Russia Experts of the World … Unite?

It’s been a busy few weeks. Even as I’ve been immersed in edits to the book manuscript in preparation for an early April “author’s conference” sponsored by the Harvard Academy, friends and colleagues have been writing e-mails asking me for my take on events in Ukraine in recent weeks. While it’s been interesting to hear others’ opinions in conversations around Cambridge and to digest the considerable output of the major newspapers and blogs, I’ve tended to keep mum. I’ve never been to Ukraine, for one, and my major encounter with the place comes through a short workshop kindly hosted by the Cambridge Ukrainian Program and CEELBAS, a British consortium that sponsors research and language training on Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe, and the countries of the former Soviet Union. While I’d like to think that a graduate mis-education and some time spent mostly in Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan gives me some insight on events, I’ve tended to focus on the domestic American educational politics that I see as a major hindrance to developing more mature and serious expertise – not just punditry of the kind that Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called for a few weeks ago in a controversial op-ed but deep scholarship.

Unfortunately, the political-educational-media (and military?) complex remains out of touch in addressing the absolute decline in funding, attention, and institutional and governmental support for the professional study of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. In a piece that has attracted much attention from the community of professors and researchers, the Times laments the decline in the prestige of the study of Russia in American academia and portrays the field as one of graying, over-burdened Cold War-era professors coping with a field in decline. The Ukraine crisis, the Grey Lady reports,

has also showed important shifts in how American academics and policy makers think about Russia, not to mention the quality and quantity of the people doing the thinking. Among those experts, there is a belief that a dearth of talent in the field and ineffectual management from the White House have combined to create an unsophisticated and cartoonish view of a former superpower, and potential threat, that refuses to be relegated to the ash heap of history.

The failure to adapt has been systemic. Not only, explains the Times, has the prestige of Russia hands in Washington declined as the perceived importance of “the Muslim World” (there are more Muslims in Russia than the entire population of Jordan or Israel) or East Asia gained in popularity. The financial gutting of serious journalism outlets over the course of the last decade, and, arguably, the surge in ironic forms of social media commentary, made it easier to create a caricatured picture of Russia that hit all of the classic Cold War tropes. Instead of getting the hard-hitting analysis on (for example) Russian money in the City of London, the politics of Black Sea pipelines, or simply bilateral relations between major Western European countries like Germany, France, or Italy, we got an endless stream of images of Putin riding shirtless on horses, toilets not working in Sochi, and a reductive image of the country that created a simplistic and question-begging picture of a one-man dictatorship. As a well-written piece in n+1 argues, it’s not that more balanced coverage of Russia from the mid-1990s to today would have automatically a kinder, gentler, more pro-American Russian leadership:

If the US were truly strong—or, rather, since the US is strong, much much stronger than Russia in every conceivable way—would the US not have found a way to placate this tough-talking man, and his proud but troubled country, and direct Russia’s energies somewhere useful? If a man who is weaker than you walks up to you, aggressively, in a bar, what do you do? Do you humiliate him? Do you write articles about how scary and mysterious he is? As is, Putin talked tough, and so the American media and then American politicians decided to talk tough too. And now we find ourselves plunging, perhaps, into a protracted period of international standoff—a “new cold war”—with increased military budgets, decreased understanding and interaction, and once again the kind of restrictions of movement that we thought we’d left behind.

This all said, the Times piece leaves a ton of crucial issues on the table that have to be treated seriously if American intellectuals and policymakers want to inch towards the world that the n+1 piece imagines. Firstly, as I noted in my previous blog post, institutions and scholars have seen absolute decreases in funding both for federal Title VI funding (which supports “National Resource Centers” like Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard, Chicago, and others with a special focus on studying Russian and Eurasia, and FLAS fellowships) and Title VIII funding (a much smaller pie that nonetheless supports advanced research opportunities, like the fellowships that allowed me to conduct the overwhelming majority of the research for my dissertation and now book project). The Times piece verges dangerously close to a fundamental attribution error common among American baby-boomers today, namely that if millennials aren’t living up to expectations about career or life milestones, it must be a result of their own moral or personal failing. “It’s a shorter bench,” says former US Ambassador to Russia and Stanford professor Michael McFaul of my generation of scholars of the post-Soviet world.

I know plenty of scholars both around my age and slightly older who would make perfect commentators on issues in the headlines (more on why they’re not in a second), but it’s important to hit upon the financial point one more time to understand how current policies – the compromise result of the summer 2011 attempt to shut down the federal government – are eviscerating the talent base for more expertise. At many smaller colleges in the United States, “complete” courses in the Russian language – a four-year program plus the option of studying abroad in a Russian-speaking country, to say nothing of some undergraduate research – remain relatively uncommon. (This is also to avoid the issue of the rapidly rising cost of a college education and the student loans crisis.)

Even if we assume a talented, driven, and (most rarely) not heavily indebted young college graduate, the cuts to Title VI make it more difficult for National Resource Centers to offer fellowships to defray or cover the cost of a Master’s Degree, increasingly a prerequisite for consideration at serious doctoral programs. NRCs typically provide for “capstone” courses in the Russian language, but given that the transition to graduate work is precisely the time when young scholars should be thinking about a second foreign language (whether to read scholarship – French or German – or as an area studies complement to Russian – Chinese, Turkish, Polish, etc.) institutions and students are in catch-up mode already. For advanced master’s students or doctoral students, meanwhile, the decline in Title VIII funding means more competition and, often indirectly, an incentivization of  trans-national or trans-regional, so fashionable (and valuable!) in scholarship today in favor of more conservative but equally essential work on the politics of pension reform or FDI into the Kazakh agricultural sector.

When time comes for the job market, moreover, the decline in federal funding can make university departments a harsh mistress. Historians of Russia (much less methodological and geographical mongrels like yours truly) face each other down in stiff competition for the few openings, while departments typically employ far more historians of the United States; as for political science, professors complain of the hollowing out of area studies expertise in elite policy schools and political science programs in favor of more (and cheaper for research) formalization and quantitative research, which the discipline’s journals and tenure optics directly reinforce. “Dropping out” of the discipline can happen not because Russia (or any other country) ceased to be sexy, but because at some point mere enthusiasm gave out because people needed secure employment, or because people had children. Expectations of a monastic lifestyle might be justified for 25-year-old graduate students but are unreasonably for post-docs and young professors in their mid-30s.

The final element of the frustration concerns those who do make it into the big time of university employment. In spite of the Times‘ bemoaning of the lack of Russia expertise, the laziness of most journalistic outlets in actively seeking out commentary – particularly from institutions not located in Washington, DC or New York City – is striking. The piece highlights the partisan role perhaps unintentionally taken on by Professor Stephen Cohen, an emeritus professor of Russian history at New York University (obviously located in NYC) and married to the editor-in-chief of The Nation. Here is not the place to comment on Professor Cohen’s views on the Ukraine Crisis; what’s more interesting is the dearth of commentary we’ve seen sought out from colleagues outside of the I-95 Corridor – of whom there are many.

This focus on commentary from professors at the major institutions – Georgetown, Yale, NYU – seems like nothing else than a manifestation of what Al-Jazeera blogger Sarah Kendzior (not incidentally a former PhD in Central Asian Studies who has criticized the incentives of Big Academia) calls “the prestige economy.” Professors at “lesser institutions” (even though many received their PhDs from “elite” institutions) can be trusted to educate the hoi polloi of undergraduates, in other words, but even as they remain plugged into current scholarship through specialist conferences and journals, they’re discarded as too “academic” to offer much of value to national media. I’m well aware of the irony of making this critique from a cushy position at perhaps the Death Star of the prestige economy, but even as someone with the luxury of such a position it’s important to make a broader public aware of the ways in which the Russian and Eurasian Studies community is in some ways being actively marginalized and weakened at the precise time when the need for such institutionalized academic expertise – one not confined to Beltway corridors or super-elite universities – seems manifest.