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Spy Novels Offer View to the Cold War

Illustration by Val Bochkov

The U.S. government made a 40 percent cut in funding in 2011 to Title VI of the Higher Education Act, the program that had been the mainstay of support for Russian studies.

This after years of declining enrollments in programs that in the 1980s, had seen a spike in student appeal thanks in part to the Cold War. 

But now, as the words "Russian Reset" dominate headlines, students are showing interest again.

"Russian studies are enjoying a slow but steady resurrection," said Anton Fedyashin, executive director of American University's Initiative for Russian Culture. "There are several causes for this, but the most important one is the increase in Russia's relative geopolitical importance in the wake of its impotence during the 1990s."

Today’s college students are taking Russian studies courses to understand the fundamentals of Russia's decision-making—the roots of which, Fedyashin says, reach into the imperial and Soviet periods.

"Learning a country's culture has everything to do with beginning to understand a nation's mentality—this is what draws students to study Russia through various lenses, including the cultural one," Fedyashin said.

The Cold War and the Spy Novel

This spring at American University, Fedyashin is teaching the course The Cold War and the Spy Novel. It has only been offered three times and each time, enrollment has been filled to capacity.  

The course examines the Cold War through the lens of espionage fiction in historical context. The class also compares film adaptations with the novels and discusses both in light of prevalent perceptions and misconceptions of the period.

Fedyashin says the novels allow his students—none of whom was alive when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989—to experience the Zeitgeist of the Cold War from multiple perspectives. For example, he says, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels provide great insight into British and Western mentality during the 1950s and 1960s.

"In From Russia With Love, published in 1957, Bond complains about the Soviets being better armed, better supplied and better funded than he and his service are," Fedyashin said. "When Fleming began to write in the early 1950s, it seemed to him and his contemporaries that the Soviet Union was actually winning the Cold War and communism was on the rise around the globe."

Bond's appetite for luxury and Fleming's elaborate description of goods to which his hero has access was a way to remind his readers of the benefits of living in the West. A reminder, Fedyashin says, that needed issuing as England had just come out of World War II with a ruined economy and an unraveling empire.

But on the flip side, Fleming also illustrated why the spread of communism was a realistic threat—an idea that Fedyashin’s students find intriguing.  

"My students often ask, 'Why would anyone ever believe in communism?'" Fedyashin said. "The overt racism of Live and Let Die reflects the general treatment of African-Americans and other non-Caucasian ethnic groups in the United States at that time. When one remembers the difference between that and communist propaganda's racial and ethnic inclusion, one understands why communism so often appealed to Third World societies going through decolonization."

Students will also read works by Graham Greene, Len Deighton, Noel Behn, Robert Littell, and John Le Carré, to name a few.

"The course helps students explore the most important elements of the Cold War—stereotypes and misrepresentations," Fedyashin said. "But it also prepares them to question the rhetoric contemporary governments and the media provide to them on a daily basis."

In 1963 during his speech, "A Strategy of Peace," President John F. Kennedy acknowledged the role stereotypes and misrepresentation played in the Cold War. 

MORE: The Legacy of JFK's Peace Speech at AU

Delivered that year as the commencement address at American University, the speech announced a nuclear test ban treaty. The university is planning a series of events to commemorate the speech’s 50th anniversary.

Cold War Not Reheating

Given the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, some who recall the past frosty relations between the eagle and the bear may think the Cold War is warming up again. But Fedyashin says that is not the case.  

"Resurrecting shadows of the Cold War is part of a nostalgia for safer dangers and more predictable opponents," Fedyashin said. "The dangers of the Cold War notwithstanding, the U.S.S.R. was run by people who shared elements of the same mentality with their Western opponents. This is no longer the case with other geopolitical groups, such as Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations in the Middle East. The West could negotiate with the Soviets. Thousands of scattered individual suicide bombers and planted IEDs are much less amenable to rational engagement."

This nostalgia for "safer dangers" could also explain Cold War resurrections in pop culture, including a Red Dawn remake, the new TV show The Americans, and at least two films—one the recently released Die Hard movie and the other, a forthcoming Jack Ryan film— in which American action heroes fight Russian villains.

But Fedyashin, who grew up on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and 1980s, says that while Americans and Russians still disagree on numerous issues, their similarities—what ultimately ended the Cold War—are stronger.

"Diplomacy is a question of what you choose to stress in your relationship with people—emphasizing and arguing about differences with the hope of forcing the other person to adopt your point of view or identifying similarities and building a relationship on them," Fedyashin said. "It all comes down to learning to disagree and behaving like civilized people. You can't turn an American into a Russian and vice versa, but you can sure enrich each other by exploring your differences."

Originally published on March 5, 2013.