What’s in a Name? Are We Slavic, East European, Eurasian, or All of the Above?

This article was initially published in the August 2020 edition of NewsNet.

Back in April, the Kansas Board of Regents approved a name change for my department at the University of Kansas. We went from being the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures to the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures. This change was one that we all voted on and deliberated on at length before submitting a formal request. Some of the thoughts and considerations that went into that decision-making are worth our broader discussion as a field.

With notable exceptions, most PhD-granting departments in language and literature in our field are designated as departments of Slavic Language and Literatures. As probably one of the only Albanian Slavists in the field, I tend to hedge a bit around being housed in a Slavic Department because I also work on Albanian Studies, which is intricately connected to Serbian Studies and other Slavic Studies in the Balkans. Likewise, my Albanian heritage, recent historical events like the Yugoslav Wars, and the instances of genocide against Albanians in Kosovo make me sensitive about doing Albanian studies within the confines of a strictly Slavic Department. Before we get ahead of ourselves – let me also declare that I’ve studied BCS, published on BCS authors and have nothing but love and respect for that language and cultural output. But two things can be true at the same time.

Over the years I found myself increasingly identifying as a Russianist. The difference is minor, but in identifying as a Russianist I nod to my immediate research activity rather than more capaciously engaging the boundaries and outlines of the profession at large. And yet, the boundaries of the profession should be talked about. In fact, such discussions may even relate to how we could be approaching questions of race and ethnicity as a field. With some exceptions in nearby Italy, I don’t expect there to be any Albanology departments cropping up anytime soon. So the question for me, as a native speaker of a less commonly taught language like Albanian, has always been about where such languages belong, and whether our field, small and precarious in its own right, should take the step of making room and intellectual space for them?

In order to recognize the growing diversity of the field, in 2008, members of our national professional organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) voted to change the name of the Association to the equally lengthy, but more inclusive, ASEEES, the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Yet, even as the national organization has changed its name, departments that offer a PhD degree in our field traditionally have retained some version of the Slavic Languages and Literatures name. It has been interdisciplinary area studies centers, like KU’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, that have been more inclusive in their names. Over time, we are seeing gradual movement toward more inclusiveness in PhD-granting units too, as the UCLA Slavic Department recently changed its name to the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures. I presume that one of the motivations for doing so was the presence of a Turkic language, Kazakh, in that department, as well as Romanian and Hungarian, both of which are non-Slavic, Eastern European Languages. 

The KU Slavic Department was in a similar position. As we were thinking about our department and how the work it does is fundamentally different from that of our area studies center, we tried to reflect this difference in our name. We do not teach any Eastern European languages that are not Slavic languages – so we evaluated our options and decided on Slavic and Eurasian to ensure that we were visibly separate from our CREEES area studies center. The need to preserve this boundary is something that we need to think about, in larger part to avoid any unwanted mergers.

The designation Eurasia is used in our field to indicate the expanse of Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, which bridges Europe and Asia. In adding Eurasian to our department designation, we hoped to reflect the ways in which our work and interests went beyond Eurocentrism and into the Caucasus, Central Asia, and even Turkey. Our department had already been intellectually trending toward Eurasia in both our language and cultural offerings. We regularly offer nine languages: Russian, Old Church Slavonic, Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/ Serbian, Polish, Slovene, Ukrainian, Czech, Turkish, and Persian/Dar/Tajik/Farsi. While some of these languages are Slavic, others are simply culturally significant to our regional area of study. Turkish is the gateway language for Turkic languages spoken in Central Asia, like Kazakh, and it is also relevant in Balkan Studies due to a long history of Ottoman occupation in that region. Likewise, Persian is actively taught in the Tajik dialect in the department. Prior to the pandemic, the department also launched a new Russian study abroad program, “Jayhawks on the Steppe,” in the Russophone hub at Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, for students to learn Russian, while also acquiring basic conversational Kazakh.

Outside language study, the department has been offering courses that extend into the broader Eurasian territories, such as “SLAV 626: The Cultural Impact of the Ottoman Empire on the South Slavs,” and “TURK 316/516: Turkish Culture Through Film and Literature.” Faculty have published on or are researching a range of Eurasian topics, including on presence of Islam and Turkish influences in the Balkans, which is a significant area of expertise in our unit; Islam in the North Caucasus; Central Asian cinema and literature; Soviet gulag sites in Central Asia, and similar topics.

Moreover, since our university does not have a dedicated Middle Eastern Studies department, Turkish and Persian were languages that were left without an intellectual umbrella. By expanding our identity, we made room for them. Many other universities have other languages, like Hungarian and Romanian, that do not have a dedicated intellectual home. Once again, it seems that we should try to be inclusive of these non-Slavic but regional languages, because most of them are LCTLs, and if we do not make space for them, they could cease to be taught altogether. And what a terrible loss that would be to our students and universities.

In closing, I want to pivot to the present moment and also link back to strong statements put forward both by ASEEES and AATSEEL in response to recent incidents of police brutality and racism. Our field has historically struggled with diversity, and lately Russia is occasionally aligned with xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and other problematic ideologies. In this context, it is imperative for our academic departments and the field at large to underscore the underlying diversity of the region. In our case, we felt that by adding Eurasian to our name – thus implicitly gesturing more closely toward the role of Islam, non-white demographics, and the plurality of smaller nationalities in the Russian Federation and the post-Soviet republics – we reflected this diversity more faithfully. As we deliberate collectively about ways to be more inclusive, we may wish to consider how that inclusiveness may begin with our names.

Ani Kokobobo is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures, and Interim Director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas. She teaches and researches nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture; she is currently at work on her second book about Leo Tolstoy and his ideas on gender/sexuality.