The Carnegie Corporation is striving to catalyze a revival in the study of Russia, giving three grants worth $1 million each to three American universities. The gifts come at a time of rising US-Russian tension and a general decline in Russian and Eurasian studies in the United States.
The three recipients are Columbia University, Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The grants will be distributed over a two-year period.
“Once a robust field, it [Russian studies] has atrophied over years of neglect and underfunding,” Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, said in a statement. “We see today that, as in the past, Russia remains an important player on the global stage. I hope that our initiative will contribute to providing high-level US expertise on Russia.”
The Carnegie grants are a response to a 2015 report it commissioned on the state of Russian studies at US universities. The central finding of the report, which was prepared by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), was that although American scholars are currently capable of producing “strong” research, “there are major causes for concern” for the intermediate and long term.
“Russian studies within the social sciences are facing a crisis: an unmistakable decline in interest and numbers, in terms of both graduate students and faculty,” the report stated.
The report called attention to a general academic trend in which resources for area studies, including Russian and Eurasian studies, have fallen.
“Political science has moved away from emphasizing expertise in particular regions toward more training in formal theory, sophisticated methodology, and comparative studies,” the ASEEES report stated. This trend, if it continues, “threatens to vitiate the ranks of social scientists studying Russia in the medium to long term,” it added.
Lynda Park, the executive director of ASEEES, characterized the Carnegie grants as a “major infusion” of resources, capable of promoting a turn-around. ”Such a significant commitment from an eminent institution like the Carnegie Corporation sends a signal to the US academic community at large that Russian studies is an essential field,” said Park.
Representatives of the recipient universities said the grants will provide for the hiring of faculty with Russian-area expertise, expanded course offerings and programming, increased support for graduate students and post-doctoral scholars, as well as new exchange and research opportunities.
At Indiana, the Carnegie grant will enable the launch of a Russian Studies Workshop within the university’s Russian and East European Institute, said Regina Smyth, a political science professor who is a co-administrator of the Carnegie grant there. The workshop will be designed to make Russian studies more nimble, helping scholars keep up with the fast pace of change, Smyth said.
“In the post-Cold War era, both the nature of Russian politics and the ways in which universities organize research and training have profoundly changed,” Smyth told EurasiaNet.org in an email interview. “This funding will allow us to address the challenges that have emerged since the end of the Soviet Union, and leverage developments such as technological advances and opportunities to collaborate with Russian-trained scholars.”
Scholars beyond the recipient universities will be able to benefit from the Carnegie gifts, said Alex Cooley, the director of Harriman Institute, which will oversee the grant to Columbia. A portion of the Carnegie funds will be used to “convene Russia-related seminars and discussions among the New York City-wide university community,” he noted.
Cooley said the Carnegie grants are an “important step” in promoting a revival of Russian studies. But he indicated that greater emphasis on practical experience is needed.
“We also need to give American graduate students the tools and training – language training, opportunities for internships and site visits, contacts among Russian peers and institutions – to understand and engage with Russia,” Cooley said.
The ASEEES report noted that the decline in government support is “a serious issue.” A variety of federal programs have curtailed money available for Russian studies. “With shrinking state support everywhere, public universities are especially vulnerable,” the report cautioned.
Sarah Phillips – the director of the Russian and East European Institute at Indiana, and co-administrator of the Carnegie grant there – indicated that the Institute is working to secure additional support to ensure the Russian Studies Workshop’s long-term operations. “We want to build a sustainable program that will live long beyond the two-year tenure of the generous Carnegie grant,” Phillips said.
Russia’s aggressive posturing on the global stage in recent years, along with its efforts to project its political and cultural influence, are acting as a natural stimulant for Russian studies in the United States.
“Conflict tends to promote a scramble for greater understanding, and since the Ukraine conflict we see, once again, how the deterioration in US-Russia relations has been accompanied by a broad consensus that we need greater understanding and expertise,” said Cooley, the Harriman Institute director.
Research and policy-making concerning Russia would be enhanced by steadier US government assistance, Cooley added.
“The USG needs to adopt, and communicate, a more strategic approach about the importance of Russia and Russia studies,” he said. “Rather than lurch from crisis to crisis, we need to realize that a relatively small investment to establish a new network of scholars and professionals will better equip us to more effectively engage with Russia over the long term.”
Park echoed those sentiments, stressing that Russia is expected to remain a global player for the foreseeable future. “Whether friend or foe, Russia’s future is very much tied to the US’s, and we need to have the experts to navigate the path forward,” she said.
EurasiaNet.org is hosted by Columbia's Harriman Institute.