Learning about peace

News in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at Luther College

As a Russian Studies professor, I'm often asked about the current conflict in Ukraine and the Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. In fact, we have a new course at Luther this fall titled "Putin's Russia" in which we discuss current events and the historical background leading up to them. The students and I need to keep informed about daily world events and discuss various points of view—for example, why does President Putin have an 85 percent approval rating in Russia? I love teaching the class and appreciate the interest and insights that the students bring. It fits in with another interest I have: peace studies.

As we see daily in the news, the world suffers conflicts across the globe that affect both neighbors and distant countries: violence, military interventions, economic sanctions and countless refugees as people flee the violence of their home countries. Even when the actual violence ends, areas must be materially rebuilt and agreements reached and maintained in order to attain a sustainable positive peace—and not repeat the same conditions that caused the conflict in the first place. It often seems impossible for one side to even talk with the other, much less attain a positive peace. 

I became interested in peace studies after working with Dr. Steinar Bryn at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue in Lillehammer, Norway. Steinar and the Nansen Center have been nominated several times for a Nobel Peace Prize because of his work in war-torn and segregated areas of the world, particularly the Balkans. The Nansen Center teaches a unique method of dialog that gets people (often of different ethnic or religious backgrounds) talking and actually listening to each other. The goal is dialog, not debate. The two sides don't need to agree, but they do need to listen to each other and try to understand the "other" point of view.

Steinar and I offered a January Term course last year ("Peace and Reconciliation Dialog in Norway and the Balkans") in which we spent half the course in Norway learning about the Nansen dialog method and Norwegian efforts at peace building. In the second half of the course our group traveled to Croatia and Bosnia/Herzegovina to learn about the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the current situation as those countries struggle with the aftermath of war. We visited Srebrenica, where over 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered in 1995. We visited local Nansen Centers in Mostar and Sarajevo to hear about the work they are doing to integrate various ethnic/religious groups. Progress at the grassroots level can lead to progress at the governmental level.

These were very powerful experiences for the students and me. I'm happy to say that we'll be offering this same course again abroad in our 2015 Summer Session at Luther. The experiences with the January Term course prompted me to spend this past summer at the University of Oslo doing graduate work in peace and conflict studies, and the knowledge I gained adds a new dimension to my "Putin's Russia" course and the Norway/Balkans abroad course.