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Yale Daily News: What Does the Future Hold for Russian Studies at Yale?

April 20, 2022

Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, University administrators discuss how Yale has adjusted to changing relationships with institutions, faculty and scholars based in Russia — and what’s next.

As universities scramble to suspend their relationships with Russia and its schools in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Yale has been closely reassessing its ties with Russian academic and institutional partners.

Faculty and administrators walk a precarious line trying to maintain interpersonal relationships with Russian students and scholars while severing all ties to the government. According to Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis, the University’s institutional relationships with Russian schools will remain on hold as the war in Ukraine continues — with these partnerships eligible for re-evaluation in about a year’s time. One program within the University that is affected is the Fox International Fellowship, a graduate student exchange program at Yale that partners with 21 academic institutions across the world. The Fellowship recently announced a suspension of its partnership with Moscow State University — which was its first partner after its establishment in 1988. The program was set up to “provide a peaceful international exchange” in the midst of Cold War tensions.

“It’s upsetting, you know,” said Emily Erikson, who serves as director of the Fox International Fellowship. “[But] I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Erikson clarified that the Fellowship does not blame scholars for the decisions of the Russian government, but noted that given the context of “complicated” Russian relations with the United States, there was no guarantee that students could travel safely back and forth between the two nations. The decision to suspend ties with Moscow State University — which operates with state funding — was made on the level of the fellowship, not the senior administration.

In addition to the suspension of the Moscow State University partnership, Yale has pulled its money from Russia, committed to rejecting donations from sanctioned individuals and further diminished the School of Management’s ties with Moscow’s Skolkovo school. Faculty members have generally followed suit with these administrative-level decisions by removing their own partnerships with Russian institutions and their associated faculty. Lewis told the News that the University will not prevent its faculty from conducting work with Russia-based colleagues “as long as it is legal and meets ethical guidelines” and so long as they “declare their outside funding.” 

Reactions following the invasion

Molly Brunson, who serves as director of the Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Program at the MacMillan Center, said that her perspective on Russian institutional ties at Yale is complicated.

“There’s a kind of real important moral and ethical reason to sever ties with these institutional connections … that might be encouraging [Putin] in ways direct or indirect,” Brunson said. 

But Brunson also explained that Putin’s war in Ukraine sparked a now “emerging” conversation between faculty over how interpersonal connections between scholars and students in the Russian and Eastern European region can be maintained. She mentioned that the issues faculty currently have to address mirror the “kind of difficulties and challenges of working across borders during the Cold War.”

She said that, following news of the invasion, faculty at Yale had “dedicated a lot of [their] initial energies toward supporting colleagues, friends, families in Ukraine and fleeing Ukraine.” In addition to this, the University worked to figure out which scholars were at risk, and how to help them efficiently and quickly. This not only included Ukrainian individuals, but also those fleeing Russia who were in danger due to various dissident activities.

From an administrative standpoint, Lewis also noted that the University was working to assist Russian students and scholars “who are here now and don’t want to go back to Russia.”

The Office of International Students & Scholars, or OISS, has been working with both Ukrainian and Russian students on disrupted summer and travel plans. In an email to the News, OISS Executive Director Ann Kuhlman acknowledged that the tense situation surrounding Ukraine and Russia has prevented students from getting funds and helping family at home.

“OISS has been in touch with both our Ukrainian and Russian students and have been working with them based on their individual needs and advising them on immigration, travel, and financial concerns,” Kuhlman wrote.

Facing challenges in academia

For Yale faculty, professors are struggling to figure out how to conduct field research, write books or support colleagues in Russia. Visas are hard to come by due to the current conflict, Brunson said, and other logistic challenges will make research difficult.

One such obstacle, Brunson said, is the lack of open lines of communication for colleagues in Russia. Crackdowns on social media platforms by the Russian government, including Facebook and Twitter, have meant that many feeds utilized by professional spheres have largely gone silent. Although many scholars have migrated to the instant messaging service Telegram, she said, it may take time for the platform to securely establish robust lines of communication that were once available.

“There is a very, very significant need to keep those [academic] civil, social communities intact, if there’s going to be any hope of moving into a different moment,” Brunson said.

Brunson — who is also a professor in Slavic languages and literature — told her graduate students to plan to write a dissertation that does not require them to go to Russia, because she is not sure they will be able to in the next few years.

With regard to Russian studies at Yale, Brunson admitted that there was no current “plan” for how to proceed — but that faculty and officials at the University were working on asking questions and figuring out what the best step forward would be. In the meantime, she does not think that relations with Russia will resolve anytime soon, and believes that the University needs to plan for all contingencies, including Russia becoming completely cut off from research and from potential on-the-ground collaborations in the coming years.

But Brunson does not believe that such a complete shutdown of research in Russia would be productive to the academic community and to the world. She said that the threats of a continued ground war in Europe, nuclear entanglement and extreme crises such as world hunger make the research conducted surrounding Russia — especially in relation to Eastern Europe and local regions — fundamental.

“It is absolutely not a time to stop work on Russia and Eastern Europe and Eurasia,” Brunson said. “If anything, it is a time to increase it manyfold … it’s very clear now that our ignorance [has been] quite damaging.”

Reflecting on Yale’s future with Russia

Brunson urged caution in University administrative and faculty decisions surrounding whether to hold off on or continue ties with Russian institutions.

“I think that what is important to remember is that … beyond these institutions are actual people with actual lives and careers and families that have been completely upended,” she said. “[There are] big institutional decisions, and that’s often what we focus on, but they actually have extraordinary impacts on individuals. And I think for this reason, it is imperative that we be very thoughtful in what we choose to support but also what we choose to cut off.”

Erikson added her own thoughts on understanding how the University will proceed in examining its global partnerships, especially with Russia.

“The mission of the University is a global mission,” Erikson said. “It is not truth and knowledge and a better society for one nation. It is for all nations. And [the] University tries to accomplish that mission, but it can be very hard to make those kinds of decisions.”


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