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Getting Russia Wrong

Published: April 10, 2014 (Issue # 1805)


A lead article in the March 7 New York Times argued that the U.S. failure to predict Putin's actions in Crimea is due in part to a dearth of experts in Russian politics. Since the end of the Cold War, political scientists have deserted Russian studies, and a new generation of specialists has not emerged to replace their Cold War predecessors.

There is some truth to that argument. Only three out of the eight Ivy League universities have appointed a tenured professor in Russian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and none of them has appointed a Russia expert in economics or sociology. There is a similar situation in Germany. While there are 43 professors of Russian or East European history, there are only three professors of Russian politics, and one each in economics and sociology.

But that is only part of the story. In fact, there are plenty of Russia specialists out there in U.S. academia. There are even some former Sovietologists still at their desks, including yours truly. At the same time, however, there is also a new generation of young experts who are extremely well informed about contemporary Russian politics — better informed than their Cold War predecessors because they have more opportunity to travel there and conduct research and because they can draw on the findings of new Russian scholarship.

The problem is that this academic expertise is not being tapped by the mass media, nor by government agencies for that matter. The few exceptions would include Michael McFaul, who before serving as the U.S. ambassador to Russia was President Barack Obama's top adviser on Russia, or Celeste Wallander, now serving on the National Security Council.

Academics who try to portray Russia in a more nuanced way — that is, beyond the primitive, good-versus-evil binary — have a hard time getting their point across. Take my own case, for example. In my 30-year career as a Russia specialist in the U.S., I have managed to publish an opinion piece in The New York Times or International Herald Tribune three times. One was on the Islamic insurgency in Mali, a second was on the chances for an Arab Spring in China, and the third was on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I am not an academic expert on Mali, China, Armenia or Azerbaijan, and I do not speak the languages of those countries. But on the topic in which I am actually proficient, Russia, I have never once been published in The New York Times — and it is not for lack of trying, I assure you.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Wednesday, Nov. 26


AmCham’s Public Relations Committee will meet this afternoon in their office in the New St. Isaac’s Office Center on Ulitsa Yakubovicha at 4 p.m.


Zoosphere, an international exhibition focusing on the pet industry, opens today at the Lenexpo convention center on Vasilievsky Island. Not only will items such as toys, terrariums and accessories be available for purchase, but animal enthusiasts can also learn about the latest in veterinary medicine and behavioral training thanks to the conferences and presentations that are part of the event.



Thursday, Nov. 27


The Customs and Transportation Committee for AmCham meets this morning at 9 a.m. in their office on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.


Tickets are still available for local KHL team SKA St. Petersburg’s showdown with Siberian club Metallurg Novokuznetsk tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Ice Palace outside the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. Tickets can be purchased on the team’s website, at the arena box office or in their merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.


Celebrate one of Russian literature’s most tragic figures during Blok Days, a two-day celebration of the 134th anniversary of the poet’s birthday. The tragic tenor’s work, which led to writer Maxim Gorky to hail him as Russia’s greatest living poet before his death in 1921, will be recited and meetings and discussions about his contributions to the Silver Age of literature in St. Petersburg will be discussed in the confines of his former residence.



Friday, Nov. 28


Join table game aficionados at the British Book Center’s Board Game Evening. Held every Friday at 5 p.m., aficionados and amateurs alike can come take part in a variety of different games that test one’s intellect and cunning.



Saturday, Nov. 29


Cats, dogs, birds, rodents and reptiles are just some of the things that will walk and crawl at Lenexpo convention center this weekend as part of Zooshow, a two-day exhibition featuring not only man’s best friends but a four-legged fashion show, as well as a food fair that will help pet owners find out more about which kibbles are best for their hungry pets.



Sunday, Nov. 30


Remember the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 during today’s reenactment titled “Winter War: How it Was.” More than 200 people will take part in recreating the opening salvoes of the battle for the north in Kamenka, a small village situated between Vyborg and St. Petersburg, using authentic equipment and vintage vehicles from the era. The faux battle begins at 2 p.m.



Monday, Dec. 1


Serbia filmmaker Emir Kusturica is the featured guest this evening at the Lensovet Palace of Culture the Petrograd Side. Fans of the director will get the chance to watch his movie “Black Cat, White Cat,” as well as ask questions about his award-winning filmography. Tickets for the event, which starts at 7 p.m., start at 2,000 rubles ($42.50).



Tuesday, Dec. 2


Today is the final day of “Takoy Festival,” a three-week program of plays based on the works of Dostoevsky, Remarque and other famed European writers, whose work is transcribed for theatrical performances. Tonight’s festival finale is “Fathers and Sons,” a two-act drama staged by the Novosibirsk Academic Drama Theater based on Turgenev’s classic about familial relations.



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