Russian and East European Studies Department Expands Approach to Region’s Languages and Literatures

September 22, 2017

To expand Penn's multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural approach to teaching and learning about the region, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures was renamed the Department of Russian and East European Studies, or REES, before the start of the 2017-18 academic year.

Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European studies and department chair says: “Pan-Slavism was a political movement in the Slavic world during the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. It was a kind of romantic notion that all Slavic peoples share a common bond. It was often associated with friendship with the Russian nation. It was at the root of the foundation of the state of Yugoslavia, which was a state that sought to in-gather the South Slavs (Yugo Slavs), with disastrous consequences.” 

Today, you don’t hear much about pan-Slavism, says the scholar of Central and Eastern European comparative politics. “Of course, many, but not all, of the East European languages are in the Slavic language group. However, referring to the entire region as Slavic was always totally inaccurate,” says Orenstein.

He points out that throughout the field, more geographical labels are being adopted. The American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies recently changed its name to the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies.

The REES department move follows two years of discussion and planning across the School of Arts and Sciences. Administrators thought that the term “Slavic” in the department title did not embrace all the languages, nations and inhabitants in the East European region, specifically, the Hungarians, Romanians, Balts, Jews and Roma. The geographical term seeks to reflect the multi-cultural realities of this area of study.

“This is particularly important because East Europe has been called the ‘shatter zone of empires,’ a place where competing nationalisms have repeatedly clashed and where homogenous nation states are a fantasy, only created by mass extermination or forced expulsions. This makes the application of a concept of the 'Slavic' world particularly inappropriate.”

“For me, the name change was crucial in order to provide a more accurate representation of what we do in the department,” says Kevin Platt, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities. “We study and teach not only language and literature, but also anthropology, politics and film. ‘Russian and East European’ also gives a more accurate and comprehensible picture of the regions we work on.”

During the academic year, REES will expand its East European languages and literatures offerings, diversify course offerings in the social sciences and offer an evening beginning Russian language course.

Platt, who has been on the REES faculty for 15 years, works on representations of Russian history, Russian historiography, history and memory in Russia, Russian lyric poetry and global post-Soviet Russian culture.

He says that expanding the range of disciplines in the department broadens the conversation both among faculty and researchers, and as a community including students.

“I am so pleased to have people from other disciplines just down the hall, with whom I can bounce ideas,” says Platt, “and whom I can ask to read my scholarship and provide feedback from outside of the silo of my own discipline.”

The department will continue its commitment to teaching Russian language and literature, but will add course offerings in other aspects of social sciences and humanities, such as gender studies, film, art history and international relations.

REES professor Kristen Ghodsee joined the department as part of the change. She is a social scientist and ethnographer of Eastern Europe. Her research interests include the gendered effects of the economic transition from communism to capitalism and the ethnographic study of post-communist nostalgia in Eastern Europe. She is the author of numerous books on European Communism and its aftermath. Her latest book, Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th-Century Communism, a collection of essays and short stories, examines the legacies of twentieth-century communism twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall fell.

A new major in Russian and East European Studies, with three tracks will replace previous majors. Current students can continue to graduate with their existing major. A new minor will be offered in East Central European Studies.

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