The war in Ukraine triggered a reckoning in universities
Eugene Finkel, a professor of international affairs, is working on a book, which will be titled “To Kill Ukraine,” and is planning to acknowledge a Russian GRU agent.
“I will thank him profusely,” Finkel said. “He was the one that prompted me to write this book.”
That GRU agent had posed as a student who Finkel taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. While Finkel had always known that there could be spies at a place like SAIS, last year’s discovery of his student’s real identity as a Russian military intelligence service agent was devastating. Finkel had written the undercover agent a letter of recommendation to the International Criminal Court, where he was seeking an internship with the group that is now investigating Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
“You want to use me to know how Russian genocide is being investigated? That’s how I fight back,” Finkel said, referring to the book he is writing that will examine the origins of genocide in the current war.
A year into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the war has triggered a reckoning at universities in the West over how Russia, the Soviet period and the wider region has been presented and taught across a range of subjects. It has raised complex questions about the outsized role Russia has played, how imperialism, colonialism and histories of violence have, or have not, been addressed and which perspectives and readings have been privileged.
I spoke with 17 scholars to understand the debates raging across academic forums and online publications (and even summarized through memes) that show no signs of letting up. At their roots is the question of whether the university departments need to undergo decolonization, a term that means different things to different people.
The academic debates are sensitive and emotional, especially for many with personal connections to the region. The stakes include what classes and languages are taught, who receives tenure, the names of departments (East European? Eurasian? Slavic? Russian Studies?) and even what photos are posted on departmental websites (should a picture of the Kremlin remain?).
At its broadest, decolonizing means removing Russia from the center of study and instead centering other nations and regions, said Oxana Shevel, an associate professor at Tufts University. Part of the difficulty is that there is no one way to do this or a consensus among scholars on what that should involve. Some scholars argue that they are already taking a critical approach, for example by teaching the violence of the Soviet period, she added.
This questioning of a Russia-centric narrative had been happening before the war in more advanced courses and among scholars, but the average undergraduate student, Shevel argues, doesn’t come away with this perspective and typically doesn’t know much about Ukraine or Central Asia.
For Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University who has written numerous books about Ukraine, decolonization is an imperfect term. “When I’m thinking about Russian history, it’s not about decolonizing per say,” he said. “It’s about de-imperializing Russian studies.” He adds that Russian historiography was never critiqued through the lens of empire like French or British history have been.
The current war started with an imperial argument from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians are the same people — a view Plokhy says was held by some of the scholars who pioneered the writing of Russian history in the U.S. nearly 100 years ago.
And while the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to more scholarship on other countries in the region, like those in Central Asia, it hasn’t been enough, he argues. “We are behind as a field in that sense,” Plokhy said.
The questions scholars now ask themselves include whether Russia has received too much attention and emphasis, whether its empire-building has been examined enough and whether countries that have been dominated, occupied and colonized by Russia have been incorporated enough into scholarship, said Maria Popova. Popova is an associate professor at McGill University who is currently co-writing a book about the roots of the ongoing war with Oxana Shevel at Tufts.
Popova says there was a tendency prior to the 2022 invasion to dismiss perspectives from the Baltic states or Ukraine as “Russophobic” or distorted by historical experience. “The debate right now is about how to reincorporate or how to extend the research and scholarship into Russia as an imperial actor in the neighborhood,” she said.
Following the February 2022 invasion, it became clear to Finkel he wouldn’t be able to teach his previous course on Russia and Eastern Europe — it would need an overhaul. So he decided to teach a new class about the war called “Russia and Ukraine in Peace and War.”
Finkel is fully onboard with asking different questions and looking at perspectives from outside of Moscow. But he’s not keen on using colonization as a proxy and worries that it could take agency away from countries. “Taken to an extreme, it will simplify the very complex role that Ukraine played in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union,” he said.
Not all scholars think the decolonization debate is needed.
Alexander Hill, a professor of military history at the University of Calgary, believes that attempts to decolonize Russian history could “result in a re-writing of all Russian history from the perspective of the Russian state as ‘oppressor’ — something that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the development of the Russian, or indeed any, empire and certainly doesn’t do justice to the development of the Soviet Union,” as he wrote in an email to me. He added: “I see a debate as particularly unnecessary where the current growing fashionableness of ‘decolonization’ in Russian history seems to be motivated by pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian political biases relating to the current war in Ukraine.”
Sean Pollock, a professor of history at Wright State University, says scholars have been studying non-Russian territories and places since the 18th century.
“I see a long tradition where others, I suppose, feel the need now to call for the decolonization of the field. And I think it’s crystal clear these calls are a reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said.
Pollock understands the emotional reactions in this moment but thinks it’s important to separate personal views from professional scholarship — a view he knows many will disagree with. He told me he thought twice before agreeing to an interview because he knows people will hear him differently than how he intends to be heard.
“In my area, which is the history of the Russian empire, the field has suffered from those who have brought strongly negative feelings about Russian imperial politics to the study of the subject. I think there are ways to dispassionately approach the imperial dimensions of Russian history, and I frankly feel that it is our professional responsibility as academics to try and do that,” he said.
He also worries that “countless non-Russians [who] played important roles as Russian empire builders” will be lost to history.
Others have argued that the problem of Russocentrism has been overstated and that calls for decolonization are a stalking horse for halting the study of the Russian language, politics, society and culture. Many scholars themselves are wondering if research projects they had planned in Russia will ever be able to take place.
“Nobody is canceling Russia,” said Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas. “You need to rebalance and give presence and voice to others and continue looking at Russia, but without giving Russian history or culture a pass to the very many problematic aspects it had.”
Chernetsky argues that many Russian literary classics, from authors including Pushkin and Dostoevsky, were given a pass without properly interrogating the colonial, racist or prejudicial views they presented. At the same time, important figures in Ukrainian literature such as poet Taras Shevchenko were read by few outside of the Ukrainian community, he said.
Kristy Ironside, an assistant professor at McGill University, is now teaching the most students she ever had in a class, in both her introductory Russian history course and a Soviet history course, something she attributes to students wanting to understand what’s happening. “We’ve always been a pretty political field,” she said.
When she was hired, Ironside changed the titles of many courses and says she’s never taught Soviet history from the perspective of only Russia. She’s recently added readings from Christian Raffensperger and Serhii Plokhy to give students more context on Kyivan-Rus, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s references to the medieval state.
Ironside is open to the decolonization discussion and understands the sense of urgency many are feeling as a horrible war continues, but she doesn’t want the work of earlier scholars to be overlooked. “There has been a lot of scholarship that has been done on the non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union and I don’t think in this race to decolonize the curriculum…that we should act like that didn’t happen,” she said.
Ironside expects the process and debates around issues such as department names to be messy. “I think there is going to be a lot of trial and error in the next several years,” she said.
For Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University, decolonization is something he’s been supportive of his entire career.
“All of this is music to my ears,” he said. “How far should it go? Well at a minimum, it needs to increase our collective understanding and appreciation of the various non-Russian nationalities within the Russian Federation and of course those inhabiting states on Russia’s border. They have been historically neglected.”
Motyl is among the academics who have been banned from setting foot in Russia. In November 2022, his name was added to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ list of sanctioned Americans — those who, according to the Russian government, have been accused of promoting a Russophobic campaign and supporting the regime in Kyiv.
“I’ve been waiting for that for years,” he said. “I feel vindicated.”
Motyl expects to see a growing number of courses on non-Russia topics and shifting research agendas for up-and-coming scholars. “I’m not surprised people are resistant. It requires admitting guilt and no one wants to do that. And it requires changing your entire paradigm,” he said, adding it could take as long as 15 years to see a tangible change.
“Academics are being asked and being forced to make a choice,” Motyl said. “When you see a genocide and total war taking place, it’s arguably unethical and immoral not to express some criticism. It’s easier in that sense for Ukrainian specialists. It’s hard for Russian specialists, but they need to do it and not pretend it’s not an issue. This is what happens when you have big crises that impinge on your academic reality.”
Susan Smith-Peter, a professor of Russian history at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, attended the Ukraine Action Summit in Washington D.C. in September 2022. She believes that she was the only Russian historian who attended the event. “I don’t think it’s anti-Russian to want a better Russia or anti-Russian to think the current Russia we have is not the only Russia,” she said.
In many ways, the debates are just getting started. When well over 1,000 scholars gather at the end of 2023 at the annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies, decolonization will be the year’s theme.
Russia’s full-scale invasion brought “long-simmering issues of Russocentrism in the region and in our fields of study” to the forefront, said Juliet Johnson, a professor of political science at McGill University and the president of ASEEES. She chose the theme.
But there are already concerns that all the talk around decolonization won’t lead to any meaningful changes.
“In my view, the changes have so far been largely cosmetic and the field is only waiting to return to business as usual,” said Oleh Kotsyuba, the manager of publications at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.
Because the conversations around decolonization are time consuming and onerous, John Vsetecka, a PhD candidate in the history department of Michigan State University, fears they could fade or even cause bigger divides between scholars, the longer the war goes on.
“I’m worried that this decolonization moment for Ukraine and understanding what Ukraine is in the world is a moment and not something that’s lasting,” he said, adding that while the debates have been happening for longer than he’s been alive, he’s not sure how much they’ve been listened to previously.
Vsetecka is on the academic job market. He’ll defend his dissertation, on the aftermath of the 1932-33 Holodomor and the 1946-47 post-war famine in Ukraine, later this year. It’s a topic he says could be seen as political.
“The war in some senses is a litmus test for the job market,” he said. “How seriously will they take me?”
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