Pity the poor Sovietologist. It's been 10 years since The Wall fell and the Evil Empire is clearly not coming back.
All those years invested in Kremlinological esoterica. All those decades riveted by the arrangement of tiny overcoated figures atop Lenin's Tomb. All those long leaden winters poring over Politburo speeches for Cyrillic hints at what just might possibly presage the early beginnings of post-detente neo-Stalinist dissident revisionism. And what has it brought the Sovietologist? The ashcan of history.
Once he was the guru of gravitas in Washington, his every utterance weighed and measured at cabinet meetings and dinner parties. He could tell us, we just knew he could tell us, how close we were to appeasement or Armageddon, how far from becoming a radioactive blot on the matrix of Marxist Leninism.
Now he's a quaint historical relic, rather like an expert on the political implications of the Tokugawa shogunate. If you were used to regular talking-head status on "The McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" (and even that now flies under different colors!), this can be a bitter pill.
"The world sort of changed out from under us," sighs Carol Saivetz, executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Cambridge, Mass. Her organization has dropped from 4,000 to about 3,300 members since the Berlin Wall came down. Graduate studies programs are drying up all over the country, Russian scholars say, together with government grants that once financed them. "It's been hard for some people to retool," Saivetz says.
The Sovietologist was once the most important adviser in every administration--recall that celebrated '70s phrase: "I wonder who's Kissinger now?" But George W. Bush's adviser on Russia and Transcaucasia? Who cares? Feminist Naomi Wolf gets bigger headlines.
Angela Stent, a Georgetown University professor on loan to the State Department, refers to herself as a "recovering Sovietologist." She says students of the former Soviet Union have always been polarized between political and military experts understandably obsessed with short-range developments, and scholars of history and culture wedded to a longer view.
Today, she and others say, the polarization has not only increased, but the ground has shifted in other ways. For example, in the Cold War days, academic specialists on Soviet states like Uzbekistan and Ukraine were looked on as folk-culture fringe groups, rather like those 1960s Peace Corps veterans who served once in Peru and have dressed in Quechua ponchos ever since.
But in the post-Soviet world of the 1990s, "those people are now center stage," says Stent, as power has devolved to the now independent states from once all-powerful Moscow.
This has led to a certain wistful nostalgia for the simplicities of Cold War autocracy.
"I'm writing a book right now on Russian foreign policy," says Saivetz, "and I can tell you it would have been a hell of a lot easier 15 years ago. Today I have to deal with the influences of everything from Muslim regionalism to Caspian pipelines. It's a whole lot messier than in the old days."
Not everyone, however, chooses to deal with the mess.
"The Soviet Union may be dead but Kremlinology is alive and well," says Leon Aron, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of an upcoming biography of Boris Yeltsin. "On any given day in Washington you can find dozens of experts who can tell you how much Yeltsin had to drink last night or the size of the balance on his daughter's credit card in Switzerland. They can't accept the present-day irrelevancy of that kind of analysis because they practiced it during the Cold War for so long. . . .
"Those people go to Moscow, just like they used to, read only Moscow newspapers and talk just to Moscow intellectuals because that's what they always did. And they think that tells them what's happening in the new Russia."
Such "Cold War orphans," he says, know nothing about regions like Novgorod, "where a very interesting governor named Mikhail Prusak has cut taxes and done some amazing things that have doubled the standard of living almost overnight."
Furthermore, Saivetz said, Sovietologists still frozen in a Cold War mindset find it hard to realize that the communist past of a country like Hungary is less likely to influence its future than will its proximity to a unifying Europe.
Oh, the agony of shifting paradigms!
It's not that Sovietologists are out of work, exactly. You can study Russia either because it's too strong or because it's too weak. We used to count Russian submarines because they might nuke us to oblivion. Now we count them because they're rusting to pieces and might make Icelandic cod glow in the dark.
You can argue for a sense of urgency either way. It's just, you know, not the same.
Murray Feshbach, Georgetown University's longtime dean of Soviet Union demographics, says hard-liner Sovietologists miss not only the structural simplicity of the state they studied for so long but the sense that there was much in the communist world they could profitably ignore.
Hard-liners in and out of the government, he said, paid "relatively little" attention to Soviet population statistics during the Cold War, in part because of their obsession with Soviet politics and the possibilities of democratization.
"I'm always accused of being a pessimist" about conditions in Russia and its former satellites, he says. Those preoccupied with the military strength of the Soviet Union, he said, couldn't believe the country's internal conditions could be as bad as his numbers seemed to indicate.
But while others were debating the extent of changes in the Soviet Union, he predicted in a 1989 article the collapse of the Soviet empire. "I thought it would happen slower and become something like a confederation," he said. But not because of military pressure or democratic trends. The key piece of data, he says, was the declining Russian birth rate. It showed that the Soviet army was increasingly relying on non-Russians for the manpower with which to continue subjugating its satellite states. Obviously, he said, something was going to give.
Nowadays, he says, he's still accused of being a pessimist about conditions in the former Soviet Union. But he says those now starry-eyed about the long-range possibilities of democracy and capitalism ignore the fact that the Russian birth rate is still in the tank, and health conditions are actually getting worse.
"The social issues just don't concern them," he sighs. "Everything is just economics and politics."
Feshbach admits that statistical data emanating from the former Soviet Union has always been a bit on the slippery side, so evaluating it has been as much an art as a science.
For example, until about 1991 no Westerner had ever seen the results of the Soviet Union's 1937 census. "The census had been taken, but Stalin ordered it thrown out because it showed too many people had died" in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, Feshbach said. "It also showed an amazing number of people had chosen to move to Siberia."
Nowadays, Feshbach says, he has access to the 1937 census plus a lot of other data, but it's data with only slightly fewer holes than in the old days. Birth and death figures out of Chechnya? Dream on.
The fall of communism has brought other changes as well. Some experts who thought they hated Russia because they hated communism, Aron said, have had to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that what they really hate is Russians.
"Most scholars always differentiated between Soviets and Russians," he said. "But there is a segment of Sovietologists who argue that Russians are inherently Soviet, incapable of democracy, of self-rule, or even the acceptance of a plurality of opinions."
Others, academic Marxists from the 1960s, he says, have had to temper relief over the end of the Cold War with their distress at seeing capitalism take root on the streets where Lenin once ground his boot heels.
"To these people Gorbachev represented the elusive bluebird of socialism with a human face," said Aron. "They have never forgiven Yeltsin for killing their dream."
"There is obviously more than one way to be a hard-liner," said Abraham Brumberg, a former Sovietologist with the United States Information Agency. "I've always believed being a hard-liner is a matter of temperament more than ideology."
Nostalgia for the Cold War remains very much alive among his colleagues in and out of the government, he says. But it's not nostalgia for brinkmanship or arms racing. "It's for the illusion of a simpler morality: We were good, they were evil. That was always too simplistic, but. . . ."
"That sense of a moral compass gave meaning to the Sovietologist's life. Today that compass is lost" in the confusion of democratic change, Aron said, "and there's a real sense of yearning there."
In academia, the seismic shifts in the once firm geology of Slavic studies have been coming with such accelerating speed that entire disciplines are shaking down.
Three years ago, Saivetz says, "I was at a meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies and the president of the Middle East Studies Association came up to me and said, 'I have a bone to pick with you. I want Central Asia.' His argument was that the former Soviet states in Central Asia, like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan--with their Islamic populations and oil economies--had more in common today with Middle Eastern states than they do with Russia. He thought we should redraw the traditional lines of scholarship that way."
That could happen, which would leave the Sovietologists' rear guard even further behind. But Stent says things could be worse.
The people really left behind by events are not on this side of the former Berlin Wall, but on the other.
"It's all my longtime contacts in the former Soviet Union that you have to feel sorry for," she says. "Under communism, they had a privileged life. They were well paid. They got to travel. They had prestige. They were the people who studied and understood America. Now, when anybody in Moscow can get a passport and a plane ticket to New York or Washington," she says, "those people are all out of work. Who cares what they think?"
Pity the Americanologist, she says.