Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.9 , December 2001
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From the Director
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Russia and the Slavic Sphere in Today's World

Juha Janhunen (University of Helsinki, Finland, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 2001)

 The author

A problem faced by regional studies institutes all over the world is that international borders and regional political structures can change surprisingly rapidly. This is particularly obvious when dealing with the border regions of large amorphous empires like Russia and China. For instance, in the 1930s it was natural to study Korea and Manchuria in the political context of Japan, while a similar approach today would not make much sense. On the other hand, the formerly independent country of Tibet belongs today inevitably to the political context of China and has to be dealt with within the general framework of Chinese Regional Studies.

Likewise, unexpectedly rapid and massive changes in regional structures and orientations took place with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the decades of the Cold War Era, it was natural to regard not only the Soviet Union, but the entire Soviet Bloc as a single monolithic entity, kept together by centralized political, military, and economic bonds. However, in the post-Soviet reality there is very little that unites the former components of the Soviet Bloc. Instead, there are several new regional entities in Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

The Slavic Research Center of Hokkaido University is one of several similar national and international institutes which were created in order to correspond to the research challenges of the Cold War Era. Thus, with the exception of Cuba and Vietnam, the profile of the SRC still currently covers most of the former Soviet Bloc, including the now independent republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Baltic states, and the whole chain of former Socialist countries in Eastern Central Europe extending from Poland in the north to Bulgaria in the south.

The question is whether the change in the regional situation should not call for a radical reorientation of all the former Soviet Studies institutes. It is true, there is one feature that is still shared by most parts of the otherwise defunct Soviet Bloc: this is their on-going economic transition, which is replacing the traces of socialism by "free market economy." However, the economic transition will be completed in less than a generation, after which regional identities will almost solely be based on factors connected with political integration and cultural orientation.

Indeed, we should recognize that Russia is an entity large and diverse enough to be studied in its own right, without having to include the border regions which never really wanted to be parts of Russia. European states such as Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, as well as the Czech and Slovak Republics, deserve to be studied in the context of the rest of Europe, with which they are rapidly becoming re-integrated. The same is true of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which, in spite of their long history in the context of both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, were never really culturally integrated with Russia.

Looking at the extant research structures in Japan as an outsider, one cannot help thinking that some changes are inevitable. For one thing, Japan urgently needs a strong center of European Studies. This center should not simply focus on the politically integrated European Union, but it should also cover the countries remaining outside of the political integration, including, for instance, Norway, Switzerland, Albania, and Serbia. The natural place of the so-called "East European"countries now covered by the SRC would be in the new center of European Studies.

Second, Japan needs an equally strong center of Central Asian Regional Studies. This center should obviously cover the now independent republics of the former Soviet Central Asia, recently also called Middle Asia. There is, however, no reason not to include other Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries, notably Afghanistan and Iran. Central Asia is also the natural context of Turkey, which, anachronistically enough, is currently trying to make an entry into the European Union.

Third, Japan should promote the current structure of the SRC as a major international center of Russian Studies. The understanding of Russia is essential for Japan, not only since Russia continues to be a globally important political and military entity, but also since Russia is the immediate northern neighbour of Japan. There are indications that the Post-Soviet political disorder and economic misery of Russia have created a feeling in Japan that Russia need not be taken seriously. Nothing could be less true, and it is the obvious task of the SRC to keep the Japanese decision-makers informed about the realities of Russia.

When it comes to delimiting the profile of the SRC, there will, of course, always be problems. One problem is what value should be given to the Slavic linguistic unity. The current name of the SRC implies that its domain includes the entire Slavic linguistic sphere. This criterion would include, for instance, the Catholic NATO land of Poland (Slavic), while it would exclude the Catholic-Protestant NATO land of Hungary (Finno-Ugric). Needless to say, such an approach would be absurd, for in spite of its Slavic language, Poland has today just as little to do with Russia as Hungary has. One might therefore propose that the SRC could redefine its profile as a Russian Studies Research Center.

However, when making such proposals one should not overlook the uncontestable achievements of the SRC as it is today. Any research center derives its achievements from the people it can bring together. Successful research is not dependent on strict administrative structures, rather to the contrary. The task of research centers is to integrate the individual scholar into a sufficiently large and diversified intellectual community. In this important task, the SRC is doing better than well.

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