As the study of Russian in Scotland passes a notable milestone, Jenny Carr of the Scottish-Russia Forum casts an eye across the educational landscape and asks whether we should be doing more to enhance our knowledge of the Russian language and culture.


The University of Glasgow celebrates the centenary of Russian studies at the university this year. Celebrations began in September with a conference and other events at the university, and will continue throughout the semester.

The first Russian lecturing post at Glasgow was endowed in 1917 by Sir William Weir, a director of the family firm G. & J. Weir – now the Weir Group. He was not alone at the time of the 1914-18 war in believing that Britain’s ally, Russia, was likely to replace Germany as an important commercial partner. Birmingham University also started Russian in 1917, sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, and Nottingham University in 1915.

Russian studies at schools and other institutions also flourished at this period. James Muckle’s ‘The Russian Language in Britain’ relates that Hawick, with 47 students of Russian at its Technical Institute, had the largest Russian class anywhere in Britain. According to the Scotsman on 25 May 1916, two of the Hawick students were generously offered £50 by a local “gentleman” to travel to Petrograd to improve their Russian. It is not recorded whether either of them took up this offer. Their teacher, Mr. Tillyard, also taught Russian at Edinburgh University, although there was no established department of Russian there until 1949.


James Muckle’s ‘The Russian Language in Britain’ relates that Hawick, with 47 students of Russian at its Technical Institute, had the largest Russian class anywhere in Britain.

Papers at the University of Glasgow’s Centenary Conference celebrated Scotland’s past links with Russia, the history of Russian and other East European languages at the university; also research being undertaken by current faculty members. One of the Russian Section staff, Dr Andrea Gullotta, introduced his work and a forthcoming book on Solovki, the first Soviet labour camp, with an online exhibition now available on the website of the Hunterian Museum.

But what is the present state of Russian studies in Scotland? The Russian language, literature, and other cultural topics are now taught at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St. Andrews, each with a smallish Russian department. A further three departments, at Aberdeen, Strathclyde and Heriot Watt universities, have closed. Demand for Russian language studies is reported by the three extant departments to be buoyant and increasing year on year. Social sciences, including Russian history, are offered by several universities, particularly but not only Glasgow’s Department of Central and East European Studies, St. Andrews’ Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central and East European Studies, and separate History and Politics departments at other universities.


The image commemorating the centenary of Russian at the University of Glasgow. Image: University of Glasgow.

The situation in the community is less encouraging – Hawick’s 47 students in 1916 have long dwindled to nought, and there is currently only one maintained school in the whole of Scotland with a Russian class (beginners studying for a Languages for Life and Work qualification). There is also a small number of independent and supplementary (‘Saturday’) schools offering GCSE or GCE qualifications to (mainly) pupils from Russian-speaking families.


The Russian language, literature, and other cultural topics are now taught at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St. Andrews, each with a smallish Russian department. A further three departments, at Aberdeen, Strathclyde and Heriot Watt universities, have closed.

However things may not be as bad as they sound since there is evidence of a revival of interest in Russian, and not just among university students.

The Scotland-Russia Forum – a charity run by volunteers – and Glasgow City Council teamed up with the University of Glasgow during its centenary events in September to offer a schools workshop on Russian. Teachers from local schools were invited to explore ways of including Russian, and other East European languages and cultures, in their teaching. No fewer than 12 schools, both primary and secondary, responded and there was considerable enthusiasm among teachers to introduce both Russian language tuition, mainly among secondaries, and a broad mix of other clubs and courses at the primary level. It begs the question: why is there so little teaching of Russian if demand, albeit modest, is clearly there?

THE LANGUAGE TEST

The main problems are both systemic and economic. In 2010, the Scottish Qualifications Authority announced that it would drop Russian from its range of national courses when the new National and Higher examinations were introduced in 2015. The reason for this was economic: candidate numbers for Russian were unsustainably low, averaging only 14 Highers candidates a year in the decade before the decision was taken. This rose to 35 candidates in the final six years, as the new supplementary schools got into their stride, but by then it was too late to reverse the decision.

Although Russian was finally removed from the mainstream school curriculum in 2015 for economic reasons, its removal actually began much earlier. Teacher training in Russian has not been available in Scotland for many years, and schools themselves have tended to concentrate their language offering on French and Spanish. There has been no Russian teaching on a par with other languages in maintained schools since the 1990s, perhaps even earlier.

Certainly, the economic realities in this area must be acknowledged. It is difficult to justify the maintenance of examinations and the employment of teachers when take-up for a subject is low. But the result is that Scotland now offers mainstream school qualifications in only seven languages (French, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese, Gaelic, and Urdu) whereas in the rest of the UK, students have access to GCSEs and GCE A level in 21 languages, with recent government support agreed for some of the lesser taught languages.

There are other systemic obstacles to the inclusion of Russian and other lesser taught languages in the school curriculum. Under the 1+2 programme, due to run nationwide from August 2021, pupils will start to learn a second language (the first is mother tongue English or Gaelic) in P1 and will continue study of that language at least until they pick their subjects for Nationals in S3.  The vast majority of primary schools seem likely to choose French, or perhaps Spanish, as that second language. In P5, pupils will be offered one or more other languages – which could in theory include Russian since this ‘third language’ does not have to be examinable later. However, it’s more likely that French or Spanish will be chosen (whichever was not selected earlier) or just possibly German, Italian, Gaelic or Chinese. The prospects for a diversity of language provision are slim.

Then we come to the second systemic obstacle to study of any language at all: most education authorities will offer pupils only six or seven National examinations, so at that stage even keen linguists may be forced to choose other subjects seen perhaps as more relevant to possible career choices. From conversations with several such young people at this year’s Language Show in Glasgow, this seems to be a real possibility.

WHAT IS IMPORTANT?

Does all of this this matter? Is it important to study Russian – or any other foreign languages, come to that?

The Scottish government’s languages policy suggests that it is interested primarily in languages used in Scotland (and this could include Polish in the foreseeble future). Policy priorities are, in order – Gaelic, Scots, English for speakers of other languages, British Sign Language and, lastly, “improving language learning so that it is a normal, expected part of school education”.

Language learning, along with other subjects on the school curriculum, could surely be presented as more than ‘normal’ and ‘expected’, like lunch or a visit to the dentist. What about ‘important’, ‘interesting’, ‘exciting, and ‘useful’? The importance of learning languages – all languages – was well expressed recently by John le Carré:

“The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking.”

There are a number of additional reasons why Russian, specifically, should not be left out in the cold by those who determine the school curriculum – the government, the exam board and the schools. Not least Russia’s literary, musical and theatrical heritage, its political impact during the Cold War, and its political impact today. Our children should not be encouraged to think of Russia as somehow irrelevant to their lives, as is implied by its absence from the school curriculum. Nor should it be the case that the only time Russia does enter wider social discourse is at times of crisis.


Furthermore, looking to the international arena, it may be dangerous to all of our futures if we lack home-grown specialists in Russian language and culture.

The situation as it stands denies our people – young and old – access to a vibrant culture and an accessible language (it’s just a little harder to learn than German, according to the Foreign Office language service and equally attractive – unlike French? – to boys and girls in the experience of many teachers). Furthermore, looking to the international arena, it may be dangerous to all of our futures if we lack home-grown specialists in Russian language and culture.

Unfortunately, sponsors of Russian like Sir William Weir, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and the unnamed Hawick ‘gentleman’, are thin on the ground nowadays. Most languages are well supported by their national cultural organisations. The French Institute, the Goethe Institute, the Spanish Education Ministry, Hanban, the Japan Foundation, and the Polish Consulate are all active in Scotland, working closely with Scottish schools and education authorities to promote their own language. The Russian government, alas, does not do this. But the task of addressing the lack of Russian awareness in our society should not depend on its help.

As Lenin wrote: “What is to be done?”


Jenny Carr is Chair of the Scotland-Russia ForumA graduate of Russian from the University of St Andrews, Jenny spent two years as a British Council student at Moscow and Leningrad universities in the 1970s, and has visited Russia many times since. She trained as a teacher and has worked in various schools, universities, and with private students. Since its foundation in 2003 she has been an active member of the Scotland-Russia Forum. Contact Jenny at: jenny@scotlandrussiaforum.org SRF are on Twitter at: @ScotRussiaForum


Feature image: old Russian books on a shelf. Image: Russia Insider.