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How the Russian Studies Program is Affected by and Responding to the War in Ukraine 

Kelly Gallagher ‘22

Senior Advisor

The world has been horrified by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the unfolding war. The College of the Holy Cross community has been no exception, with the tragedy being felt particularly acutely among the Russian Studies program. In addition to the personal distress many members of the department are experiencing, the effects of the war are reverberating through Russian Studies in two main ways. The war has disrupted the department’s Study Abroad and Foreign Language Assistant programs, requiring both immediate action and the readjustment of future plans. On top of dealing with that, faculty members are seeking ways to provide both students of Russian Studies and the broader campus community with opportunities to process, discuss, and better understand the war. 

Olga Partan, Associate Professor of Russian Studies, spoke with “The Spire” about the war’s impact on the Russian Studies program and its response, as well as her personal feelings about the current events. She began the interview by reflecting, “I feel that Putin’s invasion and the war in Ukraine is a tragic and horrible event. And I feel that his regime, unfortunately, put this bloodstain and this stain of violence on the whole Russian nation. I also feel that the Russian nation, in a way, is a hostage of this very well-crafted KGB-OGPU-Cheka secret police state that now is ruling Russia, and I definitely feel very bad for Russians and for those Russians who are dying without even knowing why they are fighting and why they were sent to this country.”

Professor Partan added that as a Russian with maternal roots in Ukraine, her “soul is torn.” She said that her grandmother and great-grandmother were born in Zaporozhye, in central Ukraine, but the family moved to Moscow after their property in Ukraine was confiscated following the Revolution of 1917. She said, “I feel that my roots are [in Ukraine], and I remember my childhood traveling to Kyiv, to Crimea,” spending her time among the “amazingly warm and hospitable people” of the country. 

She’s very concerned about how some institutions and individuals in the West are rejecting artistic contributions from Russian culture in the light of Putin’s war. She finds that “despite the horror [of the war], I feel that at the current stage it is extremely important to separate the achievement of Russian culture and Russian civilization from this terrible, aggressive regime,” saying that an equal sign cannot be placed between the two. She described how a university in Italy canceled three lectures on Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and how a symphony orchestra in the West has recently prohibited the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. She considers this to be “a very dangerous way” for Western civilization to go, adding that “Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky have absolutely nothing to do with the horror of this regime which definitely should be stopped, and in fact Tchaikovsky had some Ukrainian blood, as many of us do.”

Professor Partan described the difficulties the Russian Studies’ study abroad program is currently facing. Its most immediate concern is supporting a student who had been spending the year in Moscow, who had to evacuate and return to the U.S. after Russia invaded Ukraine. The student had been studying at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU), a university with which Holy Cross has long and closely collaborated. Professor Partan said that the student’s two professors at the university, who work directly with Holy Cross to develop curriculum for study abroad students, are still determined to finish the student’s semester over Zoom, “despite all the tension between the U.S. and Russia.” RGGU is also continuing to teach study abroad students from Middlebury College, which also collaborates with the university and recently had to evacuate their students in Moscow. 

Russian Studies had to cancel this summer’s scheduled Maymester study abroad program in Moscow, which was developed with RGGU. Though the department offered a virtual Maymester program with RGGU last summer, that is no longer an option because the Russian Studies program cannot pay professors in Russia, since transfer networks have been frozen. Looking ahead to future study abroad opportunities, the program is beginning to investigate options in the Baltic states, which are home to both Russian-speaking communities and excellent universities. Professor Partan said that these discussions have only just begun, since the professors in the Russian Studies program and in Study Abroad are “all in a state of big shock.” 

Russian Studies is also exploring alternatives for its Foreign Language Assistants (FLA) program. Typically, the departments of Modern Languages and Literatures host native-speaking students, who lead practicum sessions and provide additional cultural education for language learners on campus. The current FLA for Russian students during this academic year has been working with students remotely from Russia, but unfortunately the department will be unable to host a Russian FLA either in-person or remotely. 

The Russian Studies program is providing multiple spaces for its students to discuss the events of the war. Professor Partan said that the professors in the program all agreed that they should be “open to talk about the events [of the war] and give our perspective during office hours or at the end of class if students have questions.” She also emphasized that regardless of whether class material is related to contemporary Russian culture, students should feel welcome to bring up their thoughts or concerns about the war in Ukraine in classes, stating that as professors of Russian, “it doesn’t matter what we teach, I think we should be open to discuss any questions or address concerns.” 

The Russian Studies program is offering additional opportunities for students to learn more about Ukraine’s history, some of the developments which have led to the war, the events of the war, and the state of affairs within Russia following the invasion. Diana Dukhanova, Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian, has organized the Ukrainian Film Series, which features documentaries and films about contemporary Ukraine. Community members gathered over Zoom on Tuesday, March 15, to watch a 2015 documentary called “This is Gay Propoganda: LGBT Rights and the War in Ukraine.” On Wednesday, March 23, Professor Dukhanova will offer a viewing of the Netflix 2015 documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” Campus community members from beyond the department are welcome to join for the 7:30 p.m. screening. For more information on joining the sessions, please reference the poster featured in this article or contact Professor Dukhanova at ddukhano@holycross.edu. 

In addition, students in the Russian Studies program have been invited to participate in a Ukrainian Easter egg painting workshop on April 21. Ukrainian Easter eggs, or pysanky, are decorated with vibrant-colored Ukrainian folk designs using a wax-resist method and are a rich Ukrainian tradition dating back to early Slavic cultures. 

The Russian Studies program is hoping to develop more educational opportunities for the wider campus community in the upcoming weeks. This may involve future webinars, after the community’s eagerness to engage in the Russia at War webinar, which was held less than 48 hours after Russia’s invasion and featured professors from the Russian Studies program. The webinar was attended by over 300 community members and began with a welcome from Vincent Rougeau, President of the College of the Holy Cross. The webinar is now available for viewing online. Professors in the program are exploring the option to invite outside speakers to campus, as well as hosting community discussion forums.

Looking ahead to next semester’s curriculum, Professor Partan said that many classes in the Russian Studies program will explore the relationships between Ukrainian and Russian culture and history. For example, she’s planning to offer a course taught in English called Ukrainian Motifs in Russian Literature, which would examine the works of major Russian authors from this new angle. She’s envisioning the inclusion of Nikolai Gogol’s famous collection of Ukrainian tales and folklore, which she described as “very funny and uplifting,” as well as Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The White Guard,” which takes place in Kyiv during the Russian Civil War in early 1920. 

Despite the many uncertainties the program is facing, Russian Studies is clearly driven to continue to provide its students and the campus community with resources for support and understanding, both now needed more than ever as the global community grapples with the horrific war in Ukraine.

Photo courtesy of Professor Diana Dukhanova
Ukrainian Films Poster

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