Photo courtesy Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Spring 2024

Building Trust Between Nations, One Scholar at a Time

– Victoria Pardini and Nina Rozhanovskaya

As geopolitical winds shift, academic exchange becomes more challenging—and more important.

Deep and trusted scholarship has been a core element of the Kennan Institute’s dedication to advanced research—first on the Soviet Union, then on Russia and Eurasia—since its founding five decades ago. Throughout the Institute’s 50 years, it has welcomed hundreds of scholars from around the world to engage with US and global audiences. However, its exchange programs are subject to the whim of geopolitical shifts that have hindered some efforts to facilitate international academic cooperation. With tensions rising between Russia and the West, the risk involved for scholars also rises—but the mission is steadfast.

Academic Exchange in the 20th Century

Educational exchange between the United States and other countries is a major prong in US public diplomacy efforts and has long been a fundamental element of the Kennan Institute’s mission. Even during contentious historical moments, the United States has sought to foster an open channel of communication with scholars and practitioners from different countries.

Over the years, the Kennan Institute has hosted more than 500 scholars from Russia and Eurasia, and alumni have gathered at Institute conferences across Europe and the US.

During the Cold War, the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement was established between the US  and Soviet Union to encourage cooperation through cultural, technical, and educational exchange. Early examples from the 1950s developed into programs supported by the State Department’s Fulbright Program, followed by the International Research and Exchanges Board in the 1970s. This agreement allowed for the Kennan Institute’s own exchange program, which opened to fellows from the Soviet Union beginning in 1975. 

Priorities and target audiences of the Kennan Institute’s fellowship programs changed with time. It started as a way for high-profile members of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences and prominent cultural figures to increase their exposure to the US on an ad hoc basis. During the 1990s, the once narrow passageway operating under the Soviet government’s watchful eye became an open door through which any eligible Russian scholar or practitioner could enter.

The focus of research projects expanded, as did the geography of fellows. From Arkhangelsk on the shores of the White Sea to Vladivostok overlooking the Sea of Japan, Russian scholars from every major university (and many of the smaller ones) benefitted from an opportunity to spend time in Washington DC, dig through the treasures of the Library of Congress, conduct interviews, polish language skills, and network with American academics. 

Evolution of the Kennan Institute’s Fellowship Programs

The Kennan Institute is proud to have hosted illustrious individuals like the renowned Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky and Nikolai Bolkhovitinov, the Soviet Union’s founding father of American studies, but one could argue that early and mid-career academics benefit from international educational exchange the most. 

Then US first lady Nancy Reagan is greeted by Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky at his home outside Moscow, May 30, 1988. Voznesensky was a Kennan Institute scholar in 1977 and focused his work on a comparative study of contemporary Soviet and American poetry. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.

It may be hard to grasp what those early exchanges meant to participants, especially for scholars from outside Moscow and St. Petersburg who had little if any international exposure during Soviet times. For instance, the city of Tomsk in western Siberia, a major academic center and home to the oldest university in the Asian part of Russia, was closed to foreign visitors until 1991. In the 2000s and 2010s, five professors from Tomsk State University’s history department won Kennan fellowship competitions.

Over the years, the Kennan Institute has hosted more than 500 scholars from Russia and Eurasia, and alumni have gathered at Institute conferences across Europe and the US. By bringing scholars of Russian and Eurasian history, politics, and culture to Washington, the Institute exposes them to peer knowledge and experiences that allow them to strengthen their own research and form future collaborations.

It took 30 years for Russian civil society and academia to build international ties with their Western counterparts, and mere weeks for the Russian government to all but destroy them.

Recognizing that international exchange programs ought to evolve as relations between nations change and the needs of researchers shift, the Kennan Institute has expanded its grant programs to include fellowships to support human rights practitioners, scholars of Russian culture and history, and journalists from independent media. 

Even during the most peaceful times, academics cherish opportunities to focus on research without distractions. Spending a few weeks or months surrounded by scholars from other countries and universities (who share a passion for a research subject or come from one’s country of study) can be a boon amid what is often solitary work. A brief chat in the library or cafeteria has been known to spark a new idea and lead to joint projects. Lasting friendships are an unplanned (but gratifying) byproduct of being at the Kennan Institute together—as are the occasional wedding between former fellows.

Any international project is subject to geopolitical expansions and contractions. When the Soviet Union collapsed, more exchange became possible, and now as Russia increasingly vilifies academic collaboration with Western partners, the Kennan Institute must take special care to prevent negative repercussions to scholars and alumni. Yet the benefits of such exchanges are undeniable. 

International Collaboration in Practice

Azerbaijani scholar Shalala Mammadova and American scholar Heather DeHaan applied for a three-month fellowship as a team and met in Washington in the winter of 2022 to research rural-urban migration in Soviet Azerbaijan after Stalin.

“We had planned to meet in person several times before, but our schedules never aligned. It wasn't until the end of 2019, when Heather traveled to Baku, that we finally met,” said Mammadova. “We were happy to find that we were both exploring similar periods and historical issues. That made us consider working together.”

Mammadova’s interest in historical memory and DeHaan’s focus on race, class, and gender in post-WWII Baku go hand in hand. DeHaan’s go-to resources include memoirs, diaries, and social media sites, which are “the stuff of Dr. Mammadova’s research,” and she was also keen to work with someone like Mammadova who is “embedded in the Azerbaijani scholarship in a way that I, as a foreign scholar will never truly be.”

At the Kennan Institute, the pair merged their research styles and methods to create the best possible project—making use of oral interviews, archival findings, and published works. In addition to the shared resources at the Library of Congress and the Wilson Center library, they both expressed gratitude for the opportunity the fellowship gave them to combine resources.

International exchange allows [scholars] to build trust between peoples. That is essential for improving relations between countries where intellectuals and social scientists are allowed to be experts in decision-making for internal and foreign relations.

“Dr. Mammadova [was] very generous in sharing Azerbaijani materials that I would be unable to obtain in North America, and she brings to our partnership a wealth of research expertise and knowledge that allows for interesting dialogue through which my own ideas about Azerbaijani history have been deepened and made more complex,” DeHaan said. This collaboration went beyond scholarship, particularly because the team met following months of primarily remote interaction.

“When we arrived in DC for the fellowship, the nation’s capital was still in COVID-lockdown,” said DeHaan. “Perhaps because of this, the Institute-led walk around the Tidal Basin to enjoy the Cherry Blossom Festival was a special highlight. The weather and scenery were both beautiful, our masks were off, and the event offered a fun opportunity to talk with the entire cohort of Kennan fellows. This was not my first time enjoying the blossoms in DC, but walking around the basin with a vibrant, global group of Kennan Institute fellows (whom I was eager to know better) made this Cherry Blossom Festival unforgettable.”

The two have continued the research that they began at the Kennan Institute, including co-presenting at a conference for the Italian Association for the Study of Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, they are grateful for the focused time that the fellowship opportunity allowed.

“These differing worlds of training and scholarly discussion have made research partnership particularly interesting. We’ve had the opportunity to conduct research that puts these two worlds of scholarship into direct dialogue,” said DeHaan.

Shifting Winds in Academic Exchange

This type of exchange is still fundamental to the Kennan Institute’s mission, both via team grants and through the collaboration with scholars converging in Washington for up to nine months. However, the landscape continues to shift—particularly as cross-cultural collaboration is interpreted as dangerous among states experiencing authoritarian backsliding. International exchange is a two-way street and there is only so much a host institution can do when a country treats its citizens traveling abroad as potential traitors. 

During a Kennan Institute alumni conference in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russian, Ukrainian, and US alumni take a guided tour of the Srebrenica-Potočari Genocide Memorial and Cemetery. Photo by Nina Rozhanovskaya.

As Russia’s foreign agent law becomes increasingly more repressive, and the Wilson Center finds itself on a list of “undesirable organizations,” knowing when and how to convene scholars continues to be a risky calculus. A Russian or Belarusian academic must think twice before going on a fellowship to the US—especially if they want to go back to their university or research institute afterward.

One way the Institute has adapted to the increased risks is by making the Starovoitova fellowship available to Russian applicants who reside outside of Russia; the George F. Kennan fellowship has never had citizenship requirements. As academic bridges between US and Russia have crumbled, the growing community of Russian scholars and activists in exile is not isolated. 

It took 30 years for Russian civil society and academia to build international ties with their Western counterparts, and mere weeks for the Russian government to all but destroy them. But it’s the people with international experience who will be best equipped and most motivated to rebuild these relationships—just as they are in preserving what’s left on a more personal level now that institutional collaborations between Russia and the West are out of the question.

"The [Russian] political class is suspicious of such contacts Russian scholars have with their counterparts from Western academia, being scared of any deviation from the official mindset,” said a former Russian fellow whose identity has been hidden for their safety. “This reminds me very much of the return to Soviet state ideology and the suppression of any unrestricted thinking; thus, this means the death of real science."

Still, this same scholar cites the importance of educational exchange and the hope that the current barriers to it are a pause rather than a complete stop: “International exchange allows [scholars] to build trust between peoples. That is essential for improving relations between countries where intellectuals and social scientists are allowed to be experts in decision-making for internal and foreign relations.”

In the meantime, the Kennan Institute is doing its part to keep the exchange between the two countries strong, one scholar at a time. 

Victoria Pardini is program associate at the Kennan Institute, where she manages scholar affairs and tracks academic freedom in Russia and Eurasia. Nina Rozhanovskaya is a coordinator and academic liaison at the Kennan Institute where she facilitates engagement with prospective fellows, contributors, and Russian alumni.

Cover photo: Wilson Center scholars from the 2021-2022 academic year come together for the annual Cherry Blossom Walk during Washington DC's peak bloom. Photo courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Photo by John Milewski.