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Get Harvard’s Russian-Language Study Abroad Out of Georgia

By Josie W. Chen
By Peter N. Jones, Crimson Opinion Writer
Peter N. Jones ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Mather House.

To Georgians, evidence of the imperial Russian threat makes itself known.

One need only gaze some 60 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, to sight an ever-expanding Russian military presence that kidnaps civilians who happen too near. Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, this evidence has developed a linguistic dimension, as Russian migrants fleeing their homeland have settled in Georgia without knowledge of the 1,500-plus-year-old native language, contesting its use in public spaces.

Yet this summer, Harvard will send undergraduates to Tbilisi to study Russian.

The study abroad program, which lasts two months and costs more than $10,000, invites participants to “Advance your Russian-language skills while exploring Georgian and Russian culture, history, literature, and film.” While its gestures to Georgian culture reflect some level of geopolitical awareness, the program’s only credit-awarding instruction is in intermediate Russian language.

A program prioritizing the study of Russian is unlikely to pay thoroughly rigorous attention to the complexities of the Russo-Georgian relationship, nor the moral pitfalls associated with utilizing Georgia as a safe haven for studying the tongue of its irredentist neighbor. And considering that Georgia’s list of official languages notably snubs Russian, a language its citizens actively decry, the endeavor borders on disingenuous.

The program — surely benign in intention — should find a home where the imperial Russian threat is less salient.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia from its northern border, killing 228 civilians and occupying 20% of Georgia’s territory. The West’s response, which rejected Georgian arms requests and limited itself to shoddy geopolitical compromises, sent a message: Georgia stands largely alone.

So, no matter one’s perspective on the immutability of identity, the Georgian population’s broad hostility toward the recent influx of Russian migrants might be expected. Georgian legislation stipulates that all business signs and advertisements must display the Georgian script and offer services in one of its two state languages (Georgian or Abkhazian). In July, anti-war protestors forced the untimely departure of a cruise ship carrying Russian passengers to the Georgian port city of Batumi, hurling eggs at its hull. And while I was in Tbilisi last summer, a passerby apparently mistook my borrowed “Pi Beta Phi” sorority t-shirt for the Russian letters “ПВФ” and accosted me.

Living under a government widely criticized for being too friendly toward Russia in foreign policy and rhetoric, many Georgians have made their feelings heard. The Harvard program represents yet another affront.

Even beyond the impracticalities of exposing unknowing, eager Harvardian Russian-learners to unpleasant cultural friction, a Harvard-sponsored Russian-language program in Tbilisi sends a worrying message. An internationally renowned American university actively promoting Russian study in Georgia paints a troubling picture of our country’s political elite, especially considering Harvard’s reputation for churning out U.S. foreign policy leaders.

The program arguably contradicts U.S. positioning on the matter, too; then-U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan stated last summer that “No one should expect Georgians to welcome people from a country that occupies 20 percent of its territory.”

Far be this argument from a call for Harvard’s ties to Georgia to decrease. The Georgian Ministry of Education and Science’s $2.3 million gift, which established a Georgian Studies program at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, has funded compelling new research on a country that Western minds too often overlook. Aside from in-house scholarship, the program funds Harvard student travel to Georgia with no Russian language-learning attached. (The ethics of a developing country donating to a university with an endowment twice its own GDP are another question.)

Nor is the argument against learning Russian — I am nearing the completion of my second semester studying the language. The Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, which has unequivocally condemned the Russian assault on Ukraine, enlists exceptional educators to teach a beautiful language.

Indeed, my instruction has been commendably self-aware. When reading an adapted version of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a novel based on the Russian colonization of the Caucasus, the class referenced Russia’s violent military history in the region. I am sure this year’s Harvard Summer Program in Tbilisi will be no different. Still, just as Harvard does not offer Azerbaijani classes in Armenia, the University should not impose itself within the context of a long-standing violent conflict.

Somewhat ironically, the reinvigorated Harvard-Georgia partnership taught me how to pen this piece. I spent last summer in Tbilisi, working for a pro-democracy civil society organization on a grant awarded by the Davis Center. Interviewing government ministers in Tbilisi, exploring sixth-century monasteries in Mtskheta, imbibing qvevri wine in Kakheti, and devouring khachapuri anywhere and everywhere, I built friendships with people similar to me in all but one dimension: wariness of invasion from the north.

I came to see how the ongoing linguistic invasion serves as a frightening reminder of Georgia’s geopolitical vulnerability.

Let not Harvard add to this burden.

Peter N. Jones ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Mather House.

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