How Russian imperialism makes its way into the university

Since I moved to the Netherlands, I have often felt that Eastern Europe exists as one big country in the minds of Westerners. People don’t always know that Lithuania and Latvia are two different countries. Some friends of mine only recently discovered that the Balkans differ from Eastern Europe. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, and sometimes still, I would get questions such as: ‘Isn’t it the same language and culture?’ 

‘But those are just people who didn’t get a good education’, someone told me once. I believed it until last Wednesday. There was a guest lecture by a prestigious Sorbonne University professor in my film theory class. He taught us about Soviet cinema and its important film director, Dziga Vertov. The professor was highly professional and insightful, but throughout the lecture he misspoke a few times, calling the Vertov Russian without correcting himself.

The lecture was followed by Vertov’s film. In the introduction, while mentioning the Ukrainian origin of his name, he was called ‘a Russian film director’ again, but now by another teacher and, once again, with no correction. 

I could hardly focus on the film because of my frustration. Right after the screening, together with my Bulgarian classmate, we discovered that the filmmaker was, in fact, a Polish-born, Jewish Russian-Ukrainian, who identified himself as Soviet. 

How many times has Russia been given credit for a USSR-born filmmaker, writer, or scientist due to a common misconception or historical neglect?

It frustrated us even more. How many times has Russia been given credit for a USSR-born filmmaker, writer, or scientist due to a common misconception or historical neglect? How many classmates will now also just link the USSR to Russia? How many other Eastern Europeans feel the imperialism of Russia being imposed upon them within the walls of the university? 

I decided to talk with my course lecturer. I was a little scared, but to my surprise, not only did my teacher hear me out, apologize, and thank me for bringing this topic up, but she also gave me the floor in the following lecture, where I told my classmates about this mistake and the importance of its acknowledgment. 

I saw some nodding heads and heard a few supporting murmurs in the crowd. I realized I wasn’t alone. I realized this topic deserves a discussion. I realized my teacher’s support helped me to speak up about it. 

The topic of Eastern Europe with its nuances is not so common in a Western university. But if mentioned, it must be with respect and accuracy, especially in today’s political climate. And in case there is a mistake, I hope each teacher would react like my teacher did – with tact and professionalism.



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