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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