodily movement with verbal language, Nijinsky’s Feeling Mind addresses broader questions of how we sense and make sense of our worlds. For this project, Svobodny was awarded a Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2019 to conduct archival research in New York, Hamburg, Munich, and Paris.

    Recent Courses

    Russia and the West: Creating and Representing Identity

    What does the West look like through Russia's eyes, and what does Russia look like through the eyes of the West? And to what extent does this relationship matter to the rest of the world? In this course, students will examine American/European/Russian philosophical and polemical essays, literary texts (novels, poetry, short stories), films, dance/vocal/theatrical performances, architecture, travelogues, autobiographies, visual arts, propaganda, and primary historical documents- from the early 19th century to the Cold War to the present day. Our focus is on how group identity (national, ideological, coalitional, and so forth) intersects with various types of personal or individual identity. This is a discussion-based course and active participation (speaking and listening) each class-day is expected. There will be two short writing assignments and weekly online Canvas discussion and collaboration. Students will research a topic of their choice, culminating in an in-class presentation and final paper or project. No prerequisites. All interested students are welcome.

      Interrogating "Crime and Punishment"

      Whether read as psychological thriller, spiritual journey, or social polemic, Dostoevsky's 1866 novel CRIME AND PUNISHMENT has inspired diverse artistic responses around the world. From the nineteenth century to the present day, writers and filmmakers have revisited (and often subverted) questions that Dostoevsky's novel poses: What internal and external forces cause someone to "step over" into crime? What are the implications of a confession? To what extent can the legal system provide a just punishment? Are forgiveness and redemption possible, or even relevant? What role does grace--or luck--play in the entire process? This course begins with our close reading of Dostoevsky's novel and then moves on to short stories, novels, literary essays, and movies that engage in dialogue with the Russian predecessor. A central concern of our intertextual approach is to explore the interplay between specific socio-historical contexts and universal questions. All readings are in English. No prerequisites.

        Russian Literature at the Borders: Multiculturalism and Ethnic Conflict

        In this course we explore Russian literary works (from the nineteenth century to the present day) that address issues of multiculturalism and ethnic conflict. The course is structured as a virtual tour of culturally significant places. Our readings take us to Ukraine/Belarus, the Caucasus, Siberia, and Central Asia. Some of the topics we discuss include national narratives and metaphor, authority and rebellion, migration and mobility, empire, orientalism, religious identities, gender roles, memory, and the poetics of place. Materials include poetry, drama, novels, short stories, critical articles, and oral history.

          Selected Publications

          Recent book:

          Nijinsky’s Feeling Mind: The Dancer Writes, the Writer Dances. Lexington Books, July 2023.

          Publisher website:

          Edited volumes:

          Migration and Mobility in the Modern Age: Refugees, Travelers, and Traffickers in Europe and Eurasia, ed. Anika Walke, Jan Musekamp, and Nicole Svobodny. Indiana University Press, 2017.

          Under the Sky of My Africa: Pushkin and Blackness, ed. Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Nicole Svobodny, and Ludmilla Trigos, with foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Northwestern University Press, 2006.

          Selected article:

          Танцовщик как писатель: Вацлав Нижинский и телесность языка” [“The Dancer Writes: Vaslav Nijinsky and Embodied Language”], trans. Andrei Logutov. Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, No. 135 (5/2015): 56-67.

          Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness

          Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness

          Roughly in the year 1705, a young African boy, acquired from the seraglio of the Turkish sultan, was transported to Russia as a gift to Peter the Great. This child, later known as Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was to become Peter's godson and to live to a ripe old age, having attained the rank of general and the status of Russian nobility. More important, he was to become the great-grandfather of Russia's greatest national poet, Alexander Pushkin. It is the contention of the editors of this book, borne out by the essays in the collection, that Pushkin's African ancestry has played the role of a "wild card" of sorts as a formative element in Russian cultural mythology; and that the ways in which Gannibal's legacy has been included in or excluded from Pushkin's biography over the last two hundred years can serve as a shifting marker of Russia's self-definition.


          The first single volume in English on this rich topic, Under the Sky of My Africa addresses the wide variety of interests implicated in the question of Pushkin's blackness-race studies, politics, American studies, music, mythopoetic criticism, mainstream Pushkin studies. In essays that are by turns biographical, iconographical, cultural, and sociological in focus, the authors-representing a broad range of disciplines and perspectives-take us from the complex attitudes toward race in Russia during Pushkin's era to the surge of racism in late Soviet and post-Soviet contemporary Russia. In sum, Under the Sky of My Africa provides a wealth of basic material on the subject as well as a series of provocative readings and interpretations that will influence future considerations of Pushkin and race in Russian culture.

          Migration and Mobility in the Modern Age: Refugees, Travelers, and Traffickers in Europe and Eurasia

          Migration and Mobility in the Modern Age: Refugees, Travelers, and Traffickers in Europe and Eurasia

          Combining methodological and theoretical approaches to migration and mobility studies with detailed analyses of historical, cultural, or social phenomena, the works collected here provide an interdisciplinary perspective on how migrations and mobility altered identities and affected images of the "other." From walkways to railroads to airports, the history of travel provides a context for considering the people and events that have shaped Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.