While students enrolled in “The Cold War” are learning about the historical arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, students in the Russian department are arming themselves with the language skills for a Cold War redux.
Enrollment in first-year Russian language courses is up approximately 30 percent from last year, forcing the department to open an additional section to accommodate the bump, according to Russian senior lector Julia Titus GRD ’99.
“We can certainly attribute it to the changing political situation,” Titus said.
Russian forces began occupying the Crimean Peninsula in February of this year. By March, Russia formally annexed Crimea from Ukranian control, and it still continues to intervene in southern and eastern Ukraine — behavior that led to the downing of a Malaysian Airlines airliner in July. In response, the United States and the European Union announced a series of economic sanctions on Russia, causing further political tension across the Atlantic.
The Yale curriculum has responded accordingly. In the spring, the Humanities department will offer a class titled “Putin’s Russia and Protest Culture.” Additionally, Thomas Graham ’72, a Jackson Fellow and former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff, will teach “U.S., Russia and Eurasian Security,” which he also taught in the spring of 2012.
But not everyone attributes student interest in Russian entirely to political events.
Russian senior lector Constantine Muravnik GRD ’10 acknowledged that while “the current renaissance of the Cold War” is driving enrollment, so is the Russian department’s excellent teaching reputation.
“With the way the world is progressing, I think Russian is a really useful language to know,” said David Shimer ’18, who is currently enrolled in first-year Russian.
But Shimer added that his passion for Cold War history attracted him to the language as well as his interest in current global events.
Emma Goldrick ’17 said she studies Russian because she wants to pursue a career in the energy sector and work with the Russian gas industry.
“As an American in Russia, everyone is second-guessing you,” she said. “But if you speak Russian it’s like, ‘Wow, this chick is legit.’”
Other languages have seen similar enrollment patterns in recent years, with spikes following major geopolitical events. Introductory Turkish, for example, saw a climb from an enrollment of three students in 2003 to seven in 2009 and 11 by 2014. In 2012 — the year after an incident where a Turkish ship was attacked by Israeli forces, leading to political tensions between Turkey, Israel and the US — enrollment spiked to 15.
But Turkish lector Etem Erol said he doubts the climb has anything to do with geopolitics, noting that half the students are learning Turkish in order to work with Ottoman archives.
Fiona Lowenstein ’16, a History major who studies Turkish, said that although she originally pursued Turkish because of its unique historical position at the center of so many empires, she eventually became interested in its current political situation.
“We seen a lot more articles and think pieces about Turkey in the past few years,” she said. “It’s reached a boiling point.”
Yale also reintroduced Ukrainian courses this year through video conferencing technology from Columbia University.