Russia(n) Is Back

Whether it's Putin or Pushkin, student interest is sending language enrollments to levels unheard of since the Cold War.
December 15, 2009

At the College of Holy Cross this year, language instructors had to scramble to set up a second section of introductory Russian -- for the first time since the Cold War.

Not only are more students enrolling, but different kinds of students. "Our core has always been those with a love of the literature and we are still getting them, but now we are getting students with all sorts of other interaction with Russian culture," said Amy Adams, associate professor of Russian.

She has Reserve Officers' Training Corps students who want careers in intelligence. She had parents of one student tell her recently that their daughter wants to be a sports lawyer and hopes to deal with Russian hockey players. She has a group of seniors who want to go into the business world in Moscow after they graduate. She has some "heritage speakers" who are from immigrant families and grew up speaking the language, but never learned to read and write it.

"Students view Moscow as glittering and exciting, and they want to be there as young people," said Adams.

The move from one to two sections may seem small compared to the numerous sections of Spanish one can find at many colleges. Indeed, Russian professors are the first to admit that increases of 50 or 100 percent are possible in part because the base was small.

But Russian programs at colleges around the country are reporting such gains, some starting last year but many seeing the gains take off this year. The increases are particularly welcome to those teaching Russian, given the vulnerability during a recession of programs that don't have meaningful enrollments. And the increase could yield a much larger cohort of potential experts to study language, culture, history, politics and society of an obviously important country.

Stetson University last year marked the first time ever it filled two sections of introductory Russian. Indiana University went from three sections of introductory Russian to four. Union College, which used to enroll 5 or 6 students in its introductory Russian course, now has 13, and for the first time in years, there are enough students that the college is offering third year Russian.

The University of Kentucky in the last year saw enrollment in introductory Russian go to 32 from 16 and the Russian department's courses on Russian folklore and culture (taught in English) are at capacity. At the University of Pittsburgh, enrollment in first year Russian has gone to 57 from 39 in the last year, and enrollment in fourth year Russian has gone to 9 from 5. At Portland State University, enrollment in all Russian language courses is 257 this fall, up from 161 a year ago and 112 two years ago.

There are no current national data available on Russian enrollment. But many Russian professors have been trying to figure out what's happening, since it is in such contrast to a post-Cold War depression in interest. The Modern Language Association's periodic surveys of foreign language enrollments provide the best national data, and those figures were last collected in 2006, prior to the recent surge. The MLA data show that Russian enrollments went up only marginally between 1998 and 2006, a period that saw huge gains for languages such as Chinese and Arabic.

The recent increase has implications for many fields. William Taubman, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, said that advanced work in many disciplines depends on graduate students and professors with ability to do research in Russian. Taubman is a political scientist at Amherst College, which is also seeing an increase in Russian language enrollments, and he said that Russian studies is seeing a notable growth in work by sociologists and anthropologists -- in addition to work by historians, literary scholars and political scientists -- and that all of them need the language.

"This is very, very good news for Russian studies," he said.

Why Russian Now?

Many Russian professors, while thrilled with the surge in interest, want to figure it out. Some, like Adams at Holy Cross, point to a confluence of factors. Cynthia A. Ruder, associate professor of Russian at Kentucky, agrees. The U.S. government has classified Russian as a "critical language" and that designation helped attract three Air Force ROTC students to Kentucky's program; more of her students have friends who are immigrants from Russia; others have career goals, such as the art history major planning a career in art research or the international relations major who wants to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Other experts, who note that American students flocked to Russian during the Cold War, say that a friendly Russia (as in the immediate post-Soviet era) is less interesting to students than an in-your-face Russia in which leaders joust (verbally) with the United States and (not verbally) in places like Georgia.

Eugene Huskey, director of Russian studies at Stetson, quoted the Russian saying chem khuzhe, tem luchshe (the worse, the better) as applying to the field. "The worse U.S.-Russian relations are, or the worse the conditions are inside Russia, the more likely students are to read about the country," Huskey said. "The current generation of high school students is growing up with the perception of a more menacing Russia, and that has piqued their curiosity in a way that is not dissimilar to what I experienced as a boy growing up in central Florida during the Cuban missile crisis."

Jeffrey D. Holdeman, Slavic language coordinator at Indiana University, when asked whether the interest is more due to Pushkin or Putin, said that it's both, and added Pasha (a common Russian nickname) as a third reason. When he started teaching Russian in 1996, as a graduate student at Ohio State University, he said Pushkin would have been the answer because literature was the draw. "It was common for students to say that they wanted to be able to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in the original," he said.

Holdeman got in the habit of asking students each year why they enrolled in Russian, and he still hears about literature, but also other reasons. Of late, he said, he hears "more practical and personal reasons," such as "our neighbors are Russian," "my hockey coach is Russian," "I got to go to Russia in high school," "this video game I play has a lot of Russian in it," "my best friend is Russian and I spent all of my time over at his house, his parents feeding me, and I even picked up some words." That's what he thinks of as the Pasha explanation.

As for Putin, Holdeman said that he also hears students say things like, "I think Russian is still relevant in the world" and "Russia is still an important country."

Huskey, of Stetson, said that whatever draws students to Russian, the difficulty for most Americans of learning a language with a different alphabet from the one they know puts a lot of pressure on the professors who teach beginning students, and Huskey credited people like Michael Denner -- an associate professor at Stetson who teaches these students -- with keeping the students. "Every vibrant Russian program has a stellar professor to bring students in the door," Huskey said.

Adams, of Holy Cross, said that because the attraction of Russian language comes from interest in culture and society, not just politics, the classroom and non-classroom offerings can be broad -- and that builds more interest. Holy Cross has a lecture series that has featured a Russian journalist, a Russian novelist, and a Russian professor who is an expert on rock music.

In classes, Adams said doesn't speak any English, and uses YouTube videos of Russian musicians to illustrate some concepts. While some of her students are reading Pushkin, the program "isn't about Pushkin's Russia," she said. At the same time, she was quick to add that once students are engaged with Russia, they embrace the literary classics. One of her former ROTC students recently told her about reading Pushkin during down time in a tank in Iraq.

Some Russian programs may have focused in the past decade on just serving a small number of students, but Adams said that this is the time for these programs to be more visible on campuses. "We have so many professors who can really light up a room, and we need to let people know," she said. "These enrollments are ours to lose."

One of her students is typical of many of the trends Adams and her colleagues elsewhere see.

Nicholas Pope, a freshman at Holy Cross, said he's thinking of going into diplomacy or teaching English as a second language -- and that Russian has appeal for either choice. His mother is Czech, so he has some familiarity with a similar language and grew up "with a fascination of Russia." As more students study Russian, teaching activities that require a critical mass (and that are fun) are also possible. Pope's song and dance routine didn't win this year's "Russian Idol" contest at Holy Cross, but he's hoping for next year.


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