The Past and Present of Stanford’s Academic Interests in Russia

In an era of foreign policy dominated by Bin Laden and a series of wars in the Middle East, America’s academic interest in Russia has waned. Stanford’s student body remains unaware of the unique opportunities available for those who want to explore Russia.

The Hoover Institute became a center for Russian studies during the Cold-War and remains the premier destination for American scholars of Russia. “During the Soviet era, the Hoover institution was an obligatory stop for researchers attempting to pierce the veil of Soviet secrecy,” said Paul Gregory, a research fellow at Hoover, specializing in Soviet and Russian economics. “The collection most widely used to study Soviet politics during this period was the Boris Nicolaevsky Collection, which came the closest to providing an insider’s view of Soviet politics under Stalin.”

Gabriella Safraan, the Director of Stanford’s Division of Slavic Languages and Literatures, explained “from its founding, the Hoover archive attracted scholars of the Soviet Union, and the whole point of the Hoover Institution was of course to provide resources for those who wanted to understand the Soviet Union, and eventually the other Communist countries.”

However, Stanford’s focus on Russian research has decreased dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Empire in the early nineties. “All of the attention, the funding, and all of the scholarship that was devoted to the Soviet Union deflated in the 1990s,” says Anatol Shmelev, the Curator for the Russian Archives and a research Fellow at the Hoover Institute.

The University established a Bing Overseas Study Program in Moscow in 1993 in an attempt to re-encourage interest in Russia. The goal, according to Alexandr Abashkin, the Program Director of Bing Overseas Study in Moscow, was to develop a program in a former socialist country, where students would experience a completely different intellectual and culture environment.”

“It’s really something very different from what they can experience in Paris or Florence or Madrid or many other countries”, says Abashkin, “I believe only two programs are very, very different from the pack, and those are Moscow and Beijing, which are both former socialist countries.”

Robert Sinclair, the director of BOSP argues that a quarter in Moscow can empower students by giving them a pioneering sense of discovering something new and different, “something out of the main stream and out of their comfort zone.

Mr. Abashkin hopes that the program in Moscow encourages students to engage with Russia. He hopes to see Stanford students involved, to a certain extent, in the formation of Russian: “Right now Russia is undergoing a very interesting period of transition and change. Russia is becoming politically much more active. Very intellectual opposition is growing… For students, this is a unique opportunity to witness transition and to participate to an extent.”

Another opportunity for interested students, the Stanford US-Russia Forum (SURF), enables Stanford students to bridge the gap between the two cultures. SURF promotes cross-cultural dialogue between Russian and American students through joint research trips and conferences in both countries. Lindsay Funk, the vice-president of the organization, explains that the organization was founded to promote honest and direct conversation between students from both cultures, in an attempt to get past the dramatic media and governmental biases in both countries during the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008. Today, SURF continues to bring students together to perform research and participate in open dialogue conferences.

This type of exchange that breaks down barriers imposed by hostile governments harkens back to the citizen diplomacy of the Soviet era. Russian Research Fellow Anatol Shmelev remembers a time when citizens “tried to, on the level of their own local organizations, or groups, find like-minded people in the Soviet Union, discuss things, and travel back and forth.” It appears as though these efforts to re-invigorate interest at Stanford in Russia may be succeeding.

“Interest is definitely growing, especially over the last couple of months…after the Duma elections of December 2011, very suddenly politics returned, and now you’ve got mass protests; over the past few weeks, the emails of various officials have been broken into…As a result, it’s certainly necessary to devote a lot of attention to what’s going on over there,” explained Shmeley.

“Russia has been in the news lately…It’s good for business,” said Safran.  She has noticed a heightened awareness of Russia in business communities around the world, who see Russia an emerging capitalist nation. Russian language enrollment is up in the US and Europe.

However, undergraduate enrollment in Russian studies and in the Bing Overseas Program to Moscow has remained stagnant over the last few years. Abashkin thinks it is a shame. “I think there should be a push towards explaining to students what they can learn from being here, how different this experience can be, and how life changing this program can be.”

“Stanford has stuff that no other institution outside of Russia has. It has archival materials that are unique in the world, “said Safraan. “If you’re interested in Russian things, there will always be a relatively large number of high level scholars here at Stanford, who will tell you what they’re doing, who are doing path-breaking research. There is no better time – economically or politically – to get involved.”

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