The new book, Russian/Soviet Studies in the United States, Amerikanistika in Russia, which takes a detailed historical view of Russian Studies in the U.S. and American Studies in Russia, could help policymakers in Moscow and Washington understand each other better.


Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev arrive at Radio City Music Hall in New York, May 12, 1992. Photo: AP

Amidst the decline in U.S.-Russia relations, there is growing interest in trying to understand the deep historical and cultural factors that lead to each side’s foreign policy actions. In many ways, this attempt to understand the “other” is nothing new - the fields of American and Russian Studies date back to the 1850s, when scholars in the two nations began to define themselves by observing the political, economic and cultural trends at work in their future rival.

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A new book, Russian/Soviet Studies in the United States, Amerikanistika in Russia, edited by two prominent professors – Ivan Kurilla of the European University in St. Petersburg and Victoria Zhuravleva of the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH) in Moscow, brings together top Russian and American academics to understand better how U.S.-Russia relations have been viewed by scholars in both nations for more than 150 years.

The birth of Russian and American Studies

In the late 1850s, Kharkov University professor Dmitrii Kachenovsky attracted wide audiences with his passionate lectures about America. Many audience members saw an implicit attack on serfdom behind his exposure of American slavery. It is a rather symbolic coincidence that around the same time, in the fall of 1857, young diplomat Andrew Dickson White lectured his compatriots on the evils of Russian serfdom while implicitly criticizing the practice of slavery in his own country.

Both lecturers were cautious: Kachenovsky had to mask his anti-serfdom message because of government censorship, while his American counterpart also had to be subtle due to the pressure of mainstream public opinion. Nevertheless, their voices were heard.

Kachenovsky and White were among the pioneers of American and Russian studies, respectively. They discovered that learning about another country was not only an exciting endeavor in itself, but also provided a new perspective on things and a mirror that reflected one’s own flaws and achievements. This was especially true when one’s home country was viewed through the prism of the collective Other. The choice of the Other stemmed from the commonalities between the two countries and their mutual interest at a time when Russia was in need of reforms and the U.S. was on the path towards a greater role in world politics.

Russian/Soviet Studies in the United States, Amerikanistika in Russia: Mutual Representations in Academic Projects intertwines the stories of Kachenovsky and White and many other 19th and 20th century scholars and intellectuals into a bigger story about the emergence and evolution of Russian and American studies as academic disciplines.

Double reflection

This book is an interesting exercise in what the authors call a “double reflection” - studying the Other who is simultaneously studying us. The two renowned Russian “Amerikanists” inform the readers from the start that the book is not “about Russian-American relations as such,” but is instead about their academic dimension in a historical context. The book focuses on the mechanisms shaping professional knowledge about Russia and the United States, contrasting it to non-academic and non-expert perceptions.

Russian/Soviet Studies in the United States, Amerikanistika in Russia deals with the impact that national and international agendas, historical legacies, and socio-cultural traditions have upon the process of understanding the Other.

What makes this volume special is that it brings together a truly impressive group of authors. They are the finest scholars from the two countries – historians, political scientists and philologists whose voices join the “interdisciplinary trans-Atlantic dialogue.”

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The topics range from the image of America in Soviet children’s literature to the courses on Russia at American community colleges. The volume comprises sixteen essays, but Russian and American chapters do not mirror each other; instead all these diverse topics are tied into a consistent narrative by the introduction and conclusion that identify five cross-cutting themes: the connection between academic research and national agendas, the process of expert knowledge formation, the importance of emigrants in the study of their native country, the phenomenon of “common knowledge” about the Other, and the role of the “human factor.”

The authors are interested in focusing on more than just the research subjects and approaches used. They set out to learn more about the motivations and factors that prompt people to study another country and frame their findings in a certain way. So it is not surprising that a lot of attention is paid to the fifth theme. The “human factor” manifests itself in different ways.

Some essays focus on the personalities who left their imprint on the study of the Other – such as Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood, Pitirim Sorokin, and many others whose dedication laid the foundation of Russian and American Studies as scholarly disciplines. Some other chapters add an even more personal touch, as Richard T. De George and William B. Whisenhunt, for example, share their own teaching and research experience, their stories illustrating the general trends in the development of their disciplines.

The volume mentions both the commentators who used to romanticize the other country and those who demonized it. It pays attention to research institutions and think tanks as well as universities and colleges. It covers different periods – from academic pre-knowledge to full-fledged academic disciplines – and deals with different research schools and different generations.

A particularly attractive feature of the book is that the authors themselves belong to different generations and represent a variety of academic centers and geographic locations – from Moscow to Samara, from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, from Washington, D.C. to Kansas. Academic veterans like Norman E. Saul and Vladimir V. Sogrin have shaped the current face of Russian Studies and Amerikanistika (American Studies), while their younger colleagues and co-authors are now laying the foundation for future research trends in these disciplines.

The time of bilateral tension is a good time to write such a book and a good time to read it. Russians and Americans have studied each other for decades, but, as the authors of the volume point out, “Good expert knowledge does not always translate into good policies.”

Ideally, academic and expert knowledge should be shaping a new pragmatic agenda for U.S.-Russia relations. Instead, one can often see that political agendas dictate thematic priorities, approaches, perceptions and research angles in the same way, as was the case during the Cold War and before.

And there are other reasons for concern too, according to the authors: the generation gap, the lack of funding for teaching and research and the lack of government interest in listening to the views of academics. Yet, this book itself – with its subject, its interdisciplinary scope and diverse team of contributors – inspires optimism regarding the present and the future of the Russian and U.S. academic study of each other.

Nina Rozhanovskaya is the  Kennan Institute’s coordinator and academic liaison in Russia