Professors of Russian history and language are grappling with how to teach the subject matter — and how their methods inform students’ views of the country’s invasion of Ukraine — as the war between the two nations continues.
Many courses’ focus on Russian president Vladimir Putin leads to the idea of a strong, unified imperial Russia, said Ainsley Morse, a Dartmouth College literature professor in the school’s Russian Department — and that, she said, has contributed to today’s conflict.
“The idea of a very strong Russia is one of the driving forces behind the war that is happening right now,” said Morse, who has taught Soviet and post-Soviet Russian/Russophone literature at Dartmouth College, Pomona College and University of California San-Diego.
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Rather than teach about him or the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Morse instead focuses her classes on “talking about what ordinary people’s lives are” in Russia, she said last week.
That might mean “talking about what individual writers and 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 at other colleges around the country and around the world have been discussing how Russian studies are being taught and what is missing.
Currently, she said, courses too often ignore the history of colonization within the USSR and 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 have not tried hard enough to figure out other ways of talking about this material that we all work on,” Morse said.
Russian departments at American universities gained prominence during the Cold War, according to the 2015 Report on the State of Russian Studies in the US by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, but many have since been plagued by budgetary restraints fueled by declining enrollments as U.S.-Russian tensions shifted.
Five years later, the Carnegie Corporation summarized the two main points of the 2015 report as “1) the field of Russian studies in the social sciences was described as facing ‘…a crisis: an unmistakable decline in interest and numbers in terms of both faculty and graduate students’ and 2) The dramatic decrease in funding from both government, federal and state, and private foundations also raises concerns that the United States will have enough well-trained experts in the field in the future.”
Morse feels students are enticed to take Russian literature courses through Red Scare narratives promulgated by universities to drive enrollment. She views the American Cold War narrative of “Russia versus U.S.” as potentially beneficial to the United States, which may to some extent “continue to need Russia to be the evil empire, the kind of counterpart.”
“I think that a lot of my colleagues, and I’m sure that I have unwittingly done this myself, have, in a somewhat lazy way, just used that … (especially) over the last 20 years or so, when we have had falling enrollments and falling support for this kind of area of study, like we don’t have the government funding that we used to,” she said.
Beyond the Cold War, another major focus of courses offered is great Russian literature, which Morse described “as a cash cow,” and which also emphasizes the idea of a strong Russia.
Professors also have been reflecting on whether the methods of teaching the language need to be changed to be less reflective of Russian as a monolithic language and more as one that varies among cultures.
Matthew Walker, a professor of Russian language and literature at Middlebury College, said that the war in Ukraine has made it “imperative … to rethink the way we teach Russian in the States, to work harder to (de-imperialize) it.”
“One of the reasons that Putin imagines Russians and Ukrainians to be the same people is that many Ukrainians also speak Russian, but language doesn’t determine identity,” Walker said.
Americans recognize that just because someone speaks English, that doesn’t mean they are from England. Although the same holds true for Russian speakers worldwide, he said, Americans are more likely to conflate that language with nationality — in part because of how it’s taught in textbooks.
Both Morse and Kevin Moss, chair of Middlebury’s Russian Department, say they wish they had the budgets to expand their departments’ offerings to include additional languages, especially Ukrainian. Moss expressed an interest in hiring Ukrainian native speakers to teach the language.
Yet Morse feels with current enrollment rates at Dartmouth, expanding courses and language offerings would be extremely difficult. “We barely get the enrollments we need to teach our Russian classes,” she said.
Moss had just finished writing letters of recommendations for Middlebury Russian students for the upcoming fall semester so they could study abroad in Russia when the program was suspended. He worries about the impact of the suspension on students and is considering trying to facilitate another study abroad program in a country with Russian speakers, such as Latvia or Kazakhstan.
Moss sees these study abroad programs not as lavish vacations but instead as critical for understanding the country and future conflicts.
“We clearly need more people who study and understand the country (and) understand the language and culture in order to avoid this kind of thing in the future,” Moss said in an interview.
For many of these academics, the personal and professional blurs, as they wonder about their friends in Russia and Ukraine, and if they will ever be able to go back. Moss, whose last planned visit to Russia was canceled due to the pandemic, said “it’s kind of a gut-wrenching position to be in.
“And now to not know, when will I ever get back there?” he said.
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