Russia: the End of an Affair

by Robert Dessaix

© all rights reserved

Responses to this article have been received from Judith Armstrong, Martin Ball, Rosh Ireland, McKenzie Wark, Jemma Pope, Robert Cribb, Professor Paul Thom, who also comments on the Australian National University’s decision to cease teaching Russian in 1998, and Kevin Windle who addresses both the Dessaix article and Paul Thom’s reasons for cancelling first year Russian at the Australian National University.

The Australian romance with Russia appears to be over. Terminal disenchantment seems to have set in. As one of those caught up in the affair – I spent almost thirty years learning Russian, then teaching Russian language and literature at two Australian universities – I can’t help wondering what went wrong. Why did so many of us study Russian in the post-War years in Australia, 1 and why does the study of Russian language, literature and history appeal to so few of us today?

Just over forty years ago, as a schoolboy, I took up the study of Russian. Picture the times: we were living in the sinister shadows of the Petrov affair, Moscow was the epicentre of a brutal totalitarian empire. A sympathetic interest in things Russian was idiosyncratic, if not downright politically suspicious; contemporary Russian culture, apart, perhaps, fromDr Zhivago, was a virtual blank; contact with real Russians from Russia was out of the question – we had to make do with so-called “White Russians” who had found their way here from China. Our teachers, however cultivated or well-intentioned, were mostly amateurs (even at university); just finding a decent textbook was virtually impossible – the Soviet grammars were propagandistic and in short supply, while the few Western textbooks available were methodologically primitive.

Yet at Melbourne University, at precisely that time, Russian studies were in their heyday. The Russian department at Melbourne was even said to be “the third largest school of Russian in the British Empire”. 2 In 1958, in the wake of both the invasion of Hungary and the launching of the first sputnik, there were no fewer than 157 enrolments in Russian at Melbourne University. That peak has never been reached since.

In 1971, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the introduction of Russian at Melbourne University, there was actually a note of “triumphalism” in the air. 3 Against all the odds (as it was thought), despite decades of anti-Soviet rhetoric, despite a conservative government, despite few contacts with the living culture (in the form of films, plays, fiction or poetry), despite the daunting complexities of the language for a newcomer, despite the disdain of certain English departments (which considered that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov were more safely left in their hands), despite the difficulties of finding qualified teaching staff in the discipline’s early years – despite everything , the study of Russian had taken root in Australia and was spreading quickly.

What went wrong?

“Spreading quickly” is, of course, not quite the same thing as “growing strongly”. In a sense, our triumphalism grew out of the illusion that the one entailed the other. In reality, as contact with the Soviet Union became easier, as student exchange schemes came into effect, as certain Soviet (meaning “anti-Soviet”) writers became fashionable (especially poets such as Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam), as the teaching of Russian was professionalized and modernized, and as multiculturalism in Australia came to mean almost the opposite of “an appreciation of cultural diversity”, the study of Russian language and literature at any given institution at first stagnated and then went into a slow decline. Until this depressing reality dawned on us in the 1980s, however, we mistook the more or less constant numbers and the expanded range of courses as a sign that all was well. It was not.

During perestroika, under Gorbachev, there was a remarkable surge in enrolments in Russian departments. Spirits soared. It was a new dawn. But it lasted barely two years. At the University of NSW in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, enrolments were down by 30% on the figures for the previous year. Today, enrolments in departments there, at the ANU and the University of Queensland, for example, are at less than a quarter of the level reached during perestroika , and the overall trend is downwards.

The irony is almost galling. So many of the things we hoped for forty years ago have come to pass – in the former Soviet Union there is freedom of movement across borders, censorship has been relaxed, and a multi-party parliamentary system introduced. Here in Australia we have witnessed the demise of a monolingual culture, and sophisticated teaching materials have become widely available. Even Moscow television is beamed into our living-rooms every morning on SBS. Yet student numbers are sinking towards zero. In fact, strong rumours circulate of the imminent closure of two Australian departments. One of them, among the oldest and most illustrious in the country, is now functioning with only one full-time member of staff.

The reasons for this strange reversal in the fortunes of such a major European language in our universities over the past forty years are obviously complex, but they tell us a lot about what our culture once valued and what it now values very little.

Thirty or forty years ago one of the prime motivations for studying a foreign language and literature (and it was a package deal in those days) was what I shall broadly call erotic . If asked, people would have given all sorts of reasons for taking up French or Russian- inertia, travel, in order to read Dostoevsky or Flaubert in the original – however, whatever our stated reasons, when I was a student in the early sixties, we wanted both to possess and be possessed by this infinitely strange, complicated other world. We wanted to take on its subjectivities as our own, to be galvanized by its vitalizing currents. Naturally enough, certain languages and literatures were more erotically charged centres of power than others for middle-class Australians – French was, and still is, while Finnish never has been. And, for a time, so was Russian.

One of the reasons I think Russia was an object of desire, despite the cold war, is that in those days Russian was the language of a great and growing empire – ethnically diverse, geographically vast, utterly and confrontingly different. As one of our Soviet textbooks put it, Russian was on the verge of becoming the lingua franca of all mankind, the language of civilisation itself. There is clearly an attraction in this kind of power which languages like Danish or Modern Greek cannot aspire to. Power is erotic – if anything sets up a magnetic field, power does.

By the 1980s, however, during the Afghan conflict and post-Solidarity, it was becoming increasingly evident that Russia’s future as a great power was clouded. The magnetism grew weaker. Under Gorbachev, for a brief moment, it seemed that the country might have a future again – that Russia might yet become a resource-rich, democratic, vital member of the European community. Now it is clear that fascinating though Russia may be (for cultural, historical or political reasons), during our lifetimes, power will emanate from Western Europe, North America and the Western Pacific Rim. Russia is quite simply out of the running. (So is Italy, you might object, but then Italy is an erotic powerhouse in a number of non-political ways – not enough to sustain university courses in these far more venal times – but for Italian the situation is not yet hopeless.)

While by “erotic” I do not mean, of course, a specifically sexual colouring to the lure of a given culture, sexual stirrings may occasionally play a part. There can be little doubt that one of the attractions of European cultures (as of the Arabic), especially for the young, has always been their aura of exciting sexual difference from our own – all those sexual suggestions implicit in that old-fashioned word “Continental” with its connotations of sophistication, adventure, flirtation, knowingness and seduction. I suspect that Russia has never scored particularly well in this directly sexual sense in comparison with, say, French, Italian and Spanish, whose erotic codes we are much better able to decipher and have a long history of responding to.

It was during those first post-War years that Russia was, in other ways, the perfect erotic subject: not so foreign as to be impenetrable, yet dangerously different; forbidden to us by parental figures, yet not averse to ritualized courtship; fabulously well-connected, of ancient lineage, mysterious, respected. The desire to know Russia was overwhelming, particularly since so many of us felt our courtship was being intentionally thwarted. To know her would be to know humanity itself.

The eroticism of Russia partly vanished, I think, when she was revealed to be little more than a vulgar, backward version of America. It was as if, when she finally emerged from the penumbral depths of her once closely guarded abode, our inamorata turned out to be not a soulful beauty, but a tipsy sloven. She wasn’t humming airs from Prokofiev or even Borodin, but grotesquely mimicking Madonna or Abba. She wasn’t remotely interested in talking about Gogol, she just wanted to see Terminator II and invest in a time-share apartment on the Costa del Sol. It was disenchanting. Eros fled.

The problem goes deeper than that.

In these post-modern times literature itself is a far less eroticized discourse than it once was. Neither literature nor the skills needed to read a foreign literature in the original occupy the same moral or political space they did a generation ago. Nor, for that matter, does the foreign literary figure. Complaining that the days when a poet was like an “uncrowned prince” in Russia have now gone, Aleksandr Kushner wrote in the New Yorker in 1994 that “literature in the eyes of many has lost its exceptional importance” in Russia. Once it was one of the few ways for a Russian to play a prominent role in the intellectual culture. Now it is just one of dozens. To make matters worse for those marketing their literary prowess, if you want to make your mark in society and earn the respect of your fellow citizens, in Russia, as in this country, you are unlikely to choose the intellectual arena at all. You are much more likely to seek prominence (“sexiness”, interestingly enough, in media parlance) in areas which require no complex understanding of history or culture at all – by opening a fast-food chain, investing in hotels in Turkey, joining a political party, playing sport, playing in a band, acting in blockbuster movies. Literature is no longer a privileged site. Our students know this. They want to study film and performance-orientated art forms, cultural theory and popular culture. These are the discourses which are now heavily eroticized (in both the sexual and non-sexual senses).

In this way, the traditional language-and-literature Russian package is obviously an anachronism: cultural power (with all its attractions for the young student) lies overwhelming elsewhere. All a Russian department can do under these circumstances is break up that old package into readily recyclable parts – some basic language training for the businessman setting up in Vladivostok, a course or two (preferably in English, to make things easier) in 19th or 20th century literature, a series of seminars on Russian society and thought for Europeanists wanting to fill in a few gaps. Whether a university is the right marketplace in which to set up this particular stall is, of course, debatable.

I would further argue that, in multicultural Australia (so-called), difference itself, such a vital element in erotic attachment, now means something quite specific. In the 50s and 60s -which we are constantly told were monocultural because we thought of ourselves as basically “British” – the kind of international cultural conversation educated middle-class Australians tried to join was understood to be obviously characterized by “difference”. The differences of other cultures were taken for granted and constituted part of their desirability. Now, as a result of so-called multiculturalism, interest in one’s own difference has been legitimized and every encouragement is now given for Greeks to know about their Greekness and for Australians with Italian grandparents to learn about their Italian roots, while interest in other people’s difference has decreased. (I believe the statistics will bear me out on this). Consequently, the general conversation, or what is left of it, is now more likely to be conducted in English than ever before and the strong interest once shown in learning the languages of others has fallen away dramatically.

As the writer Edmund White recently remarked, general conversation itself is now breaking down because “the new multiculturalism is less a general conversation than rival monologues”. So, as official multiculturalism has grown more strident, the interest in learning foreign languages has declined. The government, knowing perfectly well that multiculturalism is immigration politics and not active involvement in cultures other than your own, quite logically sees no contradiction between making it harder for schoolchildren to learn foreign languages while waving banners asserting that multiculturalism is a good thing. Multiculturalism has proven to be an excellent thing for making people feel at home and, I think, for encouraging a very Australian kind of tolerance – an agreement to ignore difference for the sake of a bit of peace and quiet. It has done nothing at all for making individual Australians more interested in other cultures. And, ironically, it has increased the power and status of English in Australian society to unprecedented levels.

In the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to almost full employment, students were given permission in ways almost unimaginable today to indulge their love-affairs with European, and increasingly Asian, languages. To immerse yourself for several years in the language and literature of one, or perhaps two, foreign cultures struck us at the time as a humanizing, civilizing sort of thing to do – loaded terms, of course, but none the less meaningful in that context. It was taken for granted that by acquainting ourselves with the grand European narratives and engaging with the history of European thought and culture through the prism of French, German or Russian, we were laying the groundwork for becoming worthwhile, useful citizens. (In those days we were citizens rather than clients of government.) Appreciating our roots – and, after all, almost everyone’s roots lay in either Britain or Europe, as they do to this day – seemed a natural thing to do.

Without conditions of nearly full employment, this kind of attitude cannot flourish. No doubt some students chose French or German with an eye to future employment, perhaps as schoolteachers, but certainly no one studied Russian to secure a job. No jobs called for a knowledge of Russian.

The profound shift in our cultural values that has occurred since the mid-80s has been aided and abetted by Federal Government policy on tertiary education. Education now seems to have little, if anything, to do with “humanizing”, or even educating anyone in the old-fashioned sense of the word. It has to do with training Australians (one shies away from the word “citizens”, it is too compromising) for future employment. In the context of serious unemployment, students and teachers can do little but cooperate with this degradation of the notion of what a humanities degree is for. A student’s motivation in choosing this language rather than that is now understood to be of necessity utilitarian. The old concept of value has been conflated with “economically productive”. Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that Japanese and Indonesian will appear attractive to a far greater number of prospective students than Italian or Russian will.

I was on the point of writing “attractive to a far greater number of prospective language students” when I realized that, to someone of my era, those students who choose Japanese or Chinese merely in order to further restricted commercial aims are not really language students at all. In that old sense from a generation ago, language students themselves are an anachronism, a poor investment. Acting as they were out of love, all language students ever really did, was to invest in themselves. Society was, in turn, enriched by their self-enrichment, but not in ways that would appear in the profit and loss columns of any ledger.

On the whole, in view of this rather sad end to Australia’s once promising romance with one of the world’s great cultures, it seems to me that, in conditions of widespread unemployment and economic rationalism, and given literature’s loss of importance as a principal carrier of culture, the kind of humanistic motives for studying languages and literatures which once prevailed have now had their day.

Learning has been replaced by brilliance. Love has turned venal. Something of inestimable value has, to my way of thinking, been lost.

Robert Dessaix taught Russian at the Australian National University for twenty years and he has published Turgenev: A Quest for Faith and many translations in Russian literature. He is best known as a literary commentator and creative writer. His acclaimed novel, Night Letters, is to be published in the USA and Germany in October and has been short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award.


1. The first Australian department was set up in 1946 at the University of Melbourne by Nina Christesen. Over the next 25 years Chairs were established at Monash University, the ANU, the University of NSW and the University of Queensland, and Russian language courses were progressively offered at a number of other tertiary institutions, including Macquarie University in Sydney.

2. According to evidence given by Nina Christesen to the Petrov Royal Commissioners, documented in The Christesen Romance by Judith Armstrong (Melbourne University Press, 1996).

3. Judith Armstrong’s term, from The Christesen Romance, p 155


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