Amidst Russia’s war on Ukraine, administrators, staff and students in Yale’s Slavic Languages and Literatures Department cope with learning and teaching Russophone culture.
Zoe Berg, Senior Photographer
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced Yale’s Slavic Languages and Literatures Department onto its toes.
Class programming has been updated, access to archives have been lost and the Department as a whole has been placed under a spotlight as the conflict carries into the new school year.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine has had huge personal and professional consequences for all of us in the Department,” Department Chair Edyta Bojanowska wrote in an email to the News. “Many of us have been flooded with emails asking for help and have served as clearing houses directing scholars, artists and students to various resources.”
When the war began in the winter of 2022, faculty in the Department knew they had to respond with clarity and force. The Department held town halls, called for the conflict’s end and offered a list of ways to help from the Substack of history professor Timothy Snyder. As the conflict carries on, the Department continues to adjust its programming in response.
In the spring, the Department held a town hall to discuss the impact of the war on members of the Yale community, including those residing in Russia and Ukraine. In particular,the Department has lost access to many of its Russian-housed archives, affecting dissertation plans for its graduate students.
The conflict’s continuation into summer and fall presented further issues to the Department, including the difficult decision to hold their St. Petersburg Summer Program entirely on campus in New Haven.
Director of Study Abroad Kelly McLaughlin told the News that after the U.S. Department of State issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory for Russia, the Study Abroad department immediately modified its Russian language program into a domestic one. The Do Not Travel advisory for Russia is still in place.
A statement made by the study abroad office last spring announced that students would not be able to move their applications to another Yale Summer Session Program Abroad. The Russian summer study abroad program, which was canceled last year, is being moved to the Black Sea coast of Georgia, where students will instead immerse themselves in Georgian culture and learn the basics of the language.
Summer ended, but the conflict — and its complications for the Department — did not.
The Department is offering 44 courses this fall, 26 in the Russian Program of Study and three in the Ukrainian. Students and faculty alike have faced added stressors in teaching and learning usual subject material as the invasion looms in the background.
Bojanowska, however, noted that the Department did not have “to scramble to react to this crisis unprepared.”
Since its inception, the Department has taken care to cover empire and colonialism in Russian and Soviet culture, as well as an emphasis on Russophone cultures rather than a monomaniacal focus on Russia alone. Students are taught to critique and investigate famous Russian works of art, rather than simply accept their nationalist nature, Bojanowska explained.
“We cultivate a transnational approach in both our research and teaching,” Bojanowska said. “Again, this is not something that we began doing in the spring of 2022. We embraced this vision long ago, which is why, when the war hit, we were ready to meet the intellectual and ethical challenges of the historical moment.”
Nevertheless, Bojanowska told the News that the Department has had to modulate some of its curriculum in response to the conflict. She emphasized that departmental faculty are striving to decenter their approaches to the study of the region and to “dislodge Russia from its hegemonic position in our field’s epistemologies.”
The Department already offers “Russia Between Empire and Nation,” a course on Russian and Soviet imperialism. This spring, the class will be adjusted from a seminar to a lecture in anticipation of increased student demand.
Bojanowska added that the Department is working to increase its focus on Ukrainian history and protest culture. She noted that one basic Russian grammatical lesson incorporated “the fraught political implications behind two different Russian prepositions used to say ‘in Ukraine’ … showing how each is associated with different political claims about [its] status.”
English-language Russian culture classes have also been deeply affected by the conflict. Bojanowska teaches a lecture course called “Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’,” a popular offering within the department and Yale College’s biggest literature course, with over 100 students.
This year, Bojanowska explained that she has centered her lectures around “direct connections between the novel and what is in the news,” using the text as to consider current sociopolitical issues.
Bojanowska insisted that the Department’s solution to the conflict was not to “‘cancel’ Russian culture,” but rather to reorient and adapt it to fit into today’s world. She added that she hopes more, not fewer, students will now attempt to understand Russia’s culture and history.
“I can think of no better immunization against the Kremlin’s propaganda: to know that some supposedly inviolable ‘truths’ may actually be culturally constructed myths,” Bojanowska stated.
Bojanowska admitted, however, that the Department still sees the potential to go further in addressing the conflict.The Department is currently looking for a specialist in non-Russian Eastern European languages and cultures and is attempting to install in-person instruction of the Ukrainian language at the University.
Faculty in other departments are also finding ways of responding to the conflict.
“Personally, I decided to create a new general survey of Ukrainian history, HIST 247, which is an open course,” Professor Snyder told the News.
Snyder noted that the first lecture has already garnered more than 400,000 views, and that the course is only the second lecture survey on Ukrainian history being taught in the U.S.
The Slavic Languages and Literatures Department is housed in the Humanities Quadrangle at 320 York Street.
Correction, Oct. 6: This story has been updated to reflect that access to archives has been lost, not the articles themselves.