A University of Kansas researcher has received a grant from the U.S. Russia Foundation (USRF) for $220,000 to provide opportunities and access to Russian studies to Kansas high school students, primarily through the offering of free, online elementary Russian language courses.

Ani Kokobobo, associate professor and chair of the KU Department of Slavic, German & Eurasian Studies, with the assistance of the KU Center for Research, has received funding that builds on a previous grant from the U.S. Russia Foundation for the 2021-2022 academic year, which accommodated approximately 100 high school students. Additionally, the new grant will allow the department to offer a robust ongoing curriculum in cultural studies, illuminating Russia’s racial and ethnic diversities as well as current political and challenges. The department hopes to use the study of Russian culture and language to inspire a new generation of Russian studies experts at a time when such voices are sorely needed, according to Kokobobo.

"Given everything happening in the world, I think it is a deeply important time to provide students in Kansas with Russian language skills and the regional background to approach both the language and Russian studies with a critical lens,” she said. “I am grateful to the U.S. Russia Foundation, the only U.S.-based and U.S.-funded foundation of its kind, for providing us with the opportunity to do so." 

Participants from the first year of the grant included students from throughout Kansas, including Sedgwick, Johnson, Shawnee, Butler, Lane, Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties, among others. In this context, online study allowed students from across the state, many in rural districts, to take a class together, in addition to their high school curricula.

In reapplying for an additional two-year period for the grant for August 2022-August 2024, the department will continue to teach the current high school students at a low intermediate level as well as launch new beginning language sequences for new students. As part of the grant, the department is planning to add an interdisciplinary lecture series to provide students with opportunities to have cultural competency on the region.

The project has six goals:

  • To support approximately 40 high school students each semester in Russian language instruction — 10 in an intermediate course, and 30 in the beginning Russian course.
  • To aid the students in reaching the mid-novice level according to the ACTFL proficiency scale.
  • To provide a broad cultural awareness of Russia to the students. They will have some basic familiarity with Russian culture, history, literature and Russian politics as well as the range of diversities that are represented within the current Russian Federation and beyond.
  • To deliver approximately 20 lectures about Russian Studies, which will mostly be prepared by experts at KU, but supplemented by external experts when needed. These lectures will be recorded and uploaded to the department’s website. Topics include Race/Ethnicity/Nationality in Russia; Political Systems and the Challenge of Authoritarianism in Russia; Russia and Ukraine, History of a Conflict; and the Russian Empire and Colonial Efforts.
  • To publish an article on sharing online language modules with high schools.
  • To organize a “Russia Week” five-day summer workshop for students on a range of cultural and language topics. KU will host a virtual tour of the St. Petersburg Museum and discuss Russian music, Russian political systems, Russia’s female leaders, Russian phonetics and other topics.

This project was motivated in part by limited high school instruction in Russian in Kansas, significantly limiting the number of students who might have exposure to Russian studies. The result of this limited access to Russian language is limited language enrollment and limited expertise in a highly strategic region globally, according to Kokobobo. The present war in Ukraine, where Russian language presents a strategic competency to any number of partners in both Russia and Ukraine, only furthers the essential need to foster expertise on the region. Presently, only KU and the Fort Riley military base teach Russian in a state with a significant military presence.

The KU Department of Slavic, German & Eurasian Studies is unique among departments of its nature nationally in that it has been historically focused on furthering Russian studies in a manner that is broader than a singular focus on Russia by contextualizing Russian studies within a broader regional context. The faculty work on and promote Ukrainian, Balkan, Polish and Central Asian studies, to name a few areas of expertise. The department seeks to embed Russian studies within these other regional foci rather than seeing Russia in isolation from its neighbors. Russia’s relations with its neighbors are becoming increasingly more relevant geopolitically, particularly in light of the Russian war in Ukraine. The intent of this broader regional focus has been to counter historical practices in the region and elevate underrepresented identities erased through a monolithic focus on Russia, according to Kokobobo.

High school students interested in taking Russian through this program should fill out the interest form on the Department’s website. For more information, email or call 785-864-9250.

The U.S. Russia Foundation is a U.S.-based organization with no ties to the Russian government. The USRF has made a statement (and taken financial action) in response to the war in Ukraine, which can be viewed on its website.