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28 October, 2011  ▪  Hanna Trehub

Ucrainica Italiana

Italian scholar Giovanna Brogi Bercoff, a Slavic and Ukrainian studies specialist, speaks about the state of affairs with Ukrainian academia in Ukraine and abroad

Giovanna Brogi Bercoff is not simply a world-class scholar. She is a European intellectual who deeply understands and cares about the problems that are tearing Ukrainian society apart. She is one of the enthusiasts with non-Ukrainian ethnic background who are doing everything they can to spread positive information about Ukraine and the riches of its language and culture at a time when the European and worldwide media space is flooded with news of political scandals in our country


U.W.: What is the state of affairs with Slavic, particularly Ukrainian, studies in Ukraine and abroad?

Several good academic centers have emerged in Ukraine and there are good scholars here. But it seems to me that most Slavists, including those studying Ukraine, are very traditional in their methodology and ideas. In this respect the situation does not seem to be the best.

Unfortunately, Ukrainian studies are not a widespread phenomenon on the official level in the world, but there is a lot of interest. There are many courses but virtually no university departments of Ukrainian studies, except in the USA and Canada. There are many universities in Germany in which they teach Ukrainian and courses in Ukrainian culture or contemporary literature. This is being done spontaneously, because outstanding Slavists of the older generation who were there before independence are now gone. This is a general phenomenon – great figures are departing from Slaviс studies. However, there are representatives of a younger generation who have been taught by these luminaries.

Ukraine's independence, and a new culture and high expectations after the fall of the Berlin Wall, led many young people in Europe and across the world to take interest in your country and they have maintained it. But all of this is being done semi-officially and through the efforts of enthusiasts who are spreading knowledge about Ukraine in their countries. Importantly, they are not products of the Ukrainian diaspora but representatives of other European nations. They look at Ukrainian culture through different eyes and assess your realities from a completely different and often very interesting angle.

U.W.: How much substance is there to the statement that the study of the Russian language and culture dominates in contemporary Slavic studies? Why is there less interest in Ukraine? What can be done to create more parity in the situation?

There is no way to create parity in this situation. In this case, parity is more of a dream than a reality. I am talking not only about Ukrainian studies but also Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian and any other Slavic studies. Russia and Russian culture predominate because there is a powerful state and Russian chauvinism and nationalism which together make a significant impact on the development of Slavic and Russian studies. That is the reason why I think there will be no parity between the latter and the study of other Slavic languages. Certain competition may come from Polish studies. I can also add that the problem of achieving parity between various branches of Slavic studies depends on what a particular Slavic state is doing to disseminate knowledge about itself abroad. Ukraine has not done anything along this line. It’s disastrous!

Polandhas always actively disseminated its language and culture and knowledge about them. Russia is doing the same now, intensively and on a large scale. There is interest in Russian and Polish also because the Russians and the Poles are investing money in their respective studies and so generate interest. In contrast, Ukraine has never offered targeted financing of Ukrainian studies on the state level, thus essentially killing interest among Slavists abroad. This neglect on the part of your state led to a situation in which the world essentially turned its back on the study of your language and culture. Moreover, we should keep in mind that Ukraine is not attracting people's attention now with anything positive, which also influences foreign interest in Ukrainian studies.


U.W.: It can fairly often be heard that Western scholars largely receive information about Ukraine and its language and culture from Russian sources and in a Russian interpretation. Is this a myth or the established practice in Europe? If true, why do European scholars turn to Russian sources rather than those in any other Slavic language?

It is a fact that Italians receive virtually all their information about Ukraine through Russia. For example, when our journalists speak about events in your country, they use news from Moscow. At one point, I protested against this and wrote a letter to the Italian radio and television, asking why information about Ukraine was not coming from, say, Warsaw.

Our mass media offer very little information about your country. A journalist in Moscow may be a good specialist and person, but of course he will present a view of Ukrainian realities in the Kremlin's interpretation. This is a fact that is very difficult to change.

Furthermore, we cannot forget about economic and political interests, because many Italian mass media are in the shadow of the national energy company, which is very interested in Russian oil and gas. This is both an Italian and a pan-European problem. Europeans think that Russia is a very important partner, which is true, and that is precisely why they do not speak against it in any way. This influences the press and Western European awareness of Ukraine.

Departments of Russian studies are the biggest in the Slavic domain in Italian and other European universities. On the periphery of a language, science is more traditional and conservative than in the center, i.e., among its natural speakers. This means that Russian students of the Russian language and culture are more progressive than foreign ones. In the 1980s, political Kyiv was more conservative than Moscow. Therefore, this is a general rule which pertains also to Slavic studies. My fellow Ukrainian studies specialists and I find it very hard to fight against the pro-Russian biases of our Russian studies experts. Moreover, they do not know anything else except the Russian language, while those studying Polish and Bulgarian always study the Russian language and culture as well. This is true of Slavic studies in both Italy and Europe in general. It is an unhealthy and one-sided process when one language predominates.

U.W.: Are initiatives to spread good, unbiased information about Ukraine in Europe having any success? If so, what specific projects are involved?

Such projects do exist. Until 2011, there was a good school in Greifswald which operated very successfully. However, it is being closed now. And the thing is not only a lack of financing but also the internal policy of German universities. There is also an international project of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and another German university that cooperate in social and political sciences. A three-year research project about Galicia as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire involving multiple universities was carried out in Constanta. It included studies of Galicia’s culture as well as contemporary, modern and postmodern Ukrainian literature and their connections with European culture. The study of Galicia in the context of Austrian imperial culture has been the focus of attention of a PhD school in Vienna, where there is a huge institute of Slavic and Ukrainian studies. Also, a new center for Ukrainian studies and teaching was recently set up in Cambridge.


Giovanna Brogi Bercoff

1994-present – regular professor of Slavic philology at the University of Urbino and later at the University of Milan (Department for Linguistic, Literary and Philological Studies, Slavic and Finno-Ugric Section)

1993-98 – president of the Italian Association of Slavists

1987-97 – editor and later chief editor of Russica Romana

2000-present – president of the Italian Association for Ukrainian Studies

1999-2008 – vice president of the International Association of Ukrainianists in Western Europe

2003 – foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

2011 – honorary professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy

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