Sovietology: Where Did It Go Wrong?

By Bovard, James | Insight on the News, December 7, 1992 | Go to article overview

Sovietology: Where Did It Go Wrong?


Bovard, James, Insight on the News


The William H. Donner Foundation has awarded a two-year grant of $193,910 to the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University report on the status of Sovietology as social science. The study will seek answers to three questions:

Why during the past three decades did Sovietology acquire a perspective that diminished acceptable standards of scholarship?

Why did almost no Soviet specialist allow for the possibility of a catastrophic collapse of the Soviet system in so short a time as six years, the Gorbachev span?

Was it a failure of social science methodology that led to what may well be seen as an academic disaster -- that is, the publication of what could be regarded as loyalty to ideology rather than adherence to the standards of legitimate scholarship?

More specifically, the study will focus on mainstream Sovietology. Its academic spokesmen for years provably distorted and minimized the historical record of the Stalin terror; ignored the failures of the Soviet economy; apologized for post-Stalin human rights violations; and, scandalously, mocked those Sovietologists, very much in the minority, like Martin Malia, Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes, whose books and monographs adhered to the highest standards of scholarship.

The research project will be under the direction of Hopkins Professor Charles H. Fairbanks Jr., a highly regarded expert on the history and political systems of the Soviet bloc.

Here is a summary of the background to this undertaking that, when its findings are published next year, should have a profound effect on American graduate education in the social sciences:

For more than a quarter century, thanks to Lenin's revolution and, particularly, to Joseph Stalin, there arose and flourished in the West, and above all in the United States, a political science subdiscipline that became known as Sovietology. Its practitioners, usually academics but also government analysts and journalists, specialized in Soviet and Soviet-area political and economic developments.

Sovietology produced some noted scholars, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, onetime national security adviser to President Carter; Richard Pipes of Harvard University's Russian Research Center and onetime adviser to President Reagan; and Robert Conquest, whose 75th birthday was recently celebrated by the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., with greetings from President Bush, former Presidents Ford, Nixon and Reagan, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain and a host of other celebrities.

Sovietology also produced academic frauds with scholarly credentials who purveyed an enormous amount of misinformation about the Soviet Union.

The founders of the discipline were themselves academics: Professors Philip Moseley of Columbia, Merle Fainsod of Harvard, Leonard Schapiro of the London School of Economics and Bertram Wolfe, a nonacademic who as a young man had been a Comintern apparatchik.

None of them had any starry-eyed illusions about the Soviet Union.

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