Did a University Just Ban Dostoevsky to Teach Putin a Lesson?
“You can be sincere and still be stupid.”
As the world responds to Russian aggression in Ukraine with protests, government imposed sanctions and calls for cultural boycotts - including cancelling concert tours to the country and withdrawal of film released, a university in Milan perhaps took things too far.
The administration of the University of Milano-Bicocca, it seems, responded to global events with an attempt to cancel a class on Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The news came to light when Paolo Nori, an Italian writer who had been invited to host a four part guest lecture on Doestoevsky’s work at the University of Milano-Bicocca, took to instagram to say that he had received word that his course was “postponed” indefinitely.
“Dear Professor, the Vice Rector for Didactics has informed me of a decision taken with the rector to postpone the course on Dostoevsky. ... This is to avoid any controversy, especially internally, during a time of strong tensions,” the email received by Nori read, according to Mic.com.
“I realize what is happening in Ukraine is horrible, and I feel like crying just thinking about it. But what is happening in Italy is ridiculous. ... Not only is being a living Russian wrong in Italy today, but also being a dead Russian, who was sentenced to death in 1849 because he read a forbidden thing. That an Italian university would ban a course on an author like Dostoevsky is unbelievable,” Nori said.
Nori’ response to the decision to “postpone” the class has been watched by almost 200,000 people on Instagram, with comments indicating that many viewers agreed with Nori’s assertion that the university was taking things too far.
Twitter erupted with condemnation of the move, with many saying that the ban wasn’t political, but rooted in hatred and intolerance. “Milan University just banned the books of a Russian man who spent 6 yrs exiled by Russia for reading books that were banned,” one user pointed out.
The backlash seems to have played a part in the university taking a u-turn. “The University of Milano-Bicocca is a university open to dialogue and listening even in this very difficult period that sees us dismayed at the escalation of the conflict. ... The course of the writer Paolo Nori is part of the writing course aimed at students and citizens who aim to develop transversal skills through forms of writing. The university confirms that this course will take place in the established groups and will deal with the contents already agreed with the writer. ... In addition, the rector of the university will meet Paolo Nori next week for a moment of reflection,” a statement issued by the university read.
Banning literature to make a political point isn’t new. A number of books remain banned in India - from VS Naipul’s An Area of Darkness to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, while this list collates the surprising number of books currently banned in America. While cultural boycott is a powerful tool of peaceful protest, there is a risk in taking things too far and missing the point. Banning classes centering on classic literature falls on the edge of too far.