Russian: a terrifying subject

Few want to study the language because of the country's `undeserved' rough image, reports Mark Rowe
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Russian, the language of the Cold War and glasnost, is being spurned by undergraduates in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union. While thousands of students are rushing to sign up for university courses before tuition fees are introduced next year, the number of undergraduates studying Russian has fallen to its lowest level since 1980, when Leonid Brezhnev presided over the old USSR's "period of stagnation".

There are two main reasons. Russia's image - utterly undeserved, say Russian experts - of a Wild West region, ruled by gangsters and plagued by typhoid, diphtheria and ecological horrors, is making students balk at studying a language which involves a year's residence in the country. In addition, a comparatively unexciting period of Russian politics, after the euphoria of the Gorbachev era, has failed to attract sixth- formers considering studying a language.

In 1996 there were 91 confirmed places for students studying single honours Russian in the UK, against 206 in 1991, the height of "Gorbymania". A spokesman for UCAS, the university admissions service, said the trend downwards was expected to continue this year.

Many Russian departments, which would usually expect to fill their places long before the A-level results were published, are still recruiting, including those at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies and Leeds and Birmingham Universities. Others, such as Belfast's, have closed, while several, including Edinburgh's, have merged with other modern-language departments in order to survive.

"Russian departments are in crisis. The numbers of students has gone down alarmingly," says Professor Tony Briggs, head of Russian language and literature at Birmingham University.

In a good year, Birmingham would usually see 25 students studying Russian as a single or combined subject, but its current intake is just 15. Keele University's Russian section, which achieved 20 marks out of 24 in a Higher Education Funding Council quality assessment, has seen yearly numbers drop from a high of 33 in the late 1980s to an average of 15. Leeds has 24 students starting this year, compared with more than 40 when glasnost was in full flow.

Professor Briggs believes, however, that the popularity of Russian is cyclical. He said: "There have been three major surges in interest. The launch of Sputnik, Krushchev making a fool of himself by banging his shoe on the desk at the United Nations, and the arrival of the Gorbachevs all sparked surges in interest. Gorbachev and his wife were so elegant, educated and human, and that contrasted with the Hollywood-doll image of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

"Now Russia is seen as dull, boring and dangerous and that really annoys me because it is so wrong. You hear nothing but bad news, but the risk of being shot or getting typhoid is no higher than anywhere else in the world. Moscow is safer than New York and Florida."

That view is backed by Keele's head of department, Robert Reid, who says conditions in Russia, Belorus and Ukraine, where British students study Russian, are better than they were at the height of Russian's popularity. "The days when you had to take a year's supply of toothpaste and soap are long gone. You can buy anything in the major towns."

However misplaced the image, the department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at Leeds University has sought to meet the concern by offering a degree in Russian Civilisation which does not require students to spend a year abroad.

"I think parents and students are a bit wary. Russia's international prestige is quite low," says the head of department, David Collins. "There are reports of diseases, the head of Russia's privatisation scheme has been shot dead in the street, and the Mir space station is capsizing. This degree is aimed at students who may not want to live in Russia."

He believes that part of the problem is that fewer schools are teaching Russian. "Russian had a boom in schools in the 1960s. We are getting more and more students starting Russian from scratch here rather than coming in with an A-level in Russian."

Professor Briggs believes Russian will enjoy a revival. "It will rise again in the next millennium. Russia really must have an economic boom and that will be very good for job prospects. Russian graduates remain highly prized by commerce, banks and the media."

Professor Briggs feels that beyond the future employment reasons for studying Russian lies a more fundamental principle. "Russian has a rigour that provides young people with a nicely poised intellectual challenge. You enter the field of Russian culture which has made an enormous contribution to Western civilisation."

Helen Trickett, who graduated in Russian and French from the Polytechnic of Central London in 1990, said: "I was set on studying modern languages and the old USSR seemed more interesting than studying French. It was such a mysterious place. One of the most interesting things was going there. This was a place that seemed so serious. But when you were there you found out how absurd things were."

For Gina Mance, who studied Russian and German at Nottingham University between 1986 and 1990, said: "The language is quite difficult and that was a challenge. But once you get into the culture there is something about it all that cannot be put into words. Going and meeting the people there is among the highlights. It changes your values and outlook on life."