Putin Saved My Career

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I do not approve of what President Vladimir Putin has done over the past eight years. But I am grateful to him because he single-handedly saved my career.

   This requires some explanation. During the latter part of the Cold War, I was a specialist on Soviet foreign policy toward the Third World. This was such an important topic that studying it provided a living to many scholars, including myself. I received fellowships and grants enabling me to write books and articles on this subject as well as travel both in the United States and abroad to give lectures and do research. I even received a fair amount of attention from the media, which was engrossed with this subject. My two main classes -- Soviet politics and Soviet foreign policy -- regularly enrolled 50 to 60 students each every semester.

But things changed when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started withdrawing Soviet forces from the Third World. As a result, interest in this subject started to decline in the world of academia. In 1991, I wrote a comment in The Washington Post titled "Gorbachev Ruined My Career." Little did I know just how thoroughly he would accomplish this.

President Boris Yeltsin picked up where Gorbachev left off. In the '90s, Moscow's foreign policy continued to be less and less threatening -- and hence the subject became less and less interesting. Fellowships, grants, and consulting all dried up. Reporters no longer called me, and newspapers ran fewer opinion pieces on the subject.

Student interest also dropped. The low point came in the fall of 1997, when only 10 students signed up for my course on Russian foreign policy. My department chair asked me to combine this class with one on Russian politics to form a single course. "After all," she said, "we only offer one course on most other regions of the Third World."

The quieter Russia of the '90s made life miserable for me in a professional sense. Things began to change, though, shortly after Putin became acting president at the end in the beginning of 2000. Slowly at first, but then with increasing frequency, I found myself being asked to write articles and do consulting on Russian foreign policy. During the Putin era, I have lectured and spoken to people about this subject on many occasions in the United States and other countries, including Britain, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Russia itself and even Iran. Funding has also picked up, as has student interest. My "Government and Politics of Russia" course this spring enrolled 45 students. I think there would have been even more if the schedulers had given me a bigger room, but they apparently have not forgotten the enrollment fiasco from that fall semester in 1997.

Remembering, though, how Gorbachev and Yeltsin ruined my career in the early '90s, I worried for much of last year that the same thing would happen again if Putin kept his promise not to run for a third term as president and free elections were held in Russia.

But it turns out that there was nothing to worry about. Putin is not really going away, and the elections to "replace" him will not really be free. So we can expect his assertive, perhaps even belligerent, foreign policy to continue -- thus keeping me and many of my Russia-expert colleagues in demand to analyze it.

To be honest, I do not think that a continuation of Putin's assertive foreign policy is going to work very well for the country. When the Kremlin takes actions that other governments find threatening, it does not result in warmer relations with Moscow; it only pushes them closer to Washington instead.

But I, for one, have no interest in Putin, Medvedev & Co. realizing this -- at least until I retire.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.