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



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