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To Russia with Love?

13 Apr Posted by in International | 3 comments
To Russia with Love?

I’m due to take an annual trip to Moscow in a few weeks. Recent events have predictably raised some questions, and while I’m now pretty comfortable with my own answers, the issues have wider relevance.  And of course, each individual has to make his or her own choices.

The question is, whether Russia’s takeover of Crimea should prompt us to reexamine business as usual in the domain of higher education.  Should disapproval of what was unquestionably an aggressive act lead us to express displeasure by cutting off previous ties?  Do we soften the response to current Russian policy by maintained established visits?

For a time there were issues of safety (real or imagined), as anti-American rhetoric soared, and this might at some point raise its own concerns.  I’m on record as favoring some modest risks in the interests of educational exchange – as in last year’s visit to Pakistan – but of course there are limits.  I don’t think the current Russian scene actually tests those limits, but that could change.

The big issue is the symbolic one.  I know some European colleagues think that gestures of disapproval are important, particularly given the limits on more decisive reactions.  But on balance I believe that particularly because conventional relations are strained, it is actually important to maintain positive contacts with Russian colleagues.  On balance, among other things, the Cold War taught us that higher education exchange can modify and bridge hostilities, that denying them risks making bad matters worse.

In my case the planned visit involves work with the Higher School of Economics, a key partner for George Mason and an interesting player on the Russian scene.  To jeopardize relations, and risk offending or undercutting my colleagues, makes no sense at all.  I doubt that Putin would care if I stayed home.  They would, and that makes the decision easy.

More broadly, while granting some situations so dreadful that withdrawal of contact might be essential, I really believe that cultivating higher education ties, whatever the other circumstances, trumps gestures of outrage.  That was my reaction against the recent flurry of efforts to cut intellectual ties with Israel, and it’s certainly my reaction in the Russian case.  I’m also aware that American policy – despite President Obama’s interesting effort to insist on distinctions – is not exactly guilt free (we did not hold Iraq territory, but we sure caused a lot of death and destruction).  So I think the better course is to hope that contacts help in the long run, that symbolic outrage risks opening even greater latitude for narrow nationalisms.  But as usual I admit that other views are possible and I look forward to any reactions.