Russia’s undue influence on Western scholars and scholarship
On 19 May 2023 the Russian government announced “personal sanctions” against 500 “American citizens,” including a ban from entry into the Russian Federation. Several friends promptly informed me, some with condolences and others with congratulatory notes, that I was among the handful of American university professors blacklisted by Moscow. (Strictly speaking, like some others on the list, I am not an American citizen but a US “resident alien.”) We join a small number of our colleagues who were sanctioned earlier, in 2022.
Having examined the blacklist, Anders Åslund noted that among them are a large number of members of think tanks, and he adds, “Surprisingly, few university professors have been included. Does the Kremlin think that it has successfully muffled them? What do those intellectuals not sanctioned have to say in their defense?” On the one hand, Åslund is perhaps unfair to the scholarly community: universities are not think tanks, and academics do not necessarily engage in current political affairs. On the other hand, it is hard to ignore the fact that few Russianists were sanctioned, while most of those who were banned are Ukrainianists. Regardless, Moscow’s sanctions on certain individual scholars do afford an important opportunity for our scholarly community to confront uncomfortable issues that it has largely failed to address.
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For those of us who have devoted years to the study of Eastern Europe and non-Russian regions of the former Soviet Union, it appears rather odd that only now does the field of Russian studies speak of “decolonizing” the discipline. It is never too late, of course, but this only emphasizes both the complacency with which the field has operated until now and the persistent imperialist outlook that Russia and the Soviet Union have imposed on the discipline over the last century. The field has too long been sanguine about the imperialist and Russocentric views of such Russian literary luminaries as Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and even Joseph Brodsky. In historical studies, as I have noted elsewhere, as late as 2000 the hugely popular Russian history textbook by Nicholas Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, published by Oxford University Press, calls Kyiv-Rus’ “Kievan Russia.” Almost all textbooks still use such expressions as “Peter the Great” and “Catherine the Great.” It appears that the field has consciously or unconsciously swallowed whole Russian imperialist propaganda without even being aware of the biases and falsehoods in its narrative. There is every reason to believe that Moscow has been happy with this state of scholarship.
In the wake of the war unleashed against Ukraine in February 2022, many academic institutions publicly denounced Russia. This only serves to highlight the inconvenient fact that very few did so in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and opened a camouflaged war against Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas. As the author of one of the few Western scholarly books on the Donbas, I find myself obliged to bring to bear my historical analyses on the current situation in Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, having been placed on the list of the banned, I cannot help but wonder whether my recent book on Stalin’s secret wars of subversion, camouflage, and disinformation in China and Japan has possibly struck a nerve in Moscow.
Of course, I regret not being able to work in the Russian archives and to visit friends and colleagues there any more. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend there and for the exchanges I had with Russian scholars in the past. I readily admit that access to Russian archives and Russian experts has been critical to my work. At the same time, in the current situation few of us would dare to travel to Russia. Nor can we expect to reap much reward anymore from the Russian archives and libraries and experts. That being so, it seems a good time to reflect on our work in Russia and Ukraine over the past three decades, since the opening up of formerly closed archives in the 1990s.
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Take the example of the Soviet dictator Iosif V. Stalin and his era, which I have studied throughout my professional life. Much has been written on him, and more will be. Yet we still know precious little about many aspects of his policies. Some documents were destroyed or never kept. Much of Stalin’s policy was likely never put on paper. Numerous relevant documents are still kept under a tight seal in the former Communist Party Archive, the Presidential Archive, military archives, archives of the Foreign Ministry and Federal Security Services, and elsewhere. Even the “open” files of Stalin and the Politburo in the former party archive have numerous pages that are still classified. Moreover, there is evidence that in fear of unauthorized or accidental access, the Russian government has removed some sensitive files from Moscow to distant locations not easily accessible by any researcher or archivist. Although some classified documents may prove to be not so significant, one can safely assume that many of them are, and that that is why Moscow keeps them secret.
In this regard we ought to take seriously Åslund’s trenchant remarks quoted above. To illustrate, in a book published in 2014 by a distinguished university press, Western scholars of Stalin take his speeches and writings at face value, claiming that in the interwar period it was “rather simple” for foreign countries to organize “subversive activity” in the Soviet Union and that recruiting “spies and saboteurs” was also “easy” for them. Providing profuse citations of Soviet archival documents but citing not a single example of such alleged spies and saboteurs, the book speaks of the “widespread infiltration” of the Soviet Union by “enemy agents.” This seems to justify Stalin’s “fears” of foreign spies, and in doing so implicitly legitimates Stalin’s Great Terror. However, this is pure Soviet propaganda, and if granting selective access to former Soviet archives has led Western specialists to this sort of conclusion about Stalin, then Moscow could not be happier. I published a critical review of the book at the time. I am not aware of other, equally critical reviews. It is difficult to understand the puzzling lack of a principled rebuff by the profession. This is merely one example. It reflects the unfortunate state of scholarship on Soviet history.
Although books published during the Cold War got Stalin wrong in many respects, scholars seemed in general to be more aware of the limitations of their grasp of the subject, principally because there was no meaningful scope of access to the Soviet archives. Paradoxically, greater access to the archives seems to have led—to use Natalie Z. Davies’ famous epithet—to “fiction in the archives,” namely, a naive repetition of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda.
True, we have to acknowledge that the new archival era in Russia in the 1990s contributed to the elucidation of not a few dark episodes of Soviet history by both Russian and Western scholars as well as, more generally, to a better understanding of Soviet history. Ukrainian studies has certainly benefited from greater access to the archives in Russia. Yet now, as before, many scholars privately express fear of being denied entry visas to Russia and publicly speak of Russian “visa support” as if it were a prize. Scholars from the free world are prone to fall, wittingly or unwittingly, into traps that Moscow has deliberately set up. Moscow believes that Western scholars are easily influenced and manipulated through “soft power” (including access to people, documents, and lavish treatment). Recently, Pavel Ivlev openly cautioned of this danger. The same can be said of Beijing. If we scholars—as critically minded individuals who enjoy the privilege of academic freedom and often lifetime employment as well—prove to be so vulnerable, one has to wonder what our raison d’etre is.
This depressing state of affairs reflects the parochial insularity of Russian studies in general. Those who have worked in Ukraine, the other former Soviet republics, and Eastern Europe generally are better placed, because they can view Russia from different perspectives and their access to the archives in these countries has been far greater and less restrictive than in Russia. Their contributions to Russian and Soviet studies are likewise more significant than is usually acknowledged. For them, today’s call for “decolonization in Russian studies” is long overdue.
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For the foreseeable future, at least, the forecast for Russian and Soviet studies in the West seems bleak. Meanwhile Ukrainian studies, notwithstanding the war, are far better placed. All the same, without freer access to the archives of the empire, our scholarship will suffer.
Scholars can work around this to some extent by exploring archives in the West as well as those in former Soviet Bloc countries such as Poland and Bulgaria. For instance, after years of searching for many documents in Russia, I found copies of some of them in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. A few years ago, in Taipei (Taiwan) I found two original letters that Stalin had written to Chang Kaishek in 1939 and 1941, whose copies in Moscow have been kept hidden. I published them in the original language for the benefit of all scholars (including Russian ones).No one knows how and when Russia’s war against Ukraine will end. Regardless, I would tend to agree with Sergei Radchenko, a historian originally from Russia and now teaching in the United States, who wrote in May 2022: “Why Russia needs to be humiliated in Ukraine: Too little was learnt from the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Although this remark may sound insulting to Russians, in fact it is not. Every normal nation experiences humiliation. China constantly speaks of its historical humiliation at Western and Japanese hands. Those who saw the chaotic scenes of Saigon in 1975 know the humiliation the United States suffered in Vietnam. Russia claims its own humiliation in 1991—parroting President Putin’s line that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century—conveniently forgetting that Russia actually wanted to be free of the Soviet Union at the time. Stomaching humiliation and starting over demands political courage; ignoring its lessons and blaming others for the humiliation is easy but dangerous. Russia’s war against Ukraine demonstrates just such a lack of courage among Russian politicians. Russia’s unqualified defeat may ultimately be the best outcome not just for Ukraine but also for the future of the Russian Federation and Russians themselves. The same might be said for the future of the academic fields of Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet studies.