Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library showcases the “Slavic Collections at Yale” exhibition. Despite the ambitious and inclusive title, it doesn’t represent the variety of languages and cultures in the Slavic world: out of 20 modern Slavic languages, only Russian appears in the exhibit, alongside two pieces in Tatar and Kyrgyz, Central Asian languages. Perhaps, the program’s curators believe Russian colonial expansion forces Central Asian cultures under the Slavic — specifically, Russian — language and cultural umbrella.
The Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies program at Yale offers undergraduates the opportunity to concentrate either in Russian Studies or “Everything Else” Studies — formally: East European Studies or Eurasian Studies concentration — suggesting that the region consists of Russia and its appendages, failing to recognize the heterogeneity among the former Russian colonies. Since the fall of the Eastern Bloc, these 17 “other” countries have adopted diverse economic and political systems and have begun recovering and reembracing their native languages and religions — things the Soviet Union denied them for decades. Still, in the department, nine of the 14 classes offered in the 2022-2023 academic year focus primarily on Russia, while others mainly treat the region as a homogeneous geographic mass. Similarly, professors’ academic pursuits concentrate on exploring Russian politics, history and literature.
Yale represents a broader, dangerous trend of learning the region through the Russophilic lens. In a comment on approaches to studying history, Marci Shore, associate professor of intellectual history at Yale, uses an analogy from Husserl’s phenomenology: “There is no position from which it is possible to see all sides of the cube in a single gaze.” Thus, she writes, the best we can do is to “describe sides of the cube we see” and turn to others for the remaining sides. This can be extrapolated to the regional studies — focusing predominantly on Russia, researchers discover only certain sides of the “cube;” they ignore other perspectives.
Russocentrism in academia didn’t appear out of nowhere. Russia is indeed the largest country in the region. Yet, academics, for example, don’t study East Asia exclusively through the lens of China. The reason goes beyond mere geography — for centuries, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation have been erasing and assimilating nations. For centuries, Russia’s fierce propaganda has attempted to associate the whole region exclusively with the Russian nation. The representation of the population of the former Soviet Union as “one Soviet nation” is one of the numerous manifestations of such colonial dominance. Entire nations were forced to learn Russian and embrace a Russian identity — cultural, political, national — in a totalitarian regime. Putin’s pseudo-historical article “On The Historical Unity Of Russians And Ukrainians” picks up the fiction about the region’s “unity,” denying Ukrainians the right to either nationhood or statehood.
The flawed approach to study leads to devastating outcomes, detrimental to the truthful representation of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked discussions of Russian imperialism, the dominant narrative still reflects the oppressor’s side. American academics, like Noam Chomsky and John Mearsheimer, self-proclaimed anti-imperialists, blame American imperialism for the invasion, ignoring the obvious colonial nature of the Russian-instigated war. The “Slavic Collections” exhibition at Yale shows Soviet propaganda pieces: one label states that “the Soviet state promoted cultural pluralism as a centerpiece of its identity.” Another states that racial equality was a “major policy goal in the Soviet Union.” Curators don’t reflect on the reality behind the propaganda and ignore the racist nature of the Soviet regime, which treated non-Slavic non-white Central Asian nations as second-class citizens.
In the West, people remain unaware of the Holodomor — the 1932-1933 genocide of the Ukrainian population through starvation, carried out by Stalinist Russia — or the similar 1930-1933 artificially created famine in Kazakhstan. These took the lives of at least five million people. Few question how Russia came to be the largest country in the world or explore the cleansing of native populations that preceded it. Everyone knows the region’s population speaks Russian but never learns that it’s a consequence of the metropole-enforced language repression designed to erase the cultural diversity that posed a threat to totalitarian authority.
Russocentrism prevents universities from breaking the status-quo story and understanding the region. Academics’ assumed understanding of Eastern Europe and Eurasia becomes simply a well-learned Russian narrative. A skewed understanding of what Eastern Europe is could be one of the reasons experts were so wrong with predictions that Russia would defeat Ukraine in days — a mantra Russians repeated so often they started believing in it. The study of this vast and diverse region cannot be dominated by the Russian viewpoint. Eastern European and Eurasian studies need to be academically decolonized.
On the label in the exhibition, the curators of “Slavic Collections at Yale” acknowledge the “shortcomings” in representing diversity in Slavic Studies. Yet they go no further than simple recognition — now it’s time to act. Russia should be demoted from its hegemonic role in Eastern European and Eurasian Studies, losing its cultural, political and historical stranglehold. American universities need to hire faculty specializing in diverse countries in the region, as well as faculty native to those countries. This will ensure the variety of “viewpoints” needed for “seeing all sides of the cube.” The range, focus and perspective of courses offered on the region need expansion, focusing on the previously untaught stories of oppression. The Russian Studies curriculum needs to be reimagined with Russian imperialism in mind — students cannot read texts from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky without actively reflecting on their xenophobic views, or the Soviet “racial equality” propaganda without examining the reality.
There is real suffering and pain caused by Russian imperialism. As Yale produces current and future decision-makers, the least it can do is shift academia’s status quo. It takes honest, collective scrutiny to identify how colonial narratives have deformed our worldview and an even greater effort to reshape our understanding of Eastern Europe. Without a systematic approach to the decolonization of the department, the University helps to perpetuate these oppressive narratives in the minds of its students and faculty.