Director’s Overview: Distinctive, Not Unique

In early September 2012 I was honored to have my history of a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. -- Washington’s U Street. A Biography – appear in a superb Russian translation published by the Moscow School of Political Studies. Speaking at a seminar marking the book’s publication at the celebrated Memorial Society’s Human Rights Center in Moscow, I quickly realized that my book assumed a completely different meaning in Russia than it has acquired for readers in Washington. In Washington, my book is viewed as the history of a lived life as, for many readers, the story I tell is their own. In Moscow, my book becomes a tale of how cities create citizens who, in turn, re-create the city. The difference in perspective emerges in the varied experiences of the readers. For Washingtonians, the story is deeply personal. For Russians, its value lies in the larger meaning of the story I try to tell.

For most Americans – including Washingtonians – the Nation’s Capital is unlike any other city. The ward of the United States Congress, Washington is a city with very limited home rule at present, and none at all for ninety-nine years stretching from the 1870s to the 1970s. In this regard, it is a most un-American city with few lessons for the country at large. My book argues that, just as Washington is a distinctive city with its own special characteristics, it is also a most American of cities. Those characteristics which make the city unusual can be explored to expand understanding of the American urban experience precisely because it is simultaneously both like and unlike other American cities.

The same is true of Russia and Ukraine. Both are distinctive societies with strikingly idiosyncratic pasts and presents. No country shares Russia’s spatial expansiveness, for example, while few share Ukraine’s religious diversity and pluralism. What makes both countries distinctive should be explored, valued, and respected. Simultaneously, both Russia and Ukraine are part of a larger world. Both long have been shaped by what is going on around them. In other words, human experience in Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Eurasia is distinctive, yet not unique; just as the story of Washington is both un-American and the most American story of all cities in the United States. The tale of Washington speaks both to the particular life experiences of those who live here and to the greater challenges of nurturing citizens everywhere.

The challenge of exploring the distinctive and the universal in Russia, Ukraine, and the other societies of Eurasia has shaped how I have approached the work of the Kennan Institute over the past quarter-century. As I leave my position at the Institute to assume the directorship of a new Wilson Center Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience, I remain convinced that those who live in and study the Eurasian region need to engage with the region simultaneously as distinctive and universal. The precious act of discovery arises from this creative tension between scholarship which focuses on the region as a distinctive place and that which examines the region from a broader theoretical and comparative framework. Over the course of the past year, the Kennan Institute has been home to 44 researchers who have approached the region from both perspectives.

Scholars like Jody LaPorte, who compared the development of authoritarian rule in different Eurasian states, and Danielle Lussier, who compared democratic political participation in Russia and Indonesia, exemplified this merging of theory and place. Politics and political institutions served as the touchstone for many scholars in the past year, including Karen Dawisha’s work examining Vladimir Putin, Yuri Matsiyevskyy’s work on informal political institutions in Ukraine, and Viktor Susak’s examination of regionalism and modernity in Ukraine. Noted political figure Ella Pamfilova visited the Center to examine and explain the political developments and protests in Russia during the 2011-2012 parliamentary and presidential elections.

A number of our scholars from Russia and Ukraine came to the Wilson Center to add a comparative dimension to their professional work at home. Natalya Kaminarskaya studied the nexus of interest groups and policy influence in Washington, while Tatiana Indina compared Russian and American youth values as a factor in their political expression. Nataliya Rostova pieced together the story of Russian mass media since perestroika, drawing upon her own experience as a journalist and interviews with key figures. Natalia Moussienko explored how American public art contributes to a city’s identity formation in order to inform her own work on Kyiv. America’s complex tapestry of religion and civil society drew Roman Lunkin’s focus, as he sought a new perspective for his own work on religion issues in Russia.

Scholars continue to rely on the Institute as a place to refine and express their past research and fieldwork on Eurasian society. Kathryn Graber developed her examination of native language usage and media representation in Siberia. Erik Scott deepened his research and understanding of the Georgian diaspora in the Soviet Union; and Jennifer Wistrand, as I write these words, has just settled in to further her important work on the role that Azerbaijan’s national narrative plays on the fate of individuals displaced by the continuing conflict with Armenia.

Finally, the Kennan Institute would not be the same without those scholars who come to wrestle with the deep historical questions that other academics and policymakers alike overlook to their loss, or peril. Vlad Zubok examined the essential role that Russian nationalism played in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Elena Sitnikova studied the evolution of the USSR’s image in the United States from the end of the wartime alliance to the height of the Cold War. Sarah Cameron brought new understanding to the Kazakh famine in the earliest days of Stalin’s rule. Patryk Babiracki explored the use and effectiveness of “soft power” in the early Soviet battle for hearts and minds in post-War Eastern Europe. Evoking an even earlier era, Yedida Kanfer researched late Imperial Russia’s political, economic, and religious influence and control over Poland. Going further afield, Scott Kenworthy traced the development of Orthodoxy in North America and Imperial and revolutionary Russia.

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In closing, I would like to make special note of the Kennan Institute staff in Washington, Moscow, and Kyiv, without whom none of the accomplishments of the past year would have been possible. I have had the great good fortune of working with a group of colleagues over the past year who have set a high standard to which we all want to aspire. Ekaterina Alekseeva, Thea Cooke, Lauren Crabtree, Joseph Dresen, Pavel Korolev, Galina Levina, Amy Liedy, Mary Elizabeth Malinkin, Emil Payin, Irina Petrova, William Pomeranz, Yaroslav Pylynsky, Nataliya Samozvanova, Anna Toker and S. Todd Weinberg have demonstrated their collective and individual intelligence, imagination, and integrity at every turn.

As I note above, my tenure as Director of the Kennan Institute is coming to a close after twenty-three years. I am very fortunate to have held what is arguably the best position in the field of Russian studies. I have worked with truly incredible colleagues who consistently converted my dreams into reality, be they hardworking Kennan staff in our three offices, Advisory Council members who have given me sage counsel along the way, the more than 1,200 scholars who have been in residence during my tenure, literally thousands of participants in our program and probably tens of thousands of audience members as well as the donors who made everything that we achieved possible. I remain forever in their debt.

Blair A. Ruble
September 30, 2012



A Message from Acting Director William Pomeranz

With the publication of the director’s annual report, the Blair Ruble era at the Kennan Institute officially comes to a close.   Fortunately, Blair will continue to serve the Kennan Institute as a senior advisor and we are privileged to be able to rely on his wisdom and judgment.  Moreover, he has not gone that far away – having just moved three floors down to head up the Wilson Center’s Global Sustainability and Resilience program.

Nevertheless, a transition has begun and as acting director, I look forward to fostering the rich dialogue that has been the hallmark of Kennan Institute programming.  This means engaging with scholars in residence as well as working with our alumni to provide a fuller picture of the region for academic and policy making communities.   The Kennan Institute will also continue to provide sustained focus on the region through its weekly seminars and various publication series.  In order to expand our outreach, we will increasingly turn to the internet as the means to reach both specific and larger audiences.  Over the next few months, we will be working on initiatives that will create new outlets for KI scholars and alumni to highlight their research and to contribute to international conversations on security, rule of law, modernization and migration among other timely issues.  Our Moscow and Kyiv offices will be joining in with their own online publications and reports.

The Kennan Institute has always put a high premium on openness and the ability to bridge the worlds of academia and public policy.   Our new media strategies will continue to make us a leader in fostering exchanges of ideas across national boundaries.  The Kennan Institute has also thrived as an institution that promotes multidisciplinary research that goes beyond the immediate headlines and explores and explains the history, culture, and the arts of the region.   These core values remain essential to the Kennan Institute mission and will continue to be emphasized during this transition and beyond.   I look forward to working with the Kennan Institute’s advisory councils and our alumni in the U.S. and throughout Eurasia in the coming months to build on past successes and to pursue new opportunities. 

William E. Pomeranz
October 22, 2012