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Grant aims to build interest in Russian studies

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


LAWRENCE – Turns out it wasn’t “the end of history” after all. The “happily ever after” ending to the Cold War, in which the West emerged unchallenged, was fleeting, which means the United States needs more Russian studies scholars. And in 2020, the University of Kansas Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (CREES) will spread that word throughout the Sunflower State with the help of a grant from the U.S. Russia Foundation.

Despite the optimism of Francis Fukuyama’s influential article “The End of History?” — published in 1989 as the Iron Curtain was collapsing — Russia remains a strategic threat to Western democracy. One need only look at the roles the Kremlin has played in the 2016 presidential election and the current impeachment imbroglio.

And that means that the U.S. needs analysts, diplomats, military officers and others who can speak the Russian language and understand its culture. So does the U.S. private sector.

KU has been one of the nation’s top language schools for decades, and during the Cold War it produced many Russian speakers who are even now serving the country. But with the supposed “end of history,” interest in the region dropped off.

So Vitaly Chernetsky, CREES director and associate professor in the School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures, applied this year for a grant to stimulate interest in the program among Kansas students in grades K-12.

“The U.S. Russia Foundation was launched in 2008 as part of the Obama administration's policy to reset relations with Russia,” Chernetsky said. “Unfortunately, the Russian government was not too keen on resetting, and so the foundation had to leave Russia and to rethink its mission. Its mission now is to support knowledge about Russia and to make sure that there are new experts in the pipeline for future generations. Because right now, in a lot of policy meetings or expert meetings, there is just way too much gray hair in the room and not enough younger people.”

Chernetsky understands why, after the 9/11 terror attacks, “a lot of effort went into Middle Eastern studies, and into Arabic especially, which still remains hugely important. But in the meantime, Russia did not go away. It is very, very important for us now, and there are not enough people with skills to fill all the positions in the government and business, so we saw the foundation really tries to encourage a diverse range of programs of this kind.”

Chernetsky described his plans for the one-year grant, valued at nearly $100,000.

“It pays for a whole range of activities, from bringing guest speakers to organizing a conference, creating an educational website and paying graduate students and a faculty supervisor to provide content for that,” he said.

To target grade-school children, Chernetsky said, some of the grant money will be used to buy, distribute and discuss copies of Eugene Yelchin’s 2012 Newbery Award-honored book “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.”

“It's written from a point of view of a 9-year-old boy at the time when Stalin is dying,” Chernetsky said. The protagonist is disillusioned when his hero, Stalin, unjustly imprisons his father.

CREES instructors will also fan out across the state, targeting students in high schools and community colleges for presentations.

“We will be reaching out to K-12 teachers, to community colleges, to minority-serving institutions. We already talked with Donnelly College about doing something with them,” Chernetsky said.

“This is not to teach a Russian class at Donnelly but to give them a taste and make them interested, and perhaps to think that you do not need to have advanced language skills to apply for a graduate program. Or if you are getting an associate's degree and transferring to KU, you can at least have it on your radar that this is a part of the world where interesting things are happening, and you can then catch up by taking language classes after you transfer.”

Chernetsky said he knows of some students who entered a master’s program “with zero Slavic languages, and by doing two years and an intensive summer in between, or a summer before they started and then two years, they were able to have proficiency by the time they graduate. It's not impossible.”

Photo: A view of Moscow’s Kremlin from the Patriarshy Bridge. Credit: Oleg Yu.Novikov / Wikimedia Commons

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