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Russian literature goes to jail to help answer life's big questions
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Russian literature goes to jail to help answer life's big questions

They’ve taken it into juvenile detention centers, onto film and over television, but this fall, University of Virginia students and their professor will take Russian literature into the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

The program — Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership — will bring UVa students into the jail each week to meet with inmates and explore life’s meaning, its value and concepts of social justice through the prose of Russian writers.

The program, set to launch in the fall, is a joint effort by jail Superintendent Martin Kumer, Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania and Andrew Kaufman, assistant director of community-engaged learning initiatives and a Russian literature professor at UVa.

It will be the first time the course has been brought to incarcerated adults and will earn the inmate-students university course credit. It also may help the inmates to gain a new life perspective.

“Russian writers went straight to the jugular of existential questions. Because of their history, because of their life experiences, maybe because of their Russian DNA, they just go straight to the big questions of who am I, why am I here and how should I live? There’s a sense of urgency in their writing that’s unique,” Kaufman said.

“When you think of it, college students are in a transitional stage in their lives and the correctional students are, as well. They’re all asking these big questions. The Russian literature will really lend itself to that,” he said.

Kaufman knows the literature. He holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Stanford University. He’s researched the intersection of literature and practical ethics. He’s written several books, including “Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times,” “Understanding Tolstoy” and “Russian for Dummies,” which he co-authored

His newest book, “The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky,” will be out in August.

The Books Behind Bars program was created by Kaufman in 2009. It has been in maximum security juvenile detention facilities in the Richmond area since 2010. “Seats at the Table,” a documentary film on the program made in 2018 by Chris Farina of Rosalia Films, has been shown internationally at film festivals and is currently airing on PBS channels across the country.

Kaufman said the program is not college students teaching incarcerated students; it’s students from both institutions talking and discussing life and literature.

“The power of this program is that it has always been mutually beneficial. It’s very much about the learning that happens on the part of my students and the relationships between them and the incarcerated students,” he said. “That relationship is really central to the class. So much learning happens when you form authentic relationships with people. It doesn’t have a classroom feel but a feel of a community of equals, a community of learners.”

Farina’s film and stories about the program in national newspapers led to Platania’s support for the program.

“Joe has been interested in bringing new, creative programs to jail residents that will hopefully lead to positive change, something that would help residents find their purpose, bolster their self-confidence and put them on the path to success,” said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Areshini Pather. “It might seem odd to think that people will connect over Russian literature, but it captures themes universal to all of us: love, loss and our place in the world.”

“Our office firmly believes that effective prosecution recognizes rehabilitation and re-entry as concepts that benefit both returning citizens and the community at large,” Platania said. “Books Behind Bars is an innovative approach that helps to promote and further second chances. Our office’s partnership with Professor Kaufman and Superintendent Martin Kumer at the regional jail underscores a groundbreaking and transformative commitment to true criminal justice system reform.”

“When [Pather] called me, she said they had been looking for opportunities to provide to local inmates that could really be transformational. Their research led them to believe this program would suit them well,” Kaufman recalled. “That’s how it happened. I was on a short list that I didn’t know existed.”

Kaufman touched base with Kumer and found a willing partner. He believes the dedication of the jail and prosecutorial staffs will make a difference.

“They’ve been involved every step of the way and there’s been enthusiasm every step of the way,” Kaufman said. “One of the things that’s really important is to have a partner who’s not just OK with this but excited about it. That is, in fact, the case. We’ve been planning this for a year now.”

Kaufman said the combination of literature, interaction between college students and jail students and the fact that the course offers college credit, create a chance for all involved to see their lives change.

That’s especially important in current times, he noted.

“I’ve been aware of and part of these conversations that have been happening about racial equity and social justice and mass incarceration and what we can do about them as a community and a country. I’ve been very interested in these questions and it strikes me that now is a very appropriate time to bring a program like this to the county jail,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman knows that the program is not going to immediately alter societal inequity. It will, however, get students to think about themselves, their roles in society and society itself, from the good to the bad and the ugly.

“It speaks to questions of how we, as human beings, can sit down with one another, look each other in the eye and see each other as human beings grappling with the same issues, knowing and experiencing the same fundamental human experiences of love, loss and struggle and searching for answers,” he said.

“It speaks of big questions like, how do we break down divisiveness in our society? How do we have important conversations with people we don’t like or have stereotypes about?” he said. “This could make a difference. The truth is that we have shown that we’re not very good at that in this society.”

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