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Book Discussion: Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America's Soviet Experts

"There is a major discrepancy between how mainstream U.S. academics understood Soviet Studies and how Russianists saw their work," said David C. Engerman, Associate Professor of History, Brandeis University, and Former Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute, at a 16 February 2010 Kennan Institute lecture. Engerman discussed his new book, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America's Soviet Experts, and the approach to scholarship known as Sovietology that arose after World War II.

Engerman spoke of one of the important themes in Know Your Enemy: the impact of government involvement on academic life, and to a lesser extent, the impact of Sovietologists on the government's foreign policy. Soviet Studies did not arise during the Cold War but instead has its roots in WWII. "The WWII origins of Soviet Studies left its marks on the field," said Engerman, describing the new behavioral sciences (sociology, cultural anthropology, and social psychology) that influenced Sovietology. The concept of interdisciplinarity also emerged, particularly in the study of single regions – what came to be called "area studies." There was a heavy emphasis on teaching Russian language and culture, especially on campuses that ran army and navy training programs. Many Sovietologists came out of these programs, and the interdisciplinary nature of academic programs was also reflected in the wartime Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA), which was organized by region, not subject.

Engerman also described how WWII shaped an amorphous and broad attitude towards politics, what he termed an "attitude of the Grand Alliance." Initially, American universities were eager to bring in Soviet scholars and visitors in order to learn first-hand about the Soviet Union. There was also an attitude of "total mobilization" among academics, who felt comfortable changing their careers whether they shifted from political science to history or history to sociology. The legacy of these post-WWII changes created a network of "scholars, spies, and soldiers," asserted Engerman, that "worked together to create a field from scratch." Teaching, training, and research emerged as three core tasks for the field; the Joint Committee for Slavic Studies exercised central planning and divided the tasks among different institutions.

In 1950, Harvard University launched its Refugee Interview Project, with the Air Force as the program sponsor. The goal was to apply the latest techniques of behavioral science to the Soviet Union, but lack of access to the USSR led researchers to instead focus on Soviet "non-returners" (nevozvrashentsy) who resided in Germany. The project simultaneously provided an opportunity to train young scholars in the Russian language and to improve their understanding of Russian culture, an example of "big social science," according to Engerman. The project was presented as a study of a modern industrial society, and the results upheld the assertion that the Soviet Union was indeed not teetering on the brink of collapse. Engerman stated that the Harvard Refugee Interview Project shaped future studies of Soviet politics, and also contributed to the idea that industrialism would soften the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, the theory of totalitarianism as an analytical paradigm for the Soviet Union was ebbing, although it was still used in the political sphere to describe the Soviet regime.

These decades saw the expansion of the field of Sovietology, as younger scholars who were not part of the WWII generation came to work within the field. Academic social science disciplines, however, were narrowing and area studies were losing pride of place in American universities; political scientists with a specialization in Sovietology saw other political scientists, not other area specialists, as their colleagues, explained Engerman. The crisis in area studies in the 1960s and 1970s led to a polarization of the field, creating a new tension between scholarship and policy. Engerman opined that the tension was often productive, and was visible in new institutions that were founded in the early 1970s, such as the National Council for Soviet and East European Research (now known as NCEEER) and the Kennan Institute.

By the 1980s, the field was analytically ready for Gorbachev, but internal bickering caused Sovietology to miss "its most exciting moment." Nevertheless, Engerman concluded that Sovietology was a great success. Its scholars produced more academic books on the Soviet Union in the 1950s than the previous half century, and dozens of these works helped shape disciplines such as history and sociology to this day, even though Sovietology itself has now disappeared.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute



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Larissa Eltsefon

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more