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Wednesday, 30 September 2009 12:13

Russian Academy of Sciences

MOSCOW, Russia, Sept 30 (Buziness Africa) - Our Moscow Correspondent, Kester Kenn Klomegah, interviews the Deputy Director for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Senior Research Fellow and Chair of the Center of History and Cultural Anthropology, Professor Dmitri Bondarenko about the history, achievements, problems and future plans as the Institute celebrates its 50th anniversary of the establishment in Moscow.

Here are the interview excerpts:


Buziness Africa: What was the vision of the founders of the African Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and how has that changed down the years?

Dmitri Bondarenko: The Institute was founded after the prominenet African American public activist William Du Bois mentioned during his meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that while Africa was decolonizing and many Africans, including many leaders of the liberation movements were sympathsizing with the USSR, there was no an institution for researching Africa.


After that, as the archaeval evidence published recently by Professor Sergey Mazov testified, there was a struggle in the CPSU International and Ideology departments between those who saw the future Institute as a predominantly research institution and those who saw it primarily as a political and ideological tool in the Soviet authorities' hands.


Not unexpectedly, the second opinion prevailed, particularly, because it was supported by the notorious CPSU ideologist Mikhail Suslov. However, the ethnographer Ivan Potekhin who became the first Director of the Institute introduced such departments as those of (African) Culture and Literature and a few other areas of research on Africa. After his early death in 1964 such departments were dissolved in several years and by the late 80s the Institute comprised a significant numbers of departments dealing with economic and contemporary political and ideological movements in Africa.


Also, soon after Potekhin's death the Institute was moved from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR's History department to that of Economics what was a crucial step on the way from the Institute as an institution in which historical and cultural studies were to dominate to the one concerned mainly with Africa's contemporary problems.


Today, after the reformation of the RAS' structure several years ago, the Institute is a part of the International Relations Section of the Social Sciences Department of the RAS. During the 1990s and 2000s the internal structure of the Institute has also changed: at present it is much more balanced than before; in particular, now we have the Center for Civilizational and Regional Studies and the Department of Cultural Anthropology (within the Center of History and Cultural Anthropology).


However, such fields as African Linguistics and Literature Studies are not represented in the Institute; these studies are conducted in Moscow in specialized departments of some other Russian Acacdemy of Sciences (RAS) institutes (of Linguistics, of World Literature) and universities (particularly, in the Department of African Studies of the Institute of Asian and African Studies of Lomonosov Moscow State University).



BA: In your objective assessment, what do you consider as some of the greatest achievements all these 50 years of the establishment of the institute?

DB: The 50th anniversary is a good reason for looking both back at the results that have been achieved to date and ahead at the possibilities for obtaining new results. As for the greatest achievements, I consider the Institute becoming the major center for African studies in the country.


Of course, African studies in Russia cannot be compared in their scale and achievements with those in such countries as the UK, France, or the USA but due to our Institute (the only specialized African institution on the post-Soviet space) and African studies are yet visible as a specific discipline in the national academic landscape - and only in recent years - has been becoming more and more noticeable part of the world African intellectual community.


This is precious, even more so, because in the turbulent 1990s the closure of our state-run and financed institutes considered as "useless" by the state authorities was a real threat. So, from this perspective the very existence of the African Institute today is an important achievement in its own right.


If I could speak about the achievements of the most recent years, I would mention, first and foremost, that today we try our best to organize fieldwork in Africa, although we are limited in our possibilities rather rigidly.


However, while the Institute did not organize any fieldwork in Africa for more than a decade (from 1992 till 2003), since 2003 our researchers have conducted fieldwork (although mainly short-term) in a dozen of countries (Tanzania, Nigeria, Benin, South Africa, etc.) dealing with such topics as the Christian-Muslim relations, intercultural relations and others. Besides, today our researchers participate more actively in international conferences (held abroad and by our Institute in Russia) and publish their articles in international journals more often than before.



BA: And what challenges still remain to overcome?

DB: The challenges are numerous and various indeed. To mention just a couple of them: Although recently a number of young researchers have joined the Institute, it still needs their more active inputs, while on the one hand, there is a very small number of universities that train future Africanists, many graduates prefer making careers other than academic (particularly, for financial reasons), and on the other hand, we are limited in our possibilities to employ new researchers.


We are still far from meeting the world standards of academic work, beginning with office facilities and up to the possibilities to subscribe to international journals and buy academic books. Probably, we do not have objective possibilities for becoming one of the leading world centers in the field but overcoming, at least, these problems could promote further progress in African studies in Russia (again, taking into account the unique position of the Institute).



BA: In your opinion, does the institute also play a role in influencing Russia's policy mostly implemented in Africa?


SB: As we are a research institution, my firm belief is that just academic research should be our primary task. However, I also see the social significance and responsibility of the Institute in promoting cooperation between Russia and African states, in establishing the norms of tolerance in the Russian society, in spreading knowledge about Africa in this country, etc.


If we are reminded of the 1990s once again, then we would recall that in those days Africa was generally neglected in Russia's foreign policy as the Institute was practically not involved in its implemetation (as I mentioned above, there even was a real threat of its closure as the government authorities considered "useless" during those turbulent years after Soviet collapse).


The situation has been changing during the last few years. Today the importance of Africa for Russia in different respects, including political and economic, is recognized by the state, and the Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions dealing with the Russian-African relations in various spheres, not just purely political, ask us for our expert advice on different points quite often.


Another important and remarkable fact is that the Institute's Director, Corresponding Member of the RAS, Professor Alexei Vasiliev, is a Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for the Relations with leaders of African States. We highly see it as a sign of recognition of the Institute's importance by the state and, in a broader context, of its recognition of the academic knowledge, its importance for policy's elaboration and persuasion.



BA: What forms of support does the IAS get from the Russian government and, most probably, from private sources?

DB: The Institute is completely state-run, so at present, all forms of support including financial or budgetary allocation comes from state sources only. However, today there is interest in our activities from Russian private business active (or intending to become active) in Africa, so we expect that our sources of support will become more varied in the most nearest future.



BA: What are your practical vision and future plans for the Institute after its 50 years anniversary, as one of the deputy directors at the institute?

DB: As it can become clear from the aforesaid, I see the prospects for the Institute's further development, above all mentioned and not mentioned in this interview including making the Institute's financial and organizational background more solid, in attracting more young researchers with their energy and new visions and approaches, in extending fieldwork in Africa, and in broadening international cooperation with Africanists worldwide.



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