THE HARRIMAN INSTITUTE, the first academic center in the United States devoted to the interdisciplinary study of Russia and the Soviet Union, was founded in 1946, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, as the Russian Institute. The goals of the new regional institute, as stated in the proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation, were viewed to be twofold: “First, the direct advancement of knowledge in the Russian field through the coordinated research work of faculty and students; and secondly, the training of these students… as American specialists who will subsequently do work of authority and influence in the Russian field.” Although the Institute’s geographical purview has grown to encompass all the states of the former Soviet Union and the post-socialist states, the Institute has remained true to its overall objectives of teaching and research.

In 1982, the Russian Institute became the W. Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, in recognition both of Governor Harriman’s generous endowment of the Institute and his lifetime of distinguished service. As Governor Harriman stated in the announcement of the establishment of the Harriman Institute: “My objective is very clear: I want to stimulate and encourage the advanced study of Soviet affairs. To base policy on ignorance and illusion is very dangerous. Policy should be based on knowledge and understanding.”

In 1992, following the collapse of the USSR, the Institute officially expanded its focus to encompass all the states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and adopted the name of the Harriman Institute. In 1997, the Harriman and East Central European Institutes united to promote comparative scholarly knowledge and public understanding of the complex and changing polities, economies, societies, and cultures of the area between Germany and the Pacific Ocean. In 2017, the East Central European Center was officially integrated into the Harriman Institute and is now governed by two Co-Directors.


Ahead of its 70th anniversary in 2016, the Harriman Institute, in collaboration with the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, and the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE), embarked on an oral history project that would document the Institute's substantive role in area studies and academia and its influence on the making of U.S. foreign policy towards the Soviet Union, Russia, and Eurasia. The project undertook in-depth interviews with 26 individuals, including directors, professors, staff, and senior affiliates of the Harriman Institute. 
The goal of this project was not to document a conventional year-by-year history of the Harriman Institute.  Rather, we aimed to understand three things: The Harriman Institute's changing imprint as a source of policy advice and influence in government; the Institute's capacity to promote and sustain the relevance of area studies as a tool for training new generations of decision-makers, regional experts, and diplomats; and its role in shaping academic fields such as nationality studies and human rights. The resulting project is a powerful analytical and public record of achievements, challenges, limitations, and lessons learned.
Also of interest in this connection is the PONARS Eurasia polilcy memo, authored by HI Director Alexander Cooley and George Gavrilis, an independent contractor who worked on the oral history: "The Cold War, Post-Cold War, and the Academy: Policy Recommendations from an Oral History of Russian and Eurasian Studies."


Learn more Harriman history in our 60th Anniversary and 50th Anniversary books.

Directors of the Harriman Institute

Geroid T. Robinson, 1946-51
Philip E. Mosely, 1951-55
Henry L. Roberts, 1956-62
Alexander Dallin, 1962-67
Marshall D. Shulman, 1967-74, ’76-77, ’81-86
William E. Harkins, 1974-76, ‘80-81
Robert L. Belknap, 1977-80
Robert Legvold, 1986-92
Richard E. Ericson, 1992-95
Mark L. von Hagen, 1995-2001
Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, 2001-2009 (on leave 2006-07)
Jack L. Snyder (Acting Director), 2006-07
Timothy M. Frye, 2009-2015 (on leave 2012-13)
Kimberly J. Marten (Acting Director), 2012-13
Alexander Cooley, 2015 - present