I teach the following courses at SFU, Liberal Arts Program, as well as at UBC and Brock House


Marina Sonkina, PhD



Upcoming Courses


Ukrainian History On Film

To understand the true reasons behind Putin's brutal war in Ukraine, we will turn to Ukrainian two thousand year-long history, both modern and medieval. The key moments of that history, as well as colourful customs and folklore of this ethnically diverse land, have been captured on camera by talented Ukrainian filmmakers. Lectures will be followed by clips from documentaries and drama, followed by discussion and a question period. I will also share the overview of the situation from Ukrainian and Russian-opposition analytical sources.


1930 film by Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko

Six sessions, offered  through SFU, Liberal Studies October 24 - November 28, 2023

 1:30PM - 3:20PM



Past Courses


The Quest for Paradise: The Aesthetics and the Philosophy of a Garden

"Il faut  cultiver notre jardin."     Voltaire, Candid

Since the time the first humans were expelled from Eden, or so The Holy Books tell us, in both early Judeo-Christian and Muslim tradition, the cultivation of a garden became associated with Paradise, the lost place of happiness that must be recreated on earth. Part nature, part human endeavor, a garden has been intimately connected with poetry, painting, architecture and music. It mirrored philosophical, political, social, and aesthetic ideas of its time. And It is from these perspectives that we'll look at gardens in different cultures and times tracing their interconnectedness, mutual influence and aesthetic shifts.

   We'll see how both Roman and Islamic garden tradition influenced the development of gardens in Medieval Europe;  how the Renaissance gardens of Italy inspired the Classical formal gardens of France and Russia; and how the Dutch Baroque garden design has influenced both. We will see how a shift to Romanticism prompted a radical change to landscape gardening in Britain and how the blend of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism informed the design and aesthetics of the art of gardening in ancient China and Japan.

   Part of the fun of this journey will be deciphering the symbols and metaphors whose meaning is lost to a contemporary garden visitor: for example, why a fountain, or a small rose garden, was always placed in the centre of a Medieval garden and not on the side? Why was Versailles designed as a network of axial pathways leading off to the horizon? And what about a living "ornamental hermit" installed in the English Gardens of the 18th century? What was the meaning of the stones that the Chinese scholars have been eagerly collecting for centuries proudly putting them on display on their desks and in their gardens? And finally, who were the people who created or owned gardens and how did they spend their time in them?

   There are disruptions, yet a wonderful continuity in every  culture and my hope is that walking through the gardens of our city, connecting  the past with the present, we'll be able to see the familiar with a more informed and delighted eye.


 The course will use a lot of  visual materials: photographs, reproductions of paintings as well as films (to be watched at home).


6 Wednesdays; March 3 to April 7; 5 pm - 6pm


Devil in Their Midst: Bulgakov and his Master and Margarita

"Manuscripts Don't Burn."   M. Bulgakov, Master and Margarita

When Devil makes his appearance in terror-ridden Moscow of the thirties, he introduces himself as a foreign consultant, checking the proverbial virtues of a New Soviet Man. Master and Margarita, never seen by its author in print, proved to be a masterpiece of modern Russian letters. At once a thriller, a love story, and a book of great philosophical depth, it is also a bitter satire of the society that has claimed to have created a perfect new order, magnifying instead the ills of the past: greed, envy, fear, conceit, selfishness. It takes a supernatural force -- Satin and his retinue -- to restore morality and justice in this new Kafkaesque society. The history of the book’s creation, no less dramatic than the adventures of its characters, will give us some insights into the times it was written.



Bulgakov, Master and Margarita (any edition)


January - February, 2021, offered  through SFU, Liberal Studies


Petrarch and His World

Petrarch  is mostly known to the 21st century readers  for the sonnets celebrating his long and hopeless fidelity to Laura, a married woman and an ancestor of Marquiz de Sade. But what makes this father of Humanism, and celebrated scholar of antiquity so appealing to us today is his modern sensibilities. Thousands of letters that he has left for posterity witness to his inner struggles: a devout Christian, a cleric singing Platonic love has fathered two children from a woman (women?) whose name he took care of concealing. A tireless traveler, a mountain climber, a man of insatiable intellectual curiosity, he sought solitude and a life of a hermit; yet he counted Popes, diplomats, and aristocrats among his numerous friends and acquaintances. Condemning vanity as a vice, he craved for fame and  went out of his way to receive the laurel of Poet Laureate in Rome. We will study poems and extraordinary, soul-searching letters reflecting the doubts of the man, many consider a precursor of Existentialism.


                                               May - June, 2021

The Bolshoi: Grandeur, Glory and Tribulations

The national symbol of Russia, the showcase of its power, the Bolshoi is one of the most celebrated ballet and opera companies in the world.  Our focus this time will be  the Bolshoi's ballet, 250 dancers strong.

The Bolshoi's claim to fame is associated with the 20th century, when Moscow once again became the capital of the country. The Bolshoi came to prominence especially after the death of Lenin who issued a recommendation to "put all theatres into a coffin." The Bolshoi owes its survival and blossoming to an unlikely protector, namely...Stalin, a lover of ballet and opera. Since Stalin's time, the Bolshoi's fortunes have been  inextricably linked to power: Stalin, Brezhnev and Krushev personally supervised the repertoire, appointed the directors and ordered the greatest ballet dancers to relocate  from Leningrad's Kirov's ballet company to the Bolshoi in Moscow. The situation has not changed now: it's Putin who appoints (or fires)  the leadership of the  Bolshoi.

   We will showcase two greatest dancers  whose destinies were shaped by their unmatched talent, resistance to power and courage: prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya of the Soviet era, and the principal dancer of the Bolshoi Nicholas  Tzeskaridze of the Post-Soviet era, now the director of Vaganova Dance Academy in St. Petersburg. We will see what kind of training young talents have to undergo in order to be accepted into the company. We'll have a chance to watch and discuss famous Ballet Productions, both classical and contemporary. Excerpts from various ballets can be watched together on Zoom, while the links to the whole productions will be available for home viewing.


 3 sessions, dates to be announced


Young Nabokov in Europe

No amount of biographical detail - Nabokov's aristocratic origin; his million worth inheritance annulled by Lenin's Revolution, or subsequent penniless peregrinations on two continents - can explain his wizardry in two languages. Yet, during his life time, he had both ardent devotees and vehement detractors. (Swedish Academy blocked his nomination for the Nobel Prize four times). In these six sessions, we will focus on early Nabokov's work, less known to the North-American audience, when a writer, then in his 20 and 30, an exile  in a pre-war Berlin, created in Russian dozens of superb short stories, several novels and volumes of poetry. Close analysis of Nabokov's text will reward any lover of literary art.



                                   October 2021, offered  through SFU, Liberal Studies


Soviet and Russian Cinema

Despite (or because of) revolutions, wars, and severe censorship, Russia has produced some of the world's most original and powerful cinematography: comedy, drama, literary adaptations (Kozintzev's Hamlet got international acclaim).  We will choose several major films from different periods of Russian film history: from the daring experimental twenties to the unforgettable 60s to our times.


Screening at home, discussion in class.

                                               7 sessions, one hour each.


Fictional Double, A Split Self

"My inner self was a house divided against itself."    St. Augustine

Perhaps the single most interesting phenomenon, explored by writers, film makers and psychoanalysts is the ancient belief in a “double,” or “doppelgänger,” (‘double walker’) who often takes a form of a second -- usually sinister--identity of the main character, a kind of an evil twin, separated and allowed to act independently.

In folklore, the “double” is described as "dark angel" that leaves no reflection in the mirror and is associated with a disaster, death, even murder. Initially popularized by German writers of the Romantic period (Hoffman, The Devils Elixir; The Double), ever since then, writers of various cultural traditions keep using fictional double to explore the duality of human nature: the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious, the struggle between good and evil within one soul.


                                              4 sessions, one hour each

Masters of Russian Short Fiction: Chekhov and Bunin

Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin, two contemporaries and, in a way, rivals, enjoy now an equally high reputation in Russia. The last of the great ‘gentry’ writers regarded as the rightful successor to Tolstoy, Bunin wrote with great poignancy and economy of literary means about the fragility of life and love, the themes that became a familiar preoccupation for the modernist writers of the 20th century. We will read Chekhov's best-known short prose (including The Lady with a Dog, Ward Number 6, The Kiss, and others), as well as Bunin's great short stories about love.


                                                   4 sessions, one hour each.


A Journey into Medieval Russian Art

The ancient art of Russian icon painting speaks to us in a powerful yet enigmatic and mostly forgotten language. In this brief course we’ll discuss the complicated symbolism and lost meanings of this art; its origins, its technique, its various schools. Brought to Russia from Byzantium, and flourishing in middle ages, the ancient art was rediscovered in the late 19 the century in the most unexpected, detective-style manner. The striking beauty and conceptual depth of its images seemed so radical to the Russian avant-garde that they began to imitate it. A rebirth of icon painting is in evidence in contemporary Russia. Our journey will be accompanied by the demonstrations of the best samples of Russian icons.


                                                4 sessions, one hour each.


The Miracle and the Mystery of Human Language

We use language as our major tool of communication all our lives.  Yet we don't know where language came from; nor how we have learned it. To master another language with a native speaker's proficiency is all but impossible after a certain age - even with the best of teachers.  Yet, nobody teaches babies how to talk. Does our mother tongue shape our thinking in any significant way?  Do the Chinese conceptualize time differently from the English because Mandarin doesn't have future tense, for example?

Are some languages more complex than others? Do languages have the same number of worlds? Is it possible to reconstruct a proto-language? How do linguists go about it? We know languages die (all North American indigenous languages are endangered). But are new languages still come into existence? And why have artificially created languages like Esperanto (with deliberately simplified grammar) never worked as lingua franca, whereas  English, with its 16 tense forms, has?


These are just a few of the mysteries to explore.


                                                              4 sessions, one hour each.


Between Hell and Heaven: Russian Literature under Communism

On the Edge of Empires: The Ancient Cultures of Armenia ans Georgia


The Forgotten Splendor of Turgenev's Art

The Art of Short Story Reading

One of the most dangerous professions in the Soviet period of Russian history proved to be that of writer. The Soviet dictatorship that claimed 60 million innocent lives physically exterminated authors together with their books. Why, under such circumstances, didn't most writers stop writing?  What drove them, often knowingly, to sacrifice their own lives and the lives of their families?

As we search for an answer, we'll look at the social, political and cultural contexts of the Stalin's times examining the works and destinies  of such diverse writers as Evgeni Zamyatin, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel, Osip Mandelstam and Michail Bulgakov.





Located at the crossroads of western Asia and Eastern Europe, former republics of the USSR, and now independent states, Armenia and Georgia are among the oldest civilizations in the world, with a recorded history of about 3,500 years. The earliest in Europe to convert to Christianity, and to translate the Bible into vernacular languages, both countries endured struggle with Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, the Persian and Russian empires and the Soviet totalitarianism. Yet, both countries have preserved powerful national identities, wonderful visual arts, music dance and literature.

This course is followed by a field trip to Armenia and Georgia.


Whether you took the course or not, you're welcome to join our spirited, curious, knowledgeable world-trotters.

We will drive along meandering mountainous roads with breathtaking sites in order to reach ancient churches and active monasteries in both countries. We'll visit art Museums as the Museum of Genocide in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia; will will admire mountain Ararat from Yerevan  (if anybody notices the Noah's ark on top, at least take a picture). But we'll also taste exquisite Armenian and Georgian wines that both countries claim were the first to invent 8,000 years ago. It is an exciting time to be in Armenia after the recent peaceful protests have led to a more democratic government, as well as to see changes in Georgia where a first woman President has been recently elected.





Among the highest elevations of 19th-century Russian Literature, Ivan Turgenev (1818 -1883) stands as one of the tallest peaks next to his famous contemporaries like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  An advocate of European enlightenment for his country, a liberal who rejected the radicalism taking root in Russian society, Turgenev aroused fierce polemics with his novels. His life long devotion to the French opera singer Pauline Viardot has inspired some of the most beautiful passages on love in literature, at the same time fueling the anger of his detractors. We'll examine Turgenev's major works in the historical and social context of their time.





Short fiction, a relatively new art form, developed at the end of the 19th century, is a difficult genre that allows a writer only a small space to recreate the fullness and wonder of life. What makes a story tick? What means does the author use to elicit our laughter or tears? We'll gain some insights by reading such diverse writers from different parts of the world as Camus, Mavis Gallant,  Dino Buzzati, Maupassant, Bachmanns and others.



 Great Cities in Their Time: St. Petersburg and Its Culture The Art of Translation A Daring Eye Behind the Camera: Russian Women Film Directors Aesthetics of Love: A History Anna Karenina and her Creator Chekhov and Bunin Dostoyevsky the Visionary From Cicero to Sacks: Sages on Aging Genius of the Place  At The Highest Point Of Artistry: Nabokov And Bunin, Russian Writers In Exile Petrarch and His World: The Story of "The Father of Humanism" Picturing the Holy: The Russian Icon Through the Ages: Understanding Russian Icon Russia's Arts on Film Russian Cinema In Search for Meaning: Existentialism Women In Russian Culture How To Read Nabokov In Search Of Objects And Words Lost: Writing About The Intangible Understanding Russian Civilization Soviet Cinema: Wars, Revolution and Propaganda The Making of a Dictator: Putin’s Rise to Power



Copyright © 2023   Marina Sonkina. All rights reserved.