2015 is starting to look and sound and feel an awful lot like 1965. If you find yourself sitting at home wondering how 50 years could go by with so much historical change and global shifting and yet still end up basically back at the starting point of a quasi-Cold War between the United States and Russia, then please allow me to offer one slightly unique explanation as to how this has all come to pass: it’s my fault.
Well, alright, it’s not exactly my personal fault, for I am a member of what we call in the United States as Generation X. I am also a recognized expert on Russia. And unfortunately those two things (Generation X Russian expert) are about as rare a sighting as a unicorn wave-surfing the Loch Ness monster off the shores of Ibiza. The reason for this might be somewhat surprising to our readers and is most certainly NOT openly discussed in our various academic, professional, and diplomatic conferences. There is not a dearth of Generation X Russian experts because somehow we all magically just forgot there was a place called Russia starting in the early 1990s. No, there is a giant numerical gap because we forgot the wonderfully inexplicable uniqueness of Russia, despite over 1000 years of political intrigue and historical evidence. We forgot that Russia will NEVER be irrelevant.
The celebration in the West of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the ‘end of history’ and the ‘eternal victory’ of democracy over all other political systems was quietly and unassumingly accompanied by an almost unconscious DE-EMPHASIS in prestigious American graduate schools. Russia was pushed aside because, after all, it had not only lost the Cold War: surely its destiny was to become a quasi-democracy, a political also-ran and an economic swamp that would be basically unimportant on the global stage. The fact that Russia faced a demographic crisis in the first half of the 1990s, actually watching its overall population SHRINK as opposed to grow, and the academic and governmental communities in the United States shook their collective heads and felt justified in thinking that if democracy was not in fact the end of history, it was at least the end of needing to focus on Russia. And so by 1997, when many Gen Xers would naturally be advancing through their advanced doctoral degrees and various PhD programs, selecting dissertation committees and deciding on deep and complex theses, we were subtly but decisively given a strong piece of advice: leave Russia alone.
Now, keep in mind this was well-intentioned advice. By 1997-1998 Russia seemed to most in the West as, at best, a place to perhaps investigate the problems of crime and corruption or flawed democratic transition. That is how the West viewed Russia from a high-level academic perspective, from the level of elite graduate schools training Generation X, mentoring this next generation of experts to take the mantle and lead American-Russian relations into the 21st century. The ultimately not-so-subtle hint was simple yet powerful: if you truly want a job in academia and want to be able to do ‘important’ work, Russia is just sooooo yesterday. If you want to be on the cutting edge, look to the Middle East. Hop on the Islamist bandwagon, that is where the REAL action (and job demand) is going to be! Of course, the seismic event on September 11, 2001, just a short three years later, seemed to scream to the now advanced PhD Generation X students that their mentors were prophets and had to be obeyed! And thus: the Lost Generation.
Barely any new thinkers or innovative minds have emerged from Generation X when it comes to studying and understanding the Russian Federation. When you examine and code media sources and academic work, from which news organizations reach out to for quotes and ‘expert opinion’ about Russia today, one is hard-pressed to find a quote from anyone under 45 or anything not sickeningly dependent on a ‘Soviet assumption’ for explaining behavior. Please keep in mind I am not trying to be particularly ‘age-ist’ in my argumentation. The problem is not so much as to how old a person is but rather under what system of educational rigor and mentorship would a person likely to have been trained given their particular year of birth. Is it merely coincidence that almost every single Russian foreign policy maneuver today is characterized more often than not as some sort of revanchist attempt to resurrect (symbolically or literally) the power and glory of the Soviet Union? Is it merely odd happenstance that Putin is evaluated only in terms of Soviet dictatorship and not even from the perspective of Machiavellian realpolitik? Go back and look for yourselves. Read as many sources of information you can find. Whether it be the missile defense ‘shield’ in Poland and the Czech Republic, or Iran, or Syria, or the bombings near the Sochi Olympics, or finally Maidan and Eastern Ukraine, what one sees are ‘analyses’ that basically could have been cut from the New York Times in 1964 and just had the key words altered. No imagination, no innovation, nothing new whatsoever. We have become dullards.
Even worse, within the think tanks, graduate schools, and academic associations in the United States that pride themselves on specializing in Russia, there are professional consequences for standing against the orthodoxy. Sometimes, it seems, academic freedom can be pressured so that there is only a particular kind of freedom. As scholars and academics, we are meant to be above such petulance and pettiness. But we are not. Not always. Perhaps worse still, Russia’s stubborn unwillingness to remain in that little irrelevant black box created by American academia these past 15-20 years means that there is now a NEW generation of PhD students emerging once again intrigued, concerned, and fascinated by Russia. This new generation, the Millenials, will be entering PhD programs within the next 5-10 years. The problem, as I see it, is that the majority of the programs they enter and with which they feed their renewed Russian interests will STILL be run by the Baby Boomers, a generation that cut its teeth under the Cold War and still believes it as the only political vision available for Russia.
There are very few Generation X scholars running and directing programs today to impact these new minds, to open them up to new possibilities and new diplomatic angles, to encourage them to think about Russia in the 21st multipolar global century with a mind that is not shackled instinctively by the mid-20th bipolar Soviet century. This does not bode well for the future of American-Russian relations. It doesn’t bode well for the future of Russian Studies in America. And it certainly does not bode well for diplomacy between Russia and the United States. But if I want to find anyone to blame, then I need but to walk over to my generation’s mirror and look directly at my fellow Gen Xers. This is our future. A future that looks depressingly familiar within a tightly framed intellectual past. A future shaped by a Lost Generation that allowed itself to be too easily swayed by present-day currents and pressures of job placement. Let the shame be upon us. And let the diplomatic intellectual revolution begin.