From the personal archives of a Russianist, installment sixteen

Soviet-Russian Studies in terminal decline.  Fly on the wall observations at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the International Research and Exchanges Board, Washington, D.C.

Papers from the IREX conference, 10-13 May 1979 “Conference on Scholarly Exchanges with the USSR and Eastern Europe: Two Decades of American Experience”

Venue:  Washington, D.C. – at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University

“…it is an appropriate occasion to examine critically the ways in which these exchanges have served, and can serve, the interests and needs of concerned Americans, including academic experts and policy-makers in government, business and the media.”

Attendance limited to 100 participants.

“A comprehensive review of what American researchers in Eastern Europe and the USSR have produced to date is made even more urgent by the current public interest in the present complexities of East-West relations, the pros and cons of SALT and our new contacts with the People’s Republic of China. In the 1950s we were able to study and analyze the USSR and Eastern Europe only from a distance.  Today, however, over 1000 American exchange alumni have lived and conducted research in these difficult societies for extended periods. They teach in our leading research universities and colleges, and work in business, law, journalism and government. They command the languages of the area and have a sophisticated understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet bloc countries.

[note – among the panelists are Edward Keenan, Stephen Cohen, Istvan Deak]

Diary Notes

Thursday, 10 May 1979

Trip to Washington, DC for IREX  20th year anniversary gathering

Lunch with Soviet deputy consul designate Kulenkov. Excellent rapport, shows interest in helping to arrange meetings with Arbatov, Demichev and others. Invites us to lunch at consulate on Monday – he had traveled with Nixon party in 1972, knows and respects Gleistein – when he was consul in Leningrad. Knows Bob Barry.

At the IREX reception meet Gene Milosh, Operations Director at the US-Soviet Trade Council, who looks somewhat lost. Also Ivo Lederer, who is now with IREX in its corporate fund-raising effort.  Sit down to dinner with Dan Matuszewski, who is genial and kind, semi-interested in what I am doing.

The after-dinner speech by Senator Church is rather empty – his speech writers have disturbing leaning towards evocative and emotional language topped off by alliteration – all is more colorful than important. Sonnenfeldt pours over his copy of the address as if awaiting meat for his cleaver – later he spurns my greeting – he has not moved very far from academic boorishness.

Briefly chat with Carl Marcy of East West Accord, who does ask about the progress of my article for their “Common Sense in US-Soviet Trade.” Says he expects a capacity attendance Monday for the opening of his film showing Survival or…Suicide. His own approaches to Mondale were unsuccessful, however Ted Kennedy jumped at the invitation. Harriman will also most likely come.

After dinner I engage John Chambers of SATRA in chat – he heads corporate lobbying work here in DC – not only for the Department of Commerce but also for tax, import-export, EPA and other government agencies connected with SATRA work. Major project for the company now is the LADA.  Chambers own background: graduate of the Naval Academy, 10 years in the service, then IBM early in the 70s, then to SATRA. Specialty is technology transfers.

Note: snub by Helmut Sonnenfeldt. When I approach him outside the hotel after the Church speech to introduce myself as a sometimes correspondent with him during the past year, he smiles wanly, then walks away.

Friday, 11 May 1979

Morning address by McGeorge Bundy (Ford Foundation chairman) opens by caveat that he has not prepared a ‘major address’ and he then proceeds to demonstrate this by a rambling and hastily prepared talk in praise of the exchange, choosing to ignore any doubts about the value of the scholarship produced. It is merely congratulatory, all-in-the-family talk, with only a mild warning that however meritorious any one project like IREX may be, Ford, like other foundations, is duty-bound to move on to other challenges and therefore IREX must find other sponsors. Lackluster and unworthy of his intellect. Rather frivolous comments about how Merle Fainsod, the father of Harvard’s Russian Research Center, got his start by a visit to Russia on his honeymoon – through real contact.

First panel leads off with Robert Legvold, Columbia assistant professor of 35, former student of Marshall Shulman whom I saw as a fat slob at the RRC, now also serving as project director of the Council of Foreign Relations. Shulman introduces Legvold as exceptional within his generation, a ‘leader in the field,’ etc. Also on the panel: Fred Starr; Bill Odom, military adviser to Brzezinski. Legvold ably summarizes points in his paper which are that the US study of Soviet foreign policy has been declining over the last few years while Soviet studies of the US have greatly expanded and while sources for field study have at long last become available.

Odom notes that Legvold has failed to consider reasons for the phenomenon he has so ably described – can there be a tie between declining study of Soviet foreign policy and détente?  Can it be that we may not need all the gaps in our knowledge filled, on the basis of Henry Roberts’ idea that absence of study on a topic is not itself justification for studying it.  He then asks if field study indeed is worthwhile in the USSR – after all the scholar easily becomes attracted to his subject and maybe towards tendency to see discontinuity when indeed continuity is dominant. Also what is the value of meeting with the Institute of the USA people and others who may know the USA well but have a weak knowledge of their own country and when asked to comment on it will be no more informative than Pravda.  

Legvold counters that the field study may at least enable one to be more discriminating when reading Soviet commentary – to know who is authoritative and who is not on the USSR side; also that he had had in mind not the ‘two week wonder’ but long term contacts with a select group of people.

Other panelist Shulman notes that Soviet written sources tend to be misleading because they are far more stereotyped and cautious than the spoken word; Soviet officials are wary of making any unorthodox commitments on paper lest the times change and they will be compromised.  Several people in the audience raise questions of why one should expect young people to go into the field when obstacles are so steep and rewards so dismal given the present job market. 

Legvold insists that jobs exist for those trained in Soviet foreign policy but that the people are lacking. However, he admits he has in mind a total of several dozen openings for the whole country – and what kind of profession is that?  Otherwise the talk of job crisis is cut off early by senior people, who direct attention to using more effectively the trained human resources already in the field.  Fred Starr insists that the cadres are there – in the fully trained historians who are ready at any time to apply their talents to foreign policy.

The point is that these senior administrators wish to write off completely graduate students and junior faculty and to take unto themselves what little money remains in the field.

Note the appearance of Byrnes, granddaddy in the field, who strikes out at the generally self-congratulatory air of his colleagues and says sharply that the growing American awareness of Russia is due more to the journalistic community than to those present. He cites Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” as having been more widely read and had greater influence than all of the scholarly works put together.  

I find especially distasteful the pompous self-esteem of these administrators.  Indeed all scholars present are here not for their publications but for their administrative positions.  Saying that they are the salt of the earth who made it all possible.  These ‘one book’ professors who say that their failure to publish is a measure of their self-sacrifice in devoting themselves to the critical administration and fund-raising work.  All quite disgusting.  And Ned Keenan fits the script perfectly.  Had I gone into teaching, as a ‘parish priest’, I would scarcely find myself in their company today.  The Survivors are most pitiful and unattractive lot, whose sanctimonious behavior covers a moral vacuum.


Robert Byrnes- long time professor at Indiana University, widely published, formerly served for several years in the CIA

Fred Starr – at the time still directing the Kennan Institute in Washington; soon to take up the position of President of Tulane University. While still at Princeton, in 1975 had been on the jury at my dissertation defense.

Robert Barry – Consul at the American Consulate in Leningrad in 1972 and witness to my marriage there. Eventually left the State Department to take up a management position in Voice of America.

Robert Legvold – remained at Columbia as tenured professor;  till he recently stepped down, Legvold was for twenty years the book reviewer of Foreign Affairs magazine in their Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Republics section, thereby exercising a significant influence across the profession.

Bill Odom – his remarks highly critical of the field experience in the USSR, meaning critical of IREX’s basic mission, are important given his position serving Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Ad visor. In the summer of 1978, apart from cancellation of several major export licenses, the Carter administration announced it was considering curtailment of educational exchanges with the USSR as its response to the harsh sentence meted out to the dissident Sharansky.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

One thought on “From the personal archives of a Russianist, installment sixteen

  1. “Legvold ably summarizes points in his paper which are that the US study of Soviet foreign policy has been declining over the last few years while Soviet studies of the US have greatly expanded and while sources for field study have at long last become available. ”

    If that was the case in 1979, the situation is 10 times more asymmetrical today. Note the depth of coverage by Russian outlets (RT) of American affairs — their reporting is so widely informed that RT seems to have better realtime coverage of events in America (especially cyberspace and the Twitterverse) than any major American outlet has of their own country and cyberspace. Meanwhile all mainstream American outlets are still stuck in the 90’s, clueless about where the real action is happening on social media, all the while terribly under-informed about developments in the ex-Soviet space.


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