Juvenile inmates benefiting from Russian literature

Leo Tolstoy remains one of the most well-known and studied Russian novelists.

A University of Virginia professor has received a $50,000 grant to expand a successful course he created to have incarcerated young offenders read and discuss classic Russian literature, the Washington Post reports.

In 2009, Tolstoy expert Andrew Kaufman came up with the idea to bring undergraduates together with juvenile inmates in Beaumont to engage in discussions about morality, freedom, consequence, and purpose -- concepts central to Tolstoy novels like War and Peace, Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Illyich. The works of Dostoevsky are also fascinating in this regard, as the novelist's own harsh experiences in a Siberian prison (he was arrested for his involvement in a progressive literary discussion group) came to influence his writing and views on authority.

Kaufman said he wanted to help make humanities education more relevant for University of Virginia students and to highlight the depth and ideas found in Russian literature to those outside the academic community.

The teenage offenders at Beaumont are locked up for a variety of reasons. Some had stolen cars, others sold drugs or held up fast-food joints. One young man, the Post reported, had been convicted of raping an 8-year-old girl. Since the classes began, correctional facility staff have seen a marked improvement in the behaviour, decision-making, and social skills of the student inmates. Some have gone onto college.

Alex Espinoza, an 18-year-old inmate who took the class, told the Post that it "helped me acknowledge the little things, not worry about greedy things."

The demand for the course from the side of the university students has been so great (nearly three-quarters of applicants are turned away), that school officials gave Kaufman the grant to help expand it. He said he hopes to try this at other prisons in Virginia and nationwide.

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