Western Russia Experts Abound, But Only Bad Ones Are Promoted

The level of Russia expertise is actually very high in western scholarly circles - but little of what they produce ever reaches the general public, as media insists on promoting quacks instead

Originally appeared at Russianality

In Western countries the end of the Cold War led to a huge decline in interest in Russia. Russian studies departments at universities shut down in droves. Fewer and fewer people studied Russia’s history, language, and politics.

In the years since, Russia has repeatedly surprised the West, most specifically in the past two years by annexing Crimea and intervening militarily in Syria, but more generally by not putting good relations with the Western world at the top of its priorities.

Flabbergasted by what is seen as Russian ‘unpredictability’, ‘aggression’, and ‘authoritarianism’, some people are beginning to think that perhaps cutting back on Russian studies wasn’t such a good idea.

In February 2015, the European Union Committee of the British House of Lords asserted that the UK had badly misread Russian intentions, and ‘blamed Foreign Office cuts, which it said led to fewer Russian experts working there.’

A few days later, the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee also ‘concluded a lack of Russian speakers in the Foreign Office left Britain’s diplomats ill-equipped to anticipate the events in Ukraine.’ And yesterday (30 December), the Washington Post reported that in the United States:

Experts, lawmakers and former administration officials describe a national security apparatus that, once teeming with experienced Russia specialists, including at the highest levels of decision-making, now relies on [a] looser regime of more junior experts who lack the reach to directly influence policy.

The result, they say, is a series of missed opportunities to anticipate Moscow’s recent moves in areas such as Ukraine and Syria, even when clues were readily available. … experts point to a lack of funds for foreign language instruction at universities, a reduction in funding for cultural exchange programs with former Soviet states and the recent evisceration of a grant program for advanced research on Russia and its neighbors as signs of why the government is having trouble developing a corps of Russia specialists.

One can easily understand why people might think that the lack of understanding of Russia stems from a penury of Russian ‘experts’, and that investing more resources into Russian studies might solve the problem. Yet there is, in fact, no shortage of ‘experts’ currently carrying out analysis of Russian affairs.

In the past year, I have drawn readers’ attention to a considerable number of books, articles, reports, and speeches about Russia. I have reviewed books by Garry Kasparov, Marvin Kalb, Walter Laqueur, Oleg Khlevniuk, Richard Sakwa, and Peter Pomerantsev; looked at reports and articles produced by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and prominent think tanks like the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and examined articles in both academic and non-academic journals, such as Foreign Policy and Slavic Review.

The problem is not one of quantity. It is one of quality. Although once in a while I have found something to praise – such as Richard Sakwa’s book Frontline Ukraine – a lot of the time it has been my opinion that what I have read is of very low quality.

There are, of course, many scholars doing excellent research on various aspects of Russian history, politics, and philosophy, but relatively little of this research reaches the general public. In mass media and think tanks, the past 12 months have seen much more bad analysis than good.

Since starting this blog, I have concentrated on critiquing the former rather than praising the latter. In the year to come, I will try to change tack a bit, and seek out more of the better stuff as well.