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Murder and War: An Operatic Introduction


“Ivan the Terrible murdered his heir, and left Russia to face economic collapse and mass hunger without a stable government. Then things got really bad.”

So begins the description for Murder, Civil War, and Opera, a course that was pivotal for Wynston Pennybacker ’19, who became intrigued by Russia and now wants to pursue her interest all the way to a doctorate.

If her academic career had a soundtrack, it would be Boris Gudunov, the opera the class was built around. “The way the class was structured was so ingenious to me,” says Pennybacker, a history and soon-to-be Russian studies major.

ABout Wynston Pennybacker '19

Major: History and (intended) Russian Studies

Hometown: Rowlett, Texas

High School: Garland High School

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Taught by Professor of History Shoshana Keller, the course uses Modest Mussorgsky’s opera (Pennybacker loved it) to weave together the relationships between Russian history, art, and national identity. It was a sensational course, in Pennybacker's opinion. She’d entered Hamilton thinking she’d focus on Marxism and the life and politics of Lenin, but her coursework soon kindled an even greater interest in the histiographic study of Russia’s political and international history.

Pennybacker is convinced that to understand the country’s rich, complex, and unique history it must be approached from the Russian perspective, not viewed in reference to the West or East. Russian studies as a discipline at Hamilton does a good job of providing that Russian perspective, Pennybacker says.

In her view, the U.S. and other Western nations often view Russia as a political rallying point, rather than an actual country composed of people and run by a government with issues beyond just its relationship with the U.S.

“To me, this is best exemplified by the fact that all a news pundit has to do to make a situation or action seem negative is suggest that Russia was involved or that Russia supported it — no further analysis required. Russia is thus transformed into a two-dimensional stand-in for anything unsavory, corrupt, or unethical regardless of how reality interacts with that assertion,” she explains. 

Pennybacker intends to apply for a Critical Languages Scholarship to study in Russia, and, in the long term, expects to pursue a doctorate in Russian studies or in history with a Russian focus.

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