How to get from Soviet Studies to Russian Studies

Excerpt from "Russia Direct Report: Best Russian Studies Programs 2015."

April 30, 2015

The Flag of Russia and the Ministry of Defence flag. CREDIT: Alan Wilson (CC)

David Speedie,
senior fellow and program director, 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 excerpted below, How to get from Soviet Studies to Russian Studies.

The full article can be found in an April 2015 Russia Direct report titled "Russia Direct Report: 'Best Russian Studies Programs 2015." This excerpt is posted with kind 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.

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 sent future 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.

To read more, go to Russia Direct Report: 'Best Russian Studies Programs 2015.'


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.

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