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‘An act of solidarity': CMU Russian studies professors learn Ukrainian from a displaced instructor

CMU students and professors during a weekly virtual Ukrainian language lesson.
Carnegie Mellon University
CMU students and professors during a weekly virtual Ukrainian language lesson.

Tatyana Gershkovich didn’t use her discretionary funds during the pandemic to attend conferences as she typically would. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Carnegie Mellon University Russian studies associate professor said she decided to use the money to support a displaced scholar.

She got the idea from a colleague in a Facebook group. As so many Ukrainians were displaced, it has often been difficult for many to find work, including language teachers.

“So this is just one small, small way that we could contribute,” Gershkovich said. “I think this is more … a symbolic gesture on our part.”

She said she hopes others are encouraged to do the same, taking Ukrainian courses or using unspent discretionary funds to support scholars.

“We are just one small group paying for lessons. We’re working with one teacher,” Gershkovich said. “But for us, I think especially as professors of Russian, it was important to support our Ukrainian colleagues. It’s an act of solidarity, and I think, as one of our colleagues put it, cultural humility.”

Her colleague David Parker, an assistant teaching professor of Russian studies, found their instructor Tetiana Vitchynova through NovaMova, a school where he learned Russian while studying abroad in Ukraine. She is currently located outside of Ukraine.

The professors put the word out to students in the Russian Studies program, and a small group has met weekly since March. They practice basic grammar and conversational skills with simple phrases such as “What time do you get up in the morning?” or “Let’s go to the park,” he said.

It’s put Parker and Gershkovich back in the classroom as learners alongside some of their own students.

“You have this added appreciation for your students when you’re struggling alongside them with something new,” Gershkovich said. “And actually they acquire these things faster than you are. It’s been wonderful to sort of connect with the students in that way and to just see how brilliant they are in this other context.”

She’s also deepened her appreciation for Ukrainian culture and scholars, who she says have been neglected without a platform in many ways.

“It’s great to see many, many talks now not just on what’s happening in terms of the current events in the war but on Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian modernism, the ways in which Ukrainian culture and Russian culture are sort of enmeshed sometimes in very difficult ways and sometimes in productive and wonderful ways. So that’s been really enlightening.”

The group will continue to meet this summer, and the funds will cover lessons through May.