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Jenifer Presto

Jenifer Presto profile picture
  • Affiliation: faculty
  • Title: Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Russian
  • Additional Title: Director of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies
  • Phone: 541-346-4065
  • Office: 272 PLC
  • Office Hours: spring 2018: Wednesdays 10:00-12:00 & by appointment
  • Affiliated Departments: Comparative Literature Department, Russian and East European Studies
  • Interests: Russian modernism, gender studies, literature and the visual arts, imaginative geographies, Russian-Italian cultural interactions, and environmental criticism
  • Curriculum Vitae


A.B., Russian Literature, Smith College
M.A., Russian Language, Middlebury College
M.A. / Ph.D., Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Wisconsin-Madison


My research sheds new light on Russian modernism by engaging with the interdisciplinary methods of gender studies and the environmental humanities. My first book, Beyond the Flesh: Alexander Blok, Zinaida Gippius, and the Symbolist Sublimation of Sex, was devoted to the problem of gender and self-creation in symbolist poetry. I am now completing a new book, entitled Catastrophic Modernism: Russian Writers between Etna and Vesuvius, which illuminates how environmental upheaval served as a potent force in Russian modernism's transnational turn. Contrary to the view that catastrophism is inherently antithetical to the telos of modernity, this study reveals that for a host of Russian writers—Alexander Blok, Ivan Bunin, Maxim Gorky, Vladislav Khodasevich, and Vladimir Nabokov—modernity and catastrophe were, in fact, deeply entangled. Critical of the dominant cultural narrative of progress, these authors became fascinated with the myriad natural disasters embedded within the deep history of southern Italy, ranging from the 1908 Messina earthquake—the most devastating earthquake in modern Europe—to the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. For all their spatial and even temporal distance, these catastrophes spoke to Russian cultural anxieties in an era of war, revolution, and exile. They inspired an alternative strain of Russian modernism rooted not in Europe’s metropolitan centers but rather in the elemental forces of the continent's southern periphery.

Broadening the scope of this work, I have collaborated with Prof. Anindita Banerjee at Cornell University on special issues of Slavic Review and Slavic and East European Journal on “Russian Geopoetics” and “The 1917 Revolution and Its Ripple Effects." I have also begun planning a third book-length project, which builds on my research in the environmental humanities. Provisionally titled Inhuman Nabokov, this study attempts to make sense of the writer’s legendary indifference toward his human characters. Eschewing the anthropocentric ethics for which Russian literature is renowned, Nabokov adopted a form of narrative detachment that might seem inhumane. However, I contend that it is the effect of what can be termed his “zoethics”—an ethical imperative to treat the human as part of a larger zoological continuum along with the small wild creatures (birds, butterflies, squirrels) whose precarious existence parallels our own. In this sense, Nabokov’s fiction anticipates key aspects of ecocriticism’s rethinking of the human-animal divide and offers a unique take on the complex migrant ecologies of humans and other creatures in our highly volatile age of global conflict and the Anthropocene.

Selected Publications


Beyond the Flesh: Alexander Blok, Zinaida Gippius, and the Symbolist Sublimation of Sex. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. xviii + 334 pp.

Special Issues

“The 1917 Revolution and Its Ripple Effects,” guest edited with Anindita Banerjee, Slavic and East European Journal vol. 61 no. 3 (2017): 393-488.

“Russian Geopoetics,” guest edited with Anindita Banerjee, Slavic Review vol. 75 no. 2 (2016): 247-330.


“Foreword: World Revolution,” coauthored with Anindita Banerjee, Slavic and East European Journal vol. 61, no. 3 (2017): 394-95.

“The Revolutionary Ecology of Gor’kii’s Italy,” Slavic and East European Journal vol. 61, no. 3 (2017): 423-44.

“Toward a Russian Geopoetics, or Some Ways of Relating Russia to the World,” coauthored with Anindita Banerjee, Slavic Review vol. 75 no. 2 (2016) 247-55.

"Uncanny Excavations: Khodasevich, Pompeii, and Remains of the Past,” Russian Review vol. 74 no. 2 (2015): 272-92.

"The Aesthetics of Disaster: Blok, Messina, and the Decadent Sublime," Slavic Review vol. 70 no. 3 (2011): 569-90.

“Unbearable Burdens: Aleksandr Blok and the Modernist Resistance to Progeny and Domesticity.” Slavic Review vol. 63, no.1 (2004): 6-25.

“Women in Russian Symbolism: Beyond the Algebra of Love.” In A History of Women’s Writing in Russia, edited by Adele M. Barker and Jehanne Gheith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 134-52.

“The Androgynous Gaze of Zinaida Gippius.” Russian Literature XLVIII-I (2000): 87-115.

“Reading Zinaida Gippius: Over Her Dead Body.” Slavic and East European Journal vol. 43, no. 4 (1999): 621-35.

“The Fashioning of Zinaida Gippius.” Slavic and East European Journal vol. 42, no. 1 (1998): 58-75.

“Ivan Fedorovich Shpon’ka i ego tetushka’ as ‘Oral’ Narrative, or ‘Food for the Critics.’” Russian Literature XXXIX (1996): 359-72.

Current Projects


Catastrophic Modernism: Russian Writers between Etna and Vesuvius (expected completion date, October 2018).

Inhuman Nabokov (planning stage).