Martin Ball responds to Robert Dessaix

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“As one of those caught up in the affair,” Robert Dessaix is understandably upset at the demise of Russian studies in Australian universities. While agreeing with much of what Dessaix says, this response will question some of the underlying principles informing Dessaix’s argument, drawing on my experience of Russian studies at tertiary level at the University of Melbourne.

To begin with, Dessaix is absolutely correct to identify the ‘erotic’ as one of the attractions of Russian – indeed I think he is too modest for the claims of Russian eroticism as a topos in Western culture. (Think of Diagelev’s Ballet Russe, Sasha in Woolf’s Orlando, or more recently (and prosaically), the use of Russian in A Fish Called Wanda). While Stalin and Brezhnev made the Soviet Union a true villian (and it is easy to love a villian), Yeltsin is just a boor. As Oscar Wilde said, “As long as was is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” Such is modern Russia.

But while I can agree with Dessaix about this shift in persona of Russia/Soviet Union, his nostalgia for things past goes too far when insisting that, “In these post-modern times literature is a far less eroticized discourse.” Maybe I misread Calvino, Vargas Llosa, even Mark Henshaw? It is not that Russian has changed; merely the lens used to view it. So if the erotics of Soviet ‘otherness’ was all that sustained Russian studies during the Cold War, then it deserves to decline when the nation is revealed as “a tipsy sloven.”

Of course there is much more to Russian than its sexiness (or otherwise). However, it is interesting that Dessaix focusses on this as a reason he was drawn to Russian; particularly in the notion of its ‘value’. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith has said that, “The privileging of the self through the pathologizing of the Other remains the key move and defining objective of axiology.” 1 The decline in the erotics of Russian is causally unrelated to the devaluing of literary studies; but in Herrnstein-Smith’s formulation we can see why Dessaix conflates the two and links them thematically. His predication of axiological codes goes hand in hand with a fascination with the Other.

Dessaix’s essay is essentially a lament for the sea-change in the value of Russian, which becomes (as Judith Armstrong points out) a synecdoche for the degradation of the humanities. Whereas Dessaix’s contemporaries acted “out of love” [?!], the students of today who study Japanese, Indonesian or Chinese “are not really language students at all,” because they are motivated by purely commercial aims. “Something of inestimable value has been lost,” he concludes. Innocence perhaps? It is no use pretending that ‘literature’ used to be unsullied by commercialism. As John Frow points out, “High culture is fully absorbed within commodity production.” 2 Apart from the pervading Eurocentrism throughout the essay, what strikes one is a distinctly Arnoldian sense of culture and cultural value. Notwithstanding Dessaix’s attempt to problematize the terms, it is not surprising that “humanizing” and “civilizing” are recurring themes.

If Dessaix wants to understand why students left Russian in droves in the 80s and 90s, he might look at the broader changes in the humanities. To be sure, successive governments have battered the disciplines into restructuring (perestroika), but in the same period, many departments have grown in popularity as a result of the process of self-criticism. For example, English departments around the country have reinvented themselves as cultural studies departments. They have done so by exploding the old canon, and welcoming new methodologies and areas of study. If some cliques have gone by the wayside in favour of new interests, then so be it – the departments themselves are vibrant and new students are coursing through their electives. The same cannot be said for Russian. The department in Melbourne has steadily given ground to Linguistics, yielding rooms and libraries – the building’s famous name ‘Babel’ may one day be a hollow appellation.

The stagnation which almost killed English lasted just long enough to strangle Russian. I recall at Melbourne in the mid 80s that the critical methodolgy applied to Pushkin and Dostojevskij made Leavis look avant-garde. (Judith Armstrong’s course on Soviet Writers was a notable exception, and my favourite teacher, Zhanna Grigorevna, was forced overseas.) I always thought it quite funny that I finished my degree knowing the Russian words for, say, juxtaposition and translation, but not light-switch or carrot. On the other hand, I did know the word for cucumber, but only because it occurs in The Cherry Orchard – vocabulary learning was determined by high literary, not phatic exegiencies.

I was one of the foolish/lucky ones to hang around. I revelled in Paul Cubberly’s dour courses on comparative philology, and was fascinated by Roly Sussex’s (occasional) lectures on stylistics and translation theory. Eventually I found the Revolutionary poets, modern writers like Zoshchenko, Rasputin, and the contemporary folk singers. But most students dropped out early, told their friends how bad it was, and went and discovered Bakhtin in the English department instead. Outmoded notions of Culture just did not appeal. Texts had to justify themselves as objects of study, and “Tolstoj’s attitude to adultery” just didn’t seem as relevant as film studies.

Robert Dessaix is right to think of the collapse of Russian studies as “the end of an affair.” His sentimental nostalgia is endearing. And he is right to bemoan the loss of interest in languages generally. His essay however, confuses and conflates the reasons for this decline. I, too, am saddened at the demise of Russian studies (and especially for those teachers compromised by lack of opportunities ). There are many reasons for learning foreign languages: to better understand one’s own; to explore cultural difference; to broaden one’s engagement with the world; and so on. But I would rather see students doing Linguistics for the right reasons, than learning Russian for the wrong ones.

Martin Ball started learning Russian at primary school in the 70s. He completed an Honours degree in Russian at the University of Melbourne in the mid 80s.


1. Contigencies of value: alternative perspectives for critical theory, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, p 38.

2. John Frow, Cultural studies and cultural value, OUP, 1995, p 23.

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