Given the venomous treatment of Russia by the present-day professoriate in the United States, it may not be a bad thing if we lose a generation of Russianists and the field starts over from ashes like the phoenix. Read on…
De-funding Title VIII Financial Aid to Russian Language Studies: a blessing in disguise?
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
The State Department’s recent decision to de-fund Title VIII financial aid to students of the Russian language and area studies (as well as related studies covering the broader area of the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) has stirred up feelings in the otherwise slumbering community of American Russianists. The Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies has issued a ‘Title VIII Alert’ on its website. Laura Adams, a leading Harvard administrator and academic adviser to the M.A. program in Russian Studies has spoken out on the russia-direct.org website in a lengthy article criticizing the cut of federal aid amounting to a mere $3.3 million in 2012 as a poorly chosen savings given the major contribution of the program to maintaining U.S. expertise in what she considers to be an important part of the world. And The Moscow Times in its 4 November edition has published a feature article bemoaning the loss of the Title VIII aid and quoting extensively from former U.S. Ambassador to Russia James Collins, who is current director of the Russian and Eurasia program at the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
These defenders of Title VIII have pointed to famous alumni of the program including current U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as arguments in favor of the effectiveness and value of grants. Of course, with a bit of detachment one might reason that the very same evidence proves conclusively why the Title VIII financial aid in the context of the anti-Russian orientation of U.S. institutions of higher learning today is NOT deserving of further funding. I will come back to that point in a moment. And in the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I was a beneficiary of the predecessor program to Title VIII in 1966 at Indiana University’s summer language program in the Soviet Union.
First, I note that well before the State Department decided to save a few dollars on Russian studies, the field had fallen victim to self-destruction. Or rather it died a second death: the first death came with the collapse of Soviet studies in the mid-1980s, a development which antedated the collapse of the Soviet Union itself and which was posthumously shown to be justified by the inability of nearly all specialists in the field to predict the demise of the USSR.
The death of Soviet studies was brilliantly explained by Stephen Cohen in a 1985 book entitled Rethinking the Soviet Experience. As Cohen remarked, the field had gone stale. It had answered to its own satisfaction everything one needed to know about the totalitarian Communist state, which was assumed to be unchangeable and not subject to reform. With no open issues, Soviet studies could no longer attract high quality students and was condemned to backbiting and recriminations among aging scholars.
In the 1990s the field of Russian studies reconstituted itself following the break-up of the Soviet Union. There was a flush of excitement as Russia opened up and rushed headlong into frenzied catch-up with a destiny from which it was derailed in 1917. Everything seemed possible at the outset and both seasoned professors and youthful aspirants taking their first steps in the Russian language and studies went over to Moscow and beyond into the regions to participate in the change and possibly to make their fortunes.
The chaos of the Yeltsin times ended in the crash of 1998, from which followed the consolidation of state power and re-establishment of many Russian traditions in a unique blend with modern features of capitalist market economies. Russian national interests on the world stage also began to assert themselves, most notably in the run-up to America’s invasion of Iraq when Russia locked arms with France and Germany in open opposition to George W. Bush. America’s final verdict on the new Russia hardened at that point and in the decade since the end of history, in Francis Fukuyama’s sense, has fully descended on the Russian Federation. We are told that under the Putin regime, autocracy has rolled back democracy and stability, or stagnation to put it less kindly, has become the highest virtue of statecraft.
Once again there are no open questions in the field. Once again the life of this vast and complex country is largely ignored and our Russian experts are following only one issue: the passion play of human rights and pro-democracy figures. There are no debates about how to deal with Russia in our foreign policy journals. We know everything we need to know. Under these circumstances, the net contribution of the field to understanding where Russia is going today and where our interests meet or compete is close to nil.
Of course, this very narrow and stultifying focus on the progress or reversal of democracy is not exclusive to Russian studies on American campuses today. A year ago educators in the field of Latin American studies complained in Foreign Affairs magazine that future American diplomats, journalists and bankers dealing with Brazil or Argentina, for example, graduate knowing very little because the syllabus is cluttered with courses on human rights.
At the same time, without any relation to Title VIII or other federal programs, major American schools of international affairs, including the SIPA at Columbia University, which was one of the founders of the area studies programs in the period immediately following WWII, have dropped language and history requirements to obtain the master’s degree.
Two interrelated developments have replaced in-depth factual knowledge about one or two regions in the international affairs programs: the decision to go global and comparative, taking the methodology of one discipline across the world instead of drilling down; and the decision to shift from concrete facts to data processing techniques, stressing the numerical skills which job recruiters for transnational corporations, banks and NGOs are seeking.
It must be borne in mind that the ‘factual knowledge’ including languages that was once the core contribution of area studies programs fit into an approach to international relations, namely Realpolitik or interests-based foreign policy, which is largely discredited in the United States today. It has been vanquished by Wilsonian idealism and values-based foreign policy. Hence, the universalist models of economic, political and social development which sit very well with the triumphalist world view that swept America when we “won” the Cold War in 1991 and which provide the content of our international affairs programs .
The de-linkage between area studies and the broad mainstream of international affairs degree programs means that area studies become more parochial and instructors may shift the focus of their courses to their own pet topics of research at the expense of providing students with a common core of basic knowledge about the history and culture of the given area. The field becomes ever less relevant to policy makers and to federal funding.
And so we seem to be headed for the situation which prevailed in the 1920s when there were still no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and no school of Russian studies worthy of the name existed. This is a situation in which George Kennan, lately so much in the public eye thanks to the authorized biography by John Gaddis, found himself when he was sent abroad to Germany to train for a career in Russia.
But given the venomous treatment of Russia by the present-day professoriate in the United States, it may not be a bad thing if we lose a generation of Russianists and the field starts over from ashes like the phoenix. May the malice of McFaul, Condy Rice and their many colleagues in our think tanks, universities and diplomatic corps be interred with their bones.
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013