Russian pundits have expressed disappointment at the Wilson Center’s plans to reduce its presence in Moscow amid fears that the decision signals a change in U.S. policy toward Russia.


George F. Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow, was one of the founders of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. Photo: AP

Following the news of the Wilson Center’s decision to close the Kennan Institute’s Moscow office, Russian commentators have argued that this move may affect long-term academic collaboration between Russia and the United States. Meanwhile, a number of think tanks have expressed their regret at the loss of such reliable partners.

The news about the Wilson Center’s plans was revealed by Kennan Institute's fellow Victoria Zhuravleva, who is also a professor of American History and International Relations in the Department of International and Area Studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities. She is one of the initiators of the open letter from the Kennan Institute’s alumni in Moscow that was published on Feb. 10 on Russia Direct’s website.

Earlier, Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, told Voice of America that he does not intend to close the center, but rather reduce and reorganize its presence in Moscow because of lack of funding from private donors and one of the U.S. federal programs such as Title VIII.

“I can absolutely confirm that Kennan is not disappearing from Moscow or Russia,” Rojansky told Russia Direct by e-mail. “We remain 100 percent committed to working with our over 400 alumni in the Russian Federation, offering fellowship opportunities, promoting exchange with U.S. scholars, co-organizing conferences and meetings, and publishing and disseminating scholarly work — in short, the key areas of Kennan’s work in Russia for over 20 years. The financial challenge we have faced is very real, and as a result we will simply have to find more financially sustainable ways to do this work. We are engaged in that task right now, and will announce our future plans very soon.”

Likewise, Zhuravleva is concerned with the situation. “The Moscow office is going to be closed and the funding may be stopped,” Zhuravleva said. According to her, it remains unclear in what format the Kennan Moscow Project will work in the future.

In the letter, alumni of the Kennan Institute in Russia argue that Russia's academic community sees this “decision” as “inappropriate, ill-timed, and extremely harmful” in the long run amidst a recent decline in U.S.-Russia relations.

It clarifies that the long-term loss will outweigh any short-term benefits and warns against the negative consequences for the long-standing academic collaboration between the U.S. and Russia, giving voice to fears that this may “disappear overnight.”

“With it will go a heritage of improving understanding between the people of both countries that extends back over a quarter-century,” the letter reads.

The launch of the Moscow Kennan office 21 years ago brought together a generation of Russian and American experts studying Russia and bilateral relations between the countries.

“The situation is very weird,” Zhuravleva told Russia Direct. “Although the office passed inspection by Russia’s authorities, it is Washington that closed it in the wake of the decline in U.S.-Russia relations.”

“As an alumna of the Kennan Institute Program I proposed to publish an open letter in media to attract the attention of U.S. diplomats, journalists, legislators, and the U.S. Department of State regarding the negative consequences of such a decision for U.S.-Russia relations as well for the image of the United States in Russia and the reputation of the Kennan Institute,” said Zhuravleva.

In addition, she proposed to find additional funding for the Kennan Institute in collaboration with its Russian alumni. Currently, they are looking for a grant in Russia and also collecting signatures from Russian and American experts in protest against the closure of the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute.

Russian alumni of the Institute has already sent the letter to U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and has also posted it on social media.   

According to General Director of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Andrei Kortunov, the closure of the Moscow office is in line with the trend of halting U.S. supporting activity in Russia. 

“For many, it will be bad news that indicates that America is losing interest in Russia and switching to other regions,” he said pointing to the 2012 closure of the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID).

Indeed, Washington seems to be disengaging from Russia. Last year, U.S. Congress announced plans to withdraw funding from the Title VIII Grant Program, which supports regional studies related to Russia, Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union. The program supports U.S. citizens in pursuing language training and policy-relevant research in the social sciences and humanities.

“In 2002 the program’s budget was $4.5 million ($5.8 million in 2012 dollars), but it was cut to $3.3 million in 2012 and to $0 in 2013,” wrote Laura Adams, director of the Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus at Harvard University, in her column for Russia Direct.

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, sees the Wilson Center’s decision as an attempt to optimize financial resources and expenditures and figure out “how to spend limited resources with maximal efficiency.”

Zhuravleva argues that despite the recent cuts in funding U.S. programs related to Russia and The Wilson Center’s serious financial challenges, it seems to be a reckless decision to close the Kennan Moscow office in the year when it is celebrating its 40th anniversary and 21 years of activity in Russia.

“[Given the fact] that Kennan Institute is one of the leading U.S. center in Russian Studies, it [the decision] will affect U.S.-Russia relations,” Zhuravleva said. “After all, the Kennan Institute has always called for a non-governmental dialogue between two countries.”

Zhuravleva also points to the fact that the Kennan Institute, founded in 1974 as an initiative of Ambassador George F. Kennan, was named in honor of Ambassador Kennan's relative, George Kennan "the Elder" (1845-1924), a nineteenth-century explorer of Russia and Siberia.

“And it’s pretty alarming that the U.S. is losing interest toward Russia amidst the closures of the Title VIII program and the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute given its initial mission to improve American expertise and serious knowledge about Russia,” she said. 

“We will remember Kennan Moscow office as an institute that dealt with international scholarships and internships,” said Kortunov pointing out the importance and the impact of the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute. “Many will regret it. I have collaborated with the Institute for a long time. It is regretful that we might lose good partners due to the closure.”

“I personally sympathize with the concerns of our Russian alumni and colleagues," said Rojansky. "It is worth remembering that the core purpose of the Kennan Institute is to promote mutual understanding through scholarly exchange, and this is what we work on every day. We welcome support from our alumni, and we strongly hope that their expressions of concern translate into productive efforts to seek new financial support, and opportunities for partnership that can help us continue our work."

“Obviously, at a time when U.S. government funding for the study of Russia (e.g. Title VIII) is being cut, this is another step in the wrong direction, one that will reduce opportunities for academic collaboration, not to mention U.S. understanding of developments in Russia,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, when asked to comment on the Wilson Center's decision.