Full of Eastern promise

EU enlargement means new opportunities, and a new home, for a London institution. Lucy Hodges turns her back on the West
Click to follow
The Independent Online

British universities are expected to benefit from the enlargement of the European Union, and one institution in particular is hoping for a big boost - not just by increasing its student numbers, but also from the general opening up of Eastern Europe. It is University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), founded in 1915 as a centre for the study of the new nation states then emerging from the First World War, and now about to take on a new lease of life as a hub for learning about the states that made up the former Soviet Union.

Yesterday, the Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who is in London for the hoopla surrounding EU enlargement, gave a keynote address at the school and unveiled the foundation stone of SSEES's new building. The school is, at last, to have a real home of its own in Bloomsbury, in a former service car park of UCL's department of chemistry. It will move out of the space in which it has been squatting for years, in Senate House and in two 19th-century buildings overlooking Russell Square. The new £14m edifice, which is seven stories high, is being paid for by money from the Higher Education Funding Council, the University of London and some grant money that UCL has won for capital spending.

It marks the beginning of a new era for SSEES, which has always been the place to study the languages, history, politics, economics and literature of central and eastern Europe and Russia. The school that was co-founded by TG Masaryk, who became president of Czechoslovakia, will be coming in from the cold. Originally part of King's College London, it became an independent institute of the University of London in 1932 and merged with UCL in 1999. Until now, it has not had its own building. The new structure will provide a generous home for its substantial library and plenty of space for researchers and students.

The sad part is that undergraduates will lose their bar, the Hammer and Sickle, selling an exciting range of East European beers. Instead, they will have a student common room and a canteen: there is no room for a bar, according to Professor George Kolankiewicz, the director of SSEES. "They can do their social drinking at any number of bars around UCL. Now that they will have a whole building containing a library, common room and so on, we felt they didn't need the Hammer and Sickle as well."

The stylish new edifice, designed by the award-winning architects Short and Associates, has a look of Eastern Europe about it. It is also extremely environmentally friendly, a model of its kind. Its heavy construction absorbs the heat and its narrow windows cut out the sun during the summer ("We don't do glassy buildings," says Adam Whiteley, one of the architects). In addition, it has natural ventilation. Warm air exits the building via vertical stacks that are linked to the large chimney-like objects on the roof. There are no fans. A light-well in the centre of the building brings light and air to surrounding parts.

All of which should make the building relatively cheap to maintain. The plan is to invite the countries of Eastern Europe to contribute towards what are called "enhancements" to the building to finish it off. The idea is that the countries would thereby bond with it. The embassies of these nations are being given a list, not unlike that distributed to wedding guests, inviting them to sponsor items, such as the IT fittings in the lecture theatres, the flooring, and the lighting. The Polish government has agreed to fund the school's new doors, which will be metal and will contain the school's name. Donor countries will be recognised on the wall in the entrance hall.

To celebrate the school's 90th anniversary and to mark its move to the new site, SSEES is creating an endowment fund to provide postgraduate research scholarships, post-doctoral fellowships and fixed-term lectureships. At present the school has 750 students, of whom 155 are undergraduates studying in four departments: history, social sciences, Russian studies and Eastern European language and culture. It is hoping the enlargement of the EU will bring it more, particularly PhD students.

The school has a long and fascinating history. One member of staff was the White Russian émigré, Prince Mirsky, who lectured in Russian, converted to communism, and returned to Russia in the 1930s, where he was executed for being a White Russian.

The school's atmosphere has always been steamily political, its politics of the internecine variety, reflecting those of the countries with which it is concerned. SSEES's status grew during the Second World War, when it was called upon by the Foreign Office to help with vital information-gathering. Partly as a result of this, the government bankrolled it after the war, enabling it to expand.

During the Cold War, a lot of effort went into language training. The school provided an understanding of what was happening in the Soviet bloc, says Professor Kolankiewicz. It became proficient in the art of Kremlinology, of decoding what was happening in a closed society, and, since then, it has adjusted to the different skills required in an open society, he says. A new generation of academics expert in the region, but who know nothing at first hand about the Iron Curtain, is emerging.

"We have been better placed than most to appreciate the challenges that the politics of the region have placed on our academic development over the last 100 years," says Professor Kolankiewicz. "In the early years of the school's existence it suffered from the low importance afforded to Slovenic studies in the UK. After the Second World War, the status of Slovenic studies improved, as Western governments realised the importance of having an effective understanding of the politics and culture of the region." And now it is expecting another change.