Kai Nip, Senior Photographer

Amid Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, more professors at Yale have begun discussing Ukraine in their classes.

Following the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some scholars started calling for the “decolonization” of Eastern European studies by centering the experiences and voices of non-Russian nations in the region.

Per the Yale Course Search website, Yale’s academic offerings about Ukraine increased over the last two years from zero in the 2020-21 academic year to eight this semester, as professors in Eastern European studies and other departments started offering classes about Ukrainian history and the ongoing war. Some professors, in addition, added Ukrainian authors to their existing curricula. 

Even then, Edyta Bojanowska, chair of the Slavic Languages and Literatures department, said that the new offerings are consistent with a longtime aim to critically study Russia’s colonialism — an effort that has grown nationally since the outbreak of the war.

“[The] field is really abuzz with decolonial rhetoric. It’s a field in transition,” Bojanowska wrote. “Scholars are responding to the shock of the war by trying to account more fully and more critically for the legacies of Russian and Soviet imperialism and by charting alternative visions of Russia and Eastern Europe, their histories and cultures, that counter those emanating from the Kremlin.”

East European studies during the war in Ukraine

In his teaching, history professor Timothy Snyder focuses on examining the origins of Russia and Ukraine in a manner contrary to what he calls Putin’s “understandable imperial national construction” of the emergence of the two countries. While Snyder has long taught about Eastern Europe, he began teaching “The Making of Modern Ukraine” in the fall of 2022 following the Russian invasion and offered it again this past fall. The class aims to unpack and challenge this “myth” of Russia.

According to Snyder, some historians of Russia have already seen the war as an opportunity to question what they were taught about Russia.

“The Making of Modern Ukraine” considers Ukraine as “an early example of European state formation and an early example of anti-colonial rebellion.” The lectures from the course were recorded and uploaded online to YouTube and as a podcast series, many of which have amassed millions of views. 

Snyder said that he thinks that historical survey courses are especially effective ways to educate students and members of the general public.

“I think the reason that it was popular was that it was a survey [that] gave people a basic structure of knowledge,” Snyder said. “I think we don’t have enough of that at Yale or universities in general, and we feel that lack when we hit a crisis like this.”

Andrei Kureichik is a Belarusian playwright and self-described civic activist who began teaching “Art and Resistance in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine” last fall and “Drama and Russian-Ukrainian Conflict” this semester.

Kureichik came to Yale as a Yale World Fellow in the fall of 2022. Half a year before the invasion of Ukraine, the Artists at Risk program helped him leave Belarus after the government pushed him out for his criticism of President Alexander Lukashenko.

He said that one of the most important aspects of his teaching is creating opportunities for students to have direct contact with people on the ground in Ukraine and Russia, often virtually bringing guest speakers into his class over Zoom.

“Understanding the human side of the war helps you to understand the historical side, political side, or any other side,” Kureichik said. “So this connection to real people on the ground is crucial for me.”

Nari Shelekpayev, another recent hire, focuses on the history of Kazakhstan in his two ongoing works, according to the Slavic department’s website. In the fall of 2022 and 2023, he taught the “Ten Eurasian Cities” seminar, in which he, besides Russian cities, included cities in countries like Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Shelekpayev was not available for an interview. 

Professor of intellectual history Marci Shore said that she long incorporated thinkers from Ukraine in her teaching. This semester, Shore also started teaching a first-year seminar titled “The War in Ukraine and the Problem of Evil.”

“I’ve been so mentally consumed by this war — these are my friends and colleagues being slaughtered,” Shore wrote. “And I believe that students benefit when I can share with them the material I’m intellectually immersed in at a given moment.”

Shore’s class considers questions of evil, historical determinism and individual choice, which she said the “extremity of the moment” brings to the forefront.

Longtime efforts to decolonize Russian history

Bojanowska and Molly Brunson, who serves as a chair of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies program, both highlighted the work of their colleagues in conversations with the News, who, they said, had been doing “decolonial” work for a long time.

“I see the primary task of REEES to support, promote, and encourage the work that [my colleagues] are already doing,” Brunson wrote. “I don’t think it’s always a question of doing more on colonialism in the REEES fields, but more a question of amplifying the excellent work already being done by REEES faculty and students.”

She added that the program hosted numerous speaker events, symposia, conferences, and workshops, most of which were focused on non-Russian experiences and voices in the region. 

Last year, REEES also cosponsored the launch of the Central Asia Initiative, which Brunson wrote “seeks to promote interdisciplinary research on the area and cultivate a new generation of scholars and policymakers.”

Still, Brunson said that REEES has a limited budget, and with more money, the program could start postdoctoral and visiting scholar programs, provide grants for research, or start international partnerships. 

“I would turn this question around and ask what the University can do to help its REEES community support and expand the diversifying efforts in the field,” Brunson responded when asked about REEES efforts on promoting “decolonial” scholarship about the region.

In her own teaching and research, Bojanowska, who works on Russian literature and intellectual history, has been focused on decentering Russian perspectives and studying colonized nations long before the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the full-scale invasion of 2022. 

She added that, with the war, her research, which used to be “on the margins,” is now moving toward the center in terms of its efforts to decolonize Russian history.

In her first book, for example, she highlighted the engagement with Ukrainian nationalist concerns of Nikolay Gogol, a writer who is usually considered to be Russian.

As a department chair, however, she said she does not push her colleagues toward decolonial scholarship or teaching.

“It is not my place to encourage my colleagues to teach anything in any special way. They have the intellectual [and] academic freedom to make those decisions,” Bojanowska said. “The way we constitute ourselves, [and] the colleagues that we hire, speaks to our values and speaks to where … we want to go.”

In the hiring process, according to Bojanowska, the department prioritized interdisciplinarity and a comparative look into non-Russian cultures. Bojanowska also told the News that the Slavic department wants to hire more professors who specifically work on non-Russian Eastern European cultures.

East European and Eurasian languages at Yale

Brunson believes that the key to “genuine decolonizing work” is language study.

While Ukrainian has only been offered as an online course in the past through Columbia University, Yale hired lector Olha Tytarenko, who will spearhead the Ukrainian language program starting next semester. 

“Edyta Bojanowska in Slavic [department] did go to heroic lengths to find a way to get the Ukrainian language taught and that’s very important,” Snyder said. “It was not the result of some kind of general flowing of support from [the] University.”

Bojanowska told the News that her department has long worked on bringing in-person Ukrainian language instruction to the university. Now, the success of this program will depend on whether students demonstrate an interest and take Ukrainian language classes, she said. 

Bojanowska said that the Slavic department also hopes to change its beginning Russian language textbooks. The new textbooks will include interviews with Russian speakers from a variety of ethnic and social backgrounds, which she said “will solidify the idea that the Russian language is not the sole property of the Russian nation.”

“We have become very sensitive, both professors and graduate students, about making a distinction between Russian and Russophone … and making sure that the research and teaching that we do conveys … the Russophone world as diverse, multicultural, and also shaped by imperial legacies,” Bojanowska said.

Yale also moved its Russian summer study abroad program to Georgia starting in the summer of 2023.

During the transition, Bojanowska said that the faculty was careful not to turn the program, which continues to teach Russian, into a “colonial venture,” given the colonial history of Georgia. Thus, students are also required to learn some Georgian and take classes in Georgian culture. 

Brunson wrote that she would like to see the University invest in expanding other language offerings beyond Ukrainian, such as in-person Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian or Central Asian languages classes, all of which have strong faculty and student interest, per Brunson.

Focus on Ukraine across departments, schools

After the Russian full-scale invasion, some professors outside of Eastern European studies started to teach classes on Ukraine or include materials about the country in their curricula across schools and departments.

“What perhaps has changed [since the full-scale invasion] is that students interested in the language of propaganda, in security studies, in intelligence work, in the history of totalitarianism, in European affairs are now focused on Ukraine,” Shore wrote to the News.

In the Law School, professors Eugene Fidell and Margaret Donovan co-teach the course “The Russo-Ukrainian War” on what the war shows about the law of armed conflict and international legal issues. The course, which is law-focused but not limited to law students, is cross-listed with the School of Management and the Jackson School of Global Affairs.

Fidell told the News that he feels a personal connection to Ukraine because three-quarters of his family originally come from the region. He said that he and Donovan also relate to the course because they are both military veterans. 

Fidell said that he wanted to offer the course because he expected it to be “pretty stimulating for us to teach, as well as for students” because there would be “so many potential flashpoints.”

The class brings speakers who talk about legal aspects of the war in Ukraine and cover topics like child abduction, the legality of possible peace settlements and the question of whether Russia commits genocide in Ukraine. 

The other course at YLS that centers on the war is “International Law and War in Ukraine and Gaza,” taught by Professor of law and the humanities Paul Kahn. Lectures in the class, frequently by guest speakers who speak to either the war in Ukraine or the Israel-Hamas war, seek to understand how the wars “are both shaped by law and shape the law.”

Kahn said that he decided to pair the two ongoing wars together because they illustrate two concepts in international humanitarian law and create a “comprehensive approach” to structuring a course about the law of war.

“Anybody who’s going to teach a class on international humanitarian law or the law of war from this point forward has got to address these events. They’re seismic,” Kahn said.

The class this semester has focused more on Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, Kahn said, because Gaza is “absorbing more attention than Ukraine at the moment.” He sees this reflected in a larger number of student questions about the war in Gaza.

Political science professor David Cameron teaches the department’s only Yale College seminar about Ukraine this semester. His course, titled “The War in Ukraine,” covers the historical context of the war, its causes and its developments. 

“The focus of my work has been on the European Union and European politics. Anyone interested in Europe is presumably interested in what is happening in this war,” Cameron said. “But from my perspective, anyone in this world should be thinking about and concerned about what’s happening in Europe, and specifically in Ukraine in the war.”

Nataliia Laas, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs, believes that qualified professors can drive interest in Ukraine further. The country, she said, can be an important case study in a variety of disciplines.

This semester, Laas is teaching a history seminar on the Chornobyl disaster. She told the News that students in the class are not only those interested in Soviet history — two-thirds of students in the class are environmental science and engineering majors interested in energy studies, she said.

According to Laas, the demand for the class was large enough for her to potentially teach several sections.

Philosophy professor Jason Stanley told the News that he first visited Ukraine in 2017 and has been closely following its politics since then. 

Together with Snyder, he taught a class comparing Gulag camps and incarceration systems in the United States, which he said are two of the largest prison regimes in world history. 

“I’m … a scholar of fascism,” Stanley said. “I became very interested in how Ukrainians were thinking through this situation where they’re being attacked by a fascist imperialist country.”

Eastern Europe, he said, provides examples that are vital to a full understanding of “the philosophical concept of colonialism, authoritarianism.” 

In his classes, he said, he therefore includes Ukrainian authors and has added more since Russia’s invasion. This semester, for example, one of the first authors his students read in his class “Propaganda, Ideology, and Democracy” was Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, who was killed by a Russian air strike in Eastern Ukraine. 

“It’s the first massive land war in Europe since World War Two, and we had hoped this wouldn’t happen again in Europe,” Stanley said. “Understanding how and why it happened, maybe we can prevent these things from happening again in the future.”

Slavic Languages and Literatures department was founded in 1946.

Yurii Stasiuk covers City Hall and State Politics for the News. Originally from Kalush, Ukraine, he is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College majoring in History and Political Science.
Josie Reich covers Admissions, Financial Aid & Alumni for the News. Originally from Washington, DC, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in American Studies.