What is wrong with Russian studies in the US?

This article is long and may be a bit specialized for many, but if I may sum it up, it shows that US universities offering Russian studies are stuck in a cold war mind set that hardly captures the essence of today’s Russia. In other words, Russian area “specialists” don’t generally know beans about today’s Russia and are the ones behind US foreign policy in this area. Sound good to you? It is a set up for disaster and the disaster is happening in the Ukraine.

I got a glimpse of this attitude, a kind of low-key Russophobia in academe, when I was looking around for a college to study Russian on the Master’s level. Astoundingly, while undergraduate Russian courses were of course, offered in the Russian language, I found that the biggest name colleges in the US did not offer any of these “Russian” courses in the Russian language. The courses were given in English and many of the profs had only a rudimentary command of the Russian language.

Yuri Grinberg, a prof I met while studying Russian at Colby College in Maine, took me aside one evening over Russian pastries at his on campus cottage and told me that he had once met the head of the Yale Russian department. Yuri was a native Russian and had a glass eye. He looked me in the eye with his biological eye and said to me in his native tongue “you may find this hard to believe but you speak Russian better than the head of the Yale Russian department. His Russian was terrible.” At the time I didn’t know whether to believe it. I had never completed an undergraduate course in Russian, although I had read extensively in the language on my own.

Years later as I was casting about for a suitable graduate school for Russian, I called Harvard, Yale and other big schools and asked them point blank whether they taught their Russian courses on the graduate level in Russian and they told me no. A friend of mine who was working on a Master’s in Russian at Yale had told me that he was forgetting his Russian while there!

I later met a young lady who was taking a graduate course in Russian at Bryn Mawr and she urged me to take the grad course in Russian there. She said they were eager to give away scholarships.

So I drove there to meet with the department head.

I decided to be sneaky and as we were seated in her office I expressed fear that my Russian may not be good enough for her class. My only real fear was that the course would be in English.

She “reassured” me saying that all the courses were given in English and that we would be required only to read English translations of the Russian classics.

I turned on her angrily and said “how can you call these Russian courses if they are in English?”

Now let me add here that I had discovered years earlier that the graduate courses in other European languages on most campuses were given in the respective languages so that Russian was a standout. Even then I took this as a sign of Russophobia. Considering the virulent Neocon hatred of Russia pervading US politics, I am now convinced that I was right in my assessment.

So I wound up taking the course at a small no-name college near my home offered by an eccentric prof named Dr. Richard Fortune, who turned out to be brilliant.

Anyway, here is the story for those who are interested in why so many US “Russia area specialists” seem to hate Russia:


Don Hank




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