Elizabeth Abosch was in Moscow working on her dissertation when Russia invaded Ukraine last February.
What struck the American doctoral candidate the most about the Moscow suburb where she lived at the time was how “everyone was going on as normal,” she told VOA. “For the most part, I really felt safe.”
"It was like nothing had happened at all. And so that was eerie. Whereas I was constantly in this emotional fight-or-flight state,” she said.
Working on a dissertation in the country that Abosch had devoted her career to was a long time coming. At first, leaving seemed out of the question.
“I was really in denial for about a week, a week and a half, because I thought this would be over very quickly,” she said. But by the beginning of March, Abosch knew she had to leave.
A student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Abosch is among many Western scholars in the field of Russian and Soviet studies whose careers and lives have been upended by the war in Ukraine.
The war has made it nearly impossible for Western researchers to travel to Russia, multiple academics told VOA.
That limited access has the potential to impede the West’s understanding of Russia for years, they said, and it may also be an indirect boon to Russian propaganda.
Russia’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
Abosch, who studies the history of song in the Soviet Union, said she can still conduct research from outside the country. But for others, on-the-ground access is a necessity.
Hiroaki Kuromiya, professor emeritus at Indiana University in Bloomington, said access to Russia “has been absolutely critical” for his research.
“Without access to Russian scholars and the Russian archives, much of my scholarly work over the past three decades would have been simply impossible,” he told VOA.
Now based in Massachusetts, Kuromiya is the author of books including Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s–1990s and The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s.
“Few Western scholars have dared to travel to Russia since February 2022 for obvious reasons of safety,” he said.
Kuromiya was among 500 Americans whom Russia banned from entering the country in mid-May. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, VOA acting director Yolanda Lopez, and several journalists and lawmakers were also on the list.
"I was prepared for this eventuality. Although it’s a pity that I can no longer work in the Russian archives, I continue to pursue my academic research in many different venues,” he said.
Kuromiya said he felt proud that Moscow banned him from entering the country.
“I must have gotten something right in my work,” he said. “Being banned from entry into Russia as a result is a trifle for me in the face of today’s monumental events.”
But outright bans against scholars like Kuromiya are relatively rare. A combination of other factors makes it difficult to travel to Russia, academics said.
Western institutions don’t want to fund research trips to Russia, and academics are concerned about sanctions. Personal safety is another issue, and it has also become risky for Russian universities to sponsor Western academics.
“This is very clearly going to have a profound impact on the type of projects people do,” a U.S.-based historian of Stalinism told VOA. He requested anonymity for fear of potential repercussions for his extended family in Russia.
Ironically, the historian said, most of the formal barriers to academic access to Russia are coming from the West.
The Kremlin would probably welcome foreign academics who are friendly to Moscow, he said. “Now would be a great time to be a useful idiot because they [the Russian government] would be very happy to point out, ‘See, we’re open for business,’” the historian said.
There’s a risk, Abosch said, that limited research access to Russia may contribute to a void in the West’s understanding of the country. Russian propaganda, always plentiful, may fill the vacuum, she said.
“I think it certainly helps Russian propaganda. I think a goal of this kind of obstacle would definitely be to create separate spheres of discourse,” Abosch said. Without Western academics studying Russia on the ground, “it would be easier for the government to fix its own narrative,” she added.
For years, the Kremlin has engaged in rewriting or distorting the country’s history, particularly about World War II, to maintain a hold on power and justify acts of aggression like the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, historians and analysts have said.
"The devil works hard, but Russia works harder laundering its historical reputation,” Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, told VOA.
The plight of foreign scholars parallels that of foreign reporters, according to Anastasia Edel, a Russian-born American writer who teaches history at the University of California at Berkeley.
Since the war, dozens of foreign correspondents have left Russia over safety concerns — and for good reason.
Evan Gershkovich, an American Wall Street Journal reporter, has been detained for over two months on accusations of espionage — charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government vehemently deny.
Blocked or limited access makes it harder for reporters and scholars to document what’s happening in Russia and to provide audiences with an alternative to Russian disinformation, according to Edel.
“It’s going to be particularly bad for citizens of Russia because they just won’t have any alternative sources beyond the Kremlin propaganda,” Edel said.
“My big concern is we’re going to go backwards in our understanding of modern Russia,” St. Julian-Varnon said.
Kuromiya shared a similar view, saying that “the current situation is having a very negative impact on our understanding of Russia.”
“Like many governments, Russia seeks to control truth, while scholars are dedicated to revealing truth,” he said.