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Time for Russia Studies to Overcome Its Cold War Heritage

A renewal of Russian studies is overdue

This article originally appeared at The Carnegie Council


<figcaption>It's time for American academia to accept that the Soviet Union is gone</figcaption>
It's time for American academia to accept that the Soviet Union is gone

by David Speedie, Carnegie Council

It is widely acknowledged on both sides of a growing divide that relations between Russia and the United States are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War almost 25 years ago. Indeed, to quote two of our most astute observers: Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Center, concludes that we may be obliged to look back on the period 1992-2014 as an "inter-Cold War era"; and New York University's Stephen Cohen goes further, arguing that anti-Russia animus in Western media and policy circles is actually more virulent than during the Soviet times.

In this unpropitious environment for bilateral relations, Nicolai Petro, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, offers what may be the beginnings of a remedy in the excellent article below, How to get from Soviet Studies to Russian Studies(first published in an April 2015 Russia Direct report and reposted here with the author's permission). Petro makes three main points:

  • the field of Soviet studies was never exactly intellectually robust-for much of the Cold War period the research agenda was "driven by U.S. military and intelligence needs"; 
  • the transition from Soviet studies to Russian studies was, to say the least, inadequate to an understanding of post-Soviet Russia, bogged down as it was in an arid debate over the "real Russia" as either a Soviet holdover, "the Oriental despotism... hopelessly mired in anti-Western and anti-modern values" or "a 'normal' country that is responding rationally to the challenges of transition from an autarkic and ideologically driven Soviet empire, to a contemporary national democracy integrated into the global economy";
  • a renewal of Russian studies is overdue: Just as in the late Soviet period, "an expansion of educational and professional exchanges is needed to help break down stereotypes." And what might such a learning agenda entail? "A deep understanding of Russia requires a synthesis of political science, history, anthropology, religious and cultural studies-in sum, more area studies rather than less."

The causes of stress on this critical relationship are manifest—from NATO expansion in the 1990s to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. But critical the relationship indeed is, and greatly in need of work. The encouragement of a next generation of Russian studies in the United States (and, for that matter, U.S. studies in Russia) would seem to be an indispensable first step in the reconstruction process.

How to get from Soviet Studies to Russian Studies

by Nicolai N. Petro

Back in 1999, Professor Stephen F. Cohen accused Russian studies of having forgotten about Russia.[1] In its haste to abandon the intellectual ghetto of Sovietology, it had embraced what he called "transitionology"—the notion that universal concepts, methods and theories, rather than area studies rooted in history and culture, were the best way to understand post-Soviet Russia.

The result, said Cohen, had been an unmitigated disaster. Scholars, journalists and politicians were getting a fundamentally distorted picture of Russia, one that ignored the human suffering being caused in the name of political and economic transition and therefore dramatically underestimated the impact that Russian First President Boris Yeltsin's shock therapy would have on future Russian politics.

Cohen's critique focused on the methodological divide that had emerged in political science between those who advocated more quantitative and comparative approaches, and those who preferred what American anthropologist Clifford Geertz called 'local knowledge'. But the problem at the heart of this dispute goes much deeper than methodology. It is a problem that most scholars are loathe to address, for it requires them to take a stand on which image of Russia they chose to believe is the "real" one.

For one school of thought, the real Russia is, and probably always will be, the Oriental despotism described by the German-American historian Karl Wittfogel, a profoundly reactionary society, hopelessly mired in anti-Western and anti-modern values.[2] These entrenched values explain Putin's enduring popularity, as well as the need for the West to put some sort of cordon sanitaire around Russia to restrain its expansion. For others, however, the real Russia is a "normal" country that is responding rationally to the challenges of transition from an autarkic and ideologically driven Soviet empire, to a contemporary national democracy integrated into the global economy. This sharp divide among Russian specialists goes back decades and continues today because Americans have never really taken the time to learn about Russia proper.

For the first century and a half of its existence, America was blissfully ignorant of Russia, so much so that on the eve of the First World War, the Russian language was taught at only three American universities (Columbia, Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley), and Russian history was offered only at the last two.

By the time Americans began to take notice of Russia, it no longer existed. It had been replaced by a new country—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—conceived in the name of an ideology that Western policy makers struggled for decades to comprehend, before finally deciding that it didn't really matter for how the Soviet Union was ruled.[3] When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 very few felt any need to draw a distinction between Soviet patriotism and Russian nationalism.

The collapse of communism, therefore, did not engender much effort to understand the emergence of Russia as a new nation. Unlike the other nations that emerged from the collapse of the USSR, almost no one asked what values and social expectations might emerge in a post-Communist Russia. Would it seek to establish a new identity, or to reconnect with a prior identity? More importantly, was training as a "Soviet specialist" adequate to the task?

Unfortunately, it is not. Furthermore, the study of Russia proper has yet to really begin in the United States. Before we can appreciate what can be done to change this, however, we need to look at the essential role that governmental sponsorship played in the development of Soviet studies in the United States.

How Soviet Studies Rose to National Prominence during the Cold War

Soviet studies is entirely a product of the Cold War. Had the United States not been drawn into that conflict, it is quite likely that the benign neglect that characterized America's relationship with Russia from its founding well into the 20th century would have continued.

On the very eve of America's entry into World War II in 1941, there were still fewer than 20 people specializing in the Soviet Union within the U.S. government. That included support staff. Training options within the United States were so few that the State Department sentfuture diplomats like George F. Kennan and Charles "Chip" Bohlen abroad to learn about Russia.

In 1943 the USSR Division of the Office of Strategic Services was set up and staffed with 60 social scientists. Still, it is stunning to realize that at the time the defining strategies of the Cold War were being devised, the actual number of bona fide Russian specialists nationwide was just 64 persons.

The first real impetus to expand study of the USSR was the launching of Sputnik in 1957. This was quickly followed by a series of Soviet "firsts" in space exploration. It was America's apparent technology gap with the Soviets that in 1958 led to the National Defense Education Act, the first large-scale federal government initiative to promote national security through education.

Ever since then, the research agenda of Soviet studies has been driven by U.S. military and intelligence needs. All major Soviet studies centers developed ties of one sort or another with relevant government agencies, the best-known example being the Refugee Interview Project carried out by the U.S. Air Force and Harvard's Russian Research Center. These interviews eventually led to the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System.

The main finding of the Harvard Project was that the typical Soviet citizen's attachment to the values of Soviet society was comparable to the attachment of a U.S. citizen to the values of American society. Despite being more than 50 years old, it remained the single most influential study of Soviet mass values until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As scholars from the University of California, Berkeley Victoria Bonnell and George Breslauer note, the basic institutional infrastructure put in place during the 1950s "has remained essentially intact ever since." At its heyday, during the early 1970s, there were 58 centers of Soviet and East European studies in the U.S. and 83 degree-granting programs in the field. 40,000 students were enrolled in Russian language classes, a figureunmatched until very recently.

But while funding during the Cold War was at times ample, it was far from constant. The first area studies programs at premier institutions were supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, but the passage of the International Education Act in 1966 led them to end their domestic support.

The prolonged period of stagnation during the Leonid Brezhnev years (leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 until 1982), combined with a shift away from area studies generally, led to a loss of interest in Soviet studies. Concern about the aggressive tone being taken by the first Reagan administration (1981-1989), however, led both private foundations and Congress to provide supplemental funding for the study of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet and Eastern European Research and Training Act of 1983, commonly referred to as "Title VIII," became a critical factor in arresting the erosion of U.S. expertise on the Soviet Union. Title VIII prepared the generation of scholars that came of age right at the time of the collapse of the USSR Soon thereafter, however, the field began to see declines in undergraduate enrollments in Russian language, politics and history courses.

Observers attribute these declines to Russia's loss of superpower status, as well as to the incessant drumbeat of negative reporting that depicted Russia as "a space of incompetence… not yet ready to take care of its people or to join the ranks of the 'civilized' world."[4]

Already in 1991, Russianist Dorothy Atkinson from the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies had warned that Soviet and East European studies would lose a quarter of its faculty between 1990 and 1995. As a result, she said, the capacity of the academy to provide expertise to the American public was likely to be "strained."

Despite such dire predictions, however, Congress cut Title VIII funding by more than 40 percent between 2002 and 2012 in constant dollars, Title VI funding for area studies dropped by 47 percent in 2011, and support for doctoral dissertations to Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia in 2013 was cancelled. That same year, fiscal uncertainty in the U.S. government and the loss of a small handful of prominent private donors and political patrons in Congress combined to eliminate Title VIII funding entirely.

The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies still keeps a list of major programs affected by the end of Title VIII on its website. They include:

  • The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), which suspended all competitions in its East Europe Studies Program for 2013-14.
  • The Arizona State University Critical Languages Institute, which suspended competition for its Title VIII fellowships for domestic or overseas summer language study.
  • Indiana University, which suspended competitions for Title VIII fellowships for domestic and portable intensive summer language study.
  • The National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER), which suspended all new Title VIII programming for 2013.
  • The Social Science Research Council's Eurasia Program, which suspended the competitions for its Title VIII fellowships in 2013-2014.
  • The Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, which suspended competition for its Title VIII
  • Research Scholarship grants for 2013-14.

Russian Studies beyond Sovietology

The end of government support for Soviet studies does not strike everyone as a tragedy. Some have caustically observed that, for all that investment, Sovietology's ability to predict the rise of the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev or the collapse of the USSR was exceptionally low.

This is not entirely fair. There were studies that highlighted how contradictions within the Soviet system might someday cause significant disruption, and some even raised about the possibility of full systemic collapse.[5] Still, it is fair to say that these were marginal voices, outside the mainstream of funded research.

As the former Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, notes, "I never heard a suggestion from the CIA, or the intelligence arms of the departments of Defense or State… [of] a growing, systemic economic problem… On this one the corporate view missed by a mile." Against this backdrop, the very few prescient voices that urged scholars to think proactively about alternative policies that might be implemented after the collapse of the USSR were all but lost.

Paradoxically, the importance of government support actually increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union, due to the loss of public interest and shrinking enrollments. It can even be argued that pressure to be "policy relevant" has increased, as the broad training and support offered by area studies is being replaced by more targeted government funded programs like Minerva and the Human Terrain System.

The combination of dwindling public interest, shrinking funding, fewer graduate students, fewer jobs for those that did graduate, and fewer foreign correspondents reporting from Russia, thus created a situation in which the story of Russia's emergence from within the USSR has been overshadowed by the familiar and well established Cold War narratives of the past.

Small wonder then that the debate over Russia today looks a lot like it did 60 years ago. As if Putin's Russia, in which three former Soviet republics are members of NATO, where the Internet has become the preferred news source of anyone under 30, where Russians travel abroad freely and account for the fifth largest number of global tourists, and whose economy is more open to foreign trade than that of the United States, were the same as Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union (1922-1952).

Is it any surprise that the current crisis in Ukraine is frequently labeled a "new Cold War"? Perhaps a better question would be why anyone would think this is a "new" Cold War, when the intellectual assumptions underlying the "old" Cold War have scarcely been challenged.

At the heart of the new Cold War, as former U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock notes, lies the facile triumphalism adopted by the United States toward Russia after the collapse of the USSR.[6] But such triumphalism should not have surprised anyone. It flows logically from the decades spent confusing Russia with the former Soviet Union. Indeed, it is only now, with the end of the institutional focus on America's Cold War alter ego, the Soviet Union, that there is an opportunity to discover Russia proper, and to create a field of truly Russian studies in the United States.

What Might a Renewal of Russian Studies Look Like?

An expansion of educational and professional exchanges is needed to help break down stereotypes. The MIT-Skolkovo Foundation project to build a science and technology oriented graduate school ("Skoltech"), which is still apparently unaffected by sanctions, is a good model.

With Russia now more open to foreign students and intellectual collaboration than ever before, this is the ideal time to establish long term partnerships on the basis of mutual respect, unlike the efforts undertaken a decade ago by a handful of American foundations, led by the Ford Foundation, to promote large-scale societal changes by transforming the state educational system.

What about funding? Clearly, Russian studies can no longer afford to rely on haphazard government funding, yet the pool of those whose professional interest in Russia is matched by financial resources is still very small. The logical alternative is to seek funding from wealthy private donors in Russia who have an interest in improving understanding of their country overseas. Yale University has recently taken a step in this direction by accepting funding from the Renova group, headed by "Kremlin ally" and oligarch Viktor F. Vekselberg, for its new interdisciplinary Russian Studies Project.

Some will object that such money is tainted. Some of it may be, but the vast majority is surely not, or at least not enough to have prevented massive Russian investments from being welcome in commercial real estate and business. Why should an exception be made for academia? In any case, such assessment should be made on a case-by-case basis and not on the basis of crude stereotypes.

And, speaking of stereotypes, a serious discussion of the image of Russia in mainstream Western media is long overdue. This image, lampooned by media critics, diplomats, and scholars alike, has become so obviously biased that it has spawned a veritable online rebellion. The meteoric rise of RT (formerly Russia Today) from a novelty news outlet to a global network with an audience of 700 million people can hardly be attributed solely to Kremlin funding, not when the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors spends more than three times RT's annual budget, and the BBC World Service nearly twice as much.

The current focus of Western governments on more effective counter-propaganda measures is thus unlikely to work because it fundamentally misreads why so many people are looking for alternative sources of information about Russia—much of mainstream Western media coverage of Russia no longer makes sense. One of the most urgent tasks of Russian studies should be to repair the credibility gap that has emerged in the West with respect to media portrayals of Russia. A deep understanding of Russia requires a synthesis of political science, history, anthropology, religious and cultural studies—in sum, more area studies rather than less. A good place to begin is by restoring the academic linkages between Russia studies and European studies that have frayed since the end of the Cold War. Restoring Russia to European studies will help the rediscovery our common cultural and religious heritage, so that the definition of Western identity can be broadened to include Russia. It was widely assumed after the fall of the Berlin Wall that Russia would re-join Europe. A decade before the collapse, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt argued that, "Our concept of Europe will one day have to once again encompass the whole intellectual and artistic life of our Eastern European neighbors if we do not wish to become impoverished."

Unfortunately, precisely the opposite happened. As NATO expanded eastward, Russia was pushed away from Europe both conceptually and practically, thus fulfilling émigré Russian cultural historian Vladimir Weidlé warning of more than half a century ago, that failure to see Russian culture as part of Western civilization would lie at the heart of both the West's persistent inability to overcome the legacy of the Cold War, and Russia's inability to overcome the legacy of the Soviet era.[7] But if treating Russia as an integral part of Europe holds out the prospect, as former German President Roman Herzog once put it, of healing of Europe's soul, her continued ostracism is likely to have dire consequences, some of which are already being foreshadowed by the bitter struggle over Ukraine. To avoid such a tragedy, we would do well to heed the warning of America's most venerated living specialist on Russia, the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington: "Bridges to other cultures will not be solid unless they begin with casements that are sunk deep in one's own native ground.[8] And all branches of learning die if cut off from the roots that lie within that ground..." If Americans cannot penetrate into the interior spiritual dialogue of other peoples, they will never be able to understand, let alone anticipate or affect, the discontinuous major changes which are the driving forces in history and which will probably continue to spring unexpected traps in the years ahead."


1 Stephen F. Cohen, "Russian Studies Without Russia," Post-Soviet Affairs, 15:1, 1999, pp. 37-55.
2Martin Malia, Russia Under Western Eyes. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999, p. 6.
3Illustrated in the shift in perspective from Merle Fainsod in How Russia is Ruled.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953, to his student Jerry Hough in How the Soviet Union is Governed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
4Nina Renata Aron, "Fashioning Russia: The Production of a New Russian 'Other'," Newsletter of the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 27:1, Spring 2010. 
5 Laqueur, The Dream that Failed. U.S.A: Oxford University Press, 1996. pp. 187-191.
6Jack F. Matlock Jr., Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—And How to Return to Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 
7Vladimir Weidlé, Russia: Absent and Present (translated by A. Gordon Smith), New York: J. Day, 1952.
8Alexander Ivashchenko, "Roman Herzog: "Europe Needs Russian Soul," RIA Novosti, September 2, 199[7].

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