Opening Remarks by Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute

Kennan Alumni Conference, Berlin, November 6, 2017

Welcome everyone!

As we get started, I must thank our wonderful hosts, the Centre for East European and International Studies. Director Gwendolyn Sasse, Deputy Director Christian Schaich, and the rest of the team, particularly Stefanie Orphal and Anja Krueger have not only provided the logistical support for making this event happen, but have also leant their own expertise in providing us with speakers who will help all of us better understand what is happening in Germany at the moment.

As this is a conference of Kennan alumni, I must also recognize the amazing work of our staff in Ukraine and Russia, Katja Smagliy and Nina Rozhanovskaya.

And of course, this meeting would not have been possible without the leadership of our own manager for regional engagement and senior program associate, Izabella Tabarovsky.

Finally, I want to thank all of our alumni who are here with us today from Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. The Kennan Institute is only as strong as our scholars – and with hundreds of alumni in Russia and Ukraine, and over a thousand in the United States, the strength of the Kennan Institute’s scholarship and engagement has never been stronger.

That strength, combined with the hard work of all of my colleagues at the Kennan Institute and their predecessors, has established the Institute as the premier American national research center on Russia, Ukraine and the region.

This is in many ways a dark and difficult time.  It’s one that some distinguished scholars and even political leaders have labeled a New Cold War.

Well if that is so—and I pray it is not—we have been there before.  What did we learn, and how can we apply it?

The Kennan Institute was established over four decades ago with the express purpose of improving American understanding of Soviet Russia, so that our nation would have an improved capacity to deal with that country.

Our founders, all historians, dedicated the Institute to the proposition that only through the study of history and culture of the region could we achieve that improved understanding.

That mission did not get any simpler with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it certainly did not get simpler with a government in the Kremlin that in recent years has grown increasingly hostile to the West, and to America in particular.

With that hostility comes the temptation to treat Russia, and its government, as an adversary. Some believe we should focus exclusively on efforts to weaken or defeat that adversary while avoiding any mutual engagement with that adversary.

Yet go back to 1974 and our founders. Two of them—James Billington and Ambassador George Kennan—were, I would argue, the top two experts on Russia (in terms of combining scholarship and policy awareness) that our nation has ever produced.

At the height of the Cold War – did they establish an Institute dedicated to the proposition of defeating the Soviet Union? Of course not – their focus was ever on the long term…the future as well as the past.

If their key insight was that we must understand them in order to deal with them, then the converse is also true: we must deal with them in order to understand them.

So building that understanding requires not just research, but engagement and exchange. You, our alumni gathered here today, and the other hundreds of alumni who are back home, represent the outcome of that early insight by our founders.

That insight endures as a core value for us. We will continue to deal with and engage with Russia, Ukraine, and the wider region as they are: As living entities, sometimes showing a face of friendship and reciprocity, sometimes a prickly or reluctant partner, and sometime much, much worse.

But they are not just remote objects to examine, evaluate, analyze, judge and condemn—this is the active role of scholarship and exchange as engagement, indeed as diplomacy, that our founders intended.

The precise form of our engagement has, of course, changed and adapted over the years.

  • Where once we had longstanding physical offices in both Kyiv and Moscow, today we have a more nimble presence in both countries to support our alumni and help us build partnerships.
  • Where once we had printed alumni journals, we now have more widely read blogs both for Russia and Ukraine that connect our scholars and alumni with American audiences. And when we can assist in more traditional publication outlets, we have and we will.
  • We now have resources to engage with and provide more support to our alumni in the region, and to help them with grants of support for their independent work.
  • And we have made a concerted effort to train our current and former scholars with the writing and presentation skills needed to connect with public and policy audiences. You can see the success of that work in the increased media interactions, the blog entries that get picked up for wider distribution, and the diversity of authors and topics in our Kennan Cable article series.
  • Our Russian alumni know how hard our Academic Liaison, Nina Rozhanovskaya, works to keep them connected with each other and with all of us in Washington. We support what we can, where we can – and Nina helps make it all happen.
  • Circumstances in Ukraine permit a more expansive presence, and our director in Kyiv, Katja Smagliy, has done fantastic work building up the visibility and impact of the Kennan Institute and its alumni in Ukraine. Our team there has increased to five people, and the future is indeed bright.

Izabella will talk more specifically about opportunities for alumni, and their recent accomplishments…but I hope you understand just how important we consider our alumni to be.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention a few of our accomplishments back home in Washington.

  • We have held over 40 meetings and briefings with senior congressional staff and members this year, compared to 14 the prior year. Over half of these meetings showcased a current Kennan scholar in residence.
  • We have increased media presence of our scholars, and they have been featured on ABC, CNN, and MSNBC. Their writings have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Wall Street Journal.
  • Our Kennan Conversation series has brought current and former Kennan scholars to over 25 American towns and cities across the country, giving local audiences direct access to top experts on the region. Quite simply: no one else has this kind of reach.
  • Our staff and scholars have been cited or interviewed in over 240 media hits this year, and have produced 130 publications (including op-eds).

So, our outreach and impact back home is way up. And all of our alumni – American, Ukrainian, and Russian – have been a big part of that story.

We fully intend to build on our past successes, and very much count on our alumni to be a part of that effort.

Thank you for being here.

We come from different countries, backgrounds, generations, scholarly and professional disciplines.  But we are here for a common purpose.

We are all people of good will, who believe in the importance of knowledge, and the power of exchange and engagement.

In that spirit, welcome once more.  How lucky we all are to be here, today, and how lucky I am to be with you.\

The Opening Remarks by Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute, at the Kennan Institute’s Alumni Conference in Berlin

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