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To Russia with Love: 100 years of Russian Studies in Leiden

Russia is a world power and an upcoming economy in which the Netherlands is a serious investor. Leiden University has been studying the Slavic world for 100 years. Professor Jos Schaeken: ‘If a decision has to be made at international level, Russia is always involved.’

One of the oldest

In response to the question of whether one hundred years is not a relatively short time, Schaeken, Professor of Slavic and Baltic Languages and Cultural History, answers decidedly: ‘On the contrary! Our Chair is one of the oldest outside the Slavic world. The official starting point may have been 1913, but before that Slavic and Russian were also studied and taught, in the context of different programmes and by different people.’

'Real happenings'

Of all the professors who have held the Chair, Karel van het Reve, a Dutch writer, translator and literary  historian, is the one best known to the wider public. Schaeken: ‘His lectures were real happenings. The lecture hall was always full, and the audience were not only Slavists. In the first row were the prominent Dutch citizens who were interested in Russia, such as Maarten ’t Hart and the later correspondent Shifra Herzberg. Maarten Biesheuvel also attended on a regular basis; he thought Van het Reve was a god. I personally learnt a lot from his lectures. For instance about what constitutes science.’

World power

Jos Schaeken
Jos Schaeken

Why is Russia so important? Schaeken: ‘First of all, it is one of the largest countries in the world. And although it consists primarily of tundra and ice, it is nevertheless a world power. For instance, if a decision has to be made at international level about North Korea, Russia will always be involved. Then there is the fact that Russia is considered to be an upcoming economy. Within the EU, the Netherlands is Russia’s largest investor. And Russia is also important from a cultural perspective. Consider, for instance, the incredible success of the Hermitage in Amsterdam.’

Studying the region

Focusing only on Russia offers too limited a perspective, says Schaeken. ‘For a full picture, we also have to look at the surrounding countries. This is why we have a master’s programme that focuses on the entire region: Russian and Eurasian Studies. Since 2012 we have also had a Guest Chair on Georgia, and we are considering doing something with the Baltic States. We are trying to make sure we cover the entire region.’

Command of the language is important

‘Language is a vital instrument in getting to know a country,’ Schaeken argues. ‘In our programme, we therefore focus a lot on acquiring the language. In their second year, all our students spend an obligatory semester in St. Petersburg. There they follow an intensive language programme, they attend lectures and go on excursions. But more importantly still, they participate in daily life. That is the best way to become familiar with the language and the habits of your environment.’

Great demand for Slavists

Schaeken is confident about the future of the programme. ‘Our country has serious investments in Russia, so it is important to have people who know the region and who can express their first-hand experience of possible developments, without the need for translation or interpretation by third parties. Diplomacy is not the only sector with an interest in Slavists; they are also in demand in the corporate world and in the banking sector. Not to mention the Ministry of Defence and NGOs.’

(6 May 2013)

About Jos Schaeken

Prof. Jos Schaeken specialises in historical linguistics. He is the author of works such as ‘Stemmen op Berkenbast. Alledaagse berichten uit Middeleeuws Rusland' (Voting on birch bark. Everyday messages from Medieval Russia) (2012). The corpus of birch bark texts is the largest and most versatile collection of personal notes from the European Middle Ages. Schaeken’s book is the first publication outside of the Russian language area which makes this corpus accessible to the wider public. As of 1 July 2013, he will become Dean of Leiden University College The Hague.

Activities surrounding the 100th anniversary of the Chair
On 8 June there will be an  alumni day and from 9 to 11 October a conference  The Language of Power and the Power of Language.

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