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  • Karen Dawisha: Scholar, Intellectual, Institution-Builder
  • Venelin I. Ganev

Karen Dawisha debuted as a scholar in 1972 when she published her first article. Her second appeared three years later. These early texts are notable because they do not contain a single reference to the writings of a female Western academic. Clearly, the young, Colorado-born scholar who was working on her dissertation in the United Kingdom was entering a field from which women were mostly absent. In subsequent years the field would change – at least in part because Karen Dawisha established for herself the reputation of an insightful expert on Soviet politics and a widely admired political scientist and thus became a role model for the cohorts of female graduate students whose careers began in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Her first two essays also make it easy to understand what made Dawisha’s success possible. They are written in clear, jargon-free language; they offer arguments grounded in masterfully crafted analytical frameworks; their central messages are articulated in a lucid and compelling manner. The articles also reveal the sheer scope and depth of the young author’s knowledge: the first one, on “The Roles of Ideology in the Decision-Making of the Soviet Union” (published in International Relations), contains references to Barrington Moore, C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell and Talcott Parsons, as well as philosophical digressions on Karl Marx. The second one, on “Soviet Cultural Relations with Iraq, Syria and Egypt, 1955–1970” (published in Soviet Studies), contains references to James Rosenau, K.J.Holsti, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anastas Mikoyan as well as quantitative analysis of a painstakingly compiled data set. Even at this early stage of her career, Dawisha demonstrated that she was fully capable of pursuing versatile projects with methodological rigor and analytical dexterity.

Over the next four decades Karen Dawisha made key contributions to at least four areas of substantive knowledge about the Soviet and post-Soviet political universes. [End Page 421]

The first one is Soviet domestic politics. In her debut article she offers a subtle analysis of the impact of Marxism-Leninism on the decision-making procedures and policy choices institutionalized by Soviet political elites. Dawisha’s article also placed a special emphasis on how the internal contradictions within the reigning ideology over time generate markedly different forms of governmental action. In the 1980s she continued these explorations and published insightful studies of the organizational evolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the role of state structures in Soviet-type regimes, and the distinct characteristics of Soviet bureaucratic politics.

Secondly, Karen Dawisha is well-known as a perspicacious observer of Soviet foreign policy. Her dissertation – which she defended in 1975 at the London School of Economics, before a committee that included academic luminaries such as Leonard Schapiro and Humphrey Trevelyan – was entitled “Soviet Foreign Policy Toward Iraq, Syria and Egypt.” Over the next dozen years it was precisely to the global entanglements of the Soviet Union that she devoted the bulk of her scholarship. Fairly quickly, she became the only Western expert who could competently discuss Soviet foreign policy both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe (her first book, which came out in 1979, is entitled Soviet Policy Towards Egypt; her second book, published five years later, is entitled The Kremlin and the Prague Spring). And as the decade progressed, she was among the few academics who instantly recognized the significance of Gorbachev’s reforms: her explorations of the effect of perestroika on Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe and the impact of the East European satellites’ growing restlessness culminated in the publication of one of her most widely read and admired monographs, Eastern Europe, Gorbachev and Reform: The Great Challenge.

After the collapse of communism, Dawisha’s attention shifted to postcommunist transformations. The four-volume series on politics in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union she edited with Bruce Parrott for Cambridge University Press remains one of the most important contributions to the literature about the turbulent 1990s. In addition, Karen Dawisha published theoretical essays on the notion of democratic consolidation and the impact of electoral politics on divided societies.

Finally, over the last two decades, Karen Dawisha...