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Volume 3, No. 3 - March/April 1993 FOCUS: Post Cold War Politics  
Think Tanks Without A Country

By Eric Alterman

MARRIED PERSONS, IT IS FREQUENTLY REMARKED, often come to resemble their spouses, and dog owners sometimes begin to look uncannily like their dogs. In academe, this phenomenon has its corollary in those disciplines that appear, over t ime, to take on some of the distinguishing characteristics of their subjects. Nowhere in the university has this tendency been more pronounced than in the study of what used to be the Soviet Union.

Indeed, with the possible exception of what used to be the CIA, perhaps no institution in the United States so resembled the Soviet politburo as those prestigious academic research centers whose job it was to explain the politburo to the rest of us. At pl aces like Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown, professionally suspicious, often elderly white men would gather irregularly, sometimes secretly, in their various inner sanctums to determine the course of Soviet studies in the United States. Because their subject was so central to the political identity of Cold War America, the views of these men shaped not only the scholarly discourse of their colleagues and graduate students but much of the informed political discourse in the United States as well .

With the collapse and disappearance of their raison d'être, these organizations and the experts who people them are, quite understandably, a bit confused about what to do next. When Carnegie Endowment Sovietologist Dimitri Simes titled two consecuti ve op-ed pieces "The Cold War Is Over, Now What?" and "The Cold War Is Over, Then What?," readers were inadvertently invited to wonder whether Simes was addressing himself to world politics or to his own profession's intellectual quandary.

Robert Legvold, the departing head of Columbia's Harriman Institute, probably the most respected of the university-affiliated research institutes, observed last spring that Sovietology was the "only area study in the world that has had the arrogance to st udy a single country." With the questions that once dominated that field now consigned almost exclusively to the study of history, Sovietologists -- like the entire class of now dachaless apparatchiks who once fed at the trough of the Soviet state bureauc racy -- are scrambling to find new meaning in their lives, as well as new paychecks in their pockets. Columbia political science professor Jack Snyder compares the field to a "giant supertanker that is being asked to turn around and steam off in a new dir ection. Only the crew doesn't really understand very well the things it is being asked to do."

BUT MANY OF THE PROBLEMS now facing the field do not stem, strictly speaking, from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They derive, instead, from the special place that Soviet studies has long occupied in the murky netherworld between p olitics, academe, and intelligence. "Few academic fields have been so intimately related to American political and intellectual life as Soviet studies," observed Princeton Soviet expert Stephen Cohen back in 1985. And few academic fields have been so cons trained to be predictive, policy-oriented, and, as Cohen puts it, "politically palatable."

Russian studies, focusing primarily on language, literature, and history, had been a thriving discipline since at least the interwar years. But Sovietology, the model-building discipline that concerns itself with the operations of the Soviet political sys tem, took off only in the mid-1940s as a matter of planned collaboration between U.S. government agencies, major foundations, and university scholars -- all of them eager to emphasize what British Sovietologist Stephen White called the "urgency of their s tudies and...their relevance to questions of national policy." This was a period in American intellectual history when the president of the American Historical Association could candidly declare, "One cannot afford to be unorthodox," and could exhort prof essors to abandon their traditional "plurality of aims and values" and accept "a large measure of regimentation" because "total war, whether it be hot or cold, enlists everyone and calls upon everyone to assume his part. The historian is no freer from thi s obligation than the physicist." Sovietology took up this call with a vengeance. As one Time-Life editor explained in the introduction to a major scholarly work the company had reissued, "In this field, the best scholarship is also the best polemics."

Professor of sociology Sigmund Diamond, whom Harvard Dean McGeorge Bundy dismissed from the university in the 1950s for refusing to discuss the political views of his colleagues, recently published a history of academia's collaboration with various Cold W ar stratagems of the U.S government. The story he tells in Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of the Universities With the Intelligence Community, 1945-1955 demonstrates that the hallowed notion of an ivory-towered university, shielded from poli tics by the disinterested pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, had about as much relationship to reality as a socialist realist painting of happy, healthy, productive Soviet workers did to life on a forcibly collectivized farm. When Bundy (who later served as national security adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) canned Diamond, he was telling his faculty that "there is gain for both the political world and the academy from an intensified process of engagement and of choosing sides and of engag ing in the battle."

Diamond devotes two chapters to the founding of Harvard's Russian Research Center, which came into being as a Cold War stepchild of the Carnegie Corporation and various government agencies that Carnegie officials consulted in the mid-1940s. Together with Columbia's W. Averell Harriman Institute, founded in 1982, and the Berkeley-Stanford program, launched in 1984, Harvard boasts what is probably the most prestigious program of Soviet studies in the country today. This is so because, in July 1947, an offic er of the Carnegie Corporation surveyed the field and, for a host of political and strategic reasons, decided to put Carnegie's resources behind Harvard, rather than Columbia or Stanford. "Columbia," he noted, had "the best Russian studies program in the country by far." But Columbia's Russian Institute (the precursor to Harriman) was handicapped, in the Carnegie official's view, by its director, a man who was unlikely to regard an academic program that aspired to quasi-governmental status "with either sy mpathy or understanding." (Six years later, Joe McCarthy would slur the founders of the institute, calling them members of "the Communist conspiracy.") Stanford suffered not only from its "inadequate program of Russian studies," explained the Carnegie mem o, "but also from its distance from the other academic centers and from Washington." Harvard, meanwhile, looked to the Carnegie officer like it could use a boost, as it was "having a tough time getting a foothold in the Russian field" and was estimated to be at least ten years behind Columbia in the latter's areas of strength.

Between the founding of the Russian Research Center and the height of the Vietnam War, academic Sovietology enjoyed a seller's market in corporation and foundation funding -- Ford alone ponied up $47 million in 1966 -- and a remarkably stable consensus ab out the destiny of the Soviet Union. For the gray eminences of the politburo, a single theory -- dialectical materialism -- accounted for the Soviet past and predicted its future. For American Sovietologists, it was the theory of totalitarianism. The tota litarian school explained everything that took place in Soviet society on the basis of the Communist Party's ruthless domination of virtually every aspect of daily life. Adherents of the totalitarian school clung obstinately to the twin premises that all totalitarian regimes, whether communist or fascist, were essentially the same and that none could ever reform itself from within. "Excluded or obscured" by this model, Stephen Cohen observes, were the social factors "that underlay change in historical and contemporary politics.... Blinkered preoccupations, labels, images, metaphors, and teleology stood in place of real explanation." Ideological challenges to the static picture of Soviet life offered by the totalitarian model were few and far between in th is period, a time when Merle Fainsod's 1953 textbook How Russia is Ruled, a defining statement of the totalitarian school, commanded the Sovietological canon.

A REVISIONIST IMPULSE, artificially stymied by the urgency and engagement of the period, finally emerged amid the larger Cold War revisionism of the late 1960s. Sovietology's revisionism spouted from two sources: ideology and social scie nce. In the former case, disgust with American imperialism in Asia and Latin America led some scholars to bend over backward to give Soviet leaders the benefit of most doubts. This tendency frequently combined with a desire to introduce basic social-scien ce techniques into a field that had become synonymous with the subterranean science of "Kremlinology." Given the dearth of reliable information on the subject, old-line Soviet scholars had come to depend on various combinations of inference, conjecture, a nd pure guesswork. As Stanford Sovietologist Terence Emmons explains: "The mainstream, inside politics kind of history was almost impossible. Because of that, we've had a very schematic notion of the ins and outs of Soviet politics."

But in far too many cases, revisionism simply -- and simplistically -- turned totalitarianism on its head. In part because of its ideological blinders, and in part because the new data -- much of it obtained from official Soviet sources -- was every bit a s unreliable as the old cryptological Kremlinology, revisionism came almost inevitably to mirror the faults of the totalitarian model. Whereas before, Soviet motivations had been assumed to be almost unrelievedly evil, they were now understood to be almos t equally benign. Moreover, many of the complex regression analyses introduced by the methodologically more sophisticated generation of analysts, tracing the relationship of various sectors of society or the economy to one another, were based on data that was later proved to be wholly fictitious. As (totalitarian) scholar Robert Conquest observes, "To believe a lot of these things, you had to become stupid."

The two fatally flawed tendencies had their clash of the titans in the late 1970s, when Harvard's Russian Research Center invited the young revisionist Jerry Hough to update Fainsod's classic text. Hough, a brilliant but enormously erratic analyst, was th en the leading light of second generation Sovietologists. In rewriting How Russia is Ruled, he changed its title to How the Soviet Union Is Governed, but retained Fainsod's revered name as co-author. Because the entire thrust of the book had been redirected -- Hough dropped all references to forced labor camps, claimed that the number of deaths previously attributed to Stalinist persecution had been way too high, and argued that some facsimiles of "pluralism" and a working "parliamentary sys tem" existed in Soviet governance -- a major-league uproar ensued. When the dust finally cleared, Houghism enjoyed a brief Jimmy Carter-like victory, politically trumping the totalitarians and pushing their analysis to the Reaganite margins of the profess ion. Unfortunately for Hough, he became something of a professional pariah -- exiled to Duke to run something called the Center on East-West Trade, Investment and Communications, never again to be invited inside the hallowed halls of the Russian Research Center.

In the meantime, the revisionist deviationists of Soviet studies found their status slipping, as a "postrevisionist" version of the old orthodoxy reasserted itself. Like the aging commissars whose thoughts and actions it sought to illuminate, the field se emed to enter a kind of comfortable, counterrevolutionary somnolence.

Despite Harvard's early advantage, Columbia returned to the head of the Sovietological class, as W. Averell Harriman's $10 million gift in 1982 subsidized the creation of the center bearing his name, to close what was widely perceived as a dangerous "expe rt gap" that had opened up with the decreased funding for Soviet studies. Two years later, the newly created Berkeley-Stanford program also began to attract excellent students and scholars. The California program benefited from a reputation that rested on its willingness, according to scholars who've passed through its doors, to concentrate on the intellectual and professional development of its students -- seeing that they finished their dissertations, placing them in jobs, and generally behaving as if t hey were part of a university rather than a quasi-governmental intelligence agency.

But the handicaps that had prevented the Carnegie corporation from investing in Columbia and Stanford back in 1947 were still present in the 1980s, albeit in somewhat transmuted form. California was still California -- practically Uzbekistan as far as Was hington was concerned. Columbia, although centrally located along the East Coast power corridor, remained politically suspect. The Harriman center's first director, Marshall Shulman, was the primary intellectual force behind the discredited dovishness of Jimmy Carter's détente policy. And Zbigniew Brzezinski (who came to Columbia following his stint as Carter's national security adviser) represented what passed for far-right thinking at Harriman, but sat on the leftward edges of political respectab ility in the Reagan era.

Political and intellectual influence during the 1980s, moreover, gravitated away from the academy toward Washington itself and those think tanks that were dedicated to sounding the siren about the Evil Empire. Professional right-wing think tanks, some nom inally connected to a university, some not, commandeered public discussion of U.S.-Soviet relations and peopled the Soviet-related posts in the Reagan bureaucracy. In Washington, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Study, a nd the American Enterprise Institute conducted what were then the hip seminars and produced the most sought after briefing papers. The Hoover Institute at Stanford, founded in 1919 to "demonstrate the evils of the doctrines of Karl Marx," sent more than f ifty of its fellows and researchers to join the Reagan administration. From Harvard, the home of totalitarian thinking, came superhawk historian Richard Pipes to work on the Reagan National Security Council. Early in his tenure there, he predicted a war b etween the superpowers.

The false adrenaline and relatively easy money of the new Cold War masked the intellectual stagnation of what might be called the Brezhnev period in American Sovietology and left the field completely unprepared for the revolutionary changes of perestroika and glasnost. Confronted with the spectacle of a superpower voluntarily ceding power, the toe-ers of the revived totalitarian line went into deep denial: Gorbachev was no different from any previous Soviet leader, they claimed hurriedly; or, if he was, h e could never effect change; or, if he did, it would never last. Textbooks and newspaper op-ed pages are littered with statements that look patently ridiculous today; charity forbids yet another recitation of them here.

NOW THAT THE ENTIRE field has been turned upside down and the 1980s funding explosion has ended, Sovietology cannot afford such frequent misfires. "For better or worse," explains Alexander J. Motyl in his new collection of essays, The Post-Soviet Nations: Perspectives on the Demise of the USSR, "Mikhail Gorbachev revolutionized the Soviet Union and the study of the Soviet Union." If American Sovietologists wish to retain their privileged hold on the national imagination -- and the ir share of the funding pie -- they will need to come up with imaginative ways to recast the centrality of their mission. Some of the Young Turks in the field are arguing for a second, this time more disciplined effort to import social-scientific research techniques. Some Sovietologists have been drawn to rational choice theory, an approach borrowed from economics and animated by the notion that nation-states and their leaders are utility maximizers whose actions can always be predicted on the basis of th eir objective self-interest. Others respond, quite plausibly, that rat choice, as it's known, is just the latest manifestation of an old impulse to give the study of politics the legitimacy of a hard science, an impulse that has led the discipline down bl ind alleys in the past. Besides, rat choice theorists have little to say about culture and ideology and are, therefore, ill-equipped to deal with the most volatile phenomenon of the post-Soviet world: resurgent nationalism.

Though it has been consistently overshadowed in the national media by Hoover, the Berkeley-Stanford program, chaired by Gail Lapidus, maintains its reputation as a hospitable place to work and study. Being out in the provinces, as any number of newly free ex-Soviet republics can tell you, has its advantages.

Columbia, meanwhile, has been in kind of a holding pattern in the final years of Legvold's directorship. "As an organization," the departing chief recently noted, "we were running very hard to stay half a step behind events... and then, like Gorbachev in August, we were all swept out to sea." Whether the name change implies more substantive changes in the overall orientation of the Harriman center is not yet clear. Columbia's Jack Snyder thinks that hiring rational choice theorist Joel Hellman is a signal that Harriman will begin to entertain "real live social-science theories now that we are not doing Kremlinology anymore." But Doug Evans, a spokesman for the institute, believes that Harriman will "continue to offer virtually the same curriculum," focusi ng on the entire former Soviet Union.

The extra-long job search for a director to replace Legvold yielded a surprise choice: economist Richard Ericson. (When asked about why Ericson was chosen over Columbia's more senior and better-known faculty, such as Russian émigré Seweryn B ialer, a source cryptically replies, "As with the politburo, the crucial question here is not what happened but what didn't happen.") Although still the leading center in the nation, Harriman's relatively low profile during the post-Gorbachev era raises q uestions about how significant a role it will play in guiding the way Americans think about our former adversaries. So far, it has led at least one Soviet scholar to approach a visiting American reporter and inquire, "Does the Harriman center still exist? "

At Harvard, meanwhile, members of the Russian Research Center are said to be proud that no name changes are needed. But the resignation of its longtime director, Adam Ulam, has apparently done little to shake up the quiet, clublike atmosphere of the Carne gie Corporation's creation. Social-science techniques remain out of favor there, even though the insider Kremlin sources that have sustained the center's biggest names are now useless. The phrase most frequently thrown around by the center's associates s eem to be "academically adrift." Timothy Colton, the new director, is an enormously well-respected scholar, who is an expert on the Soviet military, but is described by some around him to be "too Canadian" to give the place the jolt it needs to bring it i nto the modern intellectual era. On the other hand, Harvard's Ukrainian Center -- an entity most people never even knew existed during the Cold War -- has suddenly become hot.

BUT RUSSIANS SEEKING TO UNDERSTAND their own past and restructure their political life are not, apparently, looking to the prestigious Soviet research institutes at places like Harvard or Columbia for advice; according to Jonathan San ders, a reporter now working for CBS in Moscow, they are turning instead to the political think tanks most closely associated with the Reagan revolution. In this area, clearly, Herbert Hoover's namesake has a jump start on the rest. Not only has it quickl y concluded agreements with Soviet archives that will make it the undisputed central location for Soviet research outside of Russia, it has also been quick to seize the political moment in order to try to sell Boris Yeltsin and his advisers on the need to embrace its radical free-market ideology. Writing in The Nation last December, Jon Wiener reported that Yeltsin allegedly told a Hoover delegation, unironically, that "your institute did great work for Reagan, now do it for me."

Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation, the Finland Station of the Reagan revolution, has announced plans to found a satellite office in Moscow. Kim Holmes, Heritage's vice president and director of foreign-policy studies, promises that the foundation will be there to tell Russians how to make free-market institutions work "with no apologies." Perhaps as a reaction, Yeltsin recently dumped his free-market prime minister and embraced an old communist apparatchik.

Just what this portends for the future of post-Soviet studies, however, is well beyond the competence of this writer to predict. But if the commies can make a comeback after the hash they made of what used to be the Soviet Union, then it shouldn't be too difficult for the totalitarians to ride back to the top of the post-Soviet profession on the heels of a new post-postrevisionist synthesis. As Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (or somebody) used to say, "In this game, you're never out of it, till you're out of it."

Eric Alterman, a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research in New York City, is the author of Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics (HarperCollins , 1992).


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