Archive for August, 2010

In Support of Language Training

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Late last week I drove over to Lawrence, Kansas to attend the day-and-a-half-long conference/birthday party marking the 50th Anniversary of KU’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES). Formally constituted in 1960 or, perhaps, 1961 (who’s counting?), KU CREES is among the longest running of the nation’s Russian/East European area centers that emerged in the wake of Sputnik’s launch. Since 1965, it’s been a National Resource Center offering language training,  degree-granting programs, and serving as a resource for K-12 teachers, post-secondary educators, business, media, government, and military.

The crux of the conference involved a series of presentations by KU CREES alumni and current faculty focusing on the Center’s past, present, and future. Guest speakers included one of the Center’s founding members, Richard De George (KU Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, of Russian and East European Studies, and of Business Administration), and several of its most prominent graduates, including John C. Reppert (Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies), Thomas Wilhelm (Director of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas), and Glen Howard (President of The Jamestown Foundation).

As one would expect for an event such as this, a good deal of time was devoted to extolling KU’s considerable accomplishments in promoting the study of all things Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian. Speakers also focused  remarks on the continuing relevance of an area-studies approach to fostering and sustaining knowledge of the world beyond America’s borders. The most striking aspect of the presentations, however, was a recurring meme that cut across each one of the conference’s dozen or so talks: the vital importance of studying foreign language. Every one of the event’s featured guests (and the vast majority of attendees) owe their current stations in life in no small part to the fact that during their educational career they seized upon the opportunity to not only study, but to master, one or more foreign languages.

Setting aside liberal arts agit-prop regarding the inherent, humanistic value of knowing another culture’s language, there are immense “practical” advantages to be gained from acquiring language skills: from raising one’s standardized test scores, to broadening employment opportunities, to significantly improving fluency in one’s native language. Students looking to get the most “return on investment” in their education would be hard-pressed to do better than investing time and energy mastering a foreign tongue.

It’s not easy. Depending on the target language it can be very difficult and time-consuming. Despite myriad “advances” in instructional technology the acquisition of a foreign language still boils down to a great deal of memorization and repetitive practice. But it is far from impossible. (I started my own language training in Russian relatively late — during my sophomore year at KU).

It’s the one piece of advice I have constantly given students during the course of my teaching career. If you learn nothing else in school — learn a foreign language!

Orlando Figes, back in circulation

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Orlando Figes appears to have recovered from the illness that had him on sick leave from Birkbeck College of the University of London in the wake of his phantom reviews scandal. He’s lectured at the Universidad Gabriela Mistral in Chile. Announcement is here; agenda is here (both are entirely in Spanish). There’s even a photo gallery posted at Flickr.

UPDATE: the links to Gabriela Mistral were dead for a while, but they appear to be back up. There’s also a newspaper clipping at a Chilean Russophile site.

UPDATE 2: The Independent tells us that this winter trip to Chile was part of a family vacation taken with the approval of Birkbeck College.

It was ten years ago today . . .

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

that the Russian submarine Kursk sank, killing 118. One of the side effects of doing military history is thinking about some very unpleasant things, and for me one of the worst is the plight of those men who survived the initial explosion. How long they survived is disputed (and the answer has important political implications), but it was at least long enough to leave notes behind.

Ten years ago was the very beginning of Putin’s regime, and the heady days of Putinmania in Russia. But what’s striking in hindsight is just how much continuity there is between the tragedy of the Kursk and what’s happening in Putin and Medvedev’s Russia today. Efforts to obfuscate, emphasis on image over real action, bureaucratic inertia, half-hearted and slapdash concern for human life, deep-seated mistrust of the outside world–all of those were clear in 2000. The difference is that the Russian public seems much angrier about them 10 years on.

Let me be clear–I’m not saying that prompt action and cooperation with foreign governments would have saved the sailors on the Kursk. They did have access to an escape hatch, and the submarine was only 100 meters deep. On the other hand, in World War II, sailors trapped in the Arizona at Pearl Harbor–essentially at the surface and in the middle of a US naval base, couldn’t be rescued. My point is that Putin’s government didn’t try.

Russian naval aviation crippled by wildfires?

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

Ubiquitous Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer reports for the Jamestown Foundation (hat tip: Johnson’s Russia List) that wildfires near Kolomna may have devastated Russia’s naval aviation by destroying vital logistic and technical resources. I’m familiar with the concept of naval bases far from open water, given that I grew up not far from Crane Naval Weapons Station. Nonetheless, the thought of non-shipboard fires affecting naval operations is a little disconcerting:

An Internet news site,, first reported that on July 29, flames tore through a secret naval airbase in Kolomna, 100 kilometers (km) south-east of Moscow, destroying up to 200 aircraft worth 20 billion rubles ($600 million). Initially, the defense ministry tried to cover up the story by first declaring it to be erroneous, and then admitting that it was not an “airbase,” but logistic base office buildings, warehouses with unneeded equipment and vehicles were destroyed without any loss of life (ITAR TASS, August 3). It was later reported that the base in question ­Central Air and Technical naval base (also known as base 2512)­ has been used for 60 years to supply the entire naval aviation force with avionics, armaments, jet engines and other essential equipment (Interfax, August 3).

Medvedev did not elaborate about the equipment lost at base 2512, but implied “the consequences were heavy,” and that it was a result of “criminal negligence.” Medvedev officially reprimanded the Commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, and his First Deputy and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Alexander Tatarinov. Medvedev fired the Russian navy’s Chief of Logistics, Rear Admiral Sergei Sergeyev, and the Chief of Naval aviation, Major-General Nikolai Kuklev. Medvedev ousted three colonels: the commandant of 2512 base and two of Kuklev’s deputies. Under orders from Medvedev, Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, ousted five officers that served at base 2512 (Kommersant, August 5). Medvedev declared that further dismissals were possible later, after the entire crisis is finally defused (, August 4).

The severity of the punishment handed out by Medvedev for a fire at a supply base that did not involve any human casualties surely reflects his overall anger, but also would indicate a large quantity of essential equipment was lost. The replacement of supplies lost at base 2512 could require billions of rubles, years of effort and, in some cases, may be simply impossible as the crisis in Russia’s defense industry has made the production of some essential components virtually impossible. Elements of Russian naval aviation could be grounded for a long time and maybe indefinitely, including the Su-33 jet fighters on Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov. The Su-33 is no longer produced and reportedly at least four new Su-33 jet engines were destroyed at base 2512 (Vedomosti, August 5). The 2512 base contained 65,000 tons of equipment, which might have been entirely destroyed. An airborne forces supply base (3370) was damaged by fire near the 2512 base, but its losses seem less significant (Kommersant, August 4).

RIP, Robert C. Tucker

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Robert Tucker, whose Marx-Engels Reader and Lenin Anthology are dog-eared veterans on my shelf, has died at the age of ninety-two.