Russian Film Symposium founder Padunov was dedicated to mentoring students

Vladimir Padunov, faculty member in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures who brought to Pitt the international Russian Film Symposium, his pioneering thinking about post-Soviet Russian culture and a lifelong dedication to mentoring students, died June 26, 2022 at 75.

His wife and academic partner, Nancy Condee (director of Graduate Studies in Padunov’s department and the Program for Film and Media Studies in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences), notes the evolution of his work, first focusing on the culture that was emerging in Russia’s perestroika era as the pair lived in Moscow for several years prior to joining Pitt’s Slavic department and Film Studies program. Padunov served as Film Studies associate director (2002-13) and directed many Slavic and film Ph.D. dissertations. His research (both single-authored and with Condee) appeared in The Nation, New Left Review, and October, as well as in leading Russian journals and the independent Russian newspapers.

When joining Pitt, Padunov in 1990 formed the Working Group on Contemporary Russian Culture — international scholars who held meetings in Moscow, Berkeley and London on contemporary Russian cultural politics, supported by funds from the American Council of Learned Societies, Social Science Research Council and the MacArthur Foundation. They authored a series of working papers in the new field of post-Soviet studies.

“It was formative in the early ‘90s,” Condee says, leading to discussions and debates: “Who to read? What was the politics? We were among the people at the center of what post-Soviet culture would be.”

Beginning in 1999, his Russian Film Symposium brought the Russian liberal and oppositional intelligentsia to Pittsburgh for this annual weeklong event each May. The festival attracted directors, actors and scriptwriters whom it was rare to see in other venues. This year it focused on Ukrainian films, and in the past has also included cinema from Central Asia and other former Soviet states as well.

The symposium drew attention for the breadth of its offering and willingness to broach controversial themes, Condee says. Guests regularly donated media copies to the University library, contributing to what became the largest collections of materials on Russian and regional cinema in the Western hemisphere.

And Pitt doctoral students were at the center of its organization, helping to plan and set up the festival, writing screening notes and introducing the offerings. “It was a kind of practicum for them,” Condee says.

“Volodia,” as Padunov was known, also brought groups of Pitt Ph.D. students to important Russian film festivals and drew younger Russian scholars from provincial cities to the West for the first time.

As a mentor and teacher, she recalls, “he was the toughest of all of us in the department. He set his standards high, and he was insistent that the standards be met. He was a lively interlocutor. He was a very active mentor to both undergraduates and graduate students.” He brought students to Russia repeatedly, not only for its film festivals but also for conferences, she reports. “He trained them not just to be a scholar but a part of the international scholarly community,” Condee says.

Two of Padunov’s former students, now faculty members in Russian studies at the College of William & Mary — Elena Prokhorova and husband Alexander Prokhorov — say he mentored them from the beginning, when they left the Soviet Union in the early 1990s to enter Pitt to this year.

“For both of us, his influence on our lives and careers was just tremendous,” says Prokhorova. Both say Padunov introduced them to their profession, to the life of a scholar and to specific individuals who could help their work and careers.

“He was an unorthodox teacher and mentor and thinker,” Prokhorova recalls. “Paradoxes are what he threw at us. It was not a smooth ride for any graduate student. But if you could take it, it opened up literature or film or whatever you were dealing with.”

“He invented things which never existed before. He opened up new fields,” Prokhorov says.

“It changed our lives,” Prokhorova says. “That’s a scholar. That’s a thinker. He was a challenging presence in everyone’s life.”

In 1990, for instance, he prompted his department to expand teaching assistant duties from language courses to include those on literature and culture. Then, when Prokhorova was a TA, he sat in on all her classes, taking notes and debriefing her after every session. “It was a semester from hell,” she says, “but, after that, teaching became a natural. He had just an incredible amount of investment in us.”

“That kind of mentoring continued for the next 30 years,” says Prokhorov. With Condee, the pair “taught us how to be in the profession. They taught us how to write grant applications. They took us to major conferences. They introduced us to people probably we would never have been able to meet. They made sure that we learned how to network.

“Both of them have a gift for creating an intellectual community around them and keeping the community around,” he added, “In my view this is the greatest tribute to their contribution to the fields” of Slavic Studies and Film Studies.

Padunov’s work, says Prokhorova, marked “the shift from the Cold War model for studying anything Russian, where the political scientists led the way. They moved away from that to looking at Russian and even Soviet cultures as normal, if you will — looking at cultural artifacts, women literature, etc. “

Prokhorov sees Padunov’s work as “a great resource for everybody, translating the love and enthusiasm for visual culture and popular culture” into a field of academic study. Traditionally, scholars focus on high culture and canonical literature, whereas Padunov introduced contemporary Western literary theories to popular cultural studies, he notes.

Pitt emeritus faculty member in history William Chase remembers Padunov as a colleague and friend: “He and Nancy had an astounding network of colleagues in Russia,” Chase says, which greatly enhanced the impact of the film symposium for students and in general. Chase recalls Padunov as being “demanding yet fair. He really was devoted to his students, especially the graduate students; it always impressed me. He was very much committed to students and their success. That commitment really paid off” in the success of those students in their academic fields.

Born June 4, 1947 in a displaced persons camp in Aschaffenburg, Germany, Padunov moved to the U.S. with his mother as a pre-schooler. He earned his BA in English and comparative literature from Brooklyn College in 1968, and his MA (1975) and Ph.D. (1983) from Cornell in comparative and Russian literature. Drafted by the Army, he worked in Thailand as a senior administrative specialist, reassigning or discharging soldiers from the field, then received a fellowship at the Freie Universität Berlin (1975-76), as well as teaching positions at the University of Iowa (1976-78) and Hunter College (1979-85).

In 1984, he and Condee moved to the Soviet Union, supported by U.S. grants from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) and the Institute of Current World Affairs. They were affiliated with the Gor’kii Institute of World Literature (Moscow) and stayed on to work in a publishing house and eventually with the Kennan Institute of Advanced Russian Studies.

His work, Condee says, “looked at the battles of the liberal intelligentsia in dialogue with the state, what was forbidden and why, what was funded and why and what lay below the surface. He thought of himself as an alternative to often a naive engagement with post-Soviet culture and on the other hand a kind of knee-jerk anti-communism. Between both those poles there are a lot of interesting questions to ask.

“Speaking as his partner,” Condee adds, “we seldom agreed on (Pitt) department policy and that disagreement was ultimately good for us and the department. He was a contrarian by nature. He was unafraid to raise difficult questions. He’s the kind of faculty colleague who is good for administrators. in the sense that he was unafraid of contradictions, of the need to address difficult questions that kept us to a higher standard.”

As for his legacy, she says: “He was a fire starter, a provocateur, and I think that’s one of the reasons for his success. Even with his undergraduates he was not afraid to take a polemical position.

“He was a great partner,” she concludes, “and in that partnership I think other colleagues in our field felt more comfortable moving forward as academic partners. I value that I had this partnership with him.”

He is survived by Condee, two children (Kira and Nikolai), and grandchild Leander Nathaniel Hauser. A gathering in his memory will be scheduled for early autumn 2022.

— Marty Levine