Russia Direct asked four prominent experts what should be done with America’s Russian Studies programs to boost understanding of Russia in U.S. academic and political circles.

Some pundits argues that the problem of current Russia Studies programs deals with the preparation of well-balanced experts in Russia who can use an interdisciplinary approach in their expertise. Photo: Reuters

One unintended consequence of the standoff between Russia and the U.S. over the Ukraine crisis has been the renewed attention for Russian Studies programs in the U.S. Long neglected after the conclusion of the Cold War, these programs are now starting to regain their former prominence.

In early 2015, for example, the Kennan Institute resumed its fellowship scholarship for academics and experts from Russia, Ukraine, and the region to “build bridges between traditional academia and the policy world, as well as to maintain and increase collaboration among researchers from Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S.”

This is a good sign, especially in the current context.

The announcement about defunding the Title VIII program in 2013, followed by the closure of the Kennan Institute’s Moscow office and several cuts of inter-university exchange academic programs (such as Stanford in Moscow at the Russian Presidential Academy) – all of this happened at exactly the wrong time – during the peak of the Ukrainian crisis. These events spurred internal debates among the Russian and American expert community, as academics pondered how to revive Russian Studies programs in the U.S. and make them more relevant for political decision-making.

With Russian Studies programs once again in the limelight, now is the time to consider how and why they might be adapted or changed for the current geopolitical reality, especially given that Russia and the U.S. find themselves at loggerheads on a broad array of policy issues. Some argue that an interdisciplinary approach should retain its central role in educating students about Russia, with a great deal of focus on culture, anthropology, literature and history. Meanwhile, other observers suggest there should be a shift from culture and history to Russia’s financial system and economy.

Russia Direct got in touch with academics and alumni of Russia Studies programs to find out their opinions about what can be done to boost understanding of modern Russia in the U.S. More specifically, these experts shed light on what America's Russian Studies programs don't teach - but should.

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute, Columbia University

Any Russian Studies program worth its name should produce graduates capable of bringing perspective on and insight into the many layers of Russian reality for a wide-range of constituencies — intellectual, artistic, commercial, social and political.

It would be useful if a portion of them understood “how the risk-reward premium differs across a variety of asset classes”— particularly, if they are employed by Morgan Stanley or as analysts at the Peterson Institute, the Department of Commerce, or the economic section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow tasked with assessing investment prospects and the performance of different sectors of the Russian economy.

But the United States — its government, media, universities, and people — also need experts who can help them escape from the crude stereotypical notions of how the Russian political system works, comprehend the many forces and challenges shaping the political and economic choices of Russia’s leadership, and make sense of Russia’s actions abroad.

That requires an array of specialists with rich but varied educations. If a common core should exist in their studies, best that it be Russian history and literature. Only the first offers a panorama grand enough to allow one to begin to grasp the scale and contours of the historic transition Russia has been undergoing these last 30 years. And the second is essential for the outsider to have any feeling for the mind and emotions of Russians at any and all times.

Understanding Russia means understanding it both at the most fundamental level — at the level of national identity, political mindset, historical legacies, and cultural distinctions — and at the distinctly practical, specific level — at the level of diplomats struggling to gauge the prospect of influencing Russian behavior in the Ukrainian crisis or of achieving a common approach to the Iranian nuclear program; of business people attempting to navigate an intricate and often treacherous economic setting; and of journalists pressed to get right for their readers the complexities in the Russian story.

If Russian Studies programs in the United States are failing in this mission, the reasons are far larger than the absence of courses on Russian high finance or the place of Russia in the global economy.

They are basically four: first, the lacunae in the programs of even the strongest Russian centers. None of them any longer can pretend to adequate faculty strength across the range of disciplines essential for a broad-based comprehension of Russian realities. Often even the disciplines at the heart of Soviet and now Russian Studies — political science, history, economics, and sociology — are now, in many universities, functioning with limited or no faculty.

Second, as the social sciences strive for methodological rigor — and, indeed, the skills essential to the curriculum shifts [to finance and economics] — the emphasis has tilted toward training in advanced statistics, if necessary, by sacrificing training in the Russian language.

Third, area studies programs—including Russian Studies—are increasingly thought of as the poor stepchildren of the social sciences, adjuncts to and supporting staff for the general theorists at the center of these disciplines.

Fourth, and finally, the social sciences in Russian Studies have ceased asking large questions about Russia and encouraging students to do the same, focusing instead on narrower issues that allow for greater analytical precision, but scarcely shed much light on the large phenomena shaping and assailing modern Russia.

Andrei Tsygankov, professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University

In my experience, what many Russian Studies programs don’t teach enough, but should – are courses on Russian political history, including a discussion of economic and social institutions developed and modified by Russians themselves.Courses on Russian politics should not begin with discussion of the Soviet system and its collapse – as they often do – as if Russia had no meaningful, centuries-long political experience before communism. All too often, Westerners expect Russia to change in the direction of the West’s own pattern, while Russia has historically established its own political trajectory. Living in an interconnected world means studying not only global economics, but also how different cultures adopt to the world and change it from below. 

Gregory Feifer, former NPR correspondent in Moscow, writer, author of the book Russians: People behind The Power, and graduate of Harvard’s Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia (REECA) program

When various fields are inevitably becoming increasingly specialized, Masters programs such as Harvard's REECA are extremely valuable for providing well-rounded study that enables confluence and comparison between fields. I think there should be even more of that.

For example, the idea of a political culture is controversial in social sciences that increasingly rely on quantitative research about topics that are often very mushy and involve the understanding of traditional behavior as much as current economic constraints. That's especially true in Russia, whose political system and society has shown a remarkable degree of continuity over the last few centuries.

Russian Studies programs are special in that they typically serve students with a broad range of interests and goals. While knowledge of macroeconomics and finance would certainly help many people in many fields, and it should be up to students to decide for themselves how much emphasis to place on studying one or another discipline.

As a REECA graduate myself, I found it an excellent, well-rounded program that has no doubt improved under the highly talented current Executive Director Alexandra Vacroux (who happens to have worked in business in Russia). Although I was required to take economics seminars, I found courses on history, political science and culture to be most relevant for understanding today's political processes. In a country where rule of law is less than feeble, markets are unusually distorted by political decisions and corruption is the central modus operandi, formal study of markets is less relevant than, say, understanding ruling oligarchies' traditional reliance on obfuscation for maintaining political stability.

Victoria Zhuravleva, professor of American History and International Relations, director of the American Studies Program at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH)

Due to the Ukrainian crisis, U.S. experts started discussing the negative implications of cutbacks in Russian Studies programs in American universities and the need to beef up a more robust expertise on Russia, as indicated by s series of the articles in the American media: Jason Horowitz’s “Russia Experts See Thinning Ranks’ Effect on U.S. Policy” in The New York Times, Angela Stent’s “Why America Doesn’t Understand Putin” in The Washington Post and Matthew Rojansky’s “The Slow Death for Russian and Eurasian Studies” in The National Interest.

They focus a great deal of attention on the cuts in funding for Russian Studies programs, a development that has brought about the loss of entire generations of American experts on Russia. At the same time, one of the reasons of the problem is the decreasing number of programs in regional studies, in general, as Angela Stent points out.

In addition, another problem for Russian Studies in the United States stems from their substantial curriculum for preparing well-rounded specialists. Arguments that students should acquire basic understanding of Russia’s economy, finance and dynamics of economic processes are well grounded and relevant today given the huge role of economics in global politics and international relations.

More broadly, the problem of current Russian Studies programs deals with the preparation of well-balanced experts on Russia in the U.S. who can use an interdisciplinary approach in their expertise. Without such an interdisciplinary approach, a multifaceted analysis of the current international situation would be dead-in-the-water. This problem is also commonplace in preparing Russian experts on America.

Want to know which program for Russian Studies is the best in the U.S.? Russia Direct is about to release its first-ever ranking in April 2015. Read more here.