When the Russians came calling, Tanya Ivanova-Sullivan was not entirely sure what to do.
The Moscow-based Pushkin State Russian Language Institute in September contacted Ivanova-Sullivan, director of the University of New Mexico’s Russian program. Pushkin was seeking partners in its mission to promote Russian language learning around the world.
Signing up would give UNM access to Pushkin-created educational materials and enable its students to take reputable language certification tests. Ivanova-Sullivan obtained the administration’s approval and had the proposed agreement vetted by attorneys.
But mounting angst about U.S.-Russia relations and potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election created some momentary doubts.
“Things got really crazy in January (politically), and I was even having second thoughts – should we do this?” said Ivanova-Sullivan, who ultimately determined the answer was yes. ” … It’s academic. That’s what we do in academia; we try to do our jobs despite the political climate.”
The parties on Tuesday formalized their agreement with a signing ceremony on UNM’s Albuquerque campus. One of the agreement’s stated goals is “maintaining a positive image of modern Russia in the world,” but Ivanova-Sullivan, a native of Bulgaria, said the educational materials she has reviewed are not political. And while UNM already utilizes specific textbooks, and is unlikely to abandon them for a full Pushkin diet, she said Russian language educational resources can be hard to come by in the U.S. The more materials, she said, the better.
The Pushkin Institute has forged various agreements with universities around the world, including Japan’s Kyoto University and University of Milan in Italy.
Pushkin has established similar centers in 24 countries, an effort to preserve a language that institute professor Oleg Radchenko said has waned in popularity. UNM is Pushkin’s second U.S. partner, but the goal is five by year’s end.
Radchenko and colleague Mikhail Osadchiy said they see it as a hub for Russian education – and proficiency testing – for the Southwestern United States. Pushkin chose UNM not because it had the largest Russian program but for what Radchenko called the faculty’s “enthusiasm and readiness” – and open-mindedness. He joked that current politics could scare potential partners away.
“I was afraid we’d contact the university and hear ‘Oh, no. Russia. Maybe next year,'” he said.
But the dean of UNM’s College of Arts and Sciences said the agreement made even better sense now. “It is precisely the times when there are tensions in the relationships, when there are obstacles to overcome, that we need to build a deeper understanding,” said Dean Mark Peceny.
UNM boasts a small Russian program: 15 students major in Russian, and five others are pursuing a minor. Ivanova-Sullivan, an associate professor, is one of two faculty members, and there is also a teaching assistant. Students include heritage speakers who have used the language at home but never extensively studied it, but also some with no background who see Russian fluency as a path to jobs with the U.S. Department of State or other federal agencies.