In 1964 Iulian Oksman, a prolific scholar of nineteenth-century Russian literature and a gulag survivor, was fired from the Institute of World Literature, a Soviet Academy of Sciences affiliate in Moscow. Oksman’s most serious transgression was journalistic: he had written several essays unmasking prominent colleagues at the Institute who had advanced their careers under Stalin by baselessly denouncing others. Oksman’s essays were smuggled out of the Soviet Union by visiting American scholars, and published pseudonymously in the émigré press in the West. The KGB discovered Oksman’s authorship when a Soviet border guard intercepted one of his essays during a routine search. Oksman’s fate recently came to mind when I read on 2paragraphs “Has Russia Gone Truly Mad? Stalin Era Ghosts Appear,” which draws a parallel between the anti-Western paranoia that characterized the last years of Stalin’s life, and recent events in Russia, where national purity, conformity, and self-sufficiency are again Kremlin priorities. Like Oksman, the author of “Has Russian Gone Truly Mad?” remained anonymous. He is identified only as an “expert on modern European history who travels often to Russia,” ostensibly to protect himself from being denied future Russian visas. While these fears pale against those that Oksman must have harbored (after all, he knew firsthand the horror of the gulag), they may not be unjustified. Among the historians and graduate students from Europe and North America who converged on Moscow’s libraries and archives earlier this summer, there was talk of exclusion: a prominent American historian of Russia reputedly had his three-year, multiple-entry visa revoked, and then, as salt in the wound, was denied a single-entry tourist visa.
After Russian troops seized Crimea this spring, the New York Times lamented the state of Russian expertise in America. Without question, the Russian studies field—what used to be called Sovietology—has contracted since the end of the Cold War. This reflects both the emergence of new political and scholarly priorities (the Middle East and East Asia), and the perilous financial condition of many of America’s universities, where tenure-track faculty lines are scarce. Yet the Times’ concerns about the quality of the field are misguided, reflecting an inside-the-Beltway belief that has little grounding in the reality of Russian studies in Berkeley or Cambridge or Chapel Hill. Contrary to the diagnosis of Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution who was quoted in the article, there is no shortage of “up-and-coming regional experts who are truly expert on that region.” In fact, for the most part, scholars who have come of age after the collapse of Soviet power in 1991 know Russia—in its breadth and diversity—better than their predecessors, simply by virtue of ease of access and greatly intensified interaction with colleagues and friends at Russian universities and elsewhere. Research trips to Russia, once highly bureaucratized and rare, have become commonplace. Thirty years ago, who could have dreamed of three-year, multiple-entry visas, AirBnB apartments in central Moscow, and collaborative projects with colleagues in Irkutsk? This is perhaps what the author of “Has Russia Gone Truly Mad?” had in mind when he requested anonymity—the newfound ease of interaction that has made a career in Russian and Soviet history relatively normal. In short, we are Cold Warriors no more, even if Vladimir Putin—or more likely, a xenophobic bureaucrat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—sees us as such. In such a context, some scholars who write for the general public will self-censor, some will follow Oksman’s example and remain anonymous in order to write openly, and some it appears, will involuntarily spend their summers and sabbaticals far from Russia. No one benefits from that.
The Moscow State Historical Museum