The Russian Collection

Hard Times at the Russian Research Center

It is not so much a center as a collection: from David E. Powell, who quit teaching Defense Department seminars largely because senior officers' talk of "nuking the Chinks" offended him; to Vladimir I. Toumanoff '46, the son of Russian nobility and author of the original SALT memorandum; to Gilbert S. Doctorow '67, who says that his present monograph on pre-revolutionary Russia may succeed in "reducing the tarnish" on the tsarist regime.

Adam B. Ulam, the center's director and professor of Government, has an office in 106, at the middle of a long corridor on the first floor of 1737 Cambridge Street. The room resembles the kind of scholar's study that would appear in a Victorian novel: papers are everywhere, ashtrays are full of the professor's pipe tobacco and cigarette butts and books lie in every manner of arrangement--books with fifteen bookmarks, books face-down on their binding, and books lying fallow--most of them with the dull dark red covers of the University libraries.

There is a rumor around the center that a couple of years ago, one of Ulam's research assistants found the documents and materials Ulam had used to wtite his first books, roughly 25 years before. At any rate, Ulam's den is heated like a greenhouse, with the windows closed and the director sweating it out in rolled-up sleeves and undone collar.

Ulam was one of the center's original members, finishing his Ph.D. dissertation on the British Labor Party in 1948, when the center was founded with anthropologist and Freudian Clyde Kluckhohn as its first director. (Even then, Ulam says now, the center was sensitive to charges that it was a Cold War front for U.S. imperialism. Thus, Kluckhohn--an expert on the Navajo Indians--was apparently chosen in part because he seemed so utterly non-political.)

Down the long corridor from Ulam, the center's premier figure, is Doctorow, who has yet to earn his academic spurs. Like most institutions, a favorite word describing many topics is used at the center--"deplorable--and Ulam, the veteran, and Doctorow assails the present Soviet regime as "deplorable." He claims that the recent inability of doctoral programs in history and Soviet studies to find jobs for their graduates is "morally deplorable." And when asked about the center's present financial condition, the director focuses on his pipe and responds "it's deplorable."

But Ulam is a European, old-world scholar, while Doctorow says he is typical of a new generation of academics. Contrasting his approach with that of graduate students of the 1960s, Doctorow says, "My generation is no longer so political. We didn't go into Russian studies to learn about revolution." He is severe: precisely dressed and pressed, with a neatly clipped dark beard and a habit of gnawing on the ends of his wire-rimmed glasses while thinking, his passion is "unearthing unknown documents" and his impressions of the present Soviet regime "unequivocably negative."

Doctorow is equally blunt about his own future: "I don't want to teach at a small college. I don't want to end up at some third-rate place in Mauritania." With a shortage of acceptable teaching jobs, however, Doctorow is understandably grateful to the center: it occasionally provides paper and shelter for young, unemployed scholars.

Doctorow is less intent than many other scholars at the center on praising the institution as a community of scholars. There are group seminars at the center, he says, but he doesn't participate. "I've been rather busy and the programs don't deal with my specialty"--the tsarist bureaucracy between 1905 and 1907. As far as attending infrequent meetings on the center's financial situation, Doctorow says, "They bore me."

Whether the problem is boring or not, the center is in financial trouble, and if something big is not quickly forthcoming, neither Ulam nor Doctorow nor any of the other 100 or so scholars affiliated with the center will have a spiritual or physical home next year. In July 1976 the Ford Foundation will cease to provide about 80 per cent of the center's annual operating budget--as Ford has since the '50s--and the center, consequently, is going public this year, with industries doing Soviet business and other foundations as the main foci of a $1 million fund-raising effort.

As in New York City and London, however, there are no visible signs of crisis at 1737 Cambridge--the phones still work, the paint isn't peeling and the mid-morning coffee hour, at which Ulam is said to regale fellow members with recitations of Polish poetry, is still going strong. Few of the center's members are familiar with the annual budget and its determination--it is in the vicinity of $150,000 and is worked out by Ulam and Edward Keenan '57, associate director and professor of History, then submitted for pro forma ratification to a group of Harvard senior faculty called the Executive Board.

One person who is concerned about the center's finances is Toumanoff, an owlish, genial and relaxed man who occupies an office set far back from the scholars' corridor that Ulam and Doctorow inhabit. On Toumanoff's desk and shelves there are no dusty volumes, but a clipped article from the New York Times Week in Review section called "Can the World Organize to Save Itself?" (on food and resources), the latest Club of Rome report on dwindling world resources, and a two volume policy-oriented study entitled Rapid Population Growth

The only research Toumanoff is involved in now is for the snaring of State Department contracts, and all those population and resources materials are feeding into grant proposals. This will be, says Toumanoff, "short-term stuff"--money to help tide the center over until an endowment can be built up with corporate and foundation support. Still, Toumanoff's future offers to State--if ultimately accepted--will mark something of a new direction for the center, involving some of its members in pragmatic research on Soviet environmental and urbanization problems.

Already there has been some success--but a steady trickle, not a deluge. In June 1974 State contracted with the center for a set of studies and Washington seminars to be prpared by five of the center's Scholars, Ulam and Keenan among them. This year, Toumanoff says, State has accepted a contract extension that will engage about five more scholars on issues like U.S.-Soviet trade, Soviet agriculture and long-range economic thinking, and guesses on Soviet succession (Kremlinology--who's sitting next to Brezhnev at what state dinners, and so on).

This hasn't brought in all that much money--$90,000 with the contract and its extension, but most of that, Toumanoff says, is absorbed by costs. The center's scholars seem hardly thrilled by the lure of government power Ulam seems to speak for the center's members when he says "We don't want to study for the twentieth time the Soviet succession." Doctorow, typically, puts it more harshly: "The center can't get money precisely because of their isolation from the 'evil' centers of power, which I don't think are particularly evil. We ought to be more plugged into the areas of power."

Toumanoff is perfectly suited to act as the go-between with the government. A clinical psychologist by training and a Foreign Service officer in Washington and Moscow for 25 years, he seems to express the reverence the practical, experienced man holds for intellectuals. He speaks of Harvard's research facilities, which have been the center's main bait in drawing Soviet scholars from most U.S. state universities and many European schools: "In terms of source material, it's better than anything outside of the Library of Congress--and it's more accessible."

But even without being substantially a scholar, Toumanoff is Olympian in a bureaucratic way. His parents were Russian nobles who left the country in 1919, and his father fought in the White army against the Bolsheviks. He is able to tick off his accomplishments in an oh-by-the-way manner: author of the SALT memo, an originator of the ban on nuclear arms in space, and the author of Ambassador Llewelyn Thompson's appeal to the Soviets, in 1967, for a collaborative effort" to solve "world problems of food, population and energy," as he puts it.

Most members of the center are neither Harvard faculty members or post-doctoral researchers or fund-raisers, however; many more or less permanent members are drawn from other Boston area social science faculties, while visitors for one or two-year periods come from other universities--usually during a paid sabbatical since the center's finances allow few stipends to visiting scholars, no matter how expert or promising. For their travelling the visitors are rewarded, occupying cubicles right down the corridor from luminaries such as Abram Bergson and Marshal Goldman, experts on the Soviet economy, and even Ulam himself.

Joseph Berliner, professor of Economics at Brandeis University, does not have to travel very far. He is able to make the trip from Waltham every Wednesday, to great benefit: all his work on a forthcoming study of economy and society is done at the center. A graduate of Harvard's first Soviet Union program in 1948, Berliner gravitated toward Soviet Studies in the 30s, searching for alternatives to capitalism. He attended the City College of New York at night and in the late 30s was an organizer for the shipping clerks union. White-haired, soft-spoken and reasonable, he seems the center's representative of the depression-bred Jewish radical, now gentled by time and more liberal: the Commentary intellectual, before those types talked against welfare and for invading the Arabs.

Studying the Soviet Union has moved him rightward, except he says it a different way, with a question: "The main problem for my generation was, 'How do you have socialism without falling into tyranny?' For me, acquaintance with the documents of Soviet society was a gradual process of disabuse."

And the professor still hopes, which makes him seem heroic, sitting back in a chair in a neat office at a new building in Brandeis called the "International Building," done in the I.M. Pei style and festooned with flags of different countries. Quietly, without wanting to make too much of it: "I am very strongly drawn toward decentralized, nontyrannical political systems like Yugoslavia"--although he later qualifies this, worrying about the resurgence of Stalinism and some lack of democratic institutions in Titoism.

Berliner is a scholar, with a distaste for power in politics. Do people at the center have power--what about Richard Pipes, professor of History, now engaged in advising Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) on Soviet policy? Berliner smiles at the question and is perhaps thinking of Ulam's last time in official Washington, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about a year ago: "You get the ear of an important congressman--among fifty others." And his smile says more, something that other members say openly: Would we be in this financial shape if the centers of power really cared?

For David Powell the center is something of an escape from official power and its uses: "As an academic you have a great deal more freedom than in a bureacracy...My inclination is just to write more." Powell should know--he has taught courses to senior Pentagon officials and been consultant to the U.S. Information Agency. The "nuke the Chinks" expressions that led him to leave Defense were "obviously racist slogans." That opinion wasn't majority feeling even at the Pentagon, Powell says, but it made him more aware that "every bureaucracy has its share of lunatics"--and he chose, after 1966, to work in a bureaucracy where lunacy was at least isolated, and perhaps less dangerous.

Powell--voluble, light-haired, and looking like he just stepped out of a hotel barber shop--is now associate professor of Government at the University of Virginia, a tenured position. His inclination is to leave it and stay as long as he can get grants, as a research fellow at the center, which he describes as "exhilarating." Right now he is in the second and final year of work on alcoholic abuse in the Soviet Union--which has the highest per capita consumption rate in the world--courtesy of a National Institute of Health grant. A book will follow, with a companion volume written by Boris Segal, now a member of the center and an exiled dissident who was the Soviet Union's foremost expert on alcoholism, Powell says. (Every one at the center is said to be foremost in something by somebody, like Harvard's freshman class).

Along with Ulam and a possible majority of the center's members, Powell views detente as a "splendid idea," but so far a trading of something-for-very-little by Kissinger. Unlike more conservative center members like Doctorow, however, Powell can quickly respond to a question like "what's good about the Soviet Union": "a very extraordinary success in eradicating poverty and ignorance and disease--their infant mortality and life expectancy rank above the U.S."

Exhilaration aside, the money problems remain. Everyone is aware of them, if only uneasily--members constantly mention the center's financial crisis, usually attributed to the out-of-fashion intellectual character of Soviet studies, exacerbated by having to share a building with two other area-studies institutes now much in vogue and financially free-and-easy: Far-Eastern and Middle-Eastern Studies. "We don't have Japanese businessmen or sheiks to support us," Ulam says.

The foundation and industry fund-raising attempts are difficult. Industries doing business with the Soviet Union, the main recipients of center requests for support, may listen politely to arguments about needed information on Russia that only the center can provide. But corporate executives may not want to risk their profit lines by supporting an institution whose members have been labelled "bourgeois falsifiers of history" by Izvestia.

Foundations like to be "seed money"--the first supporters of a new field of study. Soviet research is hardly new, and it is time, say all the center's God-parents, from the Dean's office to the Ford Foundation, to walk on your own. The center, after 27 years, must go out into the world for itself.

If $750,000 can be raised between the center and Columbia's Russian Institute, says the Ford Foundation, it will grant an additional $250,000--all together, far more than enough for an endowment. Ulam says that the center may go under. If it does, everyone there knows, the pain will not be felt by an institution at all, but by an arrogant generous and above all, critical, collection of individual scholars.