Russian language, literature and culture in the UK

Author: Robin Aizlewood


Russian studies in the UK is experiencing contraction at present but the subject remains lively and pro-active in its degree and course provision. Departments teach the Russian language at all levels (from ab initio to final honours), and some may also offer the chance to study one of the other languages of Eastern Europe, while there is considerable diversity in the range of literature and culture options on offer.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

Russian is one of the most important languages in the world and, combined with Russian culture, history and politics, it offers students a fascinating, challenging, rewarding subject for study at university. The numbers of students of Russian in the UK has fluctuated quite considerably over the last 20-30 years. Interest in Russia and studying Russian peaked in the late 1980s/early 1990s, to a large extent as a result of the positive appeal of the country as it opened up at the end of the Soviet era. In the last few years, despite the academic strength of Russian studies in the UK, and the teaching expertise and developments in degree and course provision, there has been quite a severe decline in the numbers studying Russian, leading to some contraction in the provision of Russian in universities (see General introduction to modern langauges in today's UK Universities for further details.) The intrinsic interest and value of studying Russian remains undiminished, however, and it is ironic that the decline in numbers comes at a time when the opportunities for study in Russia and for using Russian in employment are greater than ever before.

2. Diversity in degree programmes

There is a very wide range of degree programmes on offer across UK universities. The great majority of students start Russian ab initio, but there is still a small but important stream entering with A Level or its equivalent. Students of single honours Russian degrees are a relatively small minority; more typically students follow degrees combining Russian with other languages, most commonly French, German, Spanish and Italian. But Russian can also be an important gateway for the study of other Slavonic or East European languages, either in a combined degree or as an optional element. Not all universities offer this option, and the maintenance of provision in these languages has been through difficult times, but where it is available take-up can be encouraging. The languages most commonly offered are Czech, Polish and Serbian/Croatian, and one or more of these languages are offered, for example, at Bristol, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, UCL, and, at the time of writing, at Glasgow. Other languages, such as Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian are offered in just one or two universities (the UCAS web site provides details).

But as well as Russian in combination with another language, Russian is also offered in combination with a range of other disciplines: History, Politics and International Relations (and Sociology), Economics, Business/Management Studies, Film Studies, Philosophy, Linguistics etc. These combinations cater for the increasingly diverse interests of students taking modern language degrees, including Russian. Such multi- or inter-disciplinary combinations may be at the level of the degree (i.e. BA (Hons) in Russian and History), or provided through a range of options within the Russian programme itself. While the expertise of most or all Russian departments lies primarily in the area of Russian language, literature and culture, departments may also include, for example, one or more historians or political scientists, or else the degree programme may draw on such discipline expertise from other departments.

Like programmes in all modern languages, Russian programmes in the last ten or more years have typically diversified into a wider range of options in the study of Russian culture, such as film, theatre, women's writing, popular culture, art and architecture. This diversification has been generated both by the evolving research profile of the academic community and by student interest in such diversified provision. As well as offering this wider range, programmes typically seek to provide students in the first year with both a discipline-based foundation and a broad cultural and historical background for their subsequent studies, through courses that draw on a range of sources and material, literature, film and other media, intellectual history etc. But Russian literature rightly remains at the centre of the study of Russian culture and most departments offer a range of courses - survey, genre, thematic, author - concentrating on the period from the nineteenth century to the present day. Options in linguistics may also be available. Such diversity of provision, which can draw on the richest and most interesting material, is a strength of Russian studies in the UK. However, the closure of some departments and the relocation of staff to other departments, can and has worked in the other direction, reducing the range of provision nationally and within individual departments.

3. Language

The delivery of the language component of Russian degree programmes has also evolved alongside and, in best practice, in interaction with developments in the curriculum as a whole (as, for example, in respect of the role of study abroad in Russia, where the opportunities have expanded greatly over the last 10-15 years). Development of the language curriculum has taken place in line with developments in this area in modern languages generally. Programmes address a wider range of skills and use a wider range of media in the delivery of teaching, most recently through the increasing incorporation of C&IT into both self-access and classroom teaching. Although the emphasis in the development of skills will vary, all programmes seek to develop productive and receptive skills in speaking, writing, reading and listening, and understanding and practice in mediation between languages; there is also a strong emphasis upon a thorough command of grammar. Some language programmes may also include more specialised options, e.g. business Russian or practice in interpreting skills, while at Heriot-Watt Russian is offered in the Languages (interpreting and translating) degree. More specialised and/or vocational language courses are also offered at MA level, while specially designed ab initio and intermediate courses for MA students converting to Russian studies can have an important role at this level too (such courses and/or vocational ones are offered, for example, in Bath, Bradford, QMW, Surrey, UCL, Westminster).

4. Learning methods and materials

Staff in university departments of Russian have played and continue to play a significant role in the production of grammars, textbooks and other language learning material and reference works for students of Russian, at all levels. Given the small base of Russian studies in the UK, at both school and university, this role is a vital one; the base is even smaller by far in other Slavonic and East European languages, and such a role is therefore equally vital for these languages. In addition, recent publications have brought together contributions that draw on expertise in applied research and teaching methodology in order to examine key issues or present new ideas in the teaching of Russian and Slavonic languages (Davie, Landsman & Silvester (eds) 1999, and Tejerizo (ed.) 2002). There is a lively interest in the production of computer-mediated materials for teaching and learning, including videostreaming and a wide range of web-based materials, and in the possibilities of distance learning or the creation of virtual departments (c.f. Dutch and Danish). This approach may be particularly appropriate, in the UK current context, for other Slavonic and East European languages. On the theme of collaboration, one of the current HEFCE funded projects is for an MA in Soviet and post-Soviet Studies (Bath and Surrey).

5. Conclusion

Russian studies in the UK is experiencing contraction at present but the subject remains lively and pro-active in its degree and course provision. Departments teach the language at all levels (from ab initio to final honours) and there is considerable diversity in the range of literature and culture options on offer. The buoyancy of the subject is reflected in the range and variety of the panels and papers in literature, culture, language and linguistics (as well as history and the social sciences) at the large annual multidisciplinary conference of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies .


Davie, J., N. Landsman & L. Silvester (eds) (1999). Russian Language Teaching Methodology and Course Design. Nottingham: Astra Press.

Tejerizo, M. (ed.) (2002). Teaching Slavonic Languages: Methods, Aims and Achievements. Nottingham: Astra Press.

Related links

UCAS Course Search, Courses Starting in 2003, Subjects. Available at:

British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies. Available at:

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