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Moscow's Invasion Of Ukraine Triggers 'Soul-Searching' At Western Universities As Scholars Rethink Russian Studies


A child plays on top of an exhibition of destroyed Russian military vehicles and weapons outside St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv.
A child plays on top of an exhibition of destroyed Russian military vehicles and weapons outside St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv.

When more than 2,000 Slavic, East European, and Eurasian studies specialists from around the world gather in Philadelphia later this year for their largest annual conference, Russia's invasion of Ukraine will dominate the discussion -- or loom large over the proceedings, at the very least.

In Ukraine, Moscow's unprovoked war has killed tens of thousands of people and laid cities and towns to waste. At universities across the West, it has thrust Russia's history of imperialism and colonialism to the forefront of Slavic and Eurasian academic discussion -- from history and political science to art and literature.

The war is forcing scholars, departments, and university officials to question how they teach the history of Russia, the former Soviet Union, and the region, what textbooks and sources they use, whom they hire, which archives they mine for information, and even what departments should be named.

The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) has made "decolonization" -- which it describes as "a profoundly political act of re-evaluating long-established and often internalized hierarchies, of relinquishing and taking back power" -- the theme of its 2023 conference.

"Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to widespread calls for the reassessment and transformation of Russo-centric relationships of power and hierarchy both in the region and in how we study it," the association says in a notice on the convention.

"The war is really an earth-moving event and academia -- as part of that world -- has been shaken," Edward Schatz, the director of the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) at the University of Toronto, told RFE/RL. "I feel like it is impossible to do things the way we have done it all along. Something has to change. The question is how much changes and along what dimensions."

Schatz says the CERES faculty will hold a two-day meeting in January to discuss a host of issues including the curriculum and whether to change the center's name. Some faculty have questioned why an institution covering a region that spans two continents and reaches from the Atlantic to the Pacific should have only one country -- Russia -- in its name.

In Britain, meanwhile, the University of Cambridge is holding a series of lectures under the banner "Rethinking Slavonic Studies." Among other examples, scholars in North America are working on a book of essays that will focus on "decolonizing Eastern European and Eurasian art and material culture."

Trauma 'Overlooked'

Many scholars say the Russian state receives too much focus in academia at the expense of the colonized nations, regions, and groups, including Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, as well as ethnic minority communities in Russia itself. The view from St. Petersburg and Moscow -- the capitals of Russia since the tsarist era and of the Soviet Union -- dominates.

Proponents of decolonization or "decentering" are calling for a greater inclusion of voices from those nations and regions in the curriculum of Russian, Soviet, and Eurasian history, literature, culture, political science, and economics.

Oxana Shevel, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts and president of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies, says many scholars of the region feel that academia has "overlooked to a large extent" the trauma caused by Russian imperialism and colonialism.

The focus, instead, tends to be on the Moscow-centric view that the Russian and Soviet states brought "modernization, education, and industrialization" to those communities.

"Scholars who study non-Russian regions of the former Soviet space are basically speaking with one voice for the need to decolonize Soviet and post-Soviet studies," Shevel told RFE/RL.

That voice is not being heard -- or heeded -- by everyone in the field. Scholars calling for change say they are facing resistance from some academics whose primary focus is Russia.

The potential impact of the shift that has begun goes beyond the need to rewrite lectures and incorporate new material. It could also affect current and future research projects and reach back in time, as well, leading to greater scrutiny of past works.

'Misjudged And Misunderstood'

Decolonization "is not a very comfortable conversation for most of my colleagues, but I think it is an unavoidable one given the circumstances," Valentina Izmirlieva, the director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies, told RFE/RL.

"This is still a developing situation and it is difficult to know how things will change a year from now," Izmirlieva said.

Erica Marat, a professor of political science at the National Defense University in Washington and a Central Asia expert, says the push by scholars of Ukraine to challenge the status quo in academia has inspired those studying other regions ruled by Moscow. "The war in Ukraine and just how Ukrainian scholars are speaking out is really opening up a lot of space for the rest of us," she told RFE/RL.

Vitaly Chernetsky, a Ukrainian-born professor of Slavic and Eurasian languages and literatures at the University of Kansas, says that the works of experts from non-Russian regions and communities are not taken seriously enough by peers, a view shared by Marat and others.

Vitaly Chernetsky
Vitaly Chernetsky

Ukraine has been "misjudged and misunderstood" in the West in part because scholars of Russia dominate the discussion, Chernetsky said.

As a case in point, he says one reason many in the field expected Kyiv to fall quickly following the Russian invasion in February was that they bought into the narrative that Ukraine was a "divided" nation with a weak sense of national identity.

Universities rarely offer courses in the history or culture of Ukraine, Europe's largest country by size and its seventh-largest by population. A major reason has been a lack of student demand -- which scholars say is a result of the entrenched focus on Russia, though the war has led to a spike in interest.

In the academic curriculum, Ukraine has been "part of a larger laundry list of 15 post-Soviet countries or countries of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia," said Chernetsky, who became vice president of ASEEES on January 1.

The Ukrainian diaspora has played a major role in keeping Ukrainian studies going in the West, funding visiting professors and language classes at select universities, scholars told RFE/RL.

John Vsetecka, a 33-year-old graduate student who will defend his thesis on Ukrainian history next year, says it's hard for scholars like himself studying former Soviet republics other than Russia to find faculty positions on the tenure track.

"Few ever move out of temporary jobs" as researchers or visiting professors, Vsetecka said. The result, he added, is a "brain drain" of regional expertise from academia.

Emigre Influence

Scholars say studies of the Eurasian regions of Russia and Soviet studies in the United States has historically been taught from a Moscow-centric perspective because of the outsized influence of Russian-born scholars who helped found the field.

Clarence Manning, chairman of the Department of Slavic Studies at Columbia University and one of the few Ukraine experts of his time, made this argument in a 1957 scholarly article.

A dominant school of thought within U.S. academia held that "every person within the old Russian empire is a Russian," he wrote. These scholars, described as "Russia Firsters," repeated "old traditional formulas set out by Russian scholarship before the [1917] Revolution" and treated Russia and later the Soviet Union "as a single, unified country."

The lack of attention to "non-Russian Slavic tongues and histories" was "unfortunate, for it tended to give instruction in the major centers a Russian, if not Soviet, orientation, a fact which would cause repercussions in the following period."

Sixty-five years later, those repercussions continue to be felt.

Susan Smith-Peter, a professor of Russian history at the College of Staten Island in New York, says that the teachings of Vasily Klyuchevsky, an imperial-era scholar and one of the founders of modern Russian historiography, were essentially transplanted to the United States.

Susan Smith-Peter
Susan Smith-Peter

Klyuchevsky, who died in 1911, denied the existence of Ukraine as a people and a culture distinct from Russia, she says. His students in Moscow included Michael Karpovich, who would go on to teach generations of Russia scholars over three decades at Harvard University, from 1927 to 1957.

Kyiv, Rus, And Russia

Karpovich "rejected the historiographical legitimacy of a separate Ukrainian history," Smith-Peter wrote in a blog post this month, adding that as a result, the works of Ukrainian scholars "were often not integrated into the work of Russian historians."

Vasily Klyuchevsky
Vasily Klyuchevsky

One key narrative passed on from imperial-era historians by emigres, and still widely taught in the United States today, is that Russia is the direct and sole successor to Kievan Rus -- also known as Kyivan Rus, from the city's Ukrainian name -- a state that reached the peak of its power a century before Moscow was founded.

Putin, who has falsely claimed that Ukrainians and Russians are "one people" and has suggested in numerous historically inaccurate written and spoken remarks that Ukraine has no right to exist as a fully sovereign state, has used that vastly simplified notion of continuity in attempts to justify his war.

His skewed version of history appears to be at the center of what numerous analysts have said is Putin's obsession with dominating Ukraine.

Members of the clergy mark the 1031st anniversary of the Christianization of Rus by a monument to St. Vladimir in Borovitskaya Square in Moscow in 2019.
Members of the clergy mark the 1031st anniversary of the Christianization of Rus by a monument to St. Vladimir in Borovitskaya Square in Moscow in 2019.

The large-scale invasion has "led to a period of soul-searching within Russian studies" and is forcing scholars to reconsider how they do things, Smith-Peter said.

She said she will "fundamentally change" how she teaches Russian and Soviet history to include the perspectives of colonized people and question the simplified continuity between Kievan Rus and Russia.

She suggests that scholars of Russia, especially those doing work on the Soviet period, should learn Ukrainian in order to use Ukrainian archives.

'People Are Dying Over This'

Mark Steinberg, professor emeritus of Russian history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the co-author with the late Nicholas Riasanovsky of the widely used textbook A History Of Russia, told RFE/RL the current debate isn't new.

Academia has been grappling with questions of Russian and Soviet imperialism and colonialism and how to teach it since fall of communism in the late 1980s, Steinberg says. He says that the field has changed over the years, with universities now seeking scholars who specialize in the Russian Empire rather than the state and who know a second regional language besides Russian.

Nonetheless, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has "pushed the field to understand empire and colonialism as probably never before," Steinberg said. "Previously it was all academic discussion but now people are dying over this."

The challenge academics now face is understanding how Russian imperialism and colonialism impact the way they think about or approach their subjects. "I think that is the most interesting shift, and probably the most controversial," he said.

As for the textbook A History Of Russia, Steinberg said he has made "some significant changes in the direction of questioning simple assumptions about Kyiv-Moscow continuities and will develop these further in the 10th edition."

While some institutions and professors have been making changes to their classes and curricula, Chernetsky said, the field still needs "deep, structural" change.

"The important thing here is not to lose momentum, because big academic institutions tend to be inert," he said.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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