Slavic department navigates Russia’s war in Ukraine

Evgeny Dengub, a professor of Russian, started to use articles about the Russian government and official documents, as well as news stories about the Russo-Ukrainian war, to teach his class using current day context. (Gina Nguyen | Daily Trojan)

Before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Evgeny Dengub planned to discuss Russian ballet, figure skating and pop music in his “Advanced Russian in Popular Culture” class. After Feb. 24, when the Kremlin launched its first assaults on major Ukrainian cities, he knew he no longer could.

“Neither me nor my students were suddenly [still] interested in the centuries of Russian great art or culture, or contemporary culture, for that matter,” said Dengub, a professor of Russian, director of the Russian program and director of the Center for Languages and Cultures. “All we talked about was the war.”

Dengub began to use articles about the conflict and official documents from the Russian government to teach his class Russian in today’s context. The war, which led nearly eight million people to flee Ukraine, became the elephant in his classroom, just as it did in USC’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

The department, which offers undergraduate majors in Russian and Central European Studies and describes itself as being “dedicated primarily to the study of the language, literature and culture of modern Russia,” released a statement condemning the Russian aggression shortly after it broke out.

“As scholars who devote our lives to the study of Russia and eastern Europe, the faculty of the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures unequivocally condemn Russia’s flagrantly illegal and barbaric aggression against its fellow Slavic nation of Ukraine,” the statement read. “We stand with the Ukrainians defending their country and nation.”

The department was initially concerned about being identified with the government of Russia and the Putin regime, said Interim Department Chair Thomas Seifrid, who also serves as a professor of Russian literature. Seifrid said he feels the distinction between the Russian state and the study of Russian culture and language is a critical one to make.

“In no way are we apologists for [Putin’s] brutal and barbaric war,” Seifrid said. “We don’t support it, but also we don’t feel that the study of Russia or Russian should be set aside or abandoned just because of this war going on.”

Dengub, too, is against the so-called “cancel culture” that, he said, leads certain things to be speedily “deleted” because they contradict contemporary rhetoric and opinions. Dengub pointed to Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel laureate who penned a poem depicting Ukraine in a negative light, who he believes should not be banned from academia despite his views. 

“I don’t think it’s reason enough — at an academic level, at the university level — to just say, ‘Okay, we’re not teaching Brodsky anymore. Brodsky’s persona non grata.’ No,” Dengub said.

A survey of world history, Seifrid argued, suggests that most cultures have engaged in bloody wars, repressed minorities and committed other heinous acts that make them worthy, to some, of being “canceled.” Scholars and the public, he said, should resist giving Russian culture the same treatment. 

“What is additionally significant about Russia, not unique to Russia, but I think stands out about its culture, is [that it is] the kind of culture … that was produced in opposition to the political regime,” Seifrid said.

Russianists’ role is critical amid the war, Seifrid said, as they can astutely explain the mindset that produced anti-Ukraine aggression without necessarily supporting it, and provide perspective on the conflict that only those with a wealth of knowledge on Russian history, culture and language can. 

Teaching not significantly impacted

The department didn’t issue guidance on curriculums after the war broke out, as professors have “fairly large autonomy” over the topics and materials they teach, Dengub said. 

Just as Dengub changed the focus of his popular culture class after the war began, so did Elena Petrova, an assistant lecturer of “Intermediate Russian II” and a graduate student in the department. The war, she said, led her to screen Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s TV show, “Servant of the People,” which fits into one of the class’ themes: household problems and chores. 

Petrova said the war hasn’t changed her teaching in a significant way, as Russian language pedagogy in the department isn’t about the state, but about culture. When the Russian mobilization began Sept. 21, however, Petrova, who is originally from Russia, had a weight bearing on her: the possibility of her brother being drafted to fight for the Russian military in Ukraine.

“I had to go to class after it and my task was not to burst in tears in front of students,” said Petrova, who also said she avoids taking up too much class time with talk of the war, preferring to discuss it with her students outside of class.

Considerations about teaching Russian history and thought, including expanding and de-imperializing the teaching of Russian — to encompass the greater Slavic world outside of Russia, including Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and other former Soviet republics — were not necessarily galvanized by the war, Seifrid said. 

In his class, “Russian Thought and Civilization,” Seifrid has made adjustments to the curriculum and language use for some years. In the early weeks of the class, he emphasizes the shared ancestry of Russia and Ukraine, using the term “Rus’-ian” instead of Russian on assignments and syllabi to highlight that the modern Russian state was once Kievan Rus’, an early feudal monarchy that lasted from 882 to 1240 A.D. 

A graduate student designed a “Peace to Ukraine” artwork that was printed on tote bags and mugs sold to raise money for Help Us Help. (Image courtesy of Erica Camisa Morale)

Enrollment slightly down, not “total catastrophe”

Interest in the department’s courses decreased slightly since the war broke out, Seifrid said, but was not the “total catastrophe” in enrollment some department members anticipated. In the past, he said, when the Soviet Union was involved in a reprehensible act, such as shooting down Korean Air Lines flight 007 in 1983, the department saw dramatic increases in enrollment from students interested in learning about Cold War dynamics. 

Dengub said he hasn’t noticed a change in students’ interest in Russian language or culture, “for good or for worse,” which isn’t surprising to him. While some of his colleagues have expressed disappointment that students aren’t as emotionally involved or caring about the war, he maintains what he calls a realist perspective and doesn’t expect students to be as affected as he is.

“The war in Ukraine is huge, is tragic, is senseless — yes, but it’s not the only war,” Dengub said. “We should be realistic in our expectations of our students’ behavior and attitudes.”

Russia study abroad programs cease

Erica Camisa Morale, a Dornsife Fellow in General Education who studies 17th and 18th- century Slavic poetry and teaches classes on Russian literature and history, planned to study abroad in Russia after completing her graduate studies at USC. 

“When the war started, in my very naive mind, I hoped that the war would finish soon. And then it was like, maybe not summer 2022, but 2023, but I don’t think [it’ll be over by then],” Morale said.

Research in Russia for graduate students and faculty like Morale has become “essentially impossible,” Seifrid said, unless students are Russian citizens. The department does not advise anyone to go to Russia. In the case of language study, the department is looking at programs in former Soviet republics that have sizable Russophone populations. 

The Trans-Siberian Railway and St. Petersburg study abroad programs previously put on by USC were halted indefinitely at the start of the war. The programs began to be reworked amid the worsening of the relationship between the United States and Russia even before the war. All factors combined led to a switch from the Russian programs to a Russian-language program in Kazakhstan, Dengub said. 

“Maybe we will, in three, four, five, 10 years, probably go back to Russia — obviously, I do want to,” said Dengub, who used to lead a St. Petersburg program at Middlebury College, where he previously taught.

Slavic department aided graduate students

In light of the war, Petrova said the department responded “very humanely,” increasing graduate stipends and helping graduate students — most of whom, she said, are victims of the conflict — continue to attend and present at conferences. 

“They tried to help graduate students as much as they can, in terms of helping us to accommodate the situation and simply not to fall apart, which I’m very grateful for,” Petrova said.

Seifrid said that, thankfully, there was no need for emergency support among the department’s graduate students. 

No Ukraine specialist at USC

As a relatively small department, the Slavic Languages and Literatures department does not currently have a Ukrainist on its faculty, nor does it offer language classes in Ukrainian or dedicated classes on Ukrainian history or modern-day Ukraine. 

“We are simply not currently able to teach a course on, say, post-Soviet Ukraine,” Seifrid said. “I wish we could. But we don’t have that expertise here.”

Dengub said that while the field is discussing decolonizing Russian curriculums and bringing in diversity from other Russophone or post-Soviet republics, he doesn’t feel like he can teach extensively about Ukraine in his classes. He doesn’t exclude anything about Ukraine purposefully, he said, but tries to focus on his “actual charge,” which is teaching Russian language and culture. 

“I’ve only been to Ukraine once. I didn’t study formally Ukraine or Ukrainian language, so I don’t feel the authority to talk or to teach about Ukraine in my Russian language class,” Dengub said.

UCLA, which Seifrid said has a larger Slavic department than USC does, offers language classes in the Ukrainian language, both elementary and advanced, as well as Ukrainian literature. 

Seifrid described American higher education as highly “reactive,” only adjusting when outside conditions require it to, as with the rise of Arabic language teaching after the eruption of conflicts between the U.S. and countries in the Middle East. 

“There are departments that have been able to hire Ukrainianists and … I hope they’re able to retain them when, as I hope very much, the war ends and attention turns away from Ukraine,” Seifrid said.

USC, Seifrid said, did not come up with funds to hire Russian or Ukrainian scholars looking for a place to work away from political oppression after the war began, while other schools, including Yale University and the University of Chicago, did. 

Graduate students held fundraiser for Ukraine

Graduate students in the department organized a fundraiser to aid Ukraine in late April, raising $2,000 — double their initial goal. The group coordinated with colleagues in Europe, who were more aware of the kinds of supplies and forms of aid needed on the ground, said Morale, who was involved in the fundraiser’s organization. 

Proceeds from the event went toward Help Us Help, an organization based in Toronto, Ontario that is “providing urgently requested medical supplies to volunteer medical units in Ukraine.”

One graduate student created artwork for tote bags and mugs sold for around $20, while Dengub designed stickers sold for $1 at the group’s one-day stand outside Tommy Trojan. The students also distributed a flyer that included a geographical map of Ukraine and key events in the war, showing before and after photos of buildings affected by missile strikes and bombings. 

The fundraiser, Morale said, was motivated by the group’s stance against violence and military aggression. 

“We didn’t want this just to be a fundraiser in terms of getting money from people,” Morale said. “We wanted to also, on the other hand, inform and convey a message of peace.”