The Wilson Center’s decision to halt the activities of the Kennan Institute’s Moscow office will have profoundly negative implications for U.S.-Russia relations.

It remains to be seen if the Wilson Center's decision to close its Moscow office will affect U.S.-Russia academic collaboration. Photo: The Wilson Center 

The Russian academic community learned with shock and anxiety of the Wilson Center’s recent decision to shut down the Kennan Institute’s Moscow office. The decision seems to us inappropriate, ill-timed, and extremely harmful to the long term prospects of U.S.-Russian relations.

Budget savings from closing the office are no doubt a priority in Washington. We understand this. But the modest, short-term gains seem small in comparison to the long-term loss. The functional base of the leading social network for academic cooperation between Russia and the Unites States will 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 Moscow Kennan office has likely been the single most efficient venue for cooperation between Russian humanities and social science scholars and public figures. This fits the Wilson Center’s longstanding mission of “bringing Athens to Sparta.”

Its journal, the “Vestnik Instituta Kennana,” has earned a reputation as the best print medium for promoting interdisciplinary networking among Russian scholars and for building bridges to policy-makers.

Taken together, the Kennan alumni represent probably the most influential community of public intellectuals and academics in Russia with the authority to improve Russian-American relations despite propaganda efforts and diplomatic tensions.

We will certainly continue our work here with or without the Center’s support. But with the loss of the free atmosphere of the Kennan office, its organizing capacity and the events the office has helped to coordinate, it is hard to imagine the same level of engagement.

What makes the situation especially discouraging and ironic is that the Moscow Kennan office survived the Russian government’s wave of attacks against foreign-funded NGOs in early 2013, only to be closed instead by Washington.

Such a step cannot be seen in Russia outside the context of the general freeze in Russian-American relations. Nor, indeed, can it be seen in any other light than as first, a concession by the American funders to the unlawful demands of certain Russian enemies of US-Russian friendship, and second, as a betrayal of those who worked hardest here to make the connections between our societies better.

We consider it a genuine tragedy that the Kennan Institute will be contributing to the deterioration of US-Russian relations, especially when its historic record demonstrates a will and a capacity to maintain the deeper ties of U.S.-Russian cooperation whatever the short-term political setbacks and fluctuations.

The only semi-parallel U.S. organizations that will remain here after the closing of the Kennan Moscow office are the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Institute of International Education – both of which have very different missions and neither of which has ever enjoyed a Kennan-like level of engagement on the part of Russian scholars.

It is impossible to imagine another American research institution or agency being allowed to open a branch in Russia today.

Therefore in practical terms, the Kennan Institute and the Wilson Center will never, once the Kennan office is closed, be able to restore the unique presence and positive influence they enjoy in Russia today.

We understand that financial constraints are a serious issue. And we understand that funding for Russian studies in general and the Kennan Institute in particular is limited. But we also believe that the importance of maintaining Kennan Institute alumni activities in Russia is greatly underestimated in Washington.

Finding the funds for those activities is in the best interests of both the Russian and American people, as we both seek to increase, not decrease, the level and quality of non-governmental dialogue.

The Kennan alumni in Russia ask that the decision to close the Institute's Moscow office be reviewed – and add their hope that they will be able to join in the search for ways to sustain the operations of this vital center.

On behalf of the Kennan Institute Alumni in Russia – Ivan Kurilla, Emil Pain, Victoria Zhuravleva, Boris Lanin, Olga Malinova, Olga Volkogonova, Anna Sevortian, Leonid Gozman, William Smirnov, Alexander Okun, Julia Khmelevskaya, Alexander Kubyshkin.

February 7, 2014

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