While many factors remain outside of the control of Russian Studies programs, there are certain factors that can be improved.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, talks with Yuri Filatov from the Russian Foreign Ministry during a walk in Red Square, with the State Historical Museum and posters marking the upcoming Victory Day in the background, in Moscow, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. Photo: AP

The crisis in Ukraine has only served to highlight a lack of understanding of Russia in the U.S. government – a lack of understanding that is clearly hampering U.S. foreign policy towards Russia. At a time when we are descending into a new Cold War with Russia, the U.S. government lacks a whole cadre of qualified people to be able to resolve this crisis.

Just consider the following example. At the time of the reset in relations between Russia and the United States, the Department of State famously mistranslated the word “reset” and presented a button to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that was translated as "power surge," basically, an overcharging of the relationship that leads to a power outage. While the mistranslation was a foreshadowing of events to come, nevertheless it was an embarrassing display of the lack of qualified Russian specialists in the United States Department of State.


For an alternative take on this issue, read "Four different visions for the future of Russian Studies in America"

The Department of State mistranslation shows how far the preparedness of the West has fallen since the end of the Cold War. The fact is that the governments of the West have not been hiring enough qualified Russian specialists, and Russian Studies programs in turn have not been preparing enough qualified specialists to fulfill this vital role.

It has become a vicious cycle, where as it becomes more and more difficult for scholars to find funding and employment either in academia or government, less and less people are willing to undertake training in Russian Studies, thus creating the perfect storm, which has led to the current crisis in Russian Studies.

Scholars in the United States have long noted the unfortunate state of Russian Studies in the United States. Having reached their zenith at the end of the Cold War, the overall state of Russian Studies has been in sharp decline. Yet little public attention has been paid to the whole problem.

The problem is especially acute as graduates of Russian Studies programs often have careers in the U.S. government, using their knowledge of Russian Studies to help mold and shape U.S. government policy. However, graduates do not just pursue careers in government. Many choose to work for non-profits, while others pursue academia and the opportunity to continue to research Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Decline of the Russian: Threat to national security?

While many students were interested in Russian Studies following the collapse of the Soviet Union, interest began to wane when Russia was no longer perceived as a threat to the national security of the United States. Some students were still interested in learning about Russian democratization, but the allure of studying a direct threat to national security was no longer there.

During the 1990s, Russian Studies was able to tread water; however, by 2001, this was no longer possible. The events of September 11, 2001 highlighted that the U.S. faced a threat unlike any that it had faced before. The enemy was all around, and panic ensued. Russian experts in the government were trained to learn Arabic and become counter-terrorism experts.

The government deemed Russia to be much less of a threat, and therefore, it became much more difficult to find work as a Russian expert. New students in Russian studies programs were faced with the reality that it would be difficult to find employment after graduation.

Compounding the problem was that it suddenly became popular to learn Arabic and focus on Middle Eastern Studies. Universities scrambled to change to provide new centers focused on the Middle East, and as Russian scholars slowly began to retire, they were replaced by Middle Eastern scholars to accommodate this new demand. Russian Studies programs began to see their numbers of students dwindle, which made it more and more difficult to justify replacement hires.

In addition, the global recession of 2008 made it difficult for many in academia to retire. The fact is that many could not afford to retire. New scholars who were earning their Ph.D. degrees were finding that despite the fact that many had predicted the Baby Boomer generation to retire and make room for a new generation of scholars, members of the Baby Boomer generation of scholars in Russian studies were holding on to their positions. This was squeezing out the next generation of scholars.

Further, the economic downturn, coupled with the assumption that Russia was no longer a threat to U.S. national security, meant that the government was willing to cut back funding for Russian scholars studying Russia.  These programs were vital for training the next generation of scholars, and the absence of the funding signaled that the new generation of Russian scholars would not be adequately prepared to understand Russia and the former Soviet Union and, in turn, to teach future analysts.

Area studies vs. social sciences

There is a distinct divide between area studies and the social sciences. Social scientists claim that area studies specialists are too focused and not scientific enough in their approach to scholarship. Area studies specialists in turn feel that social scientists lack a depth of understanding that is necessary to truly understand Russia.

For example, one professor once famously stated that he could truly understand Russian democratization and was proud of the fact that he didn't speak a word of Russian and had never been to Russia. Area study specialists would argue that there is no way to truly understand Russian democratization unless a scholar both speaks the language and has been to Russia and studied there.

The divide between social science and area studies is only increasing, and has led to the top ranked universities being able to have strong Russian area studies programs, while middle ranked schools have virtually no Russian studies.

Further, the divide is even evident at the top-ranked universities where some Russian studies programs have their own faculty who have little contact with other social science departments within their respective universities. This, in effect, creates an isolation that makes it difficult for new ideas and theories to penetrate, which is very important for the advancement of scholarly understanding.

Ultimately, the state of Russian Studies is in dire straits. The current global climate is such that new Russian area specialists are needed to effectively analyze and advise Western governments. Yet there is a dearth of such specialists.

While many factors remain outside of the control of Russian Studies programs, there are certain factors that can be improved. One of those is to mentor new faculty and integrate them into the Russian Studies collective. More communication needs to occur. All too often at conferences, established faculty members network with other established faculty members and it becomes very difficult to break in for junior scholars.

Further, organizations that promote scholarship and discussion among Russia area scholars need to be more open to junior scholars. It is very difficult for junior scholars to find a niche in the field, which only serves to create a divide even within Russian studies.

It would be wonderful for the Kennan Institute or other Russian Studies program to host a conference specifically designed to try to break down some of these divides to improve the state of Russian area studies in the United States.  If we are to train successful individuals who can truly analyze and advise policy makers on Western policy towards Russia, we need to actively improve the state of Russian studies.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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