Expanded during one conflict, Russian language and literature departments consider how they should change during another
Russian history and language teachers wonder how to teach the subject – and how their methods inform students about the country’s invasion of Ukraine – as the war between the two nations continues.
The focus of many courses on Russian President Vladimir Putin leads to the idea of a strong and unified Imperial Russia, said Ainsley Morse, professor of literature at Dartmouth College in the school’s Russian department – and that, she said, contributed to today’s conflict.
“The idea of a very strong Russia is one of the driving forces behind the war that’s going on right now,” said Morse, who taught Soviet and post-Soviet Russian/Russian-language literature at Dartmouth College, New York. Pomona College and University of California San. -Diego.
Rather than teaching about him or Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Morse instead focuses her classes on “talking about what life is like for ordinary people” in Russia, she said last week.
It could mean “talking about what writers, artists and other cultural figures are trying to do to make sense of often catastrophic events,” she said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Morse said she and her colleagues from other colleges across the country and around the world discussed how Russian Studies is taught and what is missing.
Currently, she says, courts too often ignore the history of colonization within the USSR and the Russian Empire.
And there should be more recognition, she said, that Russia and the post-Soviet bloc is not a monolithic empire, but a place made up of a diversity of languages and cultures.
“We haven’t tried hard enough to find other ways to talk about this material that we’re all working on,” Morse said.
Russian departments at American universities rose to prominence during the Cold War, according to the 2015 State of Russian Studies in the United States report by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, but many have since been plagued by budget cuts fueled by declining enrollment as U.S.-Russian tensions evolved.
Five years later, the Carnegie Corporation summarized the two main points of the 2015 report as follows: “1) the field of Russian social science studies has been described as facing “…a crisis: an undeniable decline in interest and number of faculty and graduate students and 2) The dramatic decrease in government, federal, state, and private foundation funding also raises concern that the United States has enough well-trained experts in the domain in the future.
Morse believes that students are enticed to take Russian literature courses through the Red Scare narratives promulgated by universities to boost enrollment. She sees the US Cold War narrative of “Russia against the United States” as potentially beneficial for the United States, which may to some extent “continue to need Russia to be the evil empire, the kind of consideration”.
“I think a lot of my colleagues, and I’m sure I’ve unwittingly done this myself, have kind of lazily just used this… (mostly) over the last 20 or so years or so, when we had declining enrollment and declining support for this type of field of study, like we no longer had the government funding that we used to,” she said.
Beyond the Cold War, another major focus of the courses offered is great Russian literature, which Morse described as “a cash cow”, and which also emphasizes the idea of a strong Russia.
The teachers also considered whether the methods of teaching the language should be changed to reflect Russian less as a monolithic language and more as a language that varies across cultures.
Matthew Walker, professor of Russian language and literature at Middlebury College, said the war in Ukraine has made it “imperative… to rethink the way we teach Russian in the United States, to work harder to (de-imperialize) it” .
“One of the reasons Putin imagines that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people is that many Ukrainians also speak Russian, but language does not determine identity,” Walker said.
Americans recognize that just because someone speaks English doesn’t mean they’re from England. While the same is true for Russian speakers around the world, he said, Americans are more likely to confuse the language with nationality — in part because of how it’s taught in textbooks.
Morse and Kevin Moss, chairman of Middlebury’s Russian department, say they would like to have the budgets to expand their departments’ offerings to include additional languages, especially Ukrainian. Moss has expressed interest in hiring native Ukrainian speakers to teach the language.
Still, Morse thinks that with current enrollment rates at Dartmouth, it would be extremely difficult to expand courses and language offerings. “We barely get the enrollments we need to teach our Russian classes,” she said.
Moss had just finished writing letters of recommendation for Russian students at Middlebury for the upcoming fall semester so they could study abroad in Russia when the program was put on hold. He is worried about the impact of the suspension on students and plans to try to facilitate another study abroad program in a Russian-speaking country, such as Latvia or Kazakhstan.
Moss sees these study abroad programs not as lavish vacations, but rather as essential to understanding the country and future conflicts.
“We clearly need more people who study and understand the country (and) understand the language and the culture in order to avoid this kind of thing in the future,” Moss said in an interview.
For many of these scholars, personal and professional questions fade away, as they ponder their friends in Russia and Ukraine, and whether they will ever be able to return there. Moss, whose last planned visit to Russia was canceled due to the pandemic, said “it’s kind of a heartbreaking position to be in.
“And now for not knowing, when will I ever come back there?” he said.
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