«Language does not belong to a certain person or country»: VU Russian students on motivation and negative attitudes of those around them


Against the background of discussions about the exclusion of Russian as a foreign language in schools, the question of the relevance and relevance of the Russian Philology undergraduate programme, which has arisen in one context or another for many years, has once again become topical. The last time this issue was very acute was in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. With the outbreak of a full-scale war in Ukraine, the question of students’ (un)interest in Russian studies and the relevance of the existence of such a programme in general has resonated in a special way.

«Language does not belong to a certain person or country»: VU Russian students on motivation and negative attitudes of those around them

«Language does not belong to a particular person or country», third-year student Alina says in an interview. She is also confident that russian specialists, both now and in the future, will be in demand all over the world.

«Delfi» asked the students who entered the Bachelor’s programme «Russian Philology» at Vilnius University this year and have been studying here for several years already, what they think about the prospects of Russian language and literature specialists and the reasons that prompted them to enter this particular programme.

And here are the answers received from the respondents:

1. What do you think of studying in the Russian Philology programme against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine?

The first interviewee Alexandra (real name is known to the editorial staff), a Russian citizen, is a third-year student. Alexandra says that when she was enrolled in the Russian Philology programme, many friends and acquaintances asked her why she chose Russian studies and why she wanted to study Russian in a country where it is not the state language. Alexandra always answered that she appreciated the academic freedom that Vilnius University offers: here you can safely express your opinion, debate, and support one point of view or another. With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, of course, thoughts arose: «What to do, having graduated in Russian philology, next?»

Another interviewee, also a third year student Alina, a citizen of Ukraine, notes that the situation is difficult and she wonders how this is possible in today’s world, in the 21st century. She believes that this contradicts the norms of civilised society and is unnatural. The interlocutor also stresses that the prevalence of the Russian language is the result of centuries of history, which has touched different peoples, including the Ukrainian. Knowledge of the Russian language may not be a personal choice for someone born and living in a Russian-speaking environment, but our interviewee Alina wanted to study Russian language and literature and chose to do so at Vilnius University. Alina does not regret her choice, but she says that during the first months of the war it was very difficult, she wanted to quit studying then, there was a feeling of guilt that by studying Russian she felt as if she was betraying her country. But then Alina reconsidered the situation and does not regret the choice she made, because the language does not belong to a particular person or country.

The third interlocutor, a student of the course, Anastasija, a Lithuanian citizen, born in Visaginas, but living in Belarus for a long time, though she takes the current situation hard, believes that Russian culture, Russian language and literature in particular should not suffer from this.

Another interviewee, Viktorija, a Lithuanian citizen, has enrolled for a master’s degree in Russian studies, as she believes she still needs knowledge and new skills to realize her potential as a specialist. Viktorija spoke passionately about the depth and vastness of the Russian language and her strong motivation to continue studying it. «The more you dive in, the more you realise how much is still unknown», she says. Victoria notes that with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, her knowledge of the Russian language helps her to understand how propaganda works, where manipulation begins, which is very important to her as a person and as a professional.

2. Do you think attitudes towards Russians and Russian speakers have changed since the war started in Ukraine? And in relation to you personally, do you feel any difference?

Anastasia tries to take a calm attitude towards the so-called “culture of cancellation”. In her opinion, it is at least an incorrect statement, as a person who thinks and understands, who knows the history of different states, the history of language and literature would never say such a thing. A language with a centuries-old history and literature cannot be simply erased and banned. And to put it very primitively, removing books from bookshelves will not stop the war. The interlocutor suggests that people may subconsciously associate the desire to expunge the Russian language and culture with support for Ukraine.

Anastasia does not deny that certainly due to the war in Ukraine many people are now against everything Russian, but despite her internal worries Anastasia tries to remain faithful to that good, pure component of Russian language and literature. To the fact that many people support the «culture of cancellation» and want the Russian language to leave Lithuania, Alina answered that she reacts to this quite calmly, because as a philologist she believes that if a language is spoken by at least two people, it will not die. And she stresses that what matters is not what language you speak, but what you broadcast in it.

3. Are you affected by negative comments about the Russian language and culture in general?

Aleksandra has a language barrier when communicating in Lithuanian, as she has just started to learn it. The languages she is comfortable with are Russian and English. At first there was a feeling that fewer people were speaking Russian in Ukraine after the war started, and for the first weeks it was haunted by the feeling that when you speak Russian, people look at you strangely. Perhaps it was just an intrusive feeling. Now it’s the opposite: there seems to be more Russian on the streets and this is due to the Ukrainian refugees who have come to us.

4. Have you encountered any negative reactions from people around you as a Russian speaker?

She has not personally encountered any unpleasant situations because Alexandra speaks Russian. But judging by what is written and said in the media, this does not mean that there are no such situations, the interviewee stresses.

And Alina, because she identifies herself as someone who fully belongs to Ukrainian culture, reacted sharply to the fact that at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, while speaking Russian in the streets of Vilnius, she caught ambivalent glances at herself.

But Alina firmly believes that language is a means of communication, and given the fact that she is only fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, it is the Russian language that helps to communicate. Alina has not encountered any aggression or outright negativity towards herself as a Russian-speaker, although she notes that she has heard from others that such things happen.

Anastasija says she has not noticed any negative attitude towards herself as a Russian-speaker, as she knows Lithuanian and speaks it outside her home and Russian-speaking social circle.

5. Are you motivated to study? How do you partly think that after graduation there will be a place where you can apply your skills and gandia?

In the future, student Aleksandra is thinking about getting a second degree, learning another Slavic language or enrolling in a master’s programme in Media Linguistics. Alexandra says that the Russian language department did not close even after 1991 and continued its work, good in-demand specialists came and go from there. There are so many Russians in the world, and that’s not counting Russian-speaking countries. And there are many unexplored areas where Russian specialists are needed. For example, media linguistics: it is important to investigate how language, including Russian, reflects new realities. Someone has to deal with this. According to Alexandra, studying Russian in the current situation has not lost its relevance, because there will always be a need for translators, editors in independent media, creators of various dictionaries, even specialists in improving the same Google translator. «I am not going to give up my native language, because the language itself is not to blame», says the student.

Alina answers this question as follows: the fact that Russian specialists work successfully around the world proves that the Russian language can develop in any country, and not necessarily in the country where it is the state language. As an example, the student presents works on such topics as decommunisation, desovietisation, and research into the influence of imperial and socialist culture on people’s consciousness. For all these important and topical studies the knowledge of Russian professionals is needed. Alina plans to continue her studies, to publish a master’s degree and then a doctorate. Alina also dreams of developing Ukrainian studies at Vilnius University. She plans to stay in Lithuania and see herself as a teacher of Russian and Ukrainian studies at her alma mater in the future.

Now Alina not only studies at Vilnius University but is also involved in social activities, which she considers very important in the current situation. Alina is the creator and moderator of the student reading club “Book Tick”. Alina says: “It is very important to create an atmosphere of trust. Here, in the club, we can choose an author’s text of any political opinion, on any topic, and discuss, express our point of view, feeling free and safe. The aim of the club is to create an environment in which everyone will be able to ward off the negativity, which is very much present at the moment”. The first meeting of the book club was attended not only by students and teachers but also by complete strangers. Alina believes that the book club has a therapeutic effect on everyone who participates.

Anastasia’s companion said that her motivation to learn has not gone away. She stresses that motivation is a love for what you do, and this applies to any field. It should be noted that Anastasia is raising two young children and combines motherhood with learning.

Regarding the prospect of realising her potential in the field of Russian philology, Anastasia confidently answered that there are always prospects. Of course, it’s difficult to talk about anything specific right now, because it’s just the beginning of her studies, but Anastasia has no doubt that there will be an area where her knowledge of Russian language and literature will be in demand.

Victoria would like to work as a linguistics researcher in the future. The only demotivation is the lack of understanding on the part of people around her. Our interlocutor often hears questions about why she needs Russian and why she studies it. In spite of everything, Viktoria smiles and says that her love for the Russian language conquers all, and like her previous interlocutors, she is sure that a scholar must abstract away from what is going on in the world; her task is to be able to analyse and switch off her feelings and emotions. Victoria believes that knowledge of languages enriches everyone and quotes A.P. Chekhov – «How many languages you know, so many times you are a person».

Data source: delfi.lv

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