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Harriman Magazine
Illustration of hands holding onto drawings of regional flags, with Russian flag held by one hand on the opposite side of the picture.
2024 Issue | Features
Decentering Eurasian and East European Studies
by Alexander Motyl

How Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine is reshaping the field, bringing a long overdue shift in how we view and analyze the region.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and its subsequent pursuit of a genocidal war—may not have changed everything, but it’s definitely upended many extant assumptions about how the world works. Academic institutions focused on Eurasian and East European studies have also had to reconsider the all-too-conventional wisdom that Russia is the region’s geographic and political center and its neighbors are mere offshoots, tangents, or peripheries.

Unfortunately, although scholars are generally comfortable speaking about the “decentering” practiced by liberation movements outside the groves of academe, they often chafe when it comes to discussing the need for decentering in their own study of Russia’s relations with its neighbors. This possibly is because decentering may imply decolonization, which in turn may imply the painful redefinition of Russia as an imperialist state with a colonial agenda. Traditional views of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation continue to give pride of place to Russian agency, voice, and logic and to downplay their counterparts among Russia’s neighbors. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and the Harriman Institute happens to be one, having effectively pursued a decentering, and implicitly a decolonizing, agenda since at least the 1980s.

Decorative number 1Wars of this magnitude weren’t supposed to happen in a rapidly globalizing world. And they certainly weren’t supposed to take place in the middle of the European continent, a region purportedly blessed in recent decades with perpetual peace, environmental sensitivity, human rights, liberal tolerance, and unending prosperity.

Neither was Russia—even Vladimir Putin’s Russia—supposed to have engaged in the kind of barbaric behavior more easily ascribed to the Russia of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and a host of other bloodthirsty tsars and commissars. Nor were modern-day Russians supposed to be supportive of imperial projects, susceptible to believing the bizarre notions peddled by official propaganda, and willing to die for bits of foreign territory that had no strategic value for their country.

Finally, Ukraine wasn’t supposed to matter to the West in general and the United States in particular. True, its existence was recognized, but its stubborn inability to become Switzerland in a few years—and its equally stubborn unwillingness to accept Russian hegemony, as some analysts recommended—grated on Western nerves and produced that periodically recurring affliction known as “Ukraine fatigue.”

But then, on February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin—deciding to reinvigorate the war he had initiated in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea—sent his troops across the Ukrainian borders and launched Europe’s largest military confrontation since World War II. He thought his grand campaign would end gloriously in a few days. His strategic calculations were completely wrong; his expectations of unabashed Ukrainian joy at the sight of Russian liberators were absurdly unrealistic. Like Adolf Hitler, who believed that Operation Barbarossa would result in a quick victory over the Soviet Union, Putin made a strategic error of incalculable proportions, one that could eventually result in the Russian Federation’s demise.

Students of the post-Communist states were as shocked by the war and its consequences as policymakers, analysts, and journalists. They confronted a new intellectual reality, in which old assumptions and conceptualizations had to be questioned and perhaps even discarded. In particular, they had to ask why the war shocked them as much as it did and why it seemed unthinkable even as the evidence of Russian aggressive intent appeared undeniable. Perhaps Russia’s non-Russian neighbors had a point when they insisted that their fear of Russian malevolence wasn’t just a peculiar psychological hang-up.

Decorative number 2This wasn’t the first time that students of Eastern Europe and central Eurasia had to undergo a painful self-analysis followed by adjustments to their worldviews. Stalin’s adoption of mass terror in the 1930s and subsequent decision to become a Nazi collaborator shattered the politics, ideologies, and loyalties of many “fellow travelers.” The publication in 1973 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago led the “New Philosophers” André Glucksmann and Henri Bernard Levy to rethink their views of socialism. Nikita Khrushchev’s dismantling of Stalinism spawned Revisionist Sovietology in the 1960s.

The Soviet Union’s collapse had similarly portentous consequences, especially as the conventional wisdom among Sovietologists was that, while the USSR was desperately in need of radical reform, collapse was out of the question. I still recall the derision that greeted Hélène Carrère d’Encausse’s book, Decline of an Empire: The Soviet Socialist Republics in Revolt (originally published in France in 1978). After all, superpowers didn’t just fall apart, especially in the absence of an enervating war, and Carrère d’Encausse’s suggestion that the non-Russians had cause to rebel fell on mostly deaf ears within the Sovietological community.

A crucial intellectual consequence of the USSR’s collapse was conceptual: An entire political system had disappeared, and it behooved scholars to ask just what kind of system it had been. This was a question downplayed if not ignored by the revisionist focus on bits and pieces of life in the Soviet Union. Discomfiting as it was, there was no getting around the fact that two of the Cold War concepts deemed disreputable in the revisionist 1960s and 1970:—totalitarianism and empire—might be of relevance to understanding the USSR and its end. Many Soviets recognized that the main obstacle to reform was not individual caprice but the logic of the system, and they began employing both terms in the late 1980s; the fear of being labeled an “inveterate anti-Communist Cold Warrior” dissipated. It became possible, if not yet fully respectable, for Western scholars to suggest the Soviet Union might in fact have been a totalitarian empire, and perhaps, as President Ronald Reagan suggested, an evil one at that.

“Empire” became an especially attractive conceptual tool, as it enabled scholars to compare the Soviet Union to a host of similar multinational entities with distinct cores and peripheries, track their rise and fall, and generate explanatory frameworks. Empire served another salutary purpose: it enabled students of the “Soviet nationality question”—who until then had been marginalized within the field—to be integrated into post-Sovietology and to bring their long-ignored insights into the fray.

Decorative number 3The W. Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, and Columbia University more generally, were well positioned to play a leading role in these exciting developments. Building on Edward Allworth’s Program on Soviet Nationality Problems and Center for the Study of Central Asia, the Institute’s intellectual leadership (Marshall Shulman, Robert Legvold, and Seweryn Bialer) established the Nationality and Siberian Studies Program in 1988. The timing couldn’t have been better because, just as the USSR unraveled, the program and its faculty could offer policymakers and the media expertise about the rebellious republics facilitating the unraveling.

The program also encouraged scholars and students to expand their focus to the understudied republics soon to become independent states. One of its most important accomplishments was the publication of the volume, Thinking Theoretically about Soviet Nationalities: History and Comparison in the Study of the USSR (Columbia University Press, 1992). This included essays by specialists of ethnicity and nationalism (such as Paul Brass, David Laitin, Anthony Smith, and Ernest Gellner) who had hitherto not focused on the USSR in their work.

The Institute’s decision in 1992–93 to embrace the entire post-Communist space within its programmatic purview, and not revert to Russian studies, marked a logical, and perhaps even inevitable, turning point in its development. After the W. Averell Harriman Institute was rechristened the Harriman Institute, there would be no going back to the days of the Russian Institute and the priority of Russocentric studies. In the years that followed, the Harriman—especially under the directorships of Richard Ericson, Mark von Hagen, and Cathy Nepomnyashchy— expanded its course offerings on every state and region outside of Moscow and the Russian Federation: from East Central Europe and the Balkans, to the Caucasus and Central Asia, to Ukraine and Belarus.1

Especially indicative of the Institute’s commitment to embracing all of Eastern Europe and Eurasia are its East Central European Center, Ukrainian Studies Program, Balkan Studies Program, and Master of Arts in Regional Studies—Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe. Equally important, and a portent of things to come, was the decision made in the early 1990s to change the language requirement for the Harriman Certificate (which testifies to a student’s multidisciplinary expertise in the region) from Russian to “one relevant language from the Russian, Eurasian, or East European region.”

These developments over the last 30 years have arguably made the Harriman ideally qualified to take on the intellectual challenges posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Russian regime’s aggressiveness and brutality, the Russian people’s acquiescence in war crimes and genocide, and Russia’s peculiar animus toward Ukraine and Ukrainians need explanation. Merely repeating the popular bromide that NATO enlargement magically compelled the Kremlin to embark on a barbaric war and genocide doesn’t tell the story in all its complexity.

Decorative number 4Coming to grips with the war requires examining Russia, of course, but it also requires understanding Ukraine, as well as Russia’s relations with it, both today and in the past. The focus has to broaden from a Russocentric view of post-Soviet relations to a balanced perspective, one that sees Russia and her neighbors (in this case, Ukraine) as equally important to any explanatory project. If the Russians have agency, voice, and logic, then so, too, do the non-Russians: the Ukrainians, the Kazakhs, the Georgians, and others.

In the spirit of postmodern efforts to decenter language and, indeed, reality, post-Soviet studies have to be “decentered.” Obviously, Russia cannot and should not be ignored: how can a country of eleven time zones escape our attention? But it should be treated as no more than part of the regional equation. More important, the non-Russians must be viewed through the lens of their own phenomenology. A good place to start would be to junk the term non-Russian, which defines Russia’s neighbors in terms of who they are not rather than who they are.2

Scholars with a decentering agenda are doing nothing intrinsically radical or, for that matter, new. They need not reinvent the wheel, as the agenda has been practiced for many years by, among others, the Global South, feminists, and African Americans, all of whom have long insisted that they have voices, agencies, and logics of their own. All we need do is follow in their footsteps and acknowledge that Russia’s neighbors do, too. Significantly, as noted above, the logic of following in their footsteps may eventually lead to a “decolonizing” agenda, according to which the Russian Empire, the USSR, and the Russian Federation are all viewed as distinctly imperial centers that routinely practiced, or in the last case still continues to practice, imperialism and colonialism vis-à-vis their peripheral neighbors.

Whether the goal is decentering or decolonizing, decades of Russocentric scholarship, training, and institutional activity have left their mark and may require decades to undo. Unsurprisingly, many Russianists refuse to acknowledge what Ewa Thompson has persuasively demonstrated in Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism (2000): that Russian culture is suffused with imperial motifs that reflect and sustain imperial agendas. René Nyberg puts it well: “It is embarrassing to realize that the prevalent rendering of Russian history in the West is still the canonized simplification of a straight path from ancient Kyiv to Muscovy and St. Petersburg and again to Moscow.”3

Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has made decentering—and, perhaps, decolonizing—all the more imperative because according credibility to the Kremlin’s narrative of events amounts to an embarrassing apology for dictatorship, genocide, and war. That’s because truth isn’t just a quaint practice from the time before postmodernism. While absolute truth may be impossible to achieve, stabs at truth-telling are preferable to the outright mendacity practiced by Hitler and Putin, and their sidekicks, Joseph Goebbels and Vladimir Solovyov. Ideally, critically inclined scholars will do more than contemplate a cornucopia of “narratives” and leave it at that.

Decorative number 5Once again, the Harriman Institute is ideally positioned to continue the process of decentering that it embarked upon in the 1980s. How many academic institutions can say that they have, in the course of their existence, devoted more or less equal time to the Russians and their neighbors before that became fashionable and de rigueur? How many academic institutions have the institutional framework for pursuing a decentering agenda? How many have the political will and the intellectual capacity to succeed at such a project?

In this sense, Russia’s war in Ukraine, while an enormous tragedy for everyone concerned, does have one silver lining. It is challenging the conventional wisdom and compelling scholars to rethink their paradigms and ask uncomfortable questions. In addition, because decentering is, as nationalists, feminists, and civil rights activists recognize, ultimately about justice, which is ultimately about morality, the war has confronted scholars with questions of right and wrong, good and evil: issues that we generally prefer to eschew.

If Hitler was wrong and evil, and if the behavior of ordinary Germans in the Nazi years promoted that evil, are we then not obliged to ask similar questions about the complicity of the Russian populace in the current war? Dare we say that Putin and his supporters—who, according to the Levada Center’s public opinion polling, have constituted about 85 percent of the population since the war began—are wrong and evil? If we’re serious about decentering, the answer has to be yes or, at a minimum, maybe.

“The point is not to wag fingers and excoriate people for failing to challenge the formidable coercive capacities of the Russian state, but to investigate the reasons for their inaction.”

The point is not to wag fingers and excoriate people for failing to challenge the formidable coercive capacities of the Russian state, but to investigate the reasons for their inaction. Just as we don’t hesitate to argue that something must have gone terribly wrong with Germany and its people for them to have supported Hitler’s madness, we should not hesitate to do the same about Russia.

Postwar Ukraine will play an important role in addressing these matters and, more generally, in decentering. Already, the war appears to have spawned more books and articles on Ukraine in two years than we’ve seen in the last decade. That interest will continue, both because Russo-Ukrainian relations won’t be “normal” anytime soon and because Ukraine likely will play a far more important role in geopolitics (and, hence, in the media) no matter how the war ends and who is perceived as the victor. At the same time, Ukraine’s centrality will serve as a reminder that the voices, agencies, and logics of other formerly Sovietized nations also matter.

The logical culmination of decentering would be the disappearance of the imperial Russian center and its replacement by several centers. Thanks to the strategic idiocy of Putin’s war, the Russian Federation’s disintegration has become both possible and, if the leader and his regime continue to weaken, likely. One of Putin’s favorite notions, multipolarity, would thereby come home to roost with a vengeance.

This would be the ultimate irony: Putin’s hopes of reviving the center could end up decentering it.

1. For more on Soviet nationality studies and the Harriman’s role therein, see “The Non-Russians Are Coming! The Non-Russians Are Coming! Field Notes from the Front Lines of Soviet Nationality Studies,” Harriman, fall 2018.
2. I grappled with this issue several decades ago in “Negating the Negation: Russia, Not-Russia, and the West,” Nationalities Papers, spring 1994.
3. René Nyberg, “Russia, Ukraine, and Poland: The End of a Tragic Triangle,” Carnegie Polltika, July 28, 2023,

Featured photo (at the top): Illustrations by Nicholas Ogonosky