By Stacey Robertson
Is there a day that goes by without banner headlines about Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
Many of us can remember practicing “duck and cover” under our desks in elementary school. Cold War fears about nuclear war permeated daily life and haunted our dreams. Thankfully that era is over, and yet there is renewed tension with Russia.
Recognizing the world is an ever smaller place, we need to prepare our students for global engagements. Our World Languages Department offers American Sign Language (ASL), Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Heritage Spanish. We believe that competence in two or more languages offers a competitive advantage in our rapidly-moving digitized international economy.
World Languages Department Chair Dr. Laila Abdalla and myself were pleased to salute Dr. Volha Isakava, CWU professor of Russian Language and Culture, as she lectured on “Putin vs. Batman: Hollywood Icons Through a Russian Lens” as part of our college’s Celebrating the Arts and Humanities series, January 14.
Today, Dr. Isakava teaches about 30 students in first-year Russian, up to 15 more taking second- year Russian and about 10 in the third-year. Despite the challenge of learning a language with 33 characters compared to 26 in English, our students of Russian garner valuable skills for their future.
“Across the nation, we have seen a defunding of many Slavic language programs,” Dr. Isakava said. “Where are the Russian experts? Russian has been designated as a ‘critical language’ by the U.S. government, and we need more people studying Russian language, culture, politics and history.”
Even though Dr. Isakava contends that “New Cold War” is a “loaded phrase,” she believes the “radical cool down” in East-West relations has made Russian and by extension Slavic languages even more critical.
Dr. Isakava was teenager in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, during the events that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A devoted student of English, she eventually participated in a Future Leadership Exchange, which afforded her the opportunity to immerse herself in English for a year in Minneapolis. Isakava went on to earn her Ph.D in Slavic Languages and Literature from the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Dr. Isakava joined the CWU College of Arts and Humanities two years ago as a tenure-track assistant professor in the World Languages Department.
Putin vs. Batman?
Putin vs. Batman? That seems like an odd combination. Not to Dr. Isakava, a “Cinephile” in her own words, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on 1980s Russian cinema during the age of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika Russia. Born in Yalta, her interest in Russian film comes from her father, who is a documentary filmmaker, and her mother, who served as a cinema critic.
Reflecting back on her youth in Ukraine and Belarus, Dr. Isakava said that Soviet cinema changed over time and was not just simply a propaganda vehicle. Indeed, the Soviet Union pioneered avanté garde films in the 1920s.
Today, films such as the 2013 blockbuster, Stalingrad, about the decisive battle in the European Theater in World War II represent a renewed nationalism.
Russian cinema employs Hollywood techniques and yet aims to project a Russian character, often producing ironic results such as Putin dressed as the caped crusader telling a Russian youth that he should not be smoking marijuana.
Spending any amount of time with Dr. Isakava, one comes away taken by her energy and enthusiasm. She knows how important Russia and the Russian language are to our future. We are hopeful that more CWU students will embrace the challenge of studying the language of Dostoevsky (and Putin too).
Dr. Isakava’s Russian and the other languages taught by CAH’s World Languages Department are all part of our college’s Launch Pad to Your Future.