Russia Direct offers a look at the current state of the Russian Studies field in the U.S. and suggests what might be done to adapt teaching methodologies in these programs to the changing geopolitical reality.

Fort Ross, a former Russian settlement on the north coast of California in 1812-1842. Photo: Getty Images

At a time when the leaders of both Russia and the United States are struggling to understand each other’s true foreign policy intentions, it’s only natural to ask how the future leaders of tomorrow are being educated about Russia at America’s top universities. The new Russia Direct issue, “Where to Study Russia Now,” takes an in-depth look at the state of Russian Studies in the United States and raises some important questions about the role of the field in improving relations between Moscow and Washington.

The analysis begins by touching upon the key issues raised in two recent reports about the Russian Studies field – an August 2015 report from the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) and Russia Direct’s 2015 Ranking of Russian Studies programs. Given the general crisis in U.S.-Russian relations, one would expect a greater demand for Russia experts and, consequently, for Russian Studies. Based on the data, that does not appear to be happening, as U.S. universities struggle to reshape their Russian Studies programs for the new geopolitical reality.

In this issue, the Russia Direct editorial team examines the role of the U.S. government in funding Russian Studies programs, provides an overview of the field by discipline (e.g. Language, Culture, Literature, History and Political Science), and offers insights into how institutions can best offer a multidisciplinary approach to studying Russia.

It’s this multidisciplinary approach to studying Russia that’s so important for the future of U.S.-Russia relations. Currently, many senior foreign policymakers within the U.S. still perceive Russia as simply a nation that is challenging U.S. dominance globally in a bid to become a great power. However, Russian Studies graduates who take a much wider view of Russia realize that it is a nation that has its own history, culture and political role in the world. “As a result, the most successful Russian Studies programs will be those that treat Russia as a partner, not the enemy,” the report suggests.

Andrei P. Tsygankov, professor in the departments of Political Science and International Relations at San Francisco State University, also confirms the notion that, despite the general crisis in Russia-U.S. political relations and the lack of demand for Russia experts in political circles, a younger generation of Russia experts “fluent in the ‘enemy’s’ language, not infected by the Cold War mindset” is still there, although small, leaving us hopeful about the future of the field. However, the question remains whether the U.S. government understands the significance of funding and encouraging the development of Russian Studies.

“The time may yet come when Russia will be studied not as a threat, but as a country with all the complexity of its problems, aspirations, failures and accomplishments. For that, however, there is a long way forward,” Tsygankov says. What is needed for that to happen is for the U.S. government to transition in its approach to Russia, shifting from “imperial arrogance” to a “greater sensitivity toward realities of the increasingly complex world.”

Given the interconnection between academia and the top echelons of politics in the United States, educating future leaders with this greater sensitivity to the changing geopolitical reality is paramount, according to James Carden, former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department. “What does need improving is the quality of analysis that is reaching Congress and the administration,” he says. According to him, one of the reasons for the direction of the U.S. foreign policy approach to Russia is that the major U.S. think tanks tend to focus more on Russia as the ultimate cause of the whole instability in Europe at the expense of other factors prompting the decision makers to perceive Russia as a threat.

Ivan Tsvetkov, associate professor of American Studies in the International Relations Department of St. Petersburg State University, notes that the same simplified notions informing how many American students view Russia also can be observed in how Russian students view America. In Russia, U.S. foreign policy is perceived to be quite predictable and transparent, so spending money on American studies does not seem relevant, notes Tsvetkov in his column.

With that in mind, Victoria I. Zhuravleva, director of the American Studies Program and vice-dean of the Department of International Relations and Area Studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities, takes a comparative look at the state of Russian Studies field in the U.S. and the field of American studies in Russia. Drawing similarities and differences between the different factors at play in defining the general focus of studying another country in Russia and the U.S., she shares her own experience of teaching American History to both Russian students and American students that come to Russia via an exchange program.

“The presence of American students in the American studies courses at a Russian university introduces an element of dialogue into a sometimes one-sided discussion,” she argues. Studying U.S. history helps students from both countries form a more balanced view of the world and U.S. history.

Based on her experience, Zhuravleva suggest five core components of any successful Russian Studies program, and argues that, notwithstanding the geopolitical standoff, the mutual understanding within academic communities in both countries is growing.

That’s a hopeful sign that academics might become a bridge for better U.S.-Russian relations. Zhuravleva cites her American colleague Alyssa DeBlasio, assistant professor of Russian at Dickinson College. “Academics in Russia and the U.S. both have the same goals: They want their students to succeed, they want their programs to be successful, and they want to be innovative in their teaching and their research.”

What U.S. programs offer a true multidisciplinary approach to studying Russia? Which Russian and U.S. universities have the best exchange programs? What educational opportunities are there in Russia for young Russian Studies experts? Download the new issue and find out.