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I recall, some years ago, a Playboy photo of a largely naked young lady in an American university with a Russian text-book lying by her. I am sure this was not what Robert Dessaix meant by the sexiness of Russian. I mention this only because the author of the text-book was Robert Dessaix.
Robert is right in perceiving a mystery in Russia which was attractive to his generation and to the generation which preceded his and had become the albeit amateur teachers whom he encountered. Judith Armstrong is also correct to remind us that their curiosity coincided with the massive effort of British and American governments to train regulars and conscripts in the armed forces in Russian, which collaterally supported some university departments and leavened anglo-american society with public servants, journalists and others who had been exposed to intensive instruction in Russian.
There is a crisis now. Robert sees it as a crisis of languages and attitudes to language learning. I have a narrower view on the scale of my university, the Australian National University, where I see a body of expert knowledge, huge a decade ago, on all aspects of Russia and East Europe, being eroded as the generation which weathered the Cold War retires. I see also a disregard for language study in the general context of the University. I have great respect for the Faculty of Asian Studies, which expects all its students to tackle at least one Asian language. I have an equally great concern that students of the humanities and social sciences, for the most part, remain innocently monolingual.
Robert sees the popularity of Russian as cyclical, with the most recent great generation entering as perestroika got under way. He can take heart, since students of his kind still take their chance with Russian. The best student ever to come to us completed two years ago.
Historically, Russia has been nothing if not resilient. No doubt a revival of interest will follow a revival of its fortunes. A pessimist would doubt, however, that tertiary education in Australia will retain the capability to cater for that interest. Each of the Russian departments established in the wake of Melbourne is under pressure or threat, despite the Leal report of not so long ago which identified Russian and Spanish as the two languages of world importance undertaught in Australia and requiring support. Each may be picked off in its own university as an underachiever in the competition to attract students. Russian has not even the cachet of classics, since it owes its niche in the universities to politics.
Two solutions promise hope. One is that some of the universities will leave their Russian departments, though much reduced, as mine has done. Then their libraries will maintain their collections. The other, less plausible, is that some agreement will be reached that, say, two departments in Australia be left with sufficient resources to remain (or become) strong all-round units capable of language, literature and area studies.
Curiosity in Russia will revive, as Russia will. Politics will once again save the situation, since specialists in Russian affairs will be needed. My colleagues will concur that the social scientist who wants to understand Russia will do best to start by reading Tolstoy – in Russian.