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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Op-ed: Russian Program at Tufts needs to be decolonized

Promoting Russian culture right now is indeed supporting the genocide of Ukrainians.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical world where I was a Tufts freshman aspiring to become a diplomat and save the world. I immediately enrolled in classes offered by the Chinese Program in the Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies on Chinese language, culture and history. I believed that knowledge of Chinese language and culture would help me to one day secure a dream job at the state department. My dream came true, and I was assigned to be a foreign service officer in South Korea. I had to take a course in Korean culture and language, but honestly, I found it unnecessary since I was already proficient in Chinese and had a deep understanding of Chinese culture. After all, Korea was part of the Chinese empire until very recently. Their writing system had been the Chinese system for centuries. Korean culture was nonexistent to me in comparison to the great Chinese cultural heritage that I learned from the Chinese courses at Tufts.

Does this hypothetical world sound wrong to you? I hope it does because the Korean language, culture and history are undeniably unique, rich and beautiful. Moreover, Korean and Mandarin Chinese are from different language families.

Now, try replacing “China” with “Russia,” and “Korea” with “Ukraine.” And voila, we are back to the real world we are living in. Does it sound more correct to you now? I hope not, but I would understand if your answer was “yes.” This is the reality that we Ukrainians have to live with: the denial of our existence as a nation with its own language and culture by our former colonizer, Russia.

In 2022, Russia launched a full-scale genocidal war against Ukraine, claiming that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian nation. The academic community responded by finally calling for the decolonization of Russian and Eurasian studies, advocating a perspective that does not view Ukraine through the lens of Russian disinformation and propaganda. Discussion panels on this topic were launched by institutions like Harvard, Ohio State University, Princeton and the University of Pittsburgh. However, Tufts’ ILCS department has yet to participate in this academic movement. Instead, the department’s Russian program organizes Russian tea parties to promote the culture of the aggressor nation and to further reinforce the rhetoric of the great Russia, ignoring the calls of the academic community.

This prompts me to say that Ukrainian history, culture and language are still being colonized by Russia at our beloved university.

I believe that many readers of the Daily identify with people and nations that had lived through genocides, exploitations and subhuman treatment by colonial regimes. Ukrainian colonial history might appear “less colonial” to us than the more obvious colonial experiences of African, Asian and American nations that we are all familiar with. However, the fact that Slavic Ukrainians and Russians share the same white skin does not mean Ukrainians could not be colonized by Russians. Being white did not save millions of Ukrainians from starving during the Moscow-orchestrated genocidal famine known as Holodomor from 1932–33. Holodomor was designed by the Soviet regime to wipe out a significant part of the Ukrainian population and silence Ukrainian independence movements.

While Ukrainians were economically exploited and killed, our language and culture were systematically erased by Russian colonialism. Even if some people could argue that the Ukrainian language is a Russian dialect, this does not mean Ukrainian language and literature do not exist. Unfortunately, the ILCS department at Tufts fails to even mention the Ukrainian language or literature while offering more than 30 courses on Russian language, literature and culture. For the record, Ukrainian is the third most spoken Slavic language after Russian and Polish.

Decolonization of Eurasian studies also does justice to the history and cultures of Belarus, whose statehood is also being erased by Russia. This academic decolonization movement can also finally recognize the cultures, languages, arts and histories of indigenous people who live in modern-day Russia and are still under Russian colonial rule today.

The myopic Russo-centric academic view of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, also called the Eurasia region, was responsible for the deaths of innocent Ukrainian civilians. Influential American experts, such as CIA Director William Burns, used their Russian expertise to help convince the White House that Ukraine would lose when Russia invaded. Therefore, the U.S. initially only provided Ukraine with light weapons enough to arm Ukrainian to resist Russian occupation, not to defend themselves against Russian invasion. Real military aid with heavy weaponry took months to arrive, so Ukraine did not have the resources to defend civilians and to send a strong message to Russia to stop the invasion while it was still possible. The result, as we now know, is an estimate of over 100,000 Ukrainian civilian deaths. A better understanding of Ukraine’s ability to defend itself could have helped the U.S. leadership make better-informed decisions. Decolonization of Eurasian studies could have saved Ukrainian lives. And we are still not seeing this happening at Tufts.

Tufts’s ILCS department should finally join the academic community to decolonize Eurasian studies. It is inappropriate to continue Russian-centric studies and extracurricular activities that promote Russian culture at Tufts while Russia continues to commit genocide against Ukrainians. The department should join and take an active role together with other institutions that are leading the decolonization efforts. It is my hope that Tufts students will soon have the opportunity to learn and understand Ukraine and other Eurasian nations similarly to how their peers are learning Korean language and culture: not through the lens of a former colonizer.

The article “Ukraine at War: Promoting Russian culture means supporting the genocide of Ukrainians by a fellow Ukrainian undergraduate student raised this exact point. However, it came to my attention that some people interpreted this article as “hate speech or ethnic discrimination.” Voicing our concerns against Russian culture promotion at Tufts should not be viewed as “hate speech or ethnic discrimination.” But ignoring the colonial nature of outdated Russian studies in the current climate is indeed supporting the genocide of Ukrainians.