August 29, 2022

MKRTCHYAN | Why ‘Russian for Russians’ is Problematic

Print More

Academics can be cruel, especially at such a rigorous university as Cornell. Constantly being torn apart between all the courses, possible double major, clubs, social life, meetings and networking, I tried looking for ways to earn credits for the knowledge I already had before coming to Cornell. After all, having some extra credits has never harmed anyone, and I learned that the language placement exams could reduce my workload. Therefore, being a Russian speaker, I googled “Cornell University Russian Department” to find their official website and register for their Russian placement test. What I found was disappointing, dismissive and disrespectful, in my opinion. I did find the test date for people who were interested in taking “Russian for Russians,” as the website phrased it. What they meant by “Russian for Russians,” I think, was advanced Russian. I still do not understand why the Russian Department ascribed advanced Russian to only Russians as if somebody having another nationality could not be proficient in the language.

But let’s start from the beginning. I am an international student at Cornell. I am from Armenia, a former Soviet country. I want to describe the existence of the Russian language and the influence of the Soviet Union and nowadays Russia in my country. Then I want to extend this story to other people’s experiences and show how wrong it is to assume that only Russians can be good at Russian.In the Soviet Union, everything was in Russian. If you wanted to have both an education and a job (which I do not think was an option back then), then you had to be fluent in Russian. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, many older Armenian adults still communicated in Russian. I would say they are even better at it than Armenian because that is the language they have used for so long. The new generation is not completely happy about it, if you ask  me, because Armenia has only one official language: Armenian.

However, our feelings regarding the existence of Russian in our lives do not change the fact that Russian is not going to disappear from Armenians’ day-to-day lives anytime soon. Fast forward three decades from the collapse of the Soviet Union — children still are fluent in Russian because all the movies and cartoons shown on television are in Russian, all the commercials are in Russian, children learn Russian at a very young age at schools and Armenia has tight relations with Russia about our politics, economy and military. I discuss the historical context of my country’s history to show how massive the Soviet Union’s (unfortunate) influence on Armenia nowadays is and how big a role Russian plays in everyone’s lives.

There are many countries in which residents do speak and do use Russian on a day-to-day basis. I also think  Soviet Union’s influence on post-Soviet countries applies to several, if not most, of them. Hence, labeling the test assumed to be for advanced Russian speakers as “Russian for Russians” is dismissive and inconsiderate.

Furthermore, beyond going into details about cultural and historical references, there are simply countries with Russian as their official language, just as Russia has. Those countries are Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Suppose the implicit rule for someone to be advanced in Russian is to have Russian as an official language of their country. That would assume that they, in fact, have known Russian since they were born and they likely speak Russian with their family members. In that case, those countries’ residents should be acknowledged as proficient in Russian just as all the Russians are.

But even that is not, in my opinion, the fairest way to assume proficiency in a language. If you asked me, I would say that having formal education in the language itself would be the best assessment. In this scenario, in which Cornell presumes language proficiency based on academic knowledge rather than nationality, my inner middle schooler Lili, reading the official website of the Russian Language Department at Cornell, would have cried proudly as all her hard work taking classes at anin-depth school of Russian language would have been justified. All the hours spent learning complicated Russian grammar and reading Russian classics would have been acknowledged. And she would also know that people who have Russian citizenship who, for various reasons, have little to no knowledge in Russian, would not have been automatically considered more qualified than her.

On a more serious note, I think that equating “Russian for Russians” to “Advanced Russian” or even “Russian Speakers” is disrespectful and inconsiderate. I don’t want the label “Russian for Russians” to prevent people who might be fluent in the language from taking the placement test because they assume that since they are not Russian, they are not qualified. Some countries have Russian as their official language, some countries were previously in the Soviet Union and still have Russian as a widely used language and there are simply just people who have happened to learn Russian fluently. Assuming that only Russians can qualify for the test or take the advanced course of Russian ignores anyone else’s existence, culture and experience. Let’s be mindful of this.

Lili Mkrtchyan ‘25 (she/her) is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Tea with Lily runs every other Monday this semester.