Russian Studies is Thriving, not Dying

People stand on the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge, with the headquarters of Russian Foreign Ministry, the Kremlin towers and the Moscow International Business Center also known as "Moskva-City", seen in the background, in central Moscow, Russia

At least in Political Science, Russian studies is alive and well.

The APSR is not an exception. Look at recent issues of The Journal of Politics, World Politics, The British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Politics, and Post-Soviet Affairs, the journal I edit, and you will find innovative research on Russia on topics ranging from whether Putin’s approval ratings are real to the impact of social media on protest. And this is before we consider the many excellent academic books on Russia that have been published in recent years. Much of this work comes from a new generation of scholars trained after the fall of the Soviet Union and much of this work is done by scholars from Russia themselves. In many respects the study of Russia has become far more mainstream in Political Science than at any time since in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Critics point out that fewer students are taking Russian language courses. Bershidsky notes that “According to the Modern Language Association, about a third fewer U.S. college students took Russian language courses in 2013 than in 1960.” True enough.

But more students enter undergraduate and graduate programs already having Russian language skills. Of the nine graduate students I’ve advised at Columbia in the last decade who work on Russia, four are Russian citizens. And similar ratios likely hold for my colleagues at other Ph.D. granting institutions. The many excellent political scientists writing on Russia have little need for Russian language classes.

The data are harder to come by, but it is my impression that undergraduate populations today contain far more Russian citizens and heritage speakers whose parents left the former Soviet Union than in the past. If having a Russian in your Russian politics class was an oddity in the past, it is almost a given today at many universities.

Critics also point to deep cuts in funding for research and training. True as well. But the situation is not completely bleak. Last year, the Carnegie Corporation rewarded Russian studies programs at Columbia, Indiana and the University of Wisconsin-Madison with large grants to support graduate research on Russia.

There are many reasons for the all too simplistic treatments found in much popular discourse about Russia from the sheer difficulty of studying a country as opaque and complex as Russia, to a hyper-polarized media and political environment that rewards exaggeration and simplification, to the failure of academics to translate their work to a broader audience.

Certainly the academic study of Russia faces many challenges and we can use more experts in the field, particularly in the study of foreign policy. But the lack of nuance in public discourse about Russia is not rooted in the low quality of academic research in Russian studies. At least in Political Science, Russian studies is alive and well.

Timothy Frye is Chair of the Department of Political Science and the Marshall Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Politics at Columbia University.

Image: Reuters

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