By way of explaining the orientation of this blog:
The hurdle I’m trying to get over – with starting a blog, but also with marketing myself as a serious smart person with serious smart ideas – is that I feel like my motivation for studying the former Soviet Union is sort of unintellectual. It is worth noting that this is not just me.* Not Being Taken Seriously is area studies’ own special inferiority complex; American academia is very compartmentalized by area of inquiry, and interdisciplinary inquiry can really be done quite badly, and that means that we have a lot of people looking down their noses at us. Often, the assumption is that approaching inquiry from a specific geography means we are more interested in sentimental regional attachments than the really big questions, and that using different disciplines to figure out the answers to one place is not as valuable as using different places to figure out the answers to one discipline. (I call bullshit.) So we fret, some of us more than others, that maybe we are kind of unintellectual. This is not something I knew coming into area studies; I just thought it sounded like a neat way to get to read a lot of books about Russia. (It is that.) The opportunity for angst was just a surprise bonus.
As for my personal unintellectual motivation, it comes from a lot of different places, but the main one is that the Soviet Union was The Experiment of the 20th Century – a really intriguing and devastating century for humanity as a whole – and we’re still trying to interpret what exactly it is that we’ve witnessed. To someone with strong but ambivalent feelings about Marxism-Leninism, this is fascinating stuff. Did the Soviet experiment fail because Stalin was evil? Because it was foisted on an agrarian population that couldn’t pony up the manufacturing capacity needed to create a self-contained communist society? Because nationalism had become so deeply rooted in the European conception of statehood that the brotherhood of nations was impossible? Or did it fail because it was all fundamentally a bad idea?
By the same token, what has happened since the Fall is pretty compelling to those of us who are fascinated or terrified by capitalism, and to democratizers and other sorts of people who wonder if the West really has all the answers. Luckily, a lot of area studies folks spend a lot of time on the post- part of Communism. This is partly because it seems more relevant to the people who might want to fund us, and partly because we need to try to hold our ever more divergent region together by asking thought-provoking questions about how the countries of the Eastern Bloc all ended up so different so fast. (We are delaying finding a good answer for this, because it might mean we would have to stop studying the outliers like Estonia and the Czech Republic, and then we wouldn’t have anywhere nice to take research trips.)
Anyway, this is all a bit glib and simplified, but what it boils down to is, “Russia makes a great story, and it seems like it might be a story that tells us some important things about the world.” This solves the intellectualism problem well enough for me; I’m happy with it. The more practical among us can also say, “Russia is vital to the strategic interests of the United States.” (Boooring.) I hope one of these rationales is good enough to interest you in Russia, gentle reader.
*To the extent that this motivation involves ideas about Russia’s beauty and mystery and Orientalism and draws us to book titles like Natasha’s Dance and Land of the Firebird and The Icon and the Axe, it is probably a valid criticism of many of our Russia fixations.