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  • Anglophone Russian Studies and the German Question

In a recent contribution to H-Russia, Andreas Umland decried "an unfortunate lack of attention to the relevant German-language literature" in English-language studies. In a carefully phrased formulation, he noted that "the quality of German historical research on modern and contemporary Russia is often comparable and sometimes superior to that of the eminent Anglophone and Russian scholars." Umland also made the following observation: "An odd disparity between the Anglo- and Germanophone communities is, moreover, that as a rule, the German authors are (often, fully) aware of the English-language literature while not all Anglophone scholars read, use, and quote the relevant German studies."1

This complaint, while perhaps unusually public and direct, is hardly new. For decades, our German colleagues have patiently observed that important German studies in the field do not get the attention they deserve, in part because the Anglophone (and perhaps particularly, American) scholarly world does not place sufficient emphasis on language study. In the past half-decade, in a related but different case, a constant refrain in Kritika reviews of Russian books has been that many Russian scholars have not read or assimilated the relevant English-language or Western literature. Such criticisms, of course, are driven by the reasonable expectation that greater familiarity can alter conceptual frameworks and affect empirical conclusions. One perhaps should not also exclude a certain element of wounded pride--how could they not recognize or even know how important our studies are?

The "German question" turns the tables on English-speaking specialists who skewer Russians for their inability sufficiently to incorporate "Western" literature. While the contexts (American and Russian academic and intellectual life) are very different, underlying both situations is the issue of linguistic competence. Just as there are obvious historical reasons why some Russian historians, especially those of the older generation, cannot read these lines, [End Page 455] there are also certain mitigating circumstances behind the disparity Umland notes. For example, knowledge of English in German society and the lower rungs of the German educational system is far easier to acquire than a good knowledge of German in the English-speaking world. Anglophone scholars are increasingly faced with the challenges of mastering Russian and, given the direction of historical investigation, other "Eurasian" languages while also paying attention to the principal European languages in which scholarship is conducted in the field--German and French, not to mention Italian. This "double burden" on the language front must be shouldered even as pressure to reduce the length of doctoral studies increases. As Umland implicitly recognizes, the case for the necessity of such labor is at least partly related to judgments about the quality of the work produced.

It is perhaps unnecessary to belabor the point that the quality and breadth of the German research effort in Russian and Eurasian studies makes a high level of proficiency (and not just an ability to barely pass a reading test in graduate school) a necessity and not merely a luxury for Anglophone scholars. Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that wider German historical thought has had a strong influence on our thinking about European history in general, which, of course, includes Russia. Partly this is because major German works in European and modern German history are not infrequently translated into English (even though Anglophone academics in German studies presumably read German well). By the same token, Russian-language books on Russian history are translated into English far more than German studies, although Anglophone scholars are on shakier linguistic ground in the latter case. Why more German books in Russian and Eurasian history do not get translated, however, has much to do with the very different styles (and sizes) in which academic research is packaged, and their accessibility and attractiveness as they are transferred from a state-supported to a highly market-driven academic system. What begins as a discussion of linguistic capabilities quickly broadens into the large and complicated problem of academic institutions and cultures.

When we launched Kritika in 2000, one of our goals for the journal was to review works in Russian and other languages rarely if ever reviewed in North American journals. By now it...


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pp. 455-459
Launched on MUSE
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