The Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow, once headed by the current Russian foreign minister, Yevgenii Primakov, [1] used to be the premier research establishment for modem history and Soviet policy making concerning the Arab world, Africa and Asia. Like other state-funded academic institutions, it has not fared well under the Yeltsin budgetary boondoggles and chaotic privatization measures. Salaries are so low that the academic and nonacademic staff spend most of their working hours at other jobs in the private sector. At the end of August 1997, all salaries were arbitrarily suspended for a month.

The Institute does not suffer alone; the whole of the former Soviet Orientalist establishment is a victim of government privatization schemes, extreme budget cutting and rampant corruption at every level of officialdom. The results have been staggering for an academic field with a respected 250-year tradition. Perhaps symbolic of the fate of Middle East studies in the “new” Russia is the Institute of Asian and African Studies, a division of Moscow State University, which is housed across the street from the Kremlin in a dilapidated eighteenth-century building. The courtyard has been turned into a construction dump for a new underground shopping mall built next to the Kremlin, selling imported luxury goods that most Russians cannot afford. Inside the university halls, lighting is poor, walls and ceilings are in various states of disrepair, and furnishings are meager and tattered. Students strain to hear their instructors over the din of jackhammers and construction equipment. The only modem addition to the building is a new ATM machine prominently placed inside the front entrance.

The first casualties of the post-1991 economic reforms have been Middle East studies scholars. The conversion to a free-market economy was sudden and uncontrolled, causing wages to lag far behind runaway inflation and cost of living increases. During the 1991-1992 economic crisis, many Middle East experts, including the most promising of the younger generation, left Russia for better-paying positions in universities and institutes in Western Europe, the US and Canada. The Israeli government funded the immigration of those claiming Jewish descent and continues to sponsor conferences, exchange programs and publication ventures with the Russian Orientalist establishment. Some scholars who did not emigrate left academe for the private sector.

Those Middle East specialists who have hung on and are still in the prime of their working years have tried to adapt. Second and third jobs for academics include language tutoring, translation work and preparing foreign graduate students for thesis defenses and exams. There is a mad scramble for new external funding sources. The coffee table in the director’s office of Moscow Institute is strewn with grant applications for the Soros Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment. When all else has failed, Middle East specialists have set up their own private consulting firms loosely modeled after US think tanks. Many of the firms that have survived are redirecting their focus toward the Central Asian republics. One of the most successful is the Russian Center for Strategic Research and International Studies which has sought and received US funding for “conflict resolution” projects in Central Asia. A year-and-a-half-long dialogue project between opposing factions in Tajikistan included participation by one of the American architects of the Camp David accords, Harold Saunders.

The content of Russian Middle East studies has also been affected by Russian disengagement from the region since 1991. A recent Russian journal article notes that, “economic ties with Arab countries today do not have any kind of practical meaning for the Russian economy and are quickly taking on an exclusively symbolic character which is a tragic and distorted antipode of the “recent Soviet past” of the 1960s through the 1980s.” [2]

With economic relations only a dim shadow of the past, Arabists have attempted to retool themselves as generalists or Central Asian experts.

There is still a concern for questions relating to Islam that is reflected in current Orientalist literature. Even without the former Soviet Muslim republics, Russia still has a large Muslim population in the Tartar regions, in the troubled Caucasian area, and even in Moscow itself Whereas once the prevailing approach in Islamic and religious studies was materialist in nature, recent literature has given prominence to questions relating to theological and spiritual matters. While in Soviet times atheism was the preferred ideological vantage point in Orientalist scholarship, now there is more than a hint of religious advocacy. [3]

Scholarly publication is in decline and the quality is erratic. Linguists and classicists still produce excellent work. The archival collections of rare manuscripts and texts in places such as the Institute of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg are of international importance and have kept scholars busy for decades. But political scientists and others who work on contemporary topics lack up-to-date resources. Computers are still uncommon and no library collection is computerized. Almost no library or institute has been able to acquire specialist literature from abroad since 1991. Collections of foreign scholarly journals are often incomplete or absent after 1991. Recently published books and monographs from abroad are even more difficult to come by because of their high cost.

Many authors simply synthesize the few foreign works that they have been able to get their hands on. Articles which employ more contemporary sources are usually penned by those lucky enough to have been invited to international conferences where they have been able to gain access to library collections and other resources. One example of the seclusion of Russian scholars is the fact that there are no post-modernist theorists or practitioners in Middle East studies. There is little cognizance of or interest in the debates on orientalism; little interest in social history, or in women’s and gender studies.

The fact that Russian Arabists and other Middle East specialists have been forced to rely on the meager resources at hand is not without its positive effects. The main professional journal for Russian Middle East studies, Vostok [The East], continues to maintain standards of scholarly excellence even though newsstand sales are nonexistent and distribution is almost exclusively directed at specialist libraries and a shrinking number of interested Russian-speaking scholars. Researchers have compensated for their lack of access to foreign source material by combing archives for Russian material related to the Middle East. Some of the archives which were closed to scholars during the entire Soviet period are now open and yielding a wealth of documentary material relating to Soviet state relations with Middle East governments and communist parties. These archives also contain original source material in Middle East languages, including correspondence with Arab, Iranian and Turkish communist leaders and collections of early Middle East communist party leaflets and publications. Russian scholars have used the archives of the Russian foreign ministry and the Communist International for new and fascinating work on the history of Soviet foreign relations. Much archival work has been done on reconstructing the history of Soviet Orientalism itself, especially with regard to dozens of Middle East scholars and political activists who were repressed and executed during the Stalin years. The Russian security services have made selected KGB archival materials available from the Stalin period.

Archival research has become so interesting that there is now a journal, Annales, published by the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow, devoted exclusively to new finds. Because of a lack of funding, the future of the journal is in doubt and thus far it has only appeared sporadically with a tiny print run. However, Annales contains some of the best historical research currently available. A recent issue included articles on everything from new disclosures of secret Russian diplomatic missions to Egypt during the reign of Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century to new sources on modern Kurdish history and the history of ethnic nationalist formation in Abkhazia and the Northern Caucasus. [4]

The future of Russian Middle East studies does not look promising if current institutional problems cannot be surmounted. One disturbing phenomenon is that in both the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow and the Institute of Asian and African Studies there are very few new graduate students, and of these, most are at the masters level. In the new Russia of cutthroat capitalist competition, the intelligentsia is now devalued and faces extinction as a leading social category. Many students currently in Middle East studies programs view their undergraduate training merely as a stepping stone to international business careers. Those who consider graduate training often seek admission to Western universities and ultimately desire emigration.

Of the remaining graduate students, many are Middle Easterners seeking doctorates on the cheap since they cannot afford the costs of higher education in Western Europe or the US. Even the diplomatic corps, which was a very privileged profession in the Soviet system, is no longer attractive for Middle East studies students in the context of regional disengagement. The budgets of foreign diplomatic missions in Arab countries have been slashed to the point where consular officials have overcharged for travel visas to Russia to supplement their incomes. The only hope for the survival of Middle East studies at the standards prevailing during the Soviet period would be a massive government financial commitment to the preservation of higher education as a vital national resource. This seems highly unlikely either under Yeltsin or in the near future under a successor regime. Foreign grant money has been allocated only for individuals and temporary projects rather than for institutions. Often this money merely serves to whet the appetite of intellectuals for emigration. Unfortunately, the one continuing area of engagement with the Middle East is in arms trade with countries such as Iran, the Gulf states and Syria. But as even the Russian military is beset by budgetary crises, the future of the military as a sponsoring institution for training Middle East specialists is far from assured.

In the Soviet period, Middle East studies was part of a completely integrated educational system which traversed all the important institutions in Soviet society and in this context Middle East studies flourished. With the old system still in free fall, the former Orientalist establishment may not have hit bottom yet.


[1] Yevgenii Primakov is an Arabic speaker who graduated from the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow in 1953. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he was a special correspondent and deputy director of the department of Asian and African countries of the official newspaper Pravda. From 1978 to 1985, he was the director of the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow. During the height of the Gulf crisis, he was sent by President Gorbachev to advise Saddam Hussein that the US was serious in its intentions to undertake wide-scale military action if Iraqi forces were not withdrawn from Kuwait. In November 1997, Primakov was called upon by President Yeltsin to broker an agreement with Saddam Hussein on UN arms inspection to prevent US military action against Iraq.
[2] V. I. Gusarov, “Economic Relations of Post-Soviet Russia with the Arab World,” in Arabskie strani zapadnoi Azii i severnoi Afriki [Arab Countries, Western Asia and North Africa] (Moscow: Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow, 1997), p. 34.
[3] See “Criticism and Bibliography” in Vostok 3 (1996), p. 219.
[4] Annales 5-6 (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 1996).

How to cite this article:

Garay Menicucci "The Privatization of Russian Middle East Studies," Middle East Report 205 (Winter 1997).

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