Over the course of the past two years, enrollment in elementary Russian has fallen from a record high to a record low, according to the five years of data available on the Online Course Selection database.
While 30 students enrolled in the class last fall, only 19 are enrolled this year -— nearly a 37 percent drop. This change comes despite Russia’s increasing presence on the world stage, which students interviewed said played at least a part in motivating them to study the language. Some Russian professors attributed the change to natural fluctuations in departmental enrollment, but others said they had expected enrollment to increase because of recent high-profile geopolitical moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In March 2014, Putin attracted significant media attention when he annexed the territory of Crimea, which had formerly been a part of Ukraine. Just last week, he substantially increased Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
Russian lector Irina Dolgova said the department expected enrollment to stay constant or increase because of these events, as well as increased collegial interest in the language nationally.
“We weren’t expecting to go back to 2013 levels,” she said. “It’s a mystery why it decreased. Last year it was Crimea, now it’s Syria.”
Rather than associate the decline with politics, however, Russian lector Constantine Muravnik GRD ’10 said the shift can be explained by periodic fluctuations in department enrollment. Overall, he said, interest in Russian is high and growing, not only because of the language’s importance to politics, but also its relevance in areas like economics and the humanities, from history and music to theater and ballet.
Russian lector Julia Titus GRD ’99 expressed a similar sentiment. While some students may be drawn to the language for its “strategic application” in politics, economics or business, she said, most students come to Russian because of their cultural and academic interests.
Muravnik added that upper-level courses in Russian are actually fuller this year than they usually are. Interest in intensive Russian has remained constant at nine students.
Still, Dolgova said the department had anticipated increased enrollment in elementary courses. But as a result of underwhelming interest, the elementary course downsized from three sections to two, Dolgova said. She emphasized, though, that this year’s enrollment is consistent with most previous years’, and that the spike in enrollment in fall 2014, while welcomed by the department, appears to have been a fluke.
History professor Paul Bushkovitch, who specializes in Russia, said he has found fluctuations in Russian enrollment to be “mysterious and unpredictable.” However, excitement related to Syria could lead to a surge in interest similar to the spike the department saw after the Ukrainian crisis, he added.
While news related to the Ukrainian crisis had largely subsided by the start of this semester, and news of Russian’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War had not yet broken, students currently enrolled in elementary Russian said the rising geopolitical importance of Moscow did play a role in their course selection.
Eric Sanderson ’19 said that rather than continuing to study Spanish, he decided to take Russian because of the applicability of the language and his fascination with the culture.
“Russian culture interests me more than Spanish culture,” he said. “And as an ROTC [member], the fact that Russian is such a strategic language can be especially beneficial in that realm.”
Matt Czarnecki ’18, who took elementary Russian last year, said he first enrolled largely due to his interest in the Ukrainian crisis. But as that issue subsided, he said, his interest in the language did as well.
The Russian program at Princeton also experienced a decline in introductory enrollment this year. Princeton Russian lecturer Mark Pettus said about 20 students are currently taking the University’s elementary course, as compared to about 25 students last year.
Pettus added that conversations with students have led him to believe the decrease in enrollment can be attributed to the dangerous implications of recent global developments.
“I get the sense that a lot of freshmen are spooked by the news and are worried they won’t be able to travel to Russia, use the language, get internships, things like that,” he said. “So if they’re choosing between Russian and Chinese, which is typical, it’s hard to convince them not to take Chinese when that seems to be the more practical choice.”
The Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, which includes the Russian language program, was established in 1946.