Celebrating 100 years of Russian at Glasgow

Credit: Clem Cecil – A play in celebration of 200 years since Pushkin’s birth

Kristina Cimova
Writer

Well, fellow Glasgow students – this is a proud year for the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (SMLC), as we celebrate the centenary of Russian taught at the University. I met with current staff to discuss the journey of the department, its development and achievements to date and its future, in the spirit of celebration and progress.

The story of Russian at Glasgow takes us back to 1917 which, somewhat unsurprisingly, perfectly corresponds with the Russian October Revolution. In 1917, the industrialist William Weir (1st Viscount Weir) endowed a lectureship in Russian to the university in light of creating stronger commercial ties with Russia. The connection between the working-class movements, as Dr Khairov from the department says, “was immediate, due to the strength of the working-class movement” here in Glasgow. Cultural ties also grew very quickly – for example, the very first Chekhov play to be put on in Britain was performed here in Glasgow. Today we (at least us graduates of the SMLC) can hardly imagine the language school without the unique and prestigious department of Slavonic languages, which is not only one of the best in the UK, but undoubtedly one of the foremost in the West. There are very few universities that offer languages such as Russian, Czech, Polish or Croatian within one department. At Glasgow, we should be proud to say that we do.

Over the years, the department has flourished and was run by many world-renowned academics. These included names such as Professor Peter Henry and Michael Kirkwood for Russian; Lumir Soukup and the linguist Josef Fronek for Czech; and the Slavonics have become, as the Head of Russian, Dr Tejerizo, says: “the bastion for Slavonic studies in Scotland”. Even the former Czech President Vaclav Havel held an honorary doctorate from Glasgow in the spirit of the university’s special relationship with the languages of Central and Eastern Europe. Czech and Polish also have a long history at Glasgow, starting in 1950 and 1947 respectively. The library collection in Slavonic studies is one of the most extensive in the Western academic world, with a unique collection of original Russian emblems, Polish religious texts and over 1,800 volumes held in one of, if not the most, comprehensive of Trotsky collections.

The Russian department as an entity within Slavonic studies has had a turbulent journey from the years of its former glory, with many more members of staff and a widely respected Single Honours Degree in Russian, exploring Russian history, culture and literature as well as the language – to today, with a mere three members of staff and only the possibility of a Joint Honours programme. It is most certainly a loss for the university and an even bigger loss for the academic community. All three core Slavonic languages have, in the meantime, lost their Single Honours programmes, which, as Dr Grossman, Senior lecturer in Polish, puts it: “exceeded even the programmes of CEES taught in London”. All members of staff agree that the programme produces outstanding graduates who are well prepared for the market, and have gone on to work in journalism, translation, high political or cultural institutions. What the department really needs to flourish, says Dr Gullotta, is the kind of enthusiasm PhD candidates would bring to Russian. Without them, the research culture in the department cannot grow. While conditions have not been the best in recent years, with the centenary on the horizon, the opportunities for scholarships in Russian have been renewed and the hope from all avid supporters and graduates of the department is that doctoral students rediscover the charm and the attractiveness of research in the department again.

For those who wish to incorporate political and social science study into their Russian language, literature and culture components, the collaboration with the CEES department of the university was praised by all interviewees. It is, however, a shame that a closer collaboration between the disciplines cannot yet be achieved. A Single Honours programme with access to all these components would, according to Dr Gullotta, not only be conducive to excellence, but a potential “world unique environment”. This is because such a collaboration could combine language, culture and social sciences of Eastern Europe as only few other universities in the world could. Perhaps that is something to be considered for the future by the university leadership. Glasgow University is known for its innovative nature and its support for research, and it is no wonder that we are home to three publications unparalleled in the world that have their roots in Eastern European languages: the Europe-Asia Studies publication edited by the CEES department, the online AvtobiografiЯ journal edited by Dr Gullotta and the Slavonica journal, founded originally in Glasgow, returning to its home as a part of the centenary project.

This year, the department is getting ready to showcase all its talent and the spark it harbours. The centenary is something we are not only proud of, but something which inherently highlights Glasgow’s outstanding achievement of academic continuity, tradition and progress. We have many events and exhibitions to look forward to. It is obvious that with the resources of the university and the talent and expertise accumulated in the department, the potential for Russian and all Slavonic languages to grow is infinite. As a recent proud graduate of the Russian department, I would love to see more breathing space for the teaching staff, more talent coming in, and for the department with so much promise and historical success to spread its wings once again. It was heartwarming to see the collegiate camaraderie in the Slavonic department, where all see their languages as a nexus that should progress as one, realising that only then can it provide a comprehensive study of Central and Eastern Europe, a space that is still not entirely appreciated for its richness of culture, language and geopolitical importance. Let us hope that the events of this year will raise the profile of the small but increasingly more significant department of Slavonic studies, the crowning jewel of Glasgow’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures.