RD Interview: Victoria Zhuravleva, professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), discusses the new Russia Direct Ranking of Russian and Post-Soviet Studies Programs and the future of Russian Studies programs in the United States.


U.S. President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Assistant to the President Gary Samore, NSC Spokesman Mike Hammer, NSC Senior Director for Russian Affairs Mike McFaul, and National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, after a bilateral meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, Nov. 15, 2009. Photo: White House / Pete Souza

After the release of its new Ranking of Russian and Post-Soviet Studies Programs in the U.S. in early April, Russia Direct sat down with Victoria Zhuravleva, professor of American History and International Relations and director of the American Studies Program at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), to discuss the results of the ranking and their broader significance for the field of Russian Studies.

In addition, Zhuravleva shared her own academic experiences of teaching American Studies in Russia in order to highlight the challenges facing Russian Studies programs in U.S. universities.

Russia Direct: What’s your opinion of the new Russia Direct Ranking of Russian and Post-Soviet Studies programs in the United States?

Victoria Zhuravleva: I would like to emphasize that the Russia Direct discussion on Russian Studies is a very timely project because of the decline in expertise of Russia in the U.S. and because of the contemporary crisis in the Russian-American relations, the most serious one since the end of the Cold War. This crisis has very clearly demonstrated the negative consequences of misunderstandings caused by the decline in expertise.

Russia Direct’s project covers very important issues, first of all, the transition from Soviet Studies to Russian Studies. Then, there’s the matter of the professional identity crisis in the Russian Studies field and the bigger issue of how to improve the field of Russian Studies in the U.S.  All the experts share the idea that knowledge on Russia should be much more nuanced and multifaceted.

I suppose that mentioned problems are very important for the field of American Studies in Russia as well, because we are talking on how we are studying each other and how this knowledge correlates with the policy making process, with both the media discourse and the national identity discourse.  

RD: In your comments about Russia Direct’s ranking, you pointed out that it lacks two criteria: an interdisciplinary approach and some way to quantify the number of visiting Russian academics in U.S. universities. How can we measure these criteria?

V.Z.: As for the interdisciplinary approach, this is necessity to put Russian Studies in the U.S. in different comparative contexts. As many experts argue, one of the urgent tasks is to create a deep knowledge on Russia based on political science, history, anthropology, religion, culture, and even on a knowledge of global economic and financial processes.

Visiting scholars from Russia need to receive an additional opportunity for teaching in the United States and vice versa. Grants and joint projects also will be very useful. For example, RSUH and the University of Kansas are planning to start project on the memory of World War II in representations of American and Russian students.

RD: What are the roots of the decline of Russia expertise in the U.S. and how would you propose to tackle the problem?

V.Z.: Of course, we can talk about the decline in expertise on Russia in the United States. And this is the consequences of different processes, and, first of all, the result of American triumphalism [after the end of the Cold War] and the lack of financial support [for Russian Studies programs] from the government.

As Georgetown University's Angela Stent [one of the authors of the RD report] emphasizes in her piece, the number of students has grown in direct proportion to the rise of Putin’s Russia, but the U.S. government has not followed this academic trend and, in fact, has reduced available financial support. In her opinion the main problem is not with Master’s degree programs, but with Ph.D. programs. In this situation, the question is whether there will be enough professors to teach and prepare the next generation of specialists.

And it is Stent’s belief that there is a generational change, first of all in political science, because many of the best-known specialists on Russia, especially in political science, will retire over the next decade. And political science departments prefer to replace them with specialists not on Russian Studies, but on comparative politics or on theories of international relations.

But, in general, the United States still has a number of excellent programs on Russian Studies and the Russia Direct ranking demonstrates this very clearly.

The first way to tackle the problem of the decline in Russia expertise is to integrate Russian Studies into different comparative contexts, to discuss different points of views and interpretations of Russian life and politics and to broad the academic and student mobility.

RD: How does the current U.S.-Russia confrontation – which some experts are calling “a new Cold War” – re-shape or affect Russian Studies programs in the U.S.?

V.Z.: Jeffrey Mankoff [deputy director and fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and one of the authors of the RD report] talks about this problem. In particular, he deals with the negative consequences of the destruction of boundaries between academia and the policy making process, between academia and media discourse.

I suppose that the discussion on Russia Studies within the project of Russia Direct and on the pages of American newspapers and magazines is the best testimony that specialists on Russia Studies are thinking over this problem, discussing the new situation and the correlation between the study of Russia and the U.S. foreign policy.

Video by Vladimir Stakheev

RD: Could you share your own experiences?

V.Z.: Every semester 10-12 American students from Dickinson College, Middlebury College, and Beloit College study the Russian language, Russian history and Russian politics at RSUH. But I noticed an interesting trend among them. They focus on Russia, but they would like to take courses on American Studies as well. As a general rule three or four students attend my courses on U.S. history, on the political system of the United States and U.S. foreign policy.

RD: Why do they do it?

V.Z.: They answer: We would like to know what kind of image of the U.S. prevails in Russia’s student consciousness, what kind of knowledge about our country they receive within these courses. And this is a very interesting experience for both American and Russian students, because they receive an opportunity for better understanding of mutual perceptions and promotion of their knowledge. So, I would like to emphasize that American students are talking in Russian with Russian students, but about the United States. This is a way of looking into a mirror in order to understand own and other country.

And an additional opportunity for academic communities is the participation in joint projects on Russian/American Studies. In this context, I would like to mention project that was initiated by me and my colleague Ivan Kurilla in 2008. The title of it is “Russian Studies in the United States / American Studies in Russia as academic projects: Mutual Representations.” The first book [Russia and the United States in the Textbooks] has been already published in Russia with the support of the Kennan Institute. And the next book on this issue will be published in the United States at the Lexington Books.

Within such international projects experts and scholars from both countries discuss different problems for better understanding of where we are and where we should be in studying each other and how we can organize an effective dialogue between scholars and experts of two countries.       


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