Angela Stent directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University and is the author of “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.”
In 1974, I spent several months in the dusty main reading room of Moscow’s Lenin Library, studying the troubled Soviet-German relationship. It was a thrill to glimpse the closed world of the Soviet Union, yet I soon found myself spending lots of time explaining the United States to incredulous Soviet students at Moscow State University. Yes, I said, Americans were outraged that President Richard Nixon’s White House was listening to people’s phone conversations. And no, The Washington Post was not in the hands of a capitalist-Zionist cabal out to destroy detente by fabricating Watergate. On the day Nixon resigned, I left Moscow, having failed to convince my fellow students about how America really works.
For four decades as a graduate student, professor and policymaker, understanding how the Soviet Union and Russia really work has been my vocation. Unfortunately, America’s focus on Russia comes and goes with news cycles and academic fads. Over the past decade or so, growing interest in China and the Arab world sidelined Russia; at most, it was one-fourth of the BRIC acronym of emerging markets — and the least enticing. But now, the trifecta of Edward Snowden, the Sochi Olympics and the Ukraine crisis has prompted talk of a new Cold War and how hard Vladimir Putin will play “great power” politics. My inbox and voicemail run over with producers and reporters seeking quotes and insights. Why did Nikita Khrushchev give Crimea to Ukraine in 1954? And who is Vladimir Putin, really?
Sovietology may be as defunct as the Soviet Union itself. But the need for a dedicated and deep understanding of Russia — especially the motives and machinations emanating from the Kremlin — is 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.
I began my life as a Sovietologist at Harvard in the heyday of the 1970s, when interest in the U.S.S.R. was high, the United States and the Soviet Union were caught in the embrace of mutually assured destruction, and support for graduate students studying Soviet politics was abundant. The discipline had been established in the late 1940s as Washington came to realize how dangerously little it knew about its new Cold War adversary. The government funded area studies for the Soviet Union — and for other regions, from East Asia to Latin America — because it recognized the importance of training people who could bring together an understanding of the region and its languages, history, culture, economy and politics.
My timing was good. I began to teach in the 1980s, a great decade for Soviet experts. Ronald Reagan proclaimed the “evil empire.” One after another, three geriatric Soviet leaders died (giving rise to a popular Moscow joke about who had a season ticket to state funerals). And then, of course, came the dynamic and young Mikhail Gorbachev.
I was a professor in Georgetown University’s Russian area studies program, which trained dozens of students every year in the Russian language and social sciences. Many found employment in various branches of the federal government, some in academia and the odd one or two in business. Debates about whether Gorbachev was “for real” and how far his reforms would go consumed my colleagues and the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
In Moscow in 1989, I attended the first meeting of Soviet and American experts on Eastern Europe. The Soviets shocked us by suggesting that the political situation in the satellite states of Eastern Europe was far worse than we appreciated. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski — long reviled in the Soviet press as the ultimate Cold Warrior — lectured a standing-room-only crowd at Moscow’s Diplomatic Academy. He received a standing ovation. Clearly the times were changing, and rapidly.
And when Gorbachev announced, in an 11-minute speech in December 1991, that the Soviet Union was no more, times changed for us Soviet experts as well.
Most of us transitioned to being Russian and Eurasian experts. In my case, that meant throwing away my lecture notes on Marxism-Leninism and how the Politburo functioned, and talking instead about elections, political parties and public opinion influencing foreign policy. And it meant approaching the former Soviet republics as independent nations. It was a challenge to comprehend how Russia and its neighbors would throw off the legacy of the Soviet system.
The 1990s were a tough decade for the field. With the Soviet enemy gone and a free-market and democratic Russia supposedly about to emerge, why bother devoting government and foundation funds to Russia and Eurasian studies and graduate student exchanges? Ironically, just as it became possible to travel freely around Russia and discuss previously taboo subjects, the demand for our knowledge plummeted. Experts in democracy and economics — not necessarily Russia scholars — flocked to Moscow, believing that it would become a major emerging market, with competitive political parties and enormous business opportunities after decades of Soviet deprivation.
Too soon, the expectations faded, and questions about how the new Russia was evolving and why anti-Americanism was growing started to dominate discussions. I began my first government job, in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, just after the 1999 Kosovo war had taken U.S.-Russian relations to a breaking point. Moscow said Washington was ignoring Russian interests and trying to ruin its relationship with a traditional ally (in that case, Serbia). The rhetoric was eerily similar to what we hear today. The Clinton administration’s attempts to reset relations with Russia were over.
When the George W. Bush administration came into office, it also sought to revamp ties with Russia. At State, we worked on a plan to offer Russia NATO membership, hoping to give Moscow a stake in Europe’s post-Cold War security system — the same system it seeks to upend today with its occupation of Crimea. After some promising months when Russia was a partner in the war in Afghanistan, that reset also foundered over the Iraq war and the revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, popular movements that toppled governments and seemed to augur a new era of democracy.
The Kremlin had assumed that, in return for supporting the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Washington would recognize what Moscow claimed as its “sphere of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space. Then, as today, the Kremlin felt betrayed when the United States supported groups in Ukraine that wanted closer ties with the West. The complexities of the post-Soviet region, as made clear by the 2004 and 2014 Ukrainian crises, are vast, but the ranks of people working on Russia, in government and academia, have thinned.
One culprit is academia, where area studies have become devalued and their budgets slashed. Instead of embracing a deep understanding of the culture and history of Russia and its neighbors, political science has been taken over by number-crunching and abstract models that bear little relationship to real-world politics and foreign policy. Only a very brave or dedicated doctoral student would today become a Russia expert if she or he wants to find academic employment. Foundations, which rarely support area studies these days, also share some blame.
Even though the Cold War is long gone, the new Russia can at times look a bit like the old Russia; we still need the Kremlinology skills that we gained decades ago to figure out Putin’s endgame in Ukraine, for instance. Sustained expertise is essential if we are not to be whipsawed by one crisis after another. We have the opportunity to train a new generation of scholars who can develop in-depth knowledge of contemporary Russia, in ways that were not possible when we were first studying it.
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 think — both on the street and in the square.
There is much work to be done. In my latest book, I explain how the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War can be traced to the fundamentally mismatched worldviews and expectations of the two sides, going back to 1991. Indeed, the Crimea crisis is rooted in the Soviet breakup, when the Soviet republics became independent states, based on borders drawn by Stalin. It has proved very difficult for a good part of the Russian population to accept that Ukraine is an independent country and that Crimea — a part of Russia since 1783 — was “given” to Ukraine by Khrushchev on a whim. Indeed, Putin went so far as to tell Bush in 2008 that Ukraine was not really a country.
So for the moment, let’s forget about resets. Unless we effectively manage the current crisis and prevent it from becoming even more dangerous, it will become more difficult to concentrate on the concrete areas where Russia and the United States have overlapping interests: Iran, Syria, transit to and from Afghanistan, and the Arctic. For after the Ukraine crisis is over and all the Russia experts like me have faded from the TV screens and airwaves, there may still be room for a working relationship with Russia, based not on resets but rather on realism.
When that time arrives, who in American universities and government will have the expertise, interest and passion for all things Russian? 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 challenges — but also the opportunities — it will present.
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