Russian studies tries to find ways to talk about the war

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is greatly impacting Russian studies at the UG. And there are more changes pending. ‘Now especially, it’s important to understand the Russian culture.’

On a Tuesday, she told her students that she was worried about what Russia might do. Two days later, Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

She knew she couldn’t not mention it the next Tuesday, when she had the same students again, says assistant professor of Russian discourse and politics Elizaveta Gaufman. ‘In the end, I decided to play them a speech by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’, she says. ‘In it, he’s addressing the Russian people in Russian, asking them to protest the invasion.’ 

Before he became president, Zelensky was a popular comedian who frequently performed on Russian television. The way he now spoke to the same people who’d always admired him, delivering a radically different message, made the speech much more fraught and made it a great jumping-off point to discuss the invasion, Gaufman felt.

New situation

Russian studies, a study programme within the European languages and cultures department, is about much more than just the Russian territories. Ukraine has always been on the curriculum because the country, which has a long shared history, has always been important to Russian identity and politics.

But it quickly became clear that the new political situation would lead to changes in the way Russian was being taught at the UG. 

‘We had started decolonising the curriculum long before the invasion. It’s fine to discuss “classic” Russian writers, as long as you remain critical’, says Gaufman. ‘We had already realised that Russian studies extended beyond the borders of the country. The issue just became more urgent when the invasion happened.’

Students now read works about the war by Ukrainians authors, such as poems and reports. ‘The war started too recently for there to be any high-level academic work, but cultural productions on the war lend themselves well to discussion’, says Gaufman.

Different perspective

‘Some of them are even in Russian, which means they can easily be slotted into the curriculum. As soon as we get some high-level academic work on the war, such as scientific studies, I want to add those, too.’

The works that students read in their language classes have also been expanded to include other Russian-speaking writers. There are plenty of Russian-speaking people who don’t live in Russia itself and whose writing provides a different perspective, Gaufman explains. Because Russian has hardly any dialects, especially not in academic work, these sources are easily incorporated into the curriculum. 


But that doesn’t mean it’s simple. The academic community is asking itself how it can properly generate knowledge on the region. ‘The answer is that we don’t know. That’s something we have to think about.’ It’s important to be nuanced, she emphasises: ‘We also discuss anti-war messaging by Russians from before the increase in censorship.’

The war isn’t just impacting the curriculum. Because of the Western boycott on Russian institutes, students can no longer go on exchange. ‘That was an important part of our curriculum and it’s disappointing to students, since they love to put their knowledge into practice. We’re now looking into the possibility of arranging exchanges with other Russian-language regions.’

For a while, Gaufman and her colleagues were worried enrolments in the programme would decrease. But so far, this hasn’t happened. 

‘Perhaps fewer students are interested in learning Russian as a language, but simultaneously, more are interested in Russian politics’, she says. ‘I can tell how involved students are and that they’re aware of how important it is to understand the Russian culture, especially if you want to learn to understand conflicts like these.’

Next year

Right now, she and her colleagues are working hard to shape next year’s curriculum. The war will play a big role then, too, because no matter when it ends, it’s greatly impacting the entire region. 

‘We’re still looking for ways to talk about the war’, says Gaufman. If only because the war also greatly impacts students. ‘Especially just after the invasion, I was impressed with how students dealt with it. Many of them did volunteer work, helping out refugees and interpreting for them or teaching them English. It was heart-warming to see



  1. Wake up. Start teaching them about real Russia that has been leading wars since its independence in 1991: 2 Chechen wars, the war in Moldova, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine. Discuss how it’s the inherent part of Russian culture, not some potemkin village style writings from random snobs who think too highly of themselves, but bear the responsibility for ALL those wars nonetheless.

  2. Excuse me, a professor in Russian studies who doesn’t know that Russia in fact attacked Ukraine in 2014 and there is a plethora of literature? I am really not sure they are qualified to comment on this issue at all, moreover, to train future specialists in the field.
    I am not even going to pick on all the other details, the commentators pointed them out already

  3. “Russian studies extended beyond the borders of the country” – isn’t it a very imperialist statement? Russian studies definitely need to focus on Russia and without wishful thinking that was dominating the field and is still influencing the way even this interview is written. Russian scholars should think what they did wrong that their people are eager to kill thousands of Ukrainians. Studying Ukrainian literature (even in Russian is part of Ukrainian studies), do not spread alternative knowledge that Russians are against war. Read those Russian writers who support the war and even fight in this war to understand the evil. It’s Russians who started the war and who kill Ukrainians everyday. It’s Russians, not some aliens. It’s true, there are some Russians who are against the war, they are minority. But to understand Russia you need concentrate on majority. If you want to get serious scholarship and not just lots of empathy to Russians.

  4. The best solution for Russian studies now is to keep silence till the end of this war. There is no way to talk about the war from Russian perspective as long as Russians every day kill civilians in Ukraine.
    After Russia’s failure there will be enough time to find new post colonial tone of voice and try to say something. But not now.

  5. “Putin’s invasion”?! Is it personally Putin killing thousands of people, raping, executing children, men, women?! It’s Russians. By calling it “Putin’s war”, you give all responsibility for the crimes to one person, while there are much more people responsible.

  6. Every time you talk about the great Russian ballet, I will tell you the story of a young teacher from Brovary who was repeatedly raped in front of her parents and then was kidnapped by Russian villains. About dozens, maybe hundreds of raped Ukrainian women. Often in front the of their children. About 15-16-year-old girls from Borodyanka who suffered terrible violence from the Kadyrovites. About the bodies of five raped young girls who were killed and left on the road in attempt to burn those bodies. About this abomination “we will fuck Ukrainian women” in interceptions. Here is what I will tell you in response about the persecuted great Russian ballet.

    Every time you tell me about great Russian composers, I will tell you the story of a girl in front of whom and her little brother in the basement of Mariupol, their mother was diying few days. And then with the corpse of a dead mother, the children were forced to continue to hide in the basement from the shelling. About a boy from Gostomel, in front of whom Russian soldiers shot his father. And then they wanted to kill him as well, but he survived. About a girl who was shot directly in the face. About a kid who ran away with his grandmother in a boat. Grandma drowned. And the boy has had been wanted for almost a month, recently his body was found. Here is what I will tell you in response about the persecuted great Russian composers.

    Every time you tell me about the great Russian painting, I will tell you about the peaceful Ukrainians shot in the back in the Makariv district. And before they were shoot, the orcs tied their hands. About hundreds of corpses on the streets of Bucha, Irpen, Gostomel. About mass graves in the yards of residential neighborhoods. Until recently, the places, where the mass graves of civilians are now Ukraine had cozy and safe cities. Mass graves. In the 21st century. Here’s what I’ll tell you in return about the great Russian painting.

    Every time you tell me about the great Russian theater, I will tell you the story of a woman from the Brovary district, from whose house Russian marauders retreated and removed metal tiles from the roof of her house. About tanks and armored personnel carriers of the “Second Army of the World”, loaded to the brim with stolen goods in Ukrainian homes. Stolen phones, tablets, TVs, washing machines, carpets, jewelry, bottles with alcohol, pans, clothes, toys, shoes – those freaks were stealing everything what they saw. When they got to Belarus, they sent their loot to Russia. How they sold stolen goods in Belarusian markets. Here is what I will tell you in response about the persecuted great Russian theater.

    Every time you tell me about the great Russian cinema, I will tell you about the brutally shot horses in the stables in Kyiv region. About the animals of the zoo in Yasnogorodka, died of hunger and thirst. About deer skin burned after the explosion. And now the maximum savagery… About the alabay killed and eaten by the Russian occupiers. Yes, alabay. Yes, dogs. Yes, eaten. Here’s what I’ll tell you in return about the great Russian cinema.

    Every time you tell me about the great Russian literature, I will tell you about dozens of interceptions of conversations of Russian soldiers with their mothers and wives. Conversations in which there is nothing but profanity. Conversations in which wives order them what to steal in Ukrainian homes. Conversations where mothers laugh when their sons tell how their colleagues ​​rape Ukrainian women. And if all profanity would be thrown out of these conversations, there would be left only “hello” and “bye”. Here is what I will tell you in response to the oppressive great Russian literature.

    There is no longer any great Russian culture, literature, cinema, painting, theater and ballet. There is a country of freaks, marauders, rapists and murderers. Wild people who have no place in the civilized world!

    And long-suffering new Russian dissidents in the cozy apartments of Berlin, London, Larnaca, Milan, Tbilisi, Astana, Vienna and other temporary shelters, let them follow the route of the Russian ship, proudly carrying in their hands the great Russian culture!


  7. It is not important to understand russian culture. Will it help someone? Isn’t it obvious what is their culture after witnessing all the actions, speeches and war crimes.
    As for me, it makes sense to study how their propaganda works. It is the only only activity, where their are far beyond the rest of the world.

  8. This is not Putin’s invasion, this is the invasion of Russia and Russians. It is not Putin who personally launches missiles and drops bombs on Ukrainian cities every day. it is not Putin who kills children and rapes women. The Russians do it. Аnd this is not a “conflict”. This is war!

  9. I don’t understand the sentence: “Now especially, it’s important to understand the Russian culture”. The majority of the population, who were brought up in this culture, is now revealed to be supporting a bloody war against another country, and that’s why culture is “especially important” to study? Isn’t this a reason for the cancelation of the culture?

  10. This is not Putin’s war, but of the entire ruzzian people, the full-scale war has been going on for more than a year, not the first wave of mobilisation has already passed in Russia, I do not see the slightest resistance from the russians. It is so shame to use this kind of terminology as “Putin invasion”, “this conflict” and more. It’s not only Putin, but russians, they give orders to shell civilian infrastructure, rob locals and rape – it’s not just Putin either. All russians responsible for it!

  11. Russian studies determined it as “Putins invasion”? That’s not fact-based. Used the right terms if you are writing about academics.

  12. There is no “putin’s invasion”. There is russian invasion. If you want to trully “decolonize” the russian discourse you need to stop pushing this harmful narrative and accept the bitter reality that the majority of population supports the war and instead of looking for justifications think about remedies and actions to take after Ukrainian victory. If you need more language practice perhaps include studying russian comments on social media or visit pro-russia n protests all over Europe.


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