Trevor Brighton | Art Director

Russia's Erasure

Published January 25, 2023

OU no longer offers Russian-related courses

By Katie Millard | Culture Editor

Editor’s Note: Post reporter Katie Millard had Steven Miner for History of Russia in Spring Semester 2021-22. Due to Miner’s status as the last professor who taught courses specializing in Russia at OU, Millard had no other source to obtain the information from.

Steven Miner sits at the desk in front of the board, students of varying ages and majors trickling past him. He turns off the PowerPoint and the image of Russian churches flicks to black. His steel eyes crease as he casually waves goodbye to the students who have spent the past 90 minutes clutching tightly to his every impassioned word. He wanted to stay in bed on this cold day – Miner, like many others, does not enjoy 9:30 mornings – but he slipped into his wool socks and sweater anyways. He only has so many days left.

For the first time in 75 years, Ohio University will not offer any Russian-related courses this semester.

"I'm not an angry old guy," Miner said. "I'm quite a happy old guy, (but) I'll tell you one thing that did make me angry."

Miner is a man in mourning. After nearly 30 years of dedicating his life to teaching Russian history, his intended 35-year career has been cut short. Two years prior, in May 2020, COVID-19 slashed the contracts of dozens of his colleagues, granting affected professors one year's notice that their contracts would not be renewed. This decision included the only two Russian language professors employed by the university.

"I'm not an angry old guy. I'm quite a happy old guy, (but) I'll tell you one thing that did make me angry."-Steven Miner

With their departure, the Russian language had been eliminated from OU. Now, so are all Russian-specific courses. Russia is dead in Athens, Ohio.

Before the pandemic, the Russian language was a beloved major at OU. In its final years of existence, 2019 and 2020, nearly 1% of all Russian language majors in the U.S. graduated with a degree from OU, according to Data USA. COVID-19 eliminated the program, part of a massive budget cut, laying off many professors in a largely protested economic decision. OU was not alone in professor layoffs and department trimming; according to a 2020 New York Times article, universities across the nation were forced to implement hiring freezes, lay off faculty and eliminate majors. Russian studies were simply part of the COVID-19 time of troubles at OU.

Miner said he does not think Russian studies' untimely death is intentional but rather the unfortunate domino fall of economic decisions. He stumbled upon the unfortunate coincidence one day, confirming its absence with a deep dive into OU's course catalog.

"At present, we have nobody who teaches Russian language, and nobody teaches Russian literature," Miner said. "If you come here and you want to study Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, go someplace else."

Miner loves Russia because it was once completely foreign to him. He was hired by OU in 1986: the same year as the Cold War's Chernobyl Disaster. He embraced Russian history at a tricky time to do so, but he fell head first into the subject and wrote his life as a love letter to the country.

Miner said he's sure other history professors will discuss Russia – it's difficult not to. However, they cannot tell you a first-hand account of how the cold stones of a Russian Orthodox church feel beneath shoes or how Soviet food smelled: a mixture of bad fish, disinfectant and a refrigerator overdue for a cleaning.

15 years ago, Russian studies thrived at OU, and students immersed themselves in the country and culture. Karen Evans-Romaine, professor of Russian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former OU Russian professor, said she would take students to Moscow every other spring for a study abroad program.

Evans-Romaine said students studied literature, culture and language abroad, breaking each Wednesday for an excursion to a cultural site. They lived with host families and took an overnight trip to St. Petersburg when the weather grew warmer.

"It was really exciting to be able to show them Moscow at this really important time in their history, when it felt like Russia was changing," she said. "It was just an amazing, truly life-changing opportunity for students."

Those who did not study abroad could still participate in as much Russian culture as Evans-Romaine and her colleagues could find in Athens, Ohio. Students spent Tuesday evenings in Russian club meetings where conversations in Russian interjected between the sounds of coffee brewing and textbook pages turning in Athens coffee shops.

"We would talk about tea and Russia," Evans-Romaine said.

She said there were other cultural immersions like cooking Russian dishes to enjoy together and Russian folk dancing in a local festival.

Russian classes were important for OU students outside of the program as well. Students could still get a Russian degree even if they were not Russian majors through the Russian Studies Certificate Program. It boasted a holistic curriculum of Russian literature and history courses. The certificate stated its opportunities after graduation included "a career in education, foreign service, journalism, national defense, nonprofit organizations or politics."

Russian studies' thriving services had been around for decades. According to OU's compiled history of the modern languages department, OU began offering Russian language courses in the 1947-48 academic year. The 1964-66 Department of Modern Languages catalog said OU created five language houses, including a Russian House. Two Russian studies students at OU even went on to have political careers in Ohio: Sara Hendricker, eight-year mayor of Athens, and George V. Voinovich, former governor and senator.

The Office of Global Affairs and International Studies said the study abroad program to Moscow last occurred in the Spring of 2016. However, the Russian major and certificate programs continued until 2021, when the two-person department ended with the removal of Mila Shevchenko and Tetyana Dovbnya.

These professors were adored. Shevchenko has a 4.6 out of 5 on "Rate My Professor," an online source reviewing professors and their courses. One student wrote of Shevchenko that she was "by far the best professor I've had in my college career," adding she made the student passionate about the Russian language, history, culture and literature.

Cam Sico was among the final students to graduate from OU with a Russian language major, and he corroborated the online reviews of Shevchenko. He declared his major as a freshman with no previous Russian knowledge – a decision he ranks in his top five choices ever.

Sico joined the program in hopes of it helping in his future career, but he said his classmates ranged from lifelong Russian speakers to novices like him. No matter their reasoning for studying Russia, Sico said they all adored the program.

"It's just disappointing," Sico said. "I don't understand how you could bet against Russia. We're such a tight knit community. I called my professor' Mama,' as well as the other people in our class, because she was always there for us."

Upon Shevchenko's release in 2021, she was employed by The Ohio State University, or OSU, just two weeks later – a testament, Sico said, to "Mama's" skill. OSU is not unique for continuing this program. The University of Cincinnati, Miami University and Bowling Green State University all have Russian majors. In fact, of the 13 public schools in Ohio, only OU and Akron do not offer some Russian language, history or literature courses.

“It's just disappointing. I don't understand how you could bet against Russia. We're such a tight knit community. I called my professor' Mama,' as well as the other people in our class, because she was always there for us.”-Cam Sico

The professors did not go without protest. Students banded together under the Twitter account @OU_SaveOurProfs to combat professor layoffs, including Shevchenko and Dovbnya.

According to a 2020-2021 review of the Linguistics Department, in three years, position eliminations and voluntary separations resulted in a 55% decrease of staff in the department.

OU also received a letter from various faculty around the world urging them to continue with the program. The letter had 723 signatures, but its efforts to persuade the university about the importance of a Russian language program did not persevere.

OU administration released a prepared statement at the time addressing non-renewals. The statement was sent to staff and published online, signed by former OU President Duane Nellis and other senior administrators.

"Most of the institution's operating costs are in personnel, which has necessitated difficult decisions that we recognize have a significant impact on our employees, their families, and the communities in which we serve," the statement read.

The Russian language program was not the only department to lose faculty; 53 faculty contracts were non-renewed across the university, according to a previous Post report. However, it was the only program to lose all of its faculty, wiping it completely from OU's curriculum.

Several administrators took either 10% or 15% salary reductions during this time. However, some received bonuses, such as the $100,000 bonus Deborah Shaffer, OU's former senior vice president for finance and administration, accepted on July 15, 2020. According to The Post's 2020 Salary Guide, she made $294,953 that year – $86,040 more than Shevchenko, Dovbyna and Miner made that year combined.

"It's like the Soviet Union, there used to be a thing called the 'nomenklatura,'" Miner said. "Once you were in it, you could lose your position, but you were never going to drop below a certain level. That's what we have here. I don't think they have a firm grasp of where all the money was going, and so people got fired that probably didn't need to be fired. If there's a game plan to all this, it's not clear to the faculty members."

The May 4, 2020, OU Faculty Senate minutes stated, "We are not eliminating programs or departments." The 53 non-renewed contracts were announced Friday, May 15, just weeks later, resulting in the elimination of the Russian program.

According to the faculty handbook, any elimination of a program or department must be based on "educational considerations," including a lack of need for the program or lack of educational quality. Any eliminated program is to be considered first at the college level, then by the University Curriculum Council. A majority vote by the council sends the proposition to the Provost, then to the President, and finally, to the Board of Trustees.

The University Curriculum Council minutes from September 2020 detail the suspension of the Russian Studies Certificate, stating: "Because of recent instructional faculty non-renewals, the department will have no faculty in Russian (language) at all after spring of 2020-2021."

The University Curriculum Council minutes from 2020 and 2021 do not detail the removal of the Russian major.

Lilly Pinkelman is a junior studying sustainable plant systems at The Ohio State University. Her life would have looked quite different if she'd been able to stick with her original post-high school plan. Pinkelman committed to studying at OU but transferred the summer before she was supposed to begin college in 2020 because the Russian language was no longer offered.

"My whole program was just completely gone," Pinkelman said. "I'd said yes to everything and accepted my scholarships and had to go back and reject everything. I was bummed about the whole Russian thing. The program seemed really, really awesome, especially with the lady who was talking to me about it. She was adorable. I loved her."

University spokespersons were initially contacted in early December regarding a sit-down interview, but chose to provide a written statement instead. University representatives were not able to complete a sit down interview by time of publication.

The statement from Daniel Pittman, interim senior director of communications for the university’s communications and marketing department, wrote the university is moving forward financially, particularly with an uptick in enrollment.

"Over the past seven years, demand for modern languages classes has dropped significantly, from 5,714 filled seats in 10 languages in 2015-16 to 2,685 filled seats across nine languages in 2021-22, nearly half of which are in Spanish," Pittman wrote in an email. "In Spring 2020, a total of 18 OHIO students were participating in the Russian program in either a degree-granting, minor or certificate capacity."

Pittman said the decision was not taken lightly but resulted from low enrollment. He did not comment on the university's absence of any Russian-related courses following Miner's retirement, nor was the absence addressed in any public statement from the university.

Both Miner and Evans-Romaine, however, felt the decision to remove all Russian studies was an unfortunate misstep rather than an attack on Russia.

"I'm absolutely positive that there was no ill will involved, that there was no conscious desire to get rid of Russian studies at Ohio," Evans-Romaine said. "This (was a) budget decision, which just makes me so, so sad. Russian has always been so deeply connected to politics, to U.S. foreign relations, to our history, our national security interests, and it's understandable that those wax and wane as do all foreign policy interests depending on what's going on in the world. It's so clear right now that shutting Russian programs is short sighted."

Miner said the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February sparked an even greater need for Russian programs. According to Data USA, the number of Russian studies graduates in the workforce is growing at a rate of 4.36%. Russian is also the most popular native language in Europe, according to Babbel Magazine.

Studying Russia bridges communication to one of the major players of the world culturally, politically and economically, Miner said. Furthermore, understanding Russian history helps one understand the nuances of what's occurring in Russia now.

"The irony is, of course, Russia is important, and right now very much so," Miner said. "It's a possibility we could end up in a shooting war with a country that we have nothing to study."

“The irony is, of course, Russia is important, and right now very much so. It's a possibility we could end up in a shooting war with a country that we have nothing to study.”-Steven Miner

Sico, who is now attending graduate school at OU, takes summer classes at the University of Michigan to ensure he can continue his studies with no option in Athens. The beauty of the program, he said, was the details Miner adores too. He said they did not just learn the language, but they immersed themselves in Russian culture, learning folklore, literature and customs.

Athens, Ohio, held a corner of Russian culture made up of students, many of whom were not Russian at all. When scholars flirt with Russia, it seems they fall in love.

Miner said that when he was asked to retire, he selected the latest possible date he could: the end of Fall Semester 2022. The winter air has a gloomy reputation, but for Miner, it's fitting.

"You want to dream about the country you're studying, and I like frigid weather," he said. "It's a weird thing, but it just attracted me."

Miner will travel with his wife in the coming years after his retirement. He hopes to enjoy frigid weather in multiple countries, although he fears he will not be able to return to Russia in his lifetime.

While a life of retirement and travel sounds appealing to many, Miner greets it with a melancholy outlook. He said he had never planned to retire so early, and while it was his choice, he felt pressured to end his career prematurely.

He shoulders the death of Russian classes as if it were his own, and he speaks with a tired soul. Miner said he understands it is no longer his job, but he aches that no one else will do the job in his stead.

"The university is like a dinosaur," Miner said. "You step on its toe, and a week later, it feels it – it's not like it reacts quickly. Most big universities have somebody who studies Russia. It's not like it's disappearing as a subject of study. It's just peculiar that they've decided to do away with it here."

Miner watches as the clock on the wall hits 1:50 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1; he stops lecturing as he always does. He thanks the class, the last of his career, and when the last student trickles out, he gives a final wave goodbye to his students and to Russian studies at OU.

AUTHOR: Katie Millard
EDITOR: Alex Imwalle
ILLUSTRATION: Trevor Brighton
WEB DEVELOPMENT: Anastasia Carter