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The Origins of Sovietology

SlavicStudies09.jpgWriting in Foreign Affairs, David C. Engerman argues that more resources need to be dedicated to developing strong academic programs in Middle East Studies, as they once were for Sovietology.  The interesting aspect of the article for this audience, however, is Engerman’s history of the discipline:

In its early years, the Joint Committee on Slavic Studies, comprised of scholars who represented the field to foundations and government agencies, acted as the discipline’s Politburo. It quickly established a peer-reviewed academic journal, now called Slavic Review, which remains a leading outlet for new research.

But the committee’s most important and time-consuming task was hunting for sources about the Soviet Union, a country that was off-limits to U.S. scholars for almost a decade after World War II. In 1954, as members of the Soviet Politburo battled to succeed Stalin, the committee fought with the U.S. Postal Service to keep copies of Pravda from being confiscated by overeager mail inspectors. Throughout the 1950s, the committee — with the help of the CIA — sponsored The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, which translated and compiled Soviet newspaper and magazine articles. The closed nature of Soviet society made such basic sources indispensable for both research and teaching. Today, although communication and access have greatly improved, the Current Digest model of sifting through and translating a large and often obtuse body of material would be a great benefit to those who study Islamic fundamentalism.

Original sources were important because the founders of Slavicstudies were not content to just find a handful of established policyadvisers, but rather hoped to create a new field of scholarshipessentially from scratch. In other words, Slavic studies would not justserve the immediate interests of government but would gain respect fromits academic peers by making serious scholarly contributions. As aresult, the field won acceptance within the academy, trained expertsfor government service, and educated hundreds of scholars, some of whomshared their expertise with the government. (In fact, U.S. governmentagencies — most especially the CIA — called on these new universityexperts so often that Harvard professors once complained that they hadno time to write their own books.)