The war in Ukraine has increased the need for Russianists
Machine assisted translation
The faster Russia moves ideologically toward North Korea, the greater the need for specialists who can understand what is happening behind the coming down Iron Curtain. Marek Příhoda, Deputy Director of the Institute of East European Studies at Charles University in Prague, one of the initiators of the new Master’s program in Russian studies, spoke about the launch.
T-i: What events gave you the impetus to start the program?
MP: This idea emerged here in our faculty after the Crimea. Discussions began about the wave of emigration from Eastern Europe and the need to continue the good traditions of Czechoslovakia during the First Republic. After the First World War, there was a state program, called Russian Aid Action. Here they worked with emigrants who left their homeland after the collapse of the Russian Empire. Back in the period of the Czech national revival a tradition developed in our politics of being interested in the Slavic question and in Russia. Remember, for example, that Masaryk was the author of the three-volume book “Russia and Europe”? And later with Beneš, the second president of Czechoslovakia, he wrote the book “Opening Russia to Europe. And, of course, the manifestation of this interest and concern was that Russian Aid Action, a unique project in Europe. Now everything has been accelerated by the events of the Russian-Ukrainian war, and from the beginning of 2022 we started to prepare for the accreditation of our program.
T-i: Why is it important to teach in Russian?
MP: First of all, we have a lot of experience with Russian-speaking students. Our Institute for East European Studies, which is part of the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University, has had programs related to Russia for many years. One of them is the more traditional philological program “Russian Language and Literature,” the other is territorial - “East European Studies.” And, of course, some of our students are Russian-speaking. However, these programs are in Czech, which limits us in many ways. We are not picky about minor mistakes, but the language students use when taking their entrance exams should at least resemble Czech. For some people it is difficult. This was an important motivation for starting a Russian-language program.
Second, the Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for Russian Studies has been working here as an autonomous part of our faculty since 2018. Together we organize international summer journalism schools in Prague, and the working language of these schools is Russian.
T-i: The master’s program is full-time. And student visas for Russian students have now been canceled. So who will be studying with you?
MP: Of course, the problem we keep discussing is the issue of visas and border closures. The Czech Republic has a tough policy in this respect. We hope that the situation will change, at least for people who are just fleeing from Russia and want to study here. But we are also counting on the fact that there are already many Russian speakers in Europe. What is different about us compared to the tradition that I keep referring to: this is not an aid campaign for Russians or Russian-speakers — we are open to everyone. The main requirements are knowledge of Russian, knowledge of English at a conversational level, knowledge of Russian history and modern Russia.
T-i: The relationship between Russian and European universities is now breaking down. How do you plan to study Russia when there is an actual ban on communication?
MP: Yes, this is a sad fact. Nevertheless, the world of foreign Russianists and Slavists is open to us, where specialists who emigrated from Russia are now joining in. Researchers from our center, who will teach under this new program with us here, are a good example of what is called Russia outside Russia. There is a popular book about Russian emigration in Prague — «Rusko mimo Rusko» («Russia outside Russia»).
We certainly hope for a soon change in the situation, but we don’t rely on this. Another difference between us and the «Russian Aid Action»: back then, in Czechoslovakia, it was expected that the insane Bolshevik regime would soon fall, after which people would be able to return and find employment in Russia. This is where we differ. Of course, it would be nice if our graduates could then work in a free democratic Russia. But we want them to be integrated into our Czech-European environment as well. The Erasmus+ program serves this purpose, allowing internships at various universities, including those with a rich tradition of studying Russia.
T-i: In fact, it turns out that Russia in terms of its study is now on a par with China regarding the degree of closedness..
MP: I worry that it is more likely that Russia is moving toward North Korea. I myself, frankly, am frightened by this process of increasing madness. What to do? We have to deal with it. I think we have an obligation to study Russia. We cannot leave the study of Russia to Russian universities alone, which are under pressure that will only intensify in the future. I used to visit Russia regularly, give lectures, meet with students, and I thought that the academic environment would remain a kind of sanctuary. But now we see these all-creepy cases of prosecution and abandonment of students and professors.
T-i: Do you only mean insanity within Russia, or is there some way this contagion could spread to the Czech Republic? Maybe through the diaspora?
MP: Good question. We should pay attention to the Russian-speaking diaspora and not leave it to fakes and propaganda. However, great credit goes to the active people who represent Russians in front of Czech society and in the media here in Prague: they did not allow any actions in support of Putin or the war. On the contrary, there were large Russian-speaking demonstrations here in support of Ukraine, against the war and Putin’s regime, and it influences the image of Russians here in the Czech Republic. I’m very happy about that: it creates a favorable atmosphere for us to work in. A practical example: if we speak Russian in a restaurant, no one will offend us and pay attention to us. So to our statement that we have to study Russia, few will say: «No, we don’t. Let them do whatever they want there, let there be a civil war, let them kill each other - we won’t pay attention to it.»
T-i: It would seem that 1968 is well remembered in the Czech Republic, and historical memory should affect the attitude toward your initiative?
MP: It’s a question of generations. The generation of my parents, who saw Soviet tanks in the street, have not forgotten about it, and it affected their attitude toward Russia. The generation of our current students, or even middle-aged people, are much less affected by it.
T-i: So you think it’s more of a trauma?
MP: A personal trauma that people have not been able to forget. But it is much more influenced by knowledge of contemporary history. There is an interesting tendency: after the fall of communism, a positive assessment of relations with Russia prevailed. And even after such powerful blows as the Chechen war, the war in Georgia and even the Crimea, this tendency returned. Now the most powerful blow is the war. Official Russia does not help us in any way to maintain this positive perception. Although the public was more positively than negatively disposed toward Russia as a country.
T-i: To your mind, why did it happen that Russia and Ukraine were one country for a long time, and now the rift runs along this very border? What is the difference between them?
MP: I am not a supporter of the theory that a nation is predestined to autocracy or democracy. The difference is largely due to the fact that Ukraine is a type of national state, while Russia is a multinational, multicultural state; a kind of empire, which remained after the collapse of the great Soviet empire. And, of course, the historical traditions, the symbols that society refers to, are important. I don’t want to oversimplify, but if a society refers to the tradition of the Cossacks, it is a representation of freedom and liberty. Or, on the contrary, the narrative that has existed in Russian historiography since Karamzin’s classical period, the narrative of a great state for which we can sacrifice human rights or human lives. It has been very powerful in its influence. And then the narrative of building a great, powerful state develops further. And then the question arises: what can be sacrificed for the sake of this process? For example, “Novgorod freedom”? It can simply be thrown out, if a strong and unified state is the main goal of the history, toward which we are moving. I have been to Ukraine many times - I have lectured and met with students - there is no narrative of a great state for which we must sacrifice our freedom or our well-being.
T-i: And what was the narrative of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution?
MP: Speaking of the Czech Republic, I’m happy that after the fall of communism we had a project for the future. Of course we did not say that we were going back to the times of the First Republic. But it was very important to say: we, in our history, had an example of such a democratic state, as Czechoslovakia between the wars. Yes, with its problems, with its corruption. But, you know, it’s such a historical ideal that we refer to. Now we are a modern society, we became part of the European Union, but that is our foundation.
Questions asked by MARINA STEINBERG
- War and Language: Russian Masters in Prague - an interview with Jeanne Nemcova.
- “Russian Studies”, Master’s program of the KU Faculty of Philosophy.