INTERVIEW WITH EWA THOMPSON: THE FIELD ISN’T “SLAVIC STUDIES” AT ALL—IT SHOULD BE CALLED “RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA STUDIES”
December 21, 2023
Forum for Ukrainian Studies
Oleksandr Pankieiev: What is decolonization for you? How do you define it in the framework of current events, particularly Russia’s war against Ukraine?
Ewa Thompson: The definition of colonialism is more complex because some people consider colonialism to be one thing, and another group of people considers it something else. My definition of colonialism is the military conquest of a certain nation. I emphasize the word nation here and the process of drawing out of that nation’s economic, political, and cultural powers. In other words, you first have to have nations in order to have colonialism. The conquests of Alexander the Great were not “colonialism” because, in those days, people were thinking about belonging to a certain king, prince, or tribal leader—they didn’t have this consciousness that they were members of a nation. But in the 18th century, nations began to congeal, some of them faster, some of them slower. Still, they were already groups of people who realized that they belonged together for linguistic, cultural, and other reasons.
To decolonize, you first have to look at the problems that colonialism caused. Colonialism means economic exploitation. The Muscovites have been trying to hide this, and persuade the Russian population, that they supported those other nations that were part of the Soviet Union. But that’s not true—it’s just the opposite! Those nations that Russia conquered were primarily supporting the Russian efforts in the military area.
Colonialism also means political exploitation. Those nations were present on the international stage only through Russia. In other words, they were not present. Russia stole their voices; it was only Russia that could speak for them in the international arena. Then there is something that is sometimes described as soft power—a nation’s ability (again we’re talking about nations) to influence world affairs or some specific issue. For instance, Russia had enormous soft power during the Soviet period, and it still does have soft power, but this soft power is held at the expense of the nations Russia conquered. Soft power was taken away from conquered nations and handed to the victorious nation.
What does a nation-country need to do to decolonize its territory? Firstly, they need to stop economic exploitation and start building economic identity and independence. Secondly, they also need to start speaking for themselves in the international arena. They have to stop allowing the colonizer to tell the world about them. And I must tell you, the Ukrainians are doing a marvelous job. I look at them with admiration and envy. This is what decolonization means, as they say: I am beginning to speak for myself, and I don’t want Moscow to speak for me.
These are just general terms. How to do it in practice, of course, is something we all are thinking about. You begin to exist in the world when you tell the world about your identity. And Ukrainians have already achieved quite a bit in this area. They have already succeeded in teaching the world that they exist, which is the first and most important part of decolonization. You make the world listen to you, and you support your own native art, literature, and political writings. And of course, at the same time you build the economic power that has to stand behind those artistic and humanistic achievements.
Pankieiev: How did the field of Slavic studies in North America get colonized? Who, in your opinion, contributed to it? And how?
Thompson: This is one of my favourite topics. And of course, I’ll be very politically incorrect. I spent my life in American academia. When I was a student in the 60s, American academia would absorb anybody who spoke Russian because very few people knew Russian. If Russia wanted to send its spies to America and make them go through universities, the opportunity was there. So, quite a few people came from the Soviet Union. Some of them were real refugees. Some of them were not. And these people began to build up what we can call “Russian studies” at American universities.
After that came some famous people. Some of them were born and raised in the United States—and were already taught by those from Moscow. Others came directly from the Soviet Union. And they taught American students about the Russian Empire, pre-Soviet Russia, and Soviet Russia.
I want to mention three people here who have done a lot of harm in falsifying the American vision of what Russia is. One of them is Nicholas Riasanovsky. He was a native Russian, spent his life in the United States, and wrote a history of Russia that had at least ten editions. The publisher was very respectable: Oxford University Press.
But if you look at the history of Russia—starting with the 18th century, when the real colonialism began—it’s unbelievable how he describes it. The partitions of Poland that gave Russia almost the entirety of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Estonia and vast parts of Poland are described as changes in the Western frontier. In other words, he omits the struggles, the complications, and the brutality of Russia and Prussia in cannibalizing Poland. These were the most critical events in the 18th century. Since Russia and Prussia dominated the discourse about Central Europe, European intellectuals never learned the facts of Central and Eastern European history. Therefore, this is how Nicholas Riasanovsky presented the 18th century.
And then, when it came to the aggression of Russia against Poland in 1939, he again described it as a “rectification of the Western frontier.” In other words, the Nazis, when they started attacking Poland in 1939, also wanted to rectify the frontier? This is the kind of vision of Central and Eastern Europe that Nicholas Riasanovsky left to American students. In sum, this is how Slavic studies were falsified from the beginning.
The second person I would like to mention is Steven Cohen, a politologist and historian at Princeton for many decades. About five years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he
published a book titled Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917, in which he argued that the Soviet Union is powerful and will last forever. And that it’s a great country to be friends with.
The end of the Soviet Union came around 1990. Did Mr. Cohen apologize to the Slavic profession? Did he say “Sorry, I was wrong”? Not at all. He remained an authority. He moved from Princeton to New York University later on. And this is the kind of vision of Russia and the Soviet Union that he left as a gift to future generations.
And the third person is Dmitri Trenin. As a student and a young assistant professor, I remember seeing Trenin at various Slavic meetings in the 70s. And of course, he was a professor and writer, worked for the Carnegie Foundation, and later became head of it in Moscow. In 2019 he wrote a book saying that Russia is not at all an enemy of the United States and that the United States should not be afraid of Russia.
With this background, the people who graduated in Slavic studies in all those years in America were under the influence of mendacious and dangerous falsifications of Russian history. So that’s one problem we’ve had, because we hired anybody who spoke Russian and had some competence in Russian history. These three people were in that category, and they were among the best—they were in the Ivy League circle! And they were the authority to many of us who were somewhere in the provinces. Truly, Slavic studies in America require a massive reform. How to do it is another issue, but this is how Slavic studies look. In other words, they’re not Slavic studies—they’re Russian propaganda studies.
Pankieiev: What are the main consequences of the colonization of Slavic studies that still prevail in academia?
Thompson: If you have a false image of a country, and if you do not realize that this country is very aggressive and uses not just free but also paid propaganda— you probably have a distorted vision of what’s happening in the world. For instance, Patrick Buchanan, one of the famous American conservatives, says that Russia is such a conservative, good country, and Ukraine should just be put under the Russian boot. Even though people like him didn’t study under Cohen, Riasanovsky, or Trenin, they are the fruits of their efforts, and this is the kind of mind they worked to create. Thus, you have influential people who are very much unaware of the destructive role that tsarist and Soviet Communist Russia has played in Europe and the world.
Pankieiev: What are the main narratives in the current decolonization discourse? What is at the forefront of the discussion?
Thompson: What I have noticed in some of the attempts at decolonization is a hijacking of decolonization studies and using them as a support for some other studies, like feminist or sexual minority studies. Decolonization doesn’t actually have much to do with sexual minorities or with other areas that may be of interest to some.
We’ve also seen a sudden change in the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, which has existed all these years and has supported colonial attitudes towards Central and Eastern Europe. Recently, though, a convention of this association was dedicated to
decolonization. Also, there appeared online some seminars dealing with that subject. So, there is a certain amount of change in the orientation of academic circles that previously were very much satisfied with making Russia the center of their study and completely ignoring nations like Ukraine. But I still haven’t seen any serious attempts to reanalyze Russian literature, history, and to reinterpret Russian political attitudes. This is still to come.
Pankieiev: Are there any misconceptions about the decolonization of Russian history that you can see now in academia and public discourses? Some people say that it is not something we need to do, while others argue that it has already been decolonized.
Thompson: Those false statements have been made thousands of times. In order to undo the damage, you need a generation and you need many books. The fact that somebody will write an article, develop a theory, or lecture about something will not decolonize Slavic studies. If somebody says that we have already done it, this person doesn’t realize the depth of destruction that colonialism has caused in those countries that Russia conquered and tried to make into its own.
There is also the fact that we’re still struggling with the problem of language.
Until recently, before the Russo-Ukrainian war, Ukrainian as a language was basically nonexistent in Slavic studies. There were some places where émigré Ukrainians themselves gathered enough funds to introduce some Ukrainian courses. But generally, Ukrainian was completely omitted from Slavic studies per se. So, decolonization cannot be achieved by writing one book. The fact that we still do not have that done properly shows that we’re far from decolonizing the discourse about Russia as a conqueror.
Pankieiev: What kinds of steps toward decolonization of the field do we need to take, particularly in how courses are being taught at universities?
Thompson: We need first to re-examine the history of Eastern Europe—what I call “non-Germanic Central Europe.” It is a very delicate problem because some nations have different versions of the history of that area. And the worst that can happen is that those other nations, non-Russian nations, start quarrelling about how to present their history. You need to get some kind of get-together, some agreed version of this revised history before it is introduced in the academic world. But the first thing is simply courses; you must introduce Ukrainian, Polish, and Baltic history courses. And that means you have to reduce some courses in Russian history, although the new courses will of course hardly ignore or eliminate Russia’s historical role in the region.
In many cases—maybe not regarding history but certainly regarding literature—there are courses that I would simply remove from view completely. Russian literature is not very good when you take away Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Regarding the amount of literary works in existence, Russian literature is certainly smaller than British, German, French, or even Polish literature. And yet, we sometimes treat Russia as if it were as productive as France or Great Britain.
Furthermore, we need to remove certain courses that deal with trivial things, such as, for instance, Pushkin’s poetics. There are many books on the subject, yet they say very little.
Remove those courses and introduce courses in Ukrainian literature, Eastern European literature, or whatever the scholar is working on. And there has to be pressure put on university administrators to introduce those courses and remove certain others. Of course, the people who teach Russian will resist strongly, but that is the way it has to be done.
Ewa M. Thompson is Professor Emerita of Slavic Studies at Rice University. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Warsaw, Poland, and her doctorate from Vanderbilt University. Her books and articles have been translated into Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, Italian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, and Chinese. She has published scholarly articles in Slavic Review, Slavic and European Journal, Modern Age, Teksty Drugie and other journals, and she has done consulting work for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, and other institutions and foundations.