Soviet experts find careers, like empire, in disarray

October 03, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

When the Soviet Union went out of existence in 1991, Elliott Mossman had no idea that it would spell the end of a major initiative of his academic career.

In 1984, he founded the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This year, he resigned as head of it, expecting the university to replace him.

It didn't. With the Cold War over, the university seemed less drawn to the subject that had obsessed thousands of U.S. scholars since the end of World War II.

"The university lost interest not because we were threatened with a loss of funding, though there would have been some of that," he said. "With the disintegration of the [Soviet] empire, we faced a lot of new challenges. Those around here who had the opportunity to pick up those challenges were overwhelmed by them."

The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent turmoil in Russia fascinated much of the world. In the past year or so, that fascination by the public has begun to fade, to the extent that Boris N. Yeltsin's visit here last week was not the event such summits were in the past.

But the effect of the collapse is still keenly felt among experts on the second superpower, who, at a stroke, lost their object of study. Their plight has been little noticed. During the Cold War, academic Sovietologists -- as distinguished from specialists for the CIA or military intelligence --regarded themselves as an elite. Policy-makers listened to them. These were the scholars who studied the enemy and developed arcane ways to penetrate Soviet secrecy.

They could glean useful information from obituaries in the Soviet press. They could determine from the dimensions of buildings at defense sites what missiles were being produced. They could tell who was in the ascendancy in Moscow by the lineup over Lenin's Tomb.

Because they operated at the center of U.S. national security concerns, funding for research came readily from government agencies and private foundations.

Then, on Christmas, 1991, after a swift unraveling of its empire, the Soviet Union as a political entity went into history's attic.

With the loss of the Soviet Union has come a loss of funding for research. Since some support for Sovietology came from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, it is not easy to determine how much has been cut off. Many in the field, though, believe this stream has been greatly reduced.

"In the federal area there is a reluctance, or inability, to increase budgets for general programs in international area study scholarships," said Stanley Heginbotham, vice president of the Social Science Research Council, which distributes money from the State Department, the U.S. Information Agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations.

Others say that federal and foundation money that once went to traditional scholarship in, say, history and sociology, is being diverted into areas such as teaching business management, new legal systems or parliamentary structures in Russia.

Since many of those involved in these activities are not scholars of the region, it means less money is going to those who are.

A spokesman at the Education Department said funding for Russian study centers "has been flat for the past few years. . . . If you crank in inflation, it has gone down."

For some scholars, the adjustments have been profound. Maria Carlson, head of the Center for Russian (formerly Soviet) and East European Studies at the University of Kansas, said, "Some of our faculty are retooling. Some of our faculty are retiring early. And a lot of our younger faculty are finding this the most exciting time of their careers."

Paul D'Anieri, 29, is among those who changed course. His expertise is in U.S.-Soviet arms control. He got his doctorate from Kansas in June 1991, eight months before the Soviet Union came to an end.

"It took some time to get it into my head, but when the end finally came, it became clear there was no going back," he said. "It helped that I was young enough to retool, but it was hard."

Dr. D'Anieri learned Ukrainian and today specializes in Ukrainian-Russian relations.

Another scholar at the University of Kansas couldn't make the transition. An expert in ideocracy, the study of a state dominated by ideology, his knowledge is not in demand. He is negotiating his retirement.

"It's not easy for people who have been studying for years, acquiring skills, suddenly finding that what they've been studying has no use," said Edward W. Walker, head of the Berkeley Program for Soviet and Post Soviet Studies.

Sovietology during the Cold War was a field in which reliable information was always scarce. Scholars and analysts, rarely able to visit the country they were studying, made do with testimony from dissidents, published remarks by Soviet leaders or other clues in the Soviet press.

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