Among the casualties of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine are Russian studies programs at universities across the United States where scholars are losing access, funding and interest in gaining the expertise needed to guide U.S. foreign policy in the future.
“The full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Russia launched on February 24, 2022, has precipitated by far the most significant crisis in Russian studies since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” a University of Wisconsin professor’s nationwide study warns of a war that has hit the academic field “like a tsunami.”
In The Impact of War and Decolonization on Russian Studies in the United States, Prof. Theodore P. Gerber, director of the Wisconsin Russia Project, details the twin forces of a sharply deteriorated U.S.-Russia relationship and Putin’s domestic crackdowns on dissent and academic freedom.
Gerber presented his findings at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C. this week, citing 89% of 430 respondents—think-tank researchers, university professors, political scientists and graduate students— assessing the war as having a “very negative” impact on their studies and access to information necessary to conduct research.
Within Russia, the invasion of Ukraine has been followed by massive repression of dissent, a devastating exodus of scholars and other highly educated professionals, and a retreat into a world defined by state propaganda, with economic, educational, and cultural ties to the West all but completely severed, Gerber writes in his conclusions.
The obstacles and disincentives to pursue advanced degrees in Russian studies are being felt as well at the University of Washington’s Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies.
“Many of us in the field are watching closely for how the war is affecting public sentiment toward Russian/post-Soviet studies,” Prof. Scott Radnitz, director of the Ellison Center, replied to this writer’s inquiries. “It is too soon to assess whether student interest has changed, as we have had only one round of applications for our MA program, and it’s hard to distinguish a single year from a general trend.”
Radnitz and Gerber both note that the war has put Russia in the international media spotlight in a way that tends to generate at least short-term interest among students, even if that interest is triggered by revulsion.
Gerber, in his exchange with scholars at the Wilson Center on Monday, said Russia is “historically of interest at times when it is perceived as a problem.” Putin’s brutal invasion “has appalled people who have spent their lives and careers studying a country that now has full pariah status.”
Even before the invasion of Ukraine 20 months ago, Gerber said, Russian studies at U.S. universities and think tanks suffered falling enrollment, declining research by doctoral candidates, a lack of employment opportunities for PhDs and increasing numbers of academics having “drifted away” from Russia as a topic of research in the later years of their careers.
At the Ellison Center, scholars’ lack of access to Russia and Ukraine due to the dangers of war and anti-Western hostility has led to many PhD students in history, political science and other fields having their dissertation topics derailed, Radnitz said.
“They may have to choose another country or rely solely on archives abroad,” Radnitz said “Increasingly, political scientists are using social media data for their research, which is no substitute for actually being there.”
Gerber was asked to speculate on the prospects for renewed academic interest in Russia if Putin is defeated or, conversely, if Russia wins its war in Ukraine or remains bogged down in an offensive that has been in virtual stalemate for more than a year.
Neither scenario is likely to lead to any easing of tensions between the Kremlin and the U.S.-led Western and Asian-Pacific alliances that have condemned the unprovoked Russian aggression on a sovereign neighbor, he said. “Russia is not going to evolve into a liberal democracy.”
The extensive survey sent to dozens of institutions of higher education found decline especially in Russian language study, reflecting a reluctance of younger students to undertake the challenging quest for mastery of the complex language at a time when Russia is seen as a diminished global power. Students of international affairs may be more likely to look to languages and historical perspective on China or the Middle East where U.S. relations and policy are more dynamic, Radnitz said.
Relations between the U.S. and Russian governments which “had already plunged into a post-1991 nadir by Russia’s seizure of territory in Ukraine in 2014, continued to deteriorate, making cross-national travel and scholarly collaborations more difficult and limiting the ability of U.S.-based scholars to conduct fieldwork and access data from Russia,” Gerber noted.
Enrollment in Russian studies weathered the COVID-19 pandemic fairly well, Gerber said, thanks to the proliferation of online teaching and in spite of the near-total inability of American academics to travel to Russia.
Gerber, the lead researcher and writer of the nine-month Wisconsin research project, expressed concern for the academic decline failing to produce the foreign policy experts and diplomats needed to inform government leaders in the future.
One potential positive in the lost stature of Russia as the focus of study, he said, was a new emphasis on “decolonization” of Russian studies, meaning a shift to a more diverse assessment of Eurasia—the continental merging of Eastern Europe and Central Asia that has long been researched and analyzed through the lens of the Russian government and population.
Eurasia, Gerber said, is just a label affixed on the territory of the former Soviet Union and unlikely to shift study from a Moscow perspective to the little-known countries between Russia and China or Russia and the Balkans and the Middle East.
One respondent to the Wisconsin survey expressed disdain for the idea of diverting resources from Russian studies to the remote countries and peoples of Central Asia.
“Russia can destroy us in a matter of hours. Kyrgyzstan cannot,” the academic wrote in his survey response. “Why should I care about Kyrgyzstan?”