It’s now fashionable to proclaim any pro-Russian intellectual in America as a “dupe” or a “stooge” of Putin. Yet if we continue to devalue the importance of Russian area studies, we’ll eventually end up turning to Hollywood or late night television for our insights about Russian foreign policy.

A monument of Lenin facing the Crimean Council of Ministers building in Simferopol. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin

Recently, it seems like Winston Churchill was right when he famously suggested that Russia was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in what is happening right now in Crimea.

It’s no wonder that Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, recently weighed in on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post with her own take on “Why America doesn’t understand Russia.” Stent points to the disturbing trend of viewing the study of Russia as simply a passing “academic fad” rather than as a comprehensive scholarly discipline that involves an understanding of the region and its languages, history, culture, economy and politics:

“Sovietology may be as defunct as the Soviet Union itself. But the need for a dedicated and deep understanding of Russiaespecially the motives and machinations emanating from the Kremlinis as critical as ever. Otherwise the United States is doomed to repeat cycles of “resets,” great expectations of better relations with Russia followed by serial disappointments. President Obama’s reset was only the latest of four since the Cold War ended.”

Ms. Stent makes a great pointif we don’t put serious money, time and attention into educating the next generation of Russian scholars, then we’ll end up repeatedly flat-footed anytime Russia makes a move in the world. We won’t know what’s happening NOW so we will turn to the past for explanations.

Over the past month, amidst escalating tension on the Crimean peninsula, America’s best Russia experts have reached deep into Russian history to develop a suitable framework for understanding the latest steps by Russia and its (seemingly inscrutable) president, Vladimir Putin. As of yet, nobody has provided a satisfying answer. (Even Germany’s Angela Merkel, herself a fluent Russian speaker, has apparently already given up.) The Kremlin, as always, remains a black box.

Just consider some of the theories being tossed around by today’s Russia experts.

This is Cold War, redux. Given that the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is still fresh in everyone’s memory, it’s no surprise that various versions of “Cold War II” are making the rounds. Considering that the Soviet Union just broke part in the early 1990s, just about everyone over the age of 35 in the USA not just older Baby Boomers and senior members of Congresshas probably grown up with some kind of misconception about Russia as a result of the Cold War era.

Some are more deeply ingrained than others. No wonder that most people think we’re headed for Cold War II as a result of Crimea. If the U.S. has nukes, and Russia has nukes, and we’re still squabbling over geopolitics in places like Ukraine, it makes sense to trot out all the Cold War tropes, right?


The problem is that all this misplaced talk of “Cold War II” has led to the latest round of Red-baiting in the media and McCarthyism-style witch hunts against pro-Russia Russian scholars in the media. It’s now fashionable to proclaim any pro-Russian intellectual in America as a “dupe” or a “stooge” of Putin, just as all left-leaning intellectuals were “dupes” and “stooges” of Communism and Joseph Stalin. The one public intellectual who has taken the most heat for his views, of course, is Stephen Cohen of Princeton. Even daring to suggest that Putin’s motives may be grounded in reason and rationalitythat perhaps the West over-stretched a bit when it extended NATO to the very borders of Russiais met with a round of furious denunciations in the media.

But let’s go back even a few more decades in our attempt to understand Russia’s motivations. If you’re Hillary Clinton, then the clearest example, of course, has to be Adolph Hitler and the Sudetenland. This pseudo-explanation (Putin = Hitler) tends to resonate far and wide in American media circles, especially given the historical parallels, like Germany’s hosting of the 1936 Summer Olympics and Hitler’s moves to annex part of Europe. For people looking for a quick and easy explanation, Putin is Hitler, Sochi is Berlin, and the Crimea is Sudetenland. Problem solved. If you buy into these mental model of Russia, then it’s relatively easy to crank out a magazine cover these daysjust depict Putin as a 21st century Hitler.

Of course, resorting to Nazi Germany parallels is a bit too intellectually dishonest and controversial these days (especially if you’re planning on running for the Presidency in 2016), so the best Russian scholars are busy looking for new parallels in Russia’s past. Maybe it all has to do with a perceived slight that Russia received during the post-Cold War period? Maybe there’s something to be mined from the Brezhnev era? Maybe there’s something to be learned from the Yeltsin or Gorbachev era?

If you want to make your mark as a Russian expert, though, there’s no point in stopping the Wayback Machine in 1991. Let’s crank it to 11 and go all the way back to the Stalinist era! Let’s go back to the 1850s and the original battle for Crimea! Let’s go back to the era of Boris Godunov and the Time of Troubles! Let’s invoke Russia’s most famous tsars, from Ivan the Terrible to Catherine the Great, for an explanation for Putin’s motives. Maybe, let’s blame it all on the Mongol invaders, who repeatedly burned down Moscow and turned Russia into a deeply troubled adolescent nation that failed to undergo a Renaissance or Enlightenment. Let’s turn the clock back to Kievan Rus and mull over all the myths and identity problems plaguing Russia today as a result of events that happened almost a millennium ago.

You can see where the problem with this iswe’ve stopped learning about the modern Russia, and we’ve been reduced to analyzing Russia’s actions from behind the safety of a desk and computer monitor. We’re reading dusty old books about Russia instead of going out in the “Russian street” to find out the truth. In short, we’ve become lazy.

Simferopol residents during the Crimea-Spring celebratory show held at downtown Lenin Square on the day of the referendum on Crimea's status. Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin

This, too, is a point that Angela Stent makes in her Washington Post column. Back in the day, she writes, it was OK to sit at your desk at an august academic institution like Harvard and attempt to divine the mysterious ways of the Soviet Union without having to do too much field work. That’s all changed since the breakup of the Soviet Union:

“My doctoral adviser at Harvard, Adam Ulam, was a brilliant student of Soviet foreign policy, but he did most of his research sitting in his Cambridge office, trying to get inside the heads of Kremlin decision-makers. When I was in Moscow during the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, a Western broadcast reporter called me to ask, “What does the man on the street in Moscow think?” The answer was that the “man on the street” did not exist, at least in Western terms. He had not been told about the accident and would not have dared talk to a random American asking questions on that street, anyway. […] But today, it is possible to meet for hours with Putin, as I have done every year over the past decade, and challenge him with questions. And it is possible to learn what a wide variety of Russian men and women thinkboth on the street and in the square.”

You can see where all this is headed. If we continue to devalue the importance of Russian area studies and resort to deeply unsatisfying theories of Russia based on what’s happened in the distant past, we’ll eventually end up turning to Hollywood or late night television for our insights about Russian foreign policy.

We’ll actually believe that Liam Neeson holds the secret to dealing with President Putin, or that ridiculously complex foreign policy problems can be solved with the ease and aplomb of a Stephen Colbert one-liner. With the Internet, of course, any of these simplistic views of Russia can be relentlessly distributed to the masses with a few funny photos, a brief video clip on YouTube, a clever hashtag, and an outrageous title.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it will require some tough choices in academia. Russian studies shouldn’t be a fad or a field of endeavor that vanishes when Russian news vanishes from the headlines. As Ms. Stent suggests, “Unless we commit to educating a new generation about this onetime rival and possible partner, we won’t be prepared to deal effectively with Russia’s post-Putin generation, with all the risks and challengesbut also the opportunitiesit will present.”

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