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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Yoko Aoshima - Teaching Russian Imperial and Soviet History in Japan

We have a special additional post from Yoko Aoshima, a historian of the Russian Empire. Yoko is an Associate Professor at Hokkaido University in Japan, where she teaches courses on modern European and Russian history. Her research focuses on education and social transformation in the western borderlands of the Russian Empire. She has published various articles in English, Russian, and Japanese and she is the editor of Entangled Interactions between Religion and National Consciousness in Central and Eastern Europe (2020). You can find out more about her teaching and research interests on her staff page.

PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests

My name is Yoko Aoshima and I am a historian who received an education in European History. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Russia’s Great Reforms with a particular focus on educational reforms. Since then, my research has shifted to focus on the western borderlands, because I found that experiences of educational reforms in the western provinces influenced the general educational reforms of the Russian Empire. Now I am interested in the issue of native language education in the western borderlands at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in private and elementary schools of the nine western provinces, the Baltic provinces, and the Kingdom of Poland.

PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?

I have just moved to the Slavic-Eurasian Research Centre at Hokkaido University, where I do not regularly teach undergraduate students. Previously, I worked at the Faculty of Letters at Aichi University (2011-2012), and after that, at the Faculty of Global Human Sciences (known as the Faculty of Intercultural Studies up until 2017) at Kobe University, in the former I taught only undergraduate students, and in the latter I taught both undergraduates and postgraduates. At Aichi University, I taught a broad survey of European History, so I had to spare time to talk on supposed central topics, that is, the general history of Western Europe.

In Japan, the study and teaching of history has followed a traditional division since the Meiji Revolution: Japanese history, Eastern history and Western history. Western history was deemed important because learning about (and following) the progressive model of historical development in western Europe was perceived to be crucial. A typical course on Western history included English, French, and German histories. The inclusion of North and South American history and Russian history were unusual according to this traditional model. Eastern history means, mainly, Chinese history, of which Japanese academia has a well developed tradition of study since the pre-modern era. Of course, now we also need to include Islamic studies, South East/East Asian studies, and Central Asian studies into Eastern history, and East European studies and North and South American history into European history. Regarding Russian history, specialists and educational courses are split between Western history (European Russia) and Eastern history (Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia/Far East). The wave of global history has had an impact on this division as well, so now the traditional framework is being relativized and transformed. However, traditional ways of thinking still remain.

In high school, history is divided into two subjects: Japanese history and World history. When students enter university, they have some basic knowledge of “World history”, which includes Western and Eastern history. In general (at least, as far as I know), students see Western history as cool and valuable because they believe that they can learn about the histories of progressive countries. The mainstream narrative of Western history has not drastically changed, especially in high school textbooks and the contents of the university entrance examination. This tends to influence other qualification examinations, for example, examinations for local and state employees, though specialists try to include 'peripheral' narratives in textbooks. Therefore, when I teach Western history in universities, I tend to be influenced by traditional frameworks. But, of course, there are no rules in universities about what you have to teach, so you can choose more freely if you want. Gradually, I came experiment with how I taught history at university level.

For example, I taught a course known as a 'specialized lecture of history and geography,' in which I focused on Russian History as a ‘peripheral’ case study of European history. At Kobe, I gave lectures on 'Slavic cultures/Culture and Society of Eastern Europe and Russia' for undergraduate and graduate students for years. The faculty was based on new interdisciplinary ideas, so, luckily, I could design my classes relatively freely. I tried to elucidate universal issues such as nation, states, empires, ethnicity, citizenship, and so on, but I also chose some concrete areas to be analyzed in detail which I changed every year, for example, one year we focused exclusively on Ukraine.

Image: One of the textbooks that Yoko uses for teaching

Roshia Soren-shi (Robin Milner-Culland with Nikolai Dejevsky, Cultural Atlas of Russia and the Soviet Union), trans. by Toshinori Yoshida, second edition (Asakura Syoten, 1997).

PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery, borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?

I do focus on peripheral regions when I talk to students, because I feel that it is less important for students to trace mainstream narratives within places that they may already be familiar with. Instead, I prefer to focus on so-called peripheral regions (of which students have limited prior knowledge) in order to encourage them to conduct detailed analyses of how universal issues manifest in particular areas. For example, one year I focused on Ukraine and explored modern European history and current European international politics through a detailed study of Ukrainian history and politics. In other years, I focused on Romanian, Polish, or Lithuanian histories, and so on. This method gives students an awareness of various problems that can be hidden behind widely disseminated narratives, while also equipping them with knowledge of the history and politics of various European countries, for example, the problems of the ‘nation’ and advantages/disadvantages of the European Union. At the same time, I can introduce students to new pieces of the picture of the world, such as religion in Romania, the language of Lithuania, and the culture of Belarus.

PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?

I constantly faced the problem of discussing topics of which students had only limited knowledge. Every year, I had to start with showing a world map and pointing out where Ukraine or Lithuania are located. To retain students’ attention for a 90-minute lecture, I had to make the (usually, only one) goal very clear in each lecture: that universal issues manifest themselves uniquely within specific regions. Moreover, I was only able to focus on one or two areas per year, so the information which individual students received was uneven and changed each year.

In addition, there are not enough materials and sources in Japanese which I can recommend to students and use in classes. Luckily, Japanese society has traditionally shown an understanding of the importance of the humanities and we have quite a lot of specialists of foreign histories, so we can find either pretty good general introductory books about various countries’ and regions’ history or very specialized monographs in Japanese. But it is difficult to find medium-level specialized books based on new academic research, especially on 'peripheral' areas. Therefore, in small group seminars, I use books written in English.

Sometimes I invited international researchers into class to encourage students to think about issues occurring in far-away countries. The Faculty of Kobe actively promotes international collaboration and we host international guests every year. When we had guests from Central and East Europe and Russia, I arranged my yearly topic to focus on the country from which the guest came, and after giving students some background information, invited the guests to my class to talk on their areas’ history and current situation. This helped the students to think through issues. Once I invited a Lithuanian college to my class to talk about Lithuanian (quite specialized for them) history. Japanese students are in general shy and quiet, and usually they are not willing to give their opinion in public even in Japanese, but this time, many students asked questions in English, which very much surprised me. Students could see the real-life application of the issues that we had talked about in class.

Students in Kobe were encouraged to study abroad for a longer term (usually for a year) and one of the most popular destinations was Central and Eastern Europe. Reasons for this differ. Some students think that they can go and study in Central and Eastern European countries only with a knowledge of English (as it is “Europe”!), not realising that even if you go to France or Germany then you definitely have to know the local languages. Some students try to earn unique experiences and skills which set them apart from other Japanese students and help them successfully differentiate themselves in the job market. Others just fall in love with the unique cultures of one of the Central and Eastern European countries. Half of them get by in their chosen country only using English, but the half of them came back with skilled knowledge of local languages, for example, Finnish, Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, or Russian. All of them matured drastically after living abroad in these countries.

Based on their study abroad experiences, my students developed interests in some specific areas. When I gave lectures, I collected comments from students each time, and I often found that students wrote that they were deeply interested in Poland, Serbia, Czechia, Finland, Estonia… After this, I tried to teach them to think about general issues through their personal regional interests.

PH: What do you think a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian Imperial/Soviet history looks like?

I am quite sure that it is very important to focus on or start with peripheral topics and then to reflect on more general Russian Imperial/Soviet history, or more broadly, global history. You cannot examine or even mention every corner of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, instead, you are forced to choose some very limited areas or social/cultural groups within them. And accordingly, your chosen theme shifts slightly year by year, be it nation, religion, ethnicity, environment, gender and so on. But still, I believe that it is good method for shedding light on some peripheral cases to project a general view. Students can consider general issues concretely and vividly. In addition, they can acquire a brand new picture of the world, even through limited regional case studies. By studying Russian and Soviet history in this way, students have the ability to widen their perspectives

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