Creating Russia outside of Russia

The war in Ukraine has increased the need for Russianists

Machine assist­ed translation

The faster Russia moves ide­o­log­i­cal­ly toward North Korea, the greater the need for spe­cial­ists who can under­stand what is hap­pen­ing behind the com­ing down Iron Curtain. Marek Příhoda, Deputy Director of the Institute of East European Studies at Charles University in Prague, one of the ini­tia­tors of the new Master’s pro­gram in Russian stud­ies, spoke about the launch.

T-i: What events gave you the impe­tus to start the program?

MP: This idea emerged here in our fac­ul­ty after the Crimea. Discussions began about the wave of emi­gra­tion from Eastern Europe and the need to con­tin­ue the good tra­di­tions of Czechoslovakia dur­ing the First Republic. After the First World War, there was a state pro­gram, called Russian Aid Action. Here they worked with emi­grants who left their home­land after the col­lapse of the Russian Empire. Back in the peri­od of the Czech nation­al revival a tra­di­tion devel­oped in our pol­i­tics of being inter­est­ed in the Slavic ques­tion and in Russia. Remember, for exam­ple, that Masaryk was the author of the three-vol­ume book “Russia and Europe”? And lat­er with Beneš, the sec­ond pres­i­dent of Czechoslovakia, he wrote the book “Opening Russia to Europe. And, of course, the man­i­fes­ta­tion of this inter­est and con­cern was that Russian Aid Action, a unique project in Europe. Now every­thing has been accel­er­at­ed by the events of the Russian-Ukrainian war, and from the begin­ning of 2022 we start­ed to pre­pare for the accred­i­ta­tion of our program.

T-i: Why is it impor­tant to teach in Russian?

MP: First of all, we have a lot of expe­ri­ence with Russian-speak­ing stu­dents. Our Institute for East European Studies, which is part of the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University, has had pro­grams relat­ed to Russia for many years. One of them is the more tra­di­tion­al philo­log­i­cal pro­gram “Russian Language and Literature,” the oth­er is ter­ri­to­r­i­al - “East European Studies.” And, of course, some of our stu­dents are Russian-speak­ing. However, these pro­grams are in Czech, which lim­its us in many ways. We are not picky about minor mis­takes, but the lan­guage stu­dents use when tak­ing their entrance exams should at least resem­ble Czech. For some peo­ple it is dif­fi­cult. This was an impor­tant moti­va­tion for start­ing a Russian-lan­guage program.

Second, the Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for Russian Studies has been work­ing here as an autonomous part of our fac­ul­ty since 2018. Together we orga­nize inter­na­tion­al sum­mer jour­nal­ism schools in Prague, and the work­ing lan­guage of these schools is Russian.

T-i: The mas­ter’s pro­gram is full-time. And stu­dent visas for Russian stu­dents have now been can­celed. So who will be study­ing with you?

MP: Of course, the prob­lem we keep dis­cussing is the issue of visas and bor­der clo­sures. The Czech Republic has a tough pol­i­cy in this respect. We hope that the sit­u­a­tion will change, at least for peo­ple who are just flee­ing from Russia and want to study here. But we are also count­ing on the fact that there are already many Russian speak­ers in Europe. What is dif­fer­ent about us com­pared to the tra­di­tion that I keep refer­ring to: this is not an aid cam­paign for Russians or Russian-speak­ers — we are open to every­one. The main require­ments are knowl­edge of Russian, knowl­edge of English at a con­ver­sa­tion­al lev­el, knowl­edge of Russian his­to­ry and mod­ern Russia.

T-i: The rela­tion­ship between Russian and European uni­ver­si­ties is now break­ing down. How do you plan to study Russia when there is an actu­al ban on communication?

MP: Yes, this is a sad fact. Nevertheless, the world of for­eign Russianists and Slavists is open to us, where spe­cial­ists who emi­grat­ed from Russia are now join­ing in. Researchers from our cen­ter, who will teach under this new pro­gram with us here, are a good exam­ple of what is called Russia out­side Russia. There is a pop­u­lar book about Russian emi­gra­tion in Prague — «Rusko mimo Rusko» («Russia out­side Russia»).

We cer­tain­ly hope for a soon change in the sit­u­a­tion, but we don’t rely on this. Another dif­fer­ence between us and the «Russian Aid Action»: back then, in Czechoslovakia, it was expect­ed that the insane Bolshevik regime would soon fall, after which peo­ple would be able to return and find employ­ment in Russia. This is where we dif­fer. Of course, it would be nice if our grad­u­ates could then work in a free demo­c­ra­t­ic Russia. But we want them to be inte­grat­ed into our Czech-European envi­ron­ment as well. The Erasmus+ pro­gram serves this pur­pose, allow­ing intern­ships at var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing those with a rich tra­di­tion of study­ing Russia.

T-i: In fact, it turns out that Russia in terms of its study is now on a par with China regard­ing the degree of closed­ness..

MP: I wor­ry that it is more like­ly that Russia is mov­ing toward North Korea. I myself, frankly, am fright­ened by this process of increas­ing mad­ness. What to do? We have to deal with it. I think we have an oblig­a­tion to study Russia. We can­not leave the study of Russia to Russian uni­ver­si­ties alone, which are under pres­sure that will only inten­si­fy in the future. I used to vis­it Russia reg­u­lar­ly, give lec­tures, meet with stu­dents, and I thought that the aca­d­e­m­ic envi­ron­ment would remain a kind of sanc­tu­ary. But now we see these all-creepy cas­es of pros­e­cu­tion and aban­don­ment of stu­dents and professors.

T-i: Do you only mean insan­i­ty with­in Russia, or is there some way this con­ta­gion could spread to the Czech Republic? Maybe through the diaspora?

MP: Good ques­tion. We should pay atten­tion to the Russian-speak­ing dias­po­ra and not leave it to fakes and pro­pa­gan­da. However, great cred­it goes to the active peo­ple who rep­re­sent Russians in front of Czech soci­ety and in the media here in Prague: they did not allow any actions in sup­port of Putin or the war. On the con­trary, there were large Russian-speak­ing demon­stra­tions here in sup­port of Ukraine, against the war and Putin’s regime, and it influ­ences the image of Russians here in the Czech Republic. I’m very hap­py about that: it cre­ates a favor­able atmos­phere for us to work in. A prac­ti­cal exam­ple: if we speak Russian in a restau­rant, no one will offend us and pay atten­tion to us. So to our state­ment that we have to study Russia, few will say: «No, we don’t. Let them do what­ev­er they want there, let there be a civ­il war, let them kill each oth­er - we won’t pay atten­tion to it.»

T-i: It would seem that 1968 is well remem­bered in the Czech Republic, and his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry should affect the atti­tude toward your initiative?

MP: It’s a ques­tion of gen­er­a­tions. The gen­er­a­tion of my par­ents, who saw Soviet tanks in the street, have not for­got­ten about it, and it affect­ed their atti­tude toward Russia. The gen­er­a­tion of our cur­rent stu­dents, or even mid­dle-aged peo­ple, are much less affect­ed by it.

T-i: So you think it’s more of a trauma?

MP: A per­son­al trau­ma that peo­ple have not been able to for­get. But it is much more influ­enced by knowl­edge of con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry. There is an inter­est­ing ten­den­cy: after the fall of com­mu­nism, a pos­i­tive assess­ment of rela­tions with Russia pre­vailed. And even after such pow­er­ful blows as the Chechen war, the war in Georgia and even the Crimea, this ten­den­cy returned. Now the most pow­er­ful blow is the war. Official Russia does not help us in any way to main­tain this pos­i­tive per­cep­tion. Although the pub­lic was more pos­i­tive­ly than neg­a­tive­ly dis­posed toward Russia as a country.

T-i: To your mind, why did it hap­pen that Russia and Ukraine were one coun­try for a long time, and now the rift runs along this very bor­der? What is the dif­fer­ence between them?

MP: I am not a sup­port­er of the the­o­ry that a nation is pre­des­tined to autoc­ra­cy or democ­ra­cy. The dif­fer­ence is large­ly due to the fact that Ukraine is a type of nation­al state, while Russia is a multi­na­tion­al, mul­ti­cul­tur­al state; a kind of empire, which remained after the col­lapse of the great Soviet empire. And, of course, the his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tions, the sym­bols that soci­ety refers to, are impor­tant. I don’t want to over­sim­pli­fy, but if a soci­ety refers to the tra­di­tion of the Cossacks, it is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of free­dom and lib­er­ty. Or, on the con­trary, the nar­ra­tive that has exist­ed in Russian his­to­ri­og­ra­phy since Karamzin’s clas­si­cal peri­od, the nar­ra­tive of a great state for which we can sac­ri­fice human rights or human lives. It has been very pow­er­ful in its influ­ence. And then the nar­ra­tive of build­ing a great, pow­er­ful state devel­ops fur­ther. And then the ques­tion aris­es: what can be sac­ri­ficed for the sake of this process? For exam­ple, “Novgorod free­dom”? It can sim­ply be thrown out, if a strong and uni­fied state is the main goal of the his­to­ry, toward which we are mov­ing. I have been to Ukraine many times - I have lec­tured and met with stu­dents - there is no nar­ra­tive of a great state for which we must sac­ri­fice our free­dom or our well-being.

T-i: And what was the nar­ra­tive of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution?

MP: Speaking of the Czech Republic, I’m hap­py that after the fall of com­mu­nism we had a project for the future. Of course we did not say that we were going back to the times of the First Republic. But it was very impor­tant to say: we, in our his­to­ry, had an exam­ple of such a demo­c­ra­t­ic state, as Czechoslovakia between the wars. Yes, with its prob­lems, with its cor­rup­tion. But, you know, it’s such a his­tor­i­cal ide­al that we refer to. Now we are a mod­ern soci­ety, we became part of the European Union, but that is our foundation.

Questions asked by MARINA STEINBERG

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,   28.03.2023