restricted access 11. The Ironies of the Iron Curtain: The Cold War and the Rise of Russian Studies
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314 11 The Ironies of the Iron Curtain The Cold War and the Rise of Russian Studies David C. Engerman The many critics of American Sovietology portray it as an academic discipline with deep, even fundamental flaws. Born in “the worst years of the cold war,” these critics argue, the field came into being to serve geopolitical goals. From its first days, Sovietology gave into pressures that made “usable scholarship . . . in America’s national interest” more important than “detached academic pursuits.” The “overconcentration on ‘applied scholarship’ to the detriment of straight academic topics” was “regrettable”; it led to a “neglect of social and cultural trends.” A common explanatory strategy is to follow the money: critics blame support from governmental and philanthropic sources for creating a field that was “ideological” in its very structure. “Capillary lines of state power” crisscrossed Sovietology and area studies more generally. The funders called on universities to “produce a large supply of skilled specialists for public service and private business.” This focus on training, in turn, limited the disciplines involved; knowledge of “the cold war enemy” required only social scientists and rendered humanistic fields “invisible.” Accusations of the field’s political biases are ubiquitous; scholars engaged in “self-censorship”; a “feverish atmosphere” of “anti-Communist purge” excluded unorthodox views and scholars. These factors shaped the field’s output, enforcing an intellectual consensus about the “uniqueness of the Soviet regime” rooted in analogies to Russia’s past.1 There is a strong prima facie case for the indictment of Russian studies as a creature of the cold war.2 Few areas of American academic life experienced a more rapid and thorough transformation than Russian studies did in the two decades after World War II. Before the war only a handful of isolated scholars, many self-declared cranks and misfits, devoted themselves to the study of things Russian. Only a few works from this era were of lasting value, and those came primarily from journalists and participants in left-wing political disputes.3 By 1965 the field was booming: more than two dozen uni- The Ironies of the Iron Curtain 315 versities had Soviet or East European area centers; more than three thousand scholars who identified their principal interest as Slavic or Soviet belonged to Slavic-oriented professional associations and read numerous journals devoted to Russian affairs; students of Russian language numbered in the tens of thousands. The expansion of Soviet studies in an era of heightened AmericanSoviet tensions has led many observers to attribute the field’s primary purpose to “knowing the enemy.” Yet conceiving of Russian or Soviet studies as a cold war enterprise yields at least three important ironies. First, though the original conception of Sovietology placed political science, economics, and the emergent field of behavioral sciences at its center, humanists—scholars of history, literature, and language—benefited as much as (if not more than) their social scientific colleagues . Second, though the field may have attracted attention for its role in analyzing the actions of a cold war adversary so different from the United States, intellectual trends within the field were just as likely to promote the inclusion of Russia alongside western Europe and the United States. Finally, though critics place Soviet studies at the center of cold war conformism, its practitioners, especially in its early years, brought an impressive array of political views to the topic. These ironies are readily explained if the field’s World War II origins are considered. Important organizational work for postwar Russian studies centers took place during the war against Germany, not the cold war against the USSR. America’s Soviet experts in the 1940s typically saw the Soviet Union as an unreliable ally, not an implacable foe. The dynamics of grant funding also played a role. Though foundations and government supporters may have had their own aims for the field of Sovietology, scholars molded Russian studies programs to reflect their values and institutions. For both these reasons Russian studies was never simply an extension of government, even if its agencies had their hands in the formation of the field. In identifying and explaining these ironies, I do not mean to suggest that national security concerns had no role, or that no political dissenters suffered—only that these two tropes should not be allowed to crowd out other aspects of the field’s evolution. The Cold War and the Growth of Slavic Humanities Sovietology’s critics and fans alike noted the field’s contributions to national security and its...


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Subject Headings

  • Learned institutions and societies -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Learning and scholarship -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Multicultural education -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Demography -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Humanities -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- United States.
  • Education -- Demographic aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Humanities -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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