Why We Need to Make Sure We Know Our Enemies Today as well as We Knew the USSR by the End of the Cold War

News Abroad

Mr. Engerman, the author of Know Your Enemy (Oxford, 2009), teaches history at Brandeis University.

            November marked the anniversaries of two events that defined the twentieth century: the Bolshevik Revolution (11/7/1917) and the breaching of the Berlin Wall (11/9/1989).  Critics bemoaned experts’ failure to predict the demise of the Soviet empire, a process symbolized by that electrifying moment in Berlin twenty years ago.  Yet Americans’ true “November surprise” came in 1917, when Americans had little idea what had happened, let alone why.  What made our knowledge of 1989 so much better? High on any list is the rise of a new approach to studying the world – area studies – that helped us understand the Soviet threat and can offer lessons for today.

            Americans seeking to comprehend 1917’s Revolution got little help from the experts.  In the civil war that followed the Bolshevik takeover, America’s finest news sources produced a comedy of errors worthy of The Onion.  The New York Times reported Lenin’s arrest or his flight from Russia (three times each), and even his death; it also declared the imminent demise of Bolshevik rule twenty times.  Other newspapers published the romantic radicalism of John Reed or rumors like the one that Bolsheviks were “nationalizing women,” whatever that meant.  America’s diplomats fared little better; the embassy in Russia, aided by the ambassador’s mistress, a suspected German agent, sent dispatches that mixed fact, fiction, and fantasy.  Readers of scholarly journals, meanwhile, might never have learned anything about the Bolsheviks; only one academic article on the revolution appeared before 1921.

              American knowledge of 1989’s Revolution was much improved, if still imperfect.  Noisy attacks that Soviet experts had left America unprepared for the USSR’s demise were really just the sound of political axes being sharpened. Moscow correspondents like Hedrick Smith and David Remnick provided incisive accounts of Soviet politics and society.  Scholars enumerated the structural failings of the Soviet economy, doing a good enough job that Soviet officials used western estimates to understand their own economy.  In the late 1970s, some scholars predicted the generational change that eventuated in Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise.  Pundits described the USSR as an “impoverished empire,” wondering aloud how much longer the system could go on.  Eastern European specialists were well aware of satellites’ chafing against Moscow’s control.  One major weakness: few scholars predicted the ethnic and national divisions in the Soviet collapse.

            While experts identified the flaws of the Communist system, the specific events leading up to November 1989 were impossible to predict, mostly because they could not imagine the disappearance of the Soviet bloc.  Then again, neither could Gorbachev, who was continually surprised by the events unleashed by his reforms, from popular protests to Boris Yeltsin’s 1991 maneuvers that left Gorbachev a ruler without a country.

            American knowledge of the Soviet demise – unlike our ignorance of the Soviet rise – was in large part the responsibility of area studies programs.  Many of the reporters and most of the pundits who described the daily tumult from Berlin to Moscow had passed through the Sovietological centers at Columbia, Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, and elsewhere.  Key American officials, including the Moscow ambassador and the CIA chief, were products of Sovietology.

            Soviet Studies came into being in the ashes of the Western-Soviet Grand Alliance against Nazism in WWII.  Worried about growing Soviet threat, experts fretted that never before had “so many known so little about so much.”  A group of scholars, foundation officials and intelligence officers created an approach – area studies – to understand the whole world, friends and foes alike.  They promoted long-term investments in infrastructure (like language teaching and libraries) that helped make Soviet Studies a vibrant intellectual enterprise, not just an appendage to intelligence agencies.  Building a scholarly field paid policy dividends: Sovietologists taught diplomats as well as scholars and journalists; they advised government agencies and wrote books that finally offered more than impressionistic glimpses inside the Soviet enigma. 

            In the years since 9/11, onetime Sovietologists Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates (among others) have harkened back to their old field to provide a model for knowing America’s twenty-first century enemies.  Yet the secrets of Sovietology’s success – long-term investments in infrastructure – are nowhere to be seen.  Will Americans face the next global threat as it faced the Soviet Union in 1946, with “so many who know so little about so much”?

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Peter Kovachev - 12/1/2009

I understand and sympathise with your predicament, Arnie. Sadly, for the rest of the ignorance-mired world, you will not be able to communicate your presumed advanced "level of political intuition and depth of analysis" without such authoritarian and reactionary skills like basic competence in your mother tongue.

Fahrettin Tahir - 11/28/2009

all is well that ends well

Arnold Shcherban - 11/25/2009

I've already told: you cannot even fathom to reach my level of political
intuition and depth of analysis.
So what's the point of telling you or the ones like you anything?...

Peter Kovachev - 11/24/2009

But you know better, don't you, Arnold? Don't be shy, tell us how it really is.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/23/2009

Judging by how many times the author of this article uses the worn-out "Soviet threat" motto, he along with all US, allegedly successful, Sovietology has completely failed to understand Soviets... as well, as the US contemporary enemies.