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  • A Child, Not a Tool, of the Cold War
  • Vladimir Kontorovich (bio)
David Engerman, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts. ix + 459 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0195324860. $34.95.

American Sovietology did not evolve out of converging interests of individual researchers, as academic fields usually do. It was centrally planned by the functionaries of large foundations, government officials, and a few university administrators whose motives are reflected in the title of this book. This unusual history contains valuable lessons for the use of the social sciences for current and future national security needs and for science policy generally.

So far, there has been little rush to learn these lessons. While former Sovietologists publish their memoirs and occasionally refight old battles in the journals, these genres have their limitations. Other scholars do not seem to notice Sovietology even when they are looking straight at it, though this in itself may be a lesson. Works on the early years of the RAND Corporation, the birthplace of Soviet studies, do not even mention the field.1 Neither does a detailed history of postwar economics, which has a special focus on RAND and the effects of military funding on research.2 A history of the mobilization of old and the creation of new institutions for waging the Cold War is similarly silent on the subject.3 [End Page 691]

David Engerman’s book, then, is a long-overdue look at the “ideas, institutions, and individuals of American Sovietology” (7) over the span of half a century. His courage in taking on five disciplines—the study of the Soviet economy, politics, society, history, and literature—each with its own distinct approach, is admirable. A work of such scope is inevitably selective, and I discuss only what is in the book, without disputing the author’s choice of which scholars and publications to cover.

The central question in the history of Sovietology is how well it served its purpose of generating knowledge about the USSR. The author’s answer to this question is ambiguous. The inside flap of the book jacket states that Sovietology “offers a valuable blueprint for later area studies, including Islamic studies,” implying a positive evaluation. Yet the final sentence of the book states that “new enemies, in new times, require new solutions” (339). The book speaks of the fall of Sovietology, or of its slow decline after a rapid rise (9, 10). This downward motion proceeded along two separate tracks. Economic Sovietology was producing “excellent work” but failed to gain recognition from the wider discipline of economics and was headed for academic extinction (8). Studies of Soviet history and politics after the 1960s split into opposing political camps, waging a war that did little to advance understanding (9).4 Ultimately, Sovietology fell because it attempted to serve both Mars and Minerva (10).

Engerman’s wholesale characterization of the output of economic Sovietology, comprising hundreds of books and thousands of articles over almost half a century, as excellent is extraordinary, and I would like to examine what it is based on. The assessment of a discipline can only be built from the ground up, project by project, trying to establish who got it right, who got it wrong, and why. The strength of Engerman’s book, which sets it apart from a number of earlier general endorsements or indictments of Sovietology, is that he deals with individual contributions—books, articles, reports. This makes it possible to examine the basis of his evaluation of economic Sovietology in detail.

It is not always clear what the author means by excellence. Written in a free-flowing narrative style, Know Your Enemy does not explicitly define or rank the criteria by which it judges scholarly performance. To borrow an example from a different discipline, works on the “social history of October” appearing in the late 1960s and early 1970s argued that the revolution had popular support. Engerman notes that to prove this support, “most of the [End Page 692] scholars ultimately relied on partisan sources,” such as Bolsheviks’ own accounts of their appeal to “the masses” (176). Normally, such an observation would cause heavy damage...


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