Russian Studies in the UK: Woefully Inadequate

What has happened to Russian Studies in the UK? University Russian departments are decreasing — not increasing — in number and size. Trying to gain a Russian qualification is now about as easy as pronouncing 'ы' for the first time. 

Tue, May 12, 2015
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More Russian, please.
More Russian, please.

Sitting in the Senate Room at Glasgow University recently, listening to the warm words of the Consul General on the importance of Russian Studies for the future of Russian-British relations, I couldn't help but feel despondent. The event brought together scholars of Russian Studies past and present, who gave fascinating presentations on a variety of topics within the field. It was held in commemoration of one of Britain's foremost academics of Russian Studies, Terence Wade, whose grammar books are still studied intently by students of Russian across the world today in a desperate attempt to somehow get to grips with this beast of a language.

However, the room was not a dynamic hub of young scholars looking to seek inspiration and guidance in their future adventures in the Russkii Mir. Instead here were the veterans of Cold War academia and there was a sense of being plunged back to a time when Russian Studies was Soviet Studies, when a wealth of enthusiastic young Russophiles and Communist sympathisers dared to oppose the 'system'. What has happened to Russian Studies in the UK? University Russian departments are decreasing — not increasing — in number and size. Trying to gain a Russian qualification is now about as easy as pronouncing 'ы' for the first time. 

One individual in Britain who is determined to do something about it is Jenny Carr, chairperson of the Russia-Scotland Forum. She has fought tirelessly to reinstate Russian language in schools. Various reasons are cited for the subject's demise, including language conservatism (emphasis on other EU languages particularly French, Spanish and German); the recent focus on languages such as Mandarin and, in Scotland, Gaelic; and lack of Russian governmental input. It could also be argued also that the present political climate and general negative attitude towards Russia at a governmental level also prevents support of the subject. 

Nevertheless, political cooperation between Britain and Russia was just as volatile during the Soviet period, and yet Soviet Studies flourished. Perhaps, during the Soviet era, socialist scholars were attracted globally to the Soviet cause, but since the fall of the Soviet Union there has been something of an ideological vacuum and students of Russian are either i) lured by the romance of this enigmatic land, ii) require it for commercial reasons or iii) are simply enthusiastic linguists. It is not recognised that in order to maintain international peace, countries need diplomats who have a thorough knowledge of this great nation — and this can only be done within Russian Studies departments. As Jenny Carr comments, “There cannot be intelligent discussion of Russian affairs (political, cultural or commercial) until Russia is better understood by more people.”

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Only in February this year it was acknowledged by the UK House of Lords EU Committee that a "catastrophic misreading" of Russia’s position on Ukraine by British and EU diplomats had contributed to the recent crisis, while simultaneously the Foreign Office announced a dire shortage of Russian speakers. What more reason does one need to support Russian Studies?

Furthermore, to develop a relationship with the subject is the beginning of a lifelong romance. Learning Russian is a window onto a different world and the mind-set of a people who cherish and nurture their identity and history. Once bitten by the Russian bug, you’re hooked for life.


Johanna Ganyukova is a graduate from the University of Edinburgh in Russian Studies and is completing an Msc at the University of Glasgow in Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies. She is RI’s Russian Media Editor

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