On April 27, Russia Direct conducted a panel discussion that brought together academics, experts and students to discuss the future of Russian Studies in the U.S. during a time of deep crisis in U.S.-Russia relations.

One of the central problem in Russia Studies in the U.S. is theory is dictating reality, but everyday experience tells a different story. Photo: AP

Even though the current crisis in U.S.-Russia relations has stimulated interest in Russia within the U.S., it has also revealed the significant gap in understanding between the two countries. In many ways, this gap in understanding can be traced back to the fundamental challenges facing Russian Studies programs in U.S. universities.

This was the starting point of the Russia Direct panel discussion “The Future of Russian Studies in the U.S.,” which took place on April 27 in Washington, DC. The discussion brought together officials from the Russian Embassy in the U.S., academics, and experts on U.S.-Russia relations as well as those teaching Russian Studies in U.S. universities.

One of the speakers, Nicolai N. Petro, co-author of the new Russia Direct report on Russian Studies and professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, argues that the current mutual misunderstanding partly stems from historic “confrontational assumptions” as well as “divergent paths of development.”

“There is a relative isolation of the U.S. from Russia historically,” he said, pointing to the lack of contacts between the two countries.

Our confrontational assumptions do have a deeper root and probably lie in the perception of Russia as a nemesis, a ‘useful other’ to the United States,” he highlighted, adding that Moscow and Washington have historically used the so-called “values gap” in creating this confrontation.

Meanwhile, other speakers focused on the number of people studying Russian in the U.S. According to recent data provided by Minister-Counselor of the Russian Embassy to the U.S., Oleg Burmistrov, currently about 43,000 Americans study Russian in the U.S. Among the most prestigious universities that teach Russian and need high-level expertise on Russia are military naval academies, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (USMA), he said.  

“More Americans are willing to study Russian in Russian institutes,” he said, adding that, annually, there are about 500 Americans studying Russian in over 100 Russian summer programs.

Graham Hettlinger, director of Higher Education Programs at American Councils for International Education, talking to Russia Direct about the importance of the study of the Russian language and shares his experience of the collaboration with Lomonosov Moscow State University. 

“The demand of Russian language is stable,” Burmistrov said, but underlined the problem of funding exchange programs, a need which remains “crucial.” In addition, there is “a serious constraint" of bilateral agreements on the recognition of educational programs. Another problem is the restrictive visa regime in the two countries. The failure to strengthen economic ties between Russia and the U.S. limits the interest in Russian business as well, which affects Russia Studies indirectly, Burmistrov said.

Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) Russia and Eurasia Program, sees the debate about the current crisis in Russia Studies as “a little bit depressing,” because of enduring stereotypes and the shifts in U.S. national priorities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the period of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a “high national priority,” but now it is not the case because Washington has been focused more on the Middle East and China. This trend has had a certain effect on joint programs between Russian and American universities. If one looks at the role of institutional partnership, American universities like Georgetown have campuses in Doha, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere, Mankoff said, but “we don’t see that happening with Russia.”

“And it goes back to the question of prioritization,” he explains. “It goes back to the bureaucratic nature of signing agreements [with Russian institutions]. It is just very difficult for this kind of partnership to work in the Russian institutional environment.”

The importance of bilateral exchange programs

Anton Fedyashin, director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at American University, says that the confrontation between Russia and the U.S. has spurred interest in Russia and has given the field a sort of second wind. Most notably, enrollment of students in Russian is up.

Fedyashin sees the current crisis as “a wake-up call” to study Russia, its culture, history and modern politics more thoroughly, echoing Petro, who believes that “we need interdisciplinary safe havens.”

Olga Miller, head of the representative office for the Renova Group of companies in the U.S., shares their view. She believes that the field of Russian Studies in the U.S. is “extremely shallow,” with its breadth leaving much to be desired.

However, both Miller and Fedyashin highlight the importance of exchange programs in overcoming the decline in U.S.-Russia relations and cite the example of inter-university exchanges between Russian top universities like Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) and their American counterparts.   

The participants of the panel discussion came to the conclusion that “professor-to-professor, student-to-student” communication is a more important tactic in the current crisis environment. While some pointed out that university programs are also affected by the ideological polarization in both Russia and the U.S., others said that students in Russian Studies are interested today not in the democratization of Russia, but rather, “the clash of civilizations.” And this is the central problem: theory is dictating reality, but everyday experience tells a different story.

Meanwhile, one of the participants of the panel discussion, Toby Gati, a senior international advisor at the law firm of Akin Gump, Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP who focuses on political, economic and trade developments in Russia, argues that the problem lies not only with Russian studies in the U.S., but also with American Studies in Russia.

“Fixing the U.S. side is not enough,” she said. “Unless there is a parallel effort to examine Russian programs on U.S. studies, this effort is incomplete,” Gati said.

At the same time, she expresses her disappointment in the closure of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) educational program during a period when Russia and the U.S. need more dialogue. According to her, it may severely hamper bilateral relations and Russian Studies as well, because there will be no Russian high-school students who will be able to kindle interest in Russia among their American peers.

“This is a tragedy with a capital T. Why? Not just because the students come here, but how do you think Americans become interested in Russia? They need Russians,” she said.

Likewise, Miller argues that it is impossible to study Russia and post-Soviet space without involving Russians themselves. 

Nevertheless, Russian officials like Burmistrov believe that, “You cannot stop the academic or scientific exchanges between our countries just like you cannot stop the river.”

“You can poison the waters of the river, but the fresh water is being reproduced every day,” he said, quoting a Russian academic.

The full video discussion is available to watch here.

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