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Why less money flows toward Russian and Eurasian studies

May 29, 2014

Here’s an analysis by Kenneth Yalowitz and Matthew Rojansky on why resources are diminishing for Russian and Eurasian studies in the United States:

1) Ambitious students who would have studied the USSR during the Cold War now study the Middle East and Asia

2) Economists and political scientists inside academia belittle the importance of “language and regional knowledge” and “cross-disciplinary regional expertise”

3) Private foundations have cut back on Russian-related programs, partly because of the Russian government’s hostility to foreign NGOs

4) The U.S. government has reduced funding for Title VI and Title VIII programs for language instruction and area studies, as well as a program run by the Library of Congress that brought people from the former Soviet Union to the U.S.

They think this is bad, and the funding cuts should be reversed to further the U.S. national interest.

While I’m naturally sympathetic, I’m worried by the naked self-interest of such pieces — they are no more surprising (if no less sincere) than calls by billionaires’ children to abolish the estate tax, or defense contractors’ belief in high military spending, or doctors’ support for high Medicare reimbursement rates, or the importance K-12 teachers place on teachers’ salaries and job security. I’d like to see the cuts to Russian-related programs put in the context of cuts to other domestic programs since the 2010 midterm elections. If the larger and more prestigious NIH and NSF lose funding, are they a surprise? How much of the federal budget would ideally go to Russian vs. Arabic or Chinese or Portuguese, and why? How much to language/area studies vs. other important areas of academic research, and how much to academic research vs. other education spending, and how much to education vs. anti-poverty and other programs? It’s neither intellectually satisfying nor, I’d guess, a particularly effective form of lobbying if every small, specialized group whose budget has been cut just says “what I do is important.”

As long as Ukraine is in the news, “what I do is important right now and may be in the future” might work, but surely Slavists were making similar arguments before Maidan and would continue to make them if the Russia/Ukraine situation magically returned to the status quo ante.

On another level, I think there’s always a bit of unresolved tension between the cosmopolitan outlook of the scholars who want funding, the U.S. government’s soft-power “proactive efforts to engage” ordinary Russians, and its hard-power effort to train the next generation of spies and assassins.

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