Spring 2024

Navigating Russian Research Through Volatile Times

– S. Frederick Starr, Peter Reddaway, Blair Ruble, and Matthew A. Rojansky

Reflections and insights from past Kennan Institute directors.

S. Frederick Starr, Director Kennan Institute (1972-1979)

S. Frederick Starr

Between the founding of the Kennan Institute and my departure in the last days of 1979, the Soviet Union was ruled by the turgid Leonid Brezhnev. Dissidence had peaked, the Brezhnev constitution disappointed, and the Kremlin’s military buildup gained pace. It was in this environment that the Institute quickly became Washington’s premier locale for analysis and discussion of everything pertaining to the USSR. Thanks to the Wilson Center’s unique arrangement with the Library of Congress, where you could order a book and have it delivered to your desk, the Kennan Institute became a magnet for top scholars worldwide. The diversity of disciplines, nationalities, and outlooks offered an unparalleled locus for serious discussions.

Arguably our most significant achievement during those years was the successful effort to foster unmediated contact between Western scholars and Soviet social scientists working in the vast network of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The effect was like opening the window of a sealed room and produced ripples right up to Nikolai Baibakov, head of the USSR’s State Planning Committee (known as Gosplan) and an Institute guest. He doggedly believed that main-frame computers would enable the Gosplan to manage the entire economy from one central point, but his visit and contact with American computer users helped disabuse him of this, and later led Russia to abandon many of its centralized planning tools.

Such achievements of those early years inevitably lived alongside shortcomings. One flaw was the scarcity of sociologist fellows. The Soviets rejected most sociologist exchange applicants, which left the Institute with little to advance this important area of studies.

We did much in the study of Russian literature and dissident art—but largely neglected film, music, and dance. We barely touched religion, even though the spiritual life of Soviet citizens was increasingly in turmoil.

General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (1906-1982) and US President Richard Millhouse Nixon (1913-1994). Visit to the United States. White House, June 1974. Nast Egle/Shutterstock.

Understandably, George Kennan’s views on the USSR directly impacted the Institute’s choice of fields pursued there. Even though there was evidence of social restiveness in many of the non-Russian republics, the Institute largely ignored these regions of the USSR during its first decade. A prime reason for this was that to study them requires focused training in local languages and a specialized knowledge of their cultures. Fortunately, at Ohio State University, Indiana University, and especially the University of Chicago under Professor Alexandre Bennigsen, these studies gradually took hold. But the process was slow and barely affected the Institute in its early years.

Our most significant achievement during those years was fostering unmediated contact between Western scholars and Soviet social scientists working in the vast network of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The effect was like opening the window of a sealed room. -S. Frederick Starr

It is ironic that the Institute has expanded its scope to include the now-independent states that it neglected when they were ruled by Moscow.

The same focus that caused the Institute to neglect the non-Russian republics of the USSR in its early years led it to undervalue the diverse regions and people within the Russian Republic. Moscow’s policies at the time prevented most students of regionalism within Russia from traveling abroad, which enabled few Americans to pursue such subjects in Russia. As a result, both the Soviets and the Americans nurtured an image of the USSR and of Russia that was less diverse and more monolithic than was true.

A final area where the Institute might have done better during the 1970s was arms control and security. By mid-decade, the debate between hawks and doves had already erupted. Kennan, an arch dove, wanted to distance himself from the noisy exchange—and certainly did not want to give a platform to Paul Nitze or to Harvard’s Richard Pipes. There was concern that, had we given prominence to any of the hawks, the Soviets would end all contact immediately. It was a form of self-censorship to which the Institute tacitly engaged, but I still ask myself if we did enough to air both sides of the era’s most vexing questions.

Peter Reddaway, Kennan Institute Director (1986-1989)

Peter Reddaway

Heading the Kennan Institute from 1986-89, I witnessed a remarkable shift in the Kremlin and its policies. Initially, after Mikhail Gorbachev was elevated to head of the Communist Party a year before my accession at the Institute, the Kremlin's operating principles remained traditionally Soviet, shutting off the Institute from key contacts inside the USSR, forcing us to rely on Russians living abroad, vulnerable dissidents still in Russia, and Western experts for insights into the topic we were researching, or even for their suggestions of new topics to be researched.

But the Kremlin quickly started to change. The release of political and religious prisoners began and by late 1988 all were free. The Communist Party was forced to share power, and in 1989 parliamentary elections were held with a measure of real choice among the candidates. As this unfolded, Gorbachev sought serious accommodations with the West, notably in the fields of culture and arms control. The result created a greater sense of security in both the West and East.

We should welcome future Gorbachevs with constructive long-term plans to secure cooperation and a peaceful world, and not treat them like ready-made Western democrats. -Peter Reddaway

The Institute nurtured this process through lively discussion at open meetings, conferences, and individual exchanges among Western and Soviet scholars and officials. This generated Western media coverage that encountered remarkably little Soviet opposition.

The gradual, if inconsistent, easing of Soviet, then Russian domestic and foreign policy from 1986 to 1999, suggests that Russia's growing autocracy under Vladimir Putin may not extend beyond the end of the 2020's, when more liberal tendencies could easily resurface. The West, and the Kennan Institute, must look for such signs and discreetly encourage them. If inviting liberals from Russia to visit proves impractical, then the West should return to the patience of prior eras. It can always work with Russians already in the West, who want to return, but only to a more liberal Russia. The West should also strengthen contacts with intellectuals in Ukraine, the Baltic republics, Moldova, and the less autocratic countries of Central Asia.

The Institute should continue criticizing Putin firmly and often. To refrain would be misconstrued as an attempt to appease him. Russians need to understand the severe price he must pay for his aggressive behavior toward Ukraine, and his extreme intolerance of criticism and opposition at home. We should welcome future Gorbachevs with constructive long-term plans to secure cooperation and a peaceful world, and not treat them like ready-made Western democrats. It will take years of hard work to expand Russia's ruling class and guide it toward democracy. The Institute has a special role to play in US and Western relations with Russia. To succeed we must nourish these relations consistently.

Blair Ruble, Kennan Institute Director (1989-2012)

Blair Ruble

The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989—just six months after I became Kennan Institute Director. The failed putsch to depose Soviet President Mikail Gorbachev came 22 months later in August, 1991 and by December of that year the Soviet Union had disappeared. We suddenly faced a very different political landscape with dramatically new challenges and opportunities. I knew what I wanted to do but was unsure if I could succeed.

I had three goals as my guide. First, I understood a focus on contemporary politics and strategic objectives wasn’t enough to understand what was happening in the Soviet Union--and later Russia. We had to place these objectives in a cultural and historic context unfamiliar to many Americans. Second, the challenge of understanding the Soviet Union was too much for any single individual. We needed collaboration among specialists of varied disciplines, experiences, and backgrounds. Third, we could never understand the USSR solely through the lens of Moscow. We needed to expand our reach to the constituent republics and peoples and to Russia’s diverse regions. Each objective required a level of cooperation and openness that was unthinkable during the Cold War; yet they were essential for engaging in the new world that was emerging.

If it seems intent on placing its own history and culture in a straitjacket, multiple Russias can exist. -Blair A. Ruble

The Institute thrived thanks to its talented staff in Washington, Moscow, and Kyiv, imaginative Wilson Center leadership, generous funders, and hundreds of scholars and specialists worldwide who participated in our activities. Collectively, we rose to meet the moment.

But there were doubters. During this time, one Wilson Center Trustee declared at a board meeting that “the Kennan Institute has been a failure” because of the sad state of US-Russian relations at the time (the mid-2000s). But I understood the mission in different terms: as helping Americans understand Russia, using scholarship and collaboration among specialists from around the world. The Institute needed to look beyond the moment to bring the insights of history and culture to discussions of Russia’s future, enabling people on both sides of an issue to draw from a shared experience for meaningful problem-solving.

During my tenure, the Kennan Institute worked to nurture institutional change within Russia. We collaborated on a long-term initiative to transform the social sciences and humanities at Russian regional universities. But with hindsight, I believe that our investment in individual scholars proved more meaningful. I am most proud of the hundreds of scholars who left our programs empowered to engage their worlds more productively. Our legacy was not an improved US-Russian relationship, but rather a deepened individual capacity in those who set out to change--and did change--the world, one person at a time. These include scholars who became high-ranking government officials in the US, Russia, and Ukraine, academics who wrote landmark works and became leaders in their fields, and scholars who taught hundreds of students and ran universities.

June 2, 1990, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev prepares to depart from Washington DC by Helicopter. Shutterstock/Mark Reinstein.

After two decades, I understood that the vision of my younger self no longer held the same promise in the new and different political landscape the Institute faced.

The Institute’s leadership today faces a Russia that is turning its back on the world rather than opening to it as happened when I took the helm. This new course better approximates the Russia facing founders Kennan, Starr, and Billington fifty years ago. They understood that such opening and closing necessitates studying Russia from many perspectives. If it seems intent on placing its own history and culture in a straitjacket, multiple Russias can exist. Prior to 1917, Russia was preserved in archives and cultural life in such distant locations as Berlin, London, Shanghai, and Washington, DC, despite unrelenting Bolshevik and Stalinist efforts to destroy Russia’s historical and cultural legacy. What happened before 1917 was ready to be discovered by those wanting to bring change through perestroika; it remains there for others who may follow in future periods of openness. Today, there is much work to be done to safeguard the record of the past half century for future Russians who will want to find it.

We tried to bring Ukrainian and Russian scholars together to start a dialogue, but it wasn’t effective—the gap was too wide to bridge. But I am pleased that we made an independent Ukraine a central focus of the Institute during my tenure. Our research centered on how Ukraine emerged from the Soviet shadow as a culture and a society, consolidating its integration into Europe. The Kennan Institute and the Wilson Center’s engagement with Ukraine’s sovereignty became even more important once we approached the region from multiple perspectives, and not just that of Moscow.

As I look back, I believe my three guiding principles continue to hold promise. Our field still needs to bring cultural and historical context through collaborative initiatives extending beyond the capitals. My first accomplishment was integrating regional scholars with American scholars on equal footing and focusing on issues that mattered beyond the frontpage headlines. At first, current events appeared to negate some of the Institute’s accomplishments. But on closer examination, Russia’s desire to leave the rest of the world can only hold sway for so long. Kennan, Billington, and Starr wanted an institution that would last. Eventually, Russia will reverse course. When Russia looks to re-engage with both the world and its own history, the Kennan Institute will be well placed to respond.

Matthew A. Rojansky, Kennan Institute Director (2013-2022)

Matthew A. Rojansky

Before coming to the Kennan Institute in the summer of 2013, I completed a fellowship as a policy specialist at the US Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. I studied the endemic corruption and massive corporate raiding of Viktor Yanukovych’s era, all while watching public frustration boil over into demonstrations. Opposition activists and journalists were attacked by criminals believed to be working for the government. It was clear Yanukovych was wavering on his commitment to establish political and economic ties with the European Union. Given that background, the Euromaidan protest movement starting in November 2013 was not shocking. But what followed—the slaughter of protestors and bloody violence on the streets of Kyiv, Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the Kremlin-backed war in Donbas—not only shocked me, but came to symbolize a new reality in Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe that the United States would have to face.

The grinding conflict in Eastern Ukraine continued, with ever widening regional consequences. There was also a surge of internal political repression in Russia. The Kremlin designated a growing list of foreign entities—including, in 2015, the US Russia Foundation where I now work, and the Kennan Institute itself in 2023—as “undesirable organizations,” and branded independent-minded Russian activists as foreign agents. With each turn of the screw, researchers, journalists and others with ties to the West found it harder to do their work and live their lives. Hit squads of security services agents tracked opposition political leaders and other targets to poison and kill them.

The work of nonpartisan research and analysis to support US policymakers—already difficult—became more so when regional geopolitics collided with US domestic politics following the 2016 election. Russian attempts to interfere in the election, the ensuing investigation by FBI Director Robert Mueller, and the first impeachment of President Donald Trump fed into an already charged partisan political atmosphere that made it difficult to discuss issues pertaining to Russia and Ukraine in Washington and in the US media.

Facing these obstacles together with the uncertainties of a global pandemic, our dedicated professional staff still managed to preserve the Kennan Institute’s role as the leading center for policy research on the troubled region in Washington. Throughout my tenure, we drew support from the wider Wilson Center and the diverse Kennan Institute alumni community, which remained deeply engaged in its activities. This engagement, in turn, helped us select future generations of scholars.

Russian soldiers guarding an Ukrainian naval base on March 4, 2014 in Perevalne, Crimea, Ukraine. On February 28, 2014 Russian military forces invaded Crimea peninsula. photo.ua/Shutterstock.

Another major challenge we faced was maintaining funding to support scholars at all phases of their careers, enabling them to produce rigorously researched, policy relevant, and accessible scholarship. The post-Cold War decline of academic resources devoted to the study of Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia continued well into the 2010s, as area studies fell out of vogue in universities, and interest in the Middle East and East Asia grew. While interest in Russia from the US government and broader national security community rose with the apparent growing threat from Moscow in that period, support from farsighted private foundations and donors in the US was key to sustaining our work.

The depth and breadth of our work was, to borrow Jane Harman’s inimitable phrase, “an intellectual candy store.” We launched new digital publications, including the Russia File and Focus Ukraine blogs, the Kennan Cable analytical article series, and our highly successful podcasts, the Russia File and KennanX. In this work, we benefited tremendously from the insights and energy of media professionals on our team, who helped bridge the gap between scholarship and policy in the context of current events.

With each turn of the screw, researchers, journalists and others with ties to the West found it harder to do their work and live their lives. -Matthew A. Rojansky

In my own work, I particularly valued collaboration with Kennan Institute Advisory Council Chair Professor Michael Kimmage on A Kennan For Our Times: Revisiting America’s Greatest 20th Century Diplomat in the 21st Century, and with Mykhailo Minakov on From The Ukraine to Ukraine: A Contemporary History, 1991-2021, which chronicled historical events and lessons with clear contemporary relevance. I was also fortunate to help launch a unique trilateral dialogue between the US, Russia, and India that met in Moscow, Delhi, and Washington over several years, yielding an up-close look at Russia-India relations years before outreach to developing countries became central to Putin’s strategy for countering Western sanctions.

Among our most memorable events were our annual alumni conferences. Looking back, I am particularly proud that even in the difficult years following 2014, we were able to bring together Russian, Ukrainian, European, and US alumni for in-depth scholarly discussions and debates. Those conferences were often the only times that scholars from countries at war could freely exchange ideas. We also supported work beyond the region of Russia and Ukraine including Moldova, Belarus, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus—work I am enormously proud to see continues to this day.

Our work in partnership with the wider Wilson Center also became truly global in scope. For example, I recall sitting in the presidential residence in Taipei in 2019 with a typhoon raging outside, discussing with then Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen how we might learn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to manage threats from China against Taiwan. That same year, we took what may have been the last group of US Congressional staff to visit Moscow, the capstone of the Wilson Center’s Congressional Fellowship Program, where we were followed almost everywhere by hostile state media and dour faced “undercover” officers, but also received by Russian officials, experts, and the US Ambassador and his team.

Through all the changes, the Institute continues to be a home in Washington for the best scholarship from across the country and around the world. The work of our scholars remains accessible to policymakers, even in the current difficult political environment. Its publications and programs, while meeting the highest standards for academic rigor, also continue to reach the widest possible public audience. This commitment honors the half century of support that Congress and the American people have given the Kennan Institute and the Wilson Center, laying a strong foundation for public service under the banner of their legacy.


S. Frederick Starr is the founding director, Kennan Institute and the founding chairman and distinguished fellow of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the American Foreign Policy Council.

Peter Reddaway is a retired professor of political science. He taught at the London School of Economics and then at George Washington University, where he specialized in Soviet/Russian government. His books and numerous articles were central to bringing Soviet dissent to the attention of the West.

Blair A. Ruble is a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He previously served as Vice President for Programs, (2014-2017), Director of the Wilson Center’s Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017), Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014).

Matthew A. Rojansky, the President and CEO of the US Russia Foundation and a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, is one of the country’s leading analysts of US relations with Russia, Ukraine, and the region. He has advised governments and international organizations and leads track two diplomacy on Eurasian conflicts.

Cover photo: Panorama of St. Petersburg, Russia at the summer sunset. Shutterstock/FOTOGRIN.