By Lilibeth Garcia
Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale, unprovoked war against Ukraine, the world has widely responded by “canceling” Russian culture. Museums have canceled exhibitions featuring Russian art, orchestras have stopped playing pieces by Russian composers and sports tournaments have banned Russian athletes from competing.
But UCI Russian studies scholar Lora Mjolsness believes learning about Russian culture and language now can actually support Ukraine’s fight against the invasion.
“Right now, Russian classes should be full,” she says. “Those classes should be overfilled with students who want to make a change, because Russian culture is not monolithic or tied to just Russia, as Vladimir Putin would like the world to believe.”
Learning Russian or taking a course about Russian culture is also learning about Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, as well as other nationalities in Russia, such as the Tatars, explains Mjolsness.
It’s not the first time that Russia’s place in geopolitics has had reverberating effects on higher education. At the height of the Cold War, when Russia was viewed as the U.S.’s number one global rival, the American government poured funding into the study of Russia. Learning about the largest European country – understanding its history and its present, and learning its official language – became imperative for ending the Cold War and opening dialogue between the two countries. However, since 2014, governmental funding in Russian studies has greatly decreased.
Mjolsness developed an interest in Russia almost 30 years ago when, much like today, its threats loomed over the public imagination. She learned the language to be able to directly study Russia’s literature and later its animation. In 2020, Mjolsness co-authored She Animates: Gendered Soviet and Russian Animation (American Studies Press, 2020). The book examines 100 years of women’s animation in Russia and the Soviet Union, including the work of female animators who have long been overlooked by film scholars and historians.
In conducting research for her book, she came across the complicated history between Ukraine and Russia. In the 1920s and 30s, in the early decades of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian animators stopped receiving funding from the regime because their work was too nationalistic. If they wanted to produce art, they had to move to Moscow. For a long time, those animators have been called Soviet, erasing their history as Ukrainian. Mjolsness says that Russian studies at UCI, but also across the U.S., is undergoing a transformation to give proper credit to the ethnic groups that fell under Russian colonial rule.
“Calling them Soviet isn’t exactly wrong, but it doesn't tell the whole picture,” Mjolsness says.
Ukraine was once part of the Russian Empire and then under the Soviet Union, when the Russian language was mandated in schools. Today, about one-third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, but the use of Russian has been declining in Ukraine since its pro-Western revolution in 2014. The current war has pushed many Russian-speaking Ukrainians even further from Russia and the Russian language.
Dylan Darwish, a third-year history major who has been taking Russian language courses at UCI, knows firsthand the complexity of overlapping Russian and Ukrainian identity. His mother’s side of the family immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, but they also consider themselves Russian. Taking Russian language courses at UCI offered him an opportunity to learn about a culture and language that connected him to his family’s history.
“With everything going on in the world today, it’s more important than ever to understand the Russian language and culture,” he says. “There can be so many misconceptions and stereotypes when you don’t have any knowledge about a topic, so it’s vital to learn as much as possible in order to stay informed.”
Mjolsness, who has taught Russian language, literature, history and culture at UCI since 2001, says that students take her courses for many reasons. Some are drawn to study famed Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Others are drawn in by ballet, long a symbol of Russian culture. Some are STEM majors who want to read the great Russian mathematicians and chemists or are fascinated by aerospace, and others are computer science and informatics majors with career aspirations in cyber security.
For alumna Larisa Lutes (B.A. Russian civilization ’93), studying Russia was personal. Her mother was born in Belarus during World War II and had to flee the country. Born in Los Angeles, Lutes was raised during the Cold War and experienced prejudice from peers because of her Slavic heritage.
UCI offered her a window into understanding a history that continued to affect her life. The major enabled her to study abroad in Saint Petersburg and move to Moscow after graduation. At the time, Russia was undergoing tremendous change, and she was able to experience those political and economic transformations firsthand. In Moscow, Lutes joined a British law firm specializing in corporate finance. She worked on cross-border deals for foreign businesses to enter the Russian marketplace, even assisting in bringing the very first TGIF restaurant to Moscow.
“Without my knowledge of Russian, I would never have had such an opportunity to be part of building commerce in Russia after decades of communist rule,” Lutes says. “I believe language is the key to understanding other cultures. It offers direct insight to the history and psychology of other people and is also reflective of your own history and psychology.”
Despite there being 150 million people worldwide who speak Russian and the U.S. government still actively seeking expertise in the language, there’s a lack of American experts in the subject.
Mjolsness believes that now is the time for students to fill this gap in expertise. She says students interested in international relations, political science and global studies are particularly needed in ending and preventing war. She notes that the U.S. government is currently hiring Russian experts in the Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Human Development, Department of Labor and Department of the Interior. The FCC, ITC, FBI, CIA, NSA and State Department have also identified Russian as a priority language.
“Students may feel that if they take a class on Russian culture or language, that somehow indicates they support the Russian assault on Ukraine, but I would say that, really, the opposite is true,” Mjolsness says. “By taking a Russian class, you're saying, ‘This is not right, and I'm going to learn everything I can about it to become an expert – and not only understand current world events but shape the future as well.’”