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Russia Experts Needed

2:00 PM, Mar 19, 2014 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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In the weekend's Washington Post, Georgetown professor Angela Stent discussed the sudden demand for Russia experts—in particular those Sovietologists and Kremlinologists who in the 1990s had been consigned to the dustbin of history (or, if they had tenure, the dustbin of history departments). But ever since Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimea, Stent and her cohort have been regaining prominence. The professor argues this should not be a passing fad.

"Unless we commit to educating a new generation about this onetime rival and possible partner," she writes, "we won’t be prepared to deal effectively with Russia’s post-Putin generation, with all the risks and challenges—but also the opportunities—it will present."

Having devoted much of her professional life to Russian studies, Stent must have been taken aback by how suddenly all-things Soviet were no longer in vogue. She recalls,

The 1990s were a tough decade for the field. With the Soviet enemy gone and a free-market and democratic Russia supposedly about to emerge, why bother devoting government and foundation funds to Russia and Eurasian studies and graduate student exchanges? Ironically, just as it became possible to travel freely around Russia and discuss previously taboo subjects, the demand for our knowledge plummeted. Experts in democracy and economics—not necessarily Russia scholars—flocked to Moscow, believing that it would become a major emerging market, with competitive political parties and enormous business opportunities after decades of Soviet deprivation.

I remember this time well and not so fondly. I had started at Georgetown in 1991, majoring in international relations and European studies. This did not help me, however, land a job as graduation day approached four years later. At the School of Foreign Service bulletin board was a sign for some employment opportunity. I no longer recall what that job was, only the message in the subhed: NO RUSSIAN SPEAKERS NEED APPLY. International relations was difficult enough to market—I remember seeing another sign for an institute dealing in naval diplomacy. Diplomacy! I thought, before reading the finer print: ACCOUNTING MAJORS ONLY.

And if the market for Russian experts was grim, you can imagine what it was like for us German speakers. In fact, a good friend of mine who spent four years studying German ended up using her fluency skills on transatlantic trips—as a flight attendant.

Needless to say, it was heartening to see Angela Stent's byline again. Welcome back, Kremlinologists!

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