Perestroika lessons for U.S. and Russia

American students of the 2014 Carmel Institute trip pose with a sculpture that says “love” in Russian at Sparrow Hills in Moscow. Sourсe: Richard Portwood

American students of the 2014 Carmel Institute trip pose with a sculpture that says “love” in Russian at Sparrow Hills in Moscow. Sourсe: Richard Portwood

Three decades after perestroika, Russian studies experts re-examine the policies that have defined U.S.-Russia relations for 30 years.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began his famous restructuring, known as perestroika 30 years ago this spring. From 1985, when the reforms began, until the end of the Soviet Union, the interest of Americans in the Soviet Union and Russian language increased, and Soviet-American ties were strengthened through student and professional exchanges as well as through telecasts that connected Soviets and Americans, who were separated both geographically and ideologically.

According to the Modern Language Association, enrollment in Russian language classes in the U.S. nearly doubled during the years preceeding and throughout perestroika. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people studying Russian in the U.S. increased from about 24,000 to more than 44,000.

Research from Victoria Bonnell and George Breslauer at the University of California, Berkeley indicates that Gorbachev’s reforms and, particularly, his policy of glasnost – or openness – which attemped to establish freedom of speech and transparency in governmental institutions, raised excitement among American academics and experts. “From a trickle in 1986, glasnost opened a floodgate by 1989-90; censorship declined dramatically; increasingly sensitive archives were opened both to Soviet and non-Soviet scholars,” Bonnell and Breslauer wrote.

Most importantly, perestroika allowed Soviet and American scholars to exchange opinions and publish articles together. People also had the opportunity to regularly participate in joint events such as telecasts and international forums, where, as Bonnell and Breslauer put it, “Soviet scholars became increasingly emboldened to speak their minds.”

“The perestroika experience in the U.S.S.R. was a unique phenomenon determined by very specific conditions – most importantly the Soviet Union’s reevaluation of its foundation myths and achievements,” said Anton Fedyashin, director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at American University in Washington D.C. “Doubt is always a healthy thing in human societies since it stimulates introspection and this experience led many people in the U.S.S.R. to express genuine interest in the U.S. and its culture.”

Gregory Feifer, a former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio (2005-2009) and for Radio Free Europe (2009-2012) in Prague, consider the thaw of perestroika as “a great example of two states with apparently opposing ideologies beginning to understand” that cooperation benefits both sides.

Feifer, 43, graduated from Harvard University with a master’s in Russian studies in 1998, long after the Soviet collapse. However, since his mother is Russian and his father, American George Feifer, is a journalist who reported about Soviet life during the Cold War, he grew up very much aware of Soviet life.

“My early perception of the U.S.S.R. was little more than a stereotype: a place where life was grim and everything was gray – but that under the surface people were warm and valued love and friendship,” he said. “When Gorbachev began perestroika, it was a period of great optimism that the Soviet Union was finally opening.”

Kenneth Martinez, who graduated from Stanford University with a master’s degree in international studies, focusing on Russia, was born during the very beginning of perestroika in 1985. He studied this period in detail, and sees perestroika as “the shift of power from an older generation to a newer one,” a sense of movement in a stagnant society long in need of change.

“What is quite interesting...are the personal ties and trust that characterized the relationships of many diplomats of the older generation during this period,” Martinez said. “This created a sense of stability that allowed relationships to be built on mutual respect and on trust – a wary trust, well-characterized by Reagan’s slogan of ‘trust but verify’, but trust nonetheless.”

Perestroika: The other side of the coin

In contrast, Nicolai N. Petro, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island who specializes in Russia, warns against romanticizing perestroika.

“For the Soviet leadership at the time, it was not an effort to promote mutual understanding with the West,” he argues. “Rather, it was an attempt to reform the U.S.S.R. and reconnect with the original Leninist ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

At best, it was seen as an opportunity to achieve the advancement of U.S. policy interests by taking advantage of the fact that Gorbachev had temporarily disoriented the Soviet leadership; at worst, it was seen as merely another effort by Soviet leaders to bamboozle the West.

Other experts, academics and journalists also do not see perestroika as a clear-cut phenomenon in Soviet-American relations. Many argue that it didn’t meet the expectations for either country, which, finally, lead to mutual misunderstanding.

According to Fedyashin “once the floodgates opened, Western and American culture quickly overwhelmed the U.S.S.R., but the dismantlement of the country in 1991 led to two unfortunate consequences,” he said.

“In Russia, the end of the Cold War inspired unrealistic expectations about becoming part of a greater West. In the U.S., triumphalist interpretations of victory in the Cold War resulted in unrealistic assumptions about Russia’s cultural and political convergence with the West. The outcome was a reluctance to study Russian culture as an integral part of Russian national identity in the West.”

Martinez argues that perestroika “opened a can of worms... that acted more like a kicked bag of snakes,” and one of them bit its main architect: Gorbachev.

“What resulted was the chaotic Russia of the 1990s, out of which Russia’s current institutions were born and that gave ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism’ a bad connotation for many Russians,” he said.

Anti-perestroika in U.S.-Russia relations today

Petro believes that the U.S. must look beyond Gorbachev’s perestroika to “anticipate the emergence of a new national consensus based on traditional Russian values. Failure to do so would result in misreading Russia as simply an extension of the Soviet Union, and blind us to opportunities for forging a new relationship that come but once in a lifetime,” he warns.

“The good news...is that government support will afford more opportunities to study Russia,” Petro said. “The bad news is that we will have replicated the ideological, organizational and institutional perspectives of the Cold War, and once again lost sight of the complexity and diversity of Russian life and society.”

At the same time, Kenneth Martinez argues that the current trend in U.S.-Russia relations is far different from the one that existed in perestroika. According to him, the potential for open conflict is even greater now than at almost any time during the Cold War.

“There are no established rules to the game, and the amicable relations of the previous generation have crumbled into mutual distrust,” he said. “I think this lack of certainty and degeneration of personal relationships are probably one of the worse outcomes for those of the older generation.”

When then, will the increasing interest in Russia after the Ukrainian crisis translate into more funding for Russian studies programs in the U.S.? Petro said that “initiatives of this magnitude take years to establish and our focus on Ukraine is barely two years old.”

However, as of March, Fedyashin is the director of a new center for Russian studies at American University, christened the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History, after philanthropist Susan Carmel Lehrman, who endowed the program in perpetuity for the purpose of continuing the ongoing study of Russian culture and history.

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