Mumbai University takes up the Russian Challenge

Source: Ajay Kamalakaran

Source: Ajay Kamalakaran

In late 1990s the Russian economy went through the tough times, and demand in the Russian language plummeted. But now the Indians’ interest in Russian is revived as it is a key to building a career in the country and also a link language between all the former republics of the USSR.

When Russian language scholar Laxmi Mikaelyan joined the faculty of the department of Russian at the University of Mumbai in 1998, she was shocked to see that just 1 student was enrolled to study the language. Those were the days when the Russian economy tanked after the country defaulted on its debt and the rouble crashed. “The demand in Russian had fallen for various reasons such as the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Mikaelyan, who obtained a doctorate in philology at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “Interest in Russian is now picking up as many people realise that it is the link language between all the former republics of the USSR.”

At the end of the present academic year, over 30 students have obtained certificates, diplomas and degrees from the university. From part-time weekend courses that begin from the bare basics to a Master of Arts programme that covers topics such as literature, lexicology and translation, the university has several options for those looking for a stranglehold in Russian. “The 5-year integrated programme in Russian offered by the department is a full time Bachelors plus Masters course which makes you good in Russian,” Mikaelyan says.  “It is a ‘loaded’ course, so to say: it gives about 600 contact hours annually in Russian!”

The Russian Government is also looking at actively promoting the language through the university. “The Russian Consulate in Mumbai announced a 1-month scholarship for 2 of our full-time students in either Moscow or St Petersburg that will commence next year,” says Mikaelyan, who is the head of the department.

Russian is at a distinct disadvantage in India’s financial capital as there are no schools offering the language as a third option. Several schools in the city offer French and German and many others even offer Japanese. “We actually take them from zero level to where they can read the original works of great masters like Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky,” says Mikaelyan. Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita’ is particularly popular among final year Masters students.

The courses at the university go beyond pure academics and students are encouraged to take part in programmes organised by the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Mumbai. “We try to give them a window to Russia, so that they know what they are studying about,” Mikaelyan adds. “Classroom interaction in Russian plus language practiced outside - among the students, or with the teachers, or with native speakers of Russian - ensures excellent fluency in the first few years of this programme itself.”

The part-time students have a variety of reasons to learn the language: some professionals and businessmen are looking at the large Russian market, others want to get an understanding of “enigmatic Russia” as one student put it and one student, who didn’t want to be named in this article admitted that he needed Russian for the dating sites that he uses.

Full time students like Vivek Chandanshiv are looking for a career in the Russian language. “I’d like to either be a translator or a teacher,” says Chandanshiv, who wants to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway and explore the vastness of the country. The 21-year old finds reading Russian classics in Russian a challenge but is fan of Chekhov’s short stories and plays. His classmate Dhanashree Ojale swears by the works of Maxim Gorky. “The grammar is confusing and vast but I love the language,” says Ojale, who is fascinated by St Petersburg and is looking forward to spending some time exploring every corner of the city.  Both students have been short-listed for the scholarship in Russia and completed 1500 academic hours over 3 years to earn their Bachelors degree in the language.

The university screens Russian and old Soviet films for the students and also encourages them to use Russian social networking sites. “Otherwise we can only practice the language with people from the consulate and cultural centre,” says Chandanshiv, whose favourite Russian film is ‘Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future.’ On occasion, the students have also tried their hands at borsch, blini and Russian salad. “The Russian salad we get at restaurants in Bombay is nothing close to the original,” Ojale says.

Although a few Russians come every year as visiting lecturers at the university, Mikaelyan is eager for greater interaction between the University of Mumbai and Russian universities. “There has been a memorandum of understanding between the University of Mumbai and St Petersburg State University on academic exchanges, which should commence soon” Mikaelyan says, adding that the efforts made at the highest levels of government are beginning to bear fruit.  The head of the Russian department feels that greater involvement from the small Russian expat community in the city as well as the academia in Russia can go a long way in helping students learn the language and understand Russian culture.

The Russian Government considers promoting the study of the Russian language overseas as a way of enhancing Russia’s soft power. This year, the University of Mumbai held a “Day of the Russian Language,” where the Russian Consul General Aleksey Novikov spoke of plans to open a Russian language school in the city. Novikov called on the university to support the first initiative of this kind in India’s financial capital. “The possibilities for the Russian language are endless,” says Naresh Srivastav, an alumnus of the university, whose business dealings with Russia cover hospitality and pharmaceuticals. “Specialised vocational training by the university and dedicated schools can fill in many vacancies for businesses that are catering to Russians in India,” according to Srivastav.

The university is expecting a sharp rise in enrolments for the 5-year integrated course in Russian in the new academic year, according to Mikaelyan. While Russian may still not have the allure of French or German in Mumbai, the opportunities generated by Russia’s growing economy should encourage more young people to specialise in Russian language studies. “Career opportunities knock on the doors of people who take the best out of the integrated programme and gain the competitive edge,” Mikaelyan says.

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