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Now That the ‘Evil Empire’ Is Back, So Is My Career

Last month I appeared as an expert analyst on four news shows and three radio shows. This is perhaps not unusual for someone whose specialty is foreign affairs, but what is unusual is that in each situation I was asked to talk about Russia.

I commented on the likelihood of terrorism at the Sochi Olympics, and later I commented on Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine. As a result, I found myself once again engaged with the questions that had formed the background of most of my graduate-school years: Can we trust the Russians? What are their intentions? Can a country with a past as autocratic as Russia’s ever overcome that past and frame a new way of governing? Is it a coincidence that a strong leader who built his support base through using nationalist rhetoric is once again in charge in Russia?

As I prepared for these interviews and brought up these discussion topics in my international-relations classes, I found myself returning to research practices I had largely shelved during the post-9/11 years, when all anyone wanted to talk about in class or on the morning news shows was Al Qaeda. I read Russian newspapers, watched Russian news on the Internet, and rediscovered some of my favorite Russia analysts whom I had stopped reading as my career took an alternate trajectory.

Like many academics, I had found myself for the last decade or so both teaching and researching in a field that was very different from where I had started. At some point during the 1990s the West either gave up on reforming Russia or lost interest and moved on to other challenges in the world—depending on your perspective. Either way, academic and government funds for the study of the Russian language and Russian affairs largely dried up. Fewer students studied Russian as undergraduates or graduate students, and among study-abroad destinations, Russia was no longer “hot.”

At one point in the mid-2000s, I presented at a conference on Russian and East European affairs and was very conscious of the fact that the participants were largely senior professors and retired scholars who had been trained as academic Sovietologists, back when that field still existed. At the same time, there were very few grad students at the conference. It was as though the field had been hollowed out, leaving only the very young and the aging scholars. Those in their 30s and 40s who were in the midst of building their careers as serious scholars were not, for the most part, writing about Russia. They had moved on—usually to the study of terrorism and national security.

Once I became conscious of this phenomenon, I began noticing how often I would meet fellow social scientists who began their introduction with the words “I started out as a Sovietologist, but you know how that goes.  … ” Most of us reinvented ourselves in some way. I translated my interest in Cold War topics like nuclear war and Armageddon to writing about American apocalyptic fiction and cyberwar, and began teaching courses on crisis management, the politics of disaster, and intelligence and terrorism. A colleague used his in-depth knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy to become a specialist in the role of religion in conflict more broadly. Not surprisingly, most of the questions people asked him were not about Russian Orthodoxy but about radical Islam. Another friend learned a lot about Syria. Good for him.

But at that same conference back in the 2000s, I remember hearing an undercurrent among the conference presentations and informal discussions that went something like this: “I hear that Putin is turning into a real bad guy.” The unspoken next thought was “and maybe now someone will want to listen to us once again. Maybe the media will want to know what we think about that. Maybe we’ll finally get to teach Russian politics again in our universities.”

In short, like anyone who spent his or her formative years traveling to Russia, learning the Russian language, and learning way too much about obscure topics like Communist five-year plans and Russian poetry, I have been sad that there have been so few opportunities to share that knowledge in recent years. Even now, it saddens me that the media is mostly interested in Russia because it once again appears to be a dangerous place whose leader seems intent on threatening the West and the principles of Western democracy. I won’t be surprised if I once again start seeing solicitations from government agencies interested in supporting students who study Russian, and academics who want to write about Russian politics. We are seeing more scholars publishing books having to do with Russia, and that is certainly a positive development. My own child wants to major in the Russian language in college, and I am inclined to encourage him to do so.

However, it is unfortunate that the field of international relations in general is still arranged around a general principle that there is money available to study whoever is our current enemy, but that during peacetime it is no longer necessary to understand our neighbors. Russia’s hot again—but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Mary Manjikian is associate dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University. She is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who served in Moscow and in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the 1990s.

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