Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2013 (March 14, 2013 at 12:00 am)

Enemies of the People, Enemies of Happiness

March 14, 2013 at 12:00 am
By Kate Atkinson’15

What makes an ideal society and who decides its criteria? Can we draw parallels between George Orwell’s dark forecast for the future in 1984 and U.S. society today? What role does social identity play in an oppressive society? These are some of the questions Associate Professor of Russian Olga Ogurtsova and her students explore in an FYI class called Enemies of the People: Enemies of Happiness.

Enemies of the People, Enemies of Happiness 

Short for First-Year Initiatives, FYIs are courses that introduce first-semester, first-year students to the college and emphasize collaborative learning, critical thinking, and intercultural literacy.

Using George Orwell’s 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as their primary texts last fall, students spent the semester exploring such themes as totalitarian government, national security, ideal society, personal freedom, and the persistence of the human spirit.

Ogurtsova first offered Enemies of the People in the fall of 2001. She remembers how students were giving group presentations about who was considered an “enemy of the people” in modern American history when they first got word of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“During a presentation, a professor came into the classroom and invited us to go to the south lounge to watch the news. Just as we were entering the room, the second plane flew into the tower,” Ogurtsova says. “Before, people didn’t even think about terrorism,” she says of the change in attitudes that followed the attacks. “9/11 changed the way that we discussed and read. Suddenly everything became much more relevant and real.”

In 2012, students began Ogurtsova’s course by presenting on central figures of the Russian government, the KGB, and other aspects of Russian history. They read fiction, non-fiction, and satirical accounts of dystopian societies and life in the Stalinist regime, including Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov and Eugenia Ginzburg’s harrowing autobiography Journey into the Whirlwind. Students are expected to write a paper on each work of literature and facilitate regular class discussions on the readings.

“There’s an added level of authenticity to this class because Olga lived in the Soviet Union during this time,” says Reid Libby’16. “It doesn’t feel like speculation.” Other classmates agree that Ogurtsova’s personal connection to the course material adds to the relevance of the class.

Students discuss the advent of social networks (“Facebook is Big Brother!” Ogurtsova warns), surveillance cameras, and cell phone tracking, and the ways in which these developments limit personal freedom. Discussions like these force students to consider the delicate relationship between a government and its people.

Beyond learning an interdisciplinary understanding of concepts, students in Ogurtsova’s FYI develop a family-like community that helps smooth the transition to college life, part of the purpose of First-Year Initiatives. She emphasizes the importance of creating “a good classroom climate” and does so by cultivating a supportive, close-knit learning environment.

The first thing she does in class each day is check in with students. Even as they near the end of the semester, she discusses their plans for spring courses. As students list and compare their tentative schedules, Ogurtsova responds with advice and genuine concern.

“I like that Olga asks us how we are doing at the start of every class,” says Geniene Lettman’16 of the daily check-in. “It helps foster a sense of family within the class.”

Reading List
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  •  Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
  •  Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

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