“Russian studies are enjoying a slow but steady resurrection on college campuses across the U.S.,” said Anton Fedyashin, executive director of American University’s Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC).
There is no single reason for the renewed interest in Russian studies, but certainly here in Washington, proximity to the seat of power in the nation’s capital attracts students with a passion for global affairs.
“Diving in and studying another culture and language is common here,” said Eric Lohr, director of the IRC. Many students in the area aspire to jobs with federal agencies, embassies, think tanks, government contractors or trade associations, which comprise the backbone of the city.
Beyond the city’s institutional character, the popularity of Russia-centric coursework tends to rise and fall depending on what’s happening in the nation of 140 million.
A big spike in interest came in the late 1980s with Perestroika, but it dropped in the 1990s after the Soviet Union broke up and Russia was no longer a dominant world power, said Michael David-Fox, a professor and historian of modern Russian and Soviet history at Georgetown University. “Interest in a country’s language, history, culture is to a certain extent always correlated to its place in the world.”
But Russia still wields considerable influence on the world stage. Under Vladimir Putin, who has ruled the country in one form or another since 2000, Russia’s economy has steadily expanded thanks largely to oil and natural gas revenues (though the space for democratic dissent has notably shrunk).
In addition to its energy wealth, Fedyashin says that Russia’s strategic location in Eurasia also makes it a pivotal player in two of the most important geopolitical trends in the 21st century: the rise of China and changes sweeping the Islamic world.
“Because both regions border Russia, they affect what is going on inside the country, while Russia also affects those regions,” Fedyashin said, noting that the biggest reason behind the surge in Russian studies is “the increase in Russia’s relative geopolitical importance in the wake of its impotence during the 1990s.”
“In 2008, Putin did us the favor of sending troops into the Caucasus,” said Richard M. Robin, director of the Russian Language Program at George Washington University, referring to Russia’s brief war with Georgia. “Our enrollments, and those across the country, shot up by 50 percent. On the other hand, without major international incidents — and Pussy Riot and gay-bashing are internal issues that don’t rouse interest — enrollment falls.”
At the moment though, there’s no shortage of international incidents to study, especially when it comes to Russia’s former Cold War nemesis, the United States. Last month, President Obama announced he was canceling a one-on-one meeting with Putin ahead of the G-20 economic summit in September. The snub came after Russia granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the American fugitive security contractor who leaked NSA spy secrets. The administration admitted that despite a highly touted “reset” in relations early in Obama’s first term, the two sides remain far apart on issues ranging from missile defense and arms control to human rights and trade.
Of course, the tortured relationship between Russia and the United States has been studied extensively in both countries. While Moscow is no longer the Cold War-era archrival it once was, it still seems to relish its role as the anti-America counterweight, frustrating Washington’s foreign policy agenda on Syria, democracy promotion and other areas.
“Putin’s consolidation still has to be reckoned with and some students are interested in making political careers connected to U.S.-Russian relations,” said David-Fox.
These students know that U.S. policymakers will have to navigate this prickly relationship for years to come, with the goal of building a stronger foundation based on mutual understanding, not recrimination.
“Learning a country’s culture has everything to do with beginning to understand a nation’s mentality — this is what draws students to study Russia through various lenses, including the cultural one,” Fedyashin said.
Sergey Kislyak, Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S., said that learning about Russian culture can help bridge the lingering Cold War-era divide.
“More and more students in the Washington area are learning the Russian language and studying Russian culture,” he told The Diplomat. “These educational experiences are prime to understanding the Russian national spirit and help facilitate a reciprocal conversation across borders and dismantle old mentality stereotypes.”
Here’s a look at how America’s erstwhile enemy still inspires curiosity among students in the Washington area.
Georgetown University has a long history of Russian studies. “Elements of that tradition have always been a magnet for students,” said David-Fox. “Many students who want to be in Washington are interested in foreign relations, foreign policy and America’s place in the world.”
The number of students studying Russia has dipped somewhat in part because of events in Asia and the Middle East, although interest in Russia is greater now than it was a few years ago, said George Mihaychuk, an associate professor who teaches Russian and Ukrainian language and literature. “And some students don’t want to go with the flow of interest in Arabic and Chinese, which are increasingly popular.”
He added that, “Student interest today is often linked to energy and security issues and less so to literature and culture … compared to the past when students often came to Russia through [novelist Fyodor] Dostoyevsky.”
Yet one of the most popular classes in American University’s History Department is Fedyashin’s “The Cold War and the Spy Novel,” which examines the Cold War through the lens of espionage fiction. Last year, Fedyashin also offered a summer trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where he explored Russia as depicted by Dostoyevsky.
The legendary author of “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov,” with his powerful messages about human morality, seems like a natural topic for a classroom discussion, but where do Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” novels fit in?
Fedyashin says the Bond novels are part of his spy novel course because they illustrate the misunderstandings that were rampant during the Cold War.
“In ‘From Russia With Love,’ published in 1957, Bond complains about the Soviets being better armed, better supplied and better funded than he and his service are,” Fedyashin said. “When Fleming began to write in the early 1950s, it seemed to him and his contemporaries that the Soviet Union was actually winning the Cold War and communism was on the rise around the globe.”
That’s because while the allure of Western democracy — embodied by Bond’s lavish, heroic lifestyle — may seem self-evident now, many people were genuinely drawn to Soviet-style communism.
“My students often ask, ‘Why would anyone ever believe in communism?'” Fedyashin said. “The overt racism of ‘Live and Let Die’ reflects the general treatment of African Americans and other non-Caucasian ethnic groups in the United States at that time. When one remembers the difference between that and communist propaganda’s racial and ethnic inclusion, one understands why communism so often appealed to Third World societies going through decolonization.
“The course helps students explore the most important elements of the Cold War — stereotypes and misrepresentations,” Fedyashin added. “But it also prepares them to question the rhetoric contemporary governments and the media provide to them on a daily basis.”
John Little, 36, said his family inspired him to question his preconceived notions about Russia and learn more about the country. The Georgia native is a Ph.D. candidate at American University and a teaching assistant to undergraduate students.
“My grandfather was really interested in Russia culturally and wanted me to explore it and see that people [there] aren’t all that different, so I signed up for Russian in my first semester at the University of Richmond and liked it,” he recalled. After graduation, Little spent several years enhancing his language skills.
For his thesis, he is researching people with disabilities in the early Soviet Union. “I was struck by stories of wounded soldiers returning home after World War I. They were considered living, moving reminders of the war and became a mark of celebration,” he said.
After graduation, Little said he wants to teach college-level Russian and continue his research.
“Russia doesn’t come up as often in the news as when I was growing up,” he said, but American University students care about the country and are politically active. He credits them with a strong sense of equality and social justice, and he believes that speaking the language and knowing the culture will help affect change.
That’s exactly the kind of thinking that the university’s Initiative for Russian Culture hopes to foster. IRC was established two years ago with funding from philanthropist Susan Lehrman, who chaired the Washington National Opera’s 2010 Opera Ball at the Russian Embassy and continues to work closely with the embassy.
“Those Russian connections led from one thing to another and she came up with the idea for the Initiative for Russian Culture,” said Eric Lohr, who is the Susan Carmel Lehrman chair of Russian history and culture at American University.
The program hosts screenings of classic and contemporary Russian films followed by discussions. Maestro Valery Gergiev of the Mariinsky Theatre spoke to an IRC audience at the Library of Congress, and later this year a well-known American jazz musician will perform with Russian jazz great Igor Butman.
“These get-togethers are huge and have helped create a community of local students who are studying and learning Russian,” said Lohr. “Some have turned into date nights and spurred an interest in Russian studies.”
The result is that the number of students taking Russian history, culture and language classes are up.
“I think the best and most important example of IRC’s success has been our growing audiences and in particular young audiences,” said Lehrman, chair of IRC’s advisory committee. “Over the past two years, we have reached more than 9,000 students and guests.”
George Mason University
George Mason’s Russian studies program is more than 30 years old, and while interest in the country declined for a period after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, enrollment in Russian language courses has been fairly stable and strong over the past six years, said James S. Levine, associate professor and director of Russian and Eurasian studies.
“Of course during the late 1980s when [Mikhail] Gorbachev was in power, there was enormous interest in Russia and the Russian language, but that period represented a historical high with respect to student enrollments, and it is not fair to compare the numbers then with those today. Still, our Russian program is healthy and on an upward trajectory,” he told The Diplomat.
“When I came here in 1988, we only taught five languages and Russian was the most exotic,” said Julie A. Christensen, an associate professor and chair of modern and classical languages at George Mason. “Today we offer 16, including Arabic, Persian and Turkish, so some students are drawn to those.”
But Russian, which is widely spoken throughout Eurasia, still draws students who are up for the challenge of learning the Cyrillic-based alphabet — even younger students. The university hosts an annual Russian Olympiad, a high school initiative that typically brings some 200 students to campus to demonstrate their abilities in spoken Russian competitions.
The Russian language fascinates Alec Constantine, who was born in Russia and adopted by an American family when he was 3 years old. He studied Russian at Langley High School in Virginia for four years.
Now a senior at George Mason, Constantine, 22, is on his way to Moscow State University for a yearlong study program. When he returns in June, he plans to take the State Department’s Foreign Service exam and will request a posting in a Russian-speaking country.
“Russia is the most popular destination country for American Russian speakers and is very competitive so I’ll also ask for Central Asia, specifically Kazakhstan, because this will give me a better opportunity,” he said.
He views the government as his primary professional route but minored in business and one day may pursue a private sector job, perhaps with a Russian gas company.
George Washington University
“George Washington’s Russian program enjoys a strong national and international reputation,” said Peter Rollberg, director of the university’s European and Eurasian graduate program and director of its Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.
“Our campus hosts the only monument honoring Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in the U.S., dedicated in 2000 in the presence of the Russian minister of foreign affairs. Both the most fundamental encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet cinema and the best-selling college textbook ‘Golosa’ were created at GW,” said Rollberg.
Julian Waller, 22, from Rockport, Mass., is a Ph.D. student at George Washington University who said Russia is as relevant as ever, despite developments in the Arab world and elsewhere.
“For someone growing up in the 2000s, everything is happening in Iraq, the Middle East and Asia,” he said, “so everyone who’s interested in international affairs studies Arabic or Chinese, and Russia is sort of the neglected part of the world.”
In college, Waller was increasingly drawn to Russian politics and history. He took language courses for four years and studied at Bashkir State Pedagogical University in Ufa, Russia, and at Herzen State Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg.
“I arrived at GW thinking I wanted to be a diplomat, but I came to a whole new focus,” he said. “Now I’m researching electoral systems, elections, political parties, democratization and authoritarian states in the post-Soviet Union. History is vital to understanding everything. I want to know how politics works.”
About the Author
Audrey Hoffer is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
Relations between Washington and Moscow may be frosty at the moment — and Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin may not be on speaking terms right now — but the conversation is still going strong at the local level.
Karyn Dubravetz, 33, organizes the weekly DC Russian Language Meetup Group that always attracts at least 20 people among over 500 active members. The group coalesces around dinner, drinks and casual get-togethers to keep up their Russian language skills.
“We talk about everyday matters, current events in D.C. or Russia,” said Dubravetz, who studied Russian in high school in Ohio and continued in college. “Everyone else was taking Spanish and French and I decided to try something different. I always loved it,” she said.
“I think it’s important for people to study foreign languages. I’m embarrassed that our country doesn’t place more emphasis on it. So many foreigners come here speaking English plus more than one other language. We could be more worldly citizens and show other countries we understand their cultures if we spoke their languages,” Dubravetz said.
Anton Fedyashin, executive director of American University’s Initiative for Russian Culture, said he thinks U.S. students are becoming more worldly and open to better understanding a country that no longer fits the traditional adversarial mold.
“It is a great statement on the common sense and wisdom of the American people that the young generation is so drawn to Russian culture as a way to understand the country’s mentality beyond the usual stereotypes,” he said.
“Diplomacy is a question of what you choose to stress in your relationship with people — emphasizing and arguing about differences with the hope of forcing the other person to adopt your point of view or identifying similarities and building a relationship on them,” Fedyashin said. “It all comes down to learning to disagree and behaving like civilized people. You can’t turn an American into a Russian and vice versa, but you can sure enrich each other by exploring your differences.”
— Audrey Hoffer