From the Russian Bear to Cheburashka and back again: Politics, National Symbolism and Dynamics of the Russian Studies (from) Abroad

The image of a bear has been employed as a representation of Russia for centuries. As showed by reliable studies, barbarianism, brutality, lack of sensuality, redundancy, and unpredictability made up a list of the bear-like features associated with the “Russian World” in Western mass media and literature. This pattern was accompanied by the discourses of hostility and contradiction between Western countries and Soviet Union followed by Russian Empire. Russian authorities had actively used the symbol of a bear as well to demonstrate the strength of the state. More recently, Soviet political establishment showed an intention to overcome its negative connotations which appeared to be an obstacle in globalizing post-WWII world. Misha, a teddy bear, became a mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. A big inflatable toy, it was supposed to convince geopolitical opponents of powerfulness and sereneness of the late-socialist regime.

The painful socio-political and economic change of Russian society in the following decades manifested itself in the modification of national symbolic order. At the turn of century, Cheburashka, a character from the children’s cartoon animation movie, which is neither a bear nor a rabbit, was promoted as new Olympic talisman and national tourist souvenir. It personified feelings of dependency, depression, and romanticized helpless which characterized Russian internal and external politics of that period. However, the recent international events, especially the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in the fall of 2008, seem to become a break point in this history. The claim to restore the status of Russia as a superpower initiated a broad discussion among Western scientists and politicians on the problem of deeper understanding of the country, its potential and strategic interests. 

My study assumes a correspondence between the symbolic level of sociality, and the real order of power. It is focused on reflections of Russian domestic processes in the national representations and in the trans-national activities. The image of a bear (both as an external view of Russia and as a self-prorate) and the Western academic enterprise addressed to the country are considered to be the related mirrors. I examine the U.S.-based national and international research and training programs including activities conducted under the Higher Education Act of the U.S. Department of Education enacted in 1965 (Title VI Program) and the Soviet-Eastern European Research and Training Act of the U.S. Department of State enacted in 1983 (Title VIII Program). Additionally, the financial policies of the leading private foundations working in the area of interest are subjected to a detailed analysis. Information from the open sources (i.e. electronic publications and databases) from 1990 to 2007 constituted the research sample. Previously done investigations provided the description of the earlier history of the Russian studies. In general, I seek to satisfy inquiry if, as stated by American experts, there was a decline in academic curiosity and funding addressed to Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union during last years which is named to be responsible for the contemporary U.S. problems in relations with post-Yeltsin Russia.  

The analysis concludes that the aria research and training has been dependent on the changes in socio-political conditions in both American and Russian societies, and on the development of social science. During the last decade, the U.S. Government de facto reduced financial support to the research on Russia (i.e. activities conducted under the Title VIII Program). In contrast, private foundations increased their donations to this sphere. It means that the total research finding dedicated to Russia did not change much. The limit of knowledge about the country expressed by the American decision-makers in this case could be addressed to the particularities of the conducted investigations themselves. As follows from the previous writings on this problem, the relocation of support towards non-American scholars elucidated a gap in academic standards and a limit of language excellence. This condition restricted presentation of the results to the international academic and political audiences. Besides that, some private donors appeared to be more interested in applying this newly acquired information within Russia in order to disturb local authorities. The financial insecurity of programs in Russian studies allowed mostly short-term projects on the popular issues rather then carefully planed longitude analysis. Finally, the important epistemological obstacle should be acknowledged. The lack of the adequate Grand-theory of the contemporary Russia development complicated the multidimensional understanding of the collected data. The widespread mid-level institutionalist approach appeared to be incapable of providing a reliable foundation for modeling and predicting the Russian socio-political and economic trajectory.