Submitted on Monday, 6/16/2014, at 1:29 PM

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Whether it’s a lecture by an Amherst alumnus who’s a top authority on Russia or a reading of poems by leading Russian poets, the Center for Russian Culture at Amherst College has stuck to its mission despite sometimes chilly official relations between Russian and the United States.

“Our philosophy is to promote better understanding and establish more informed relations between the two countries,” said Stanley Rabinowitz, professor of Russian at Amherst and director of the Center.

That tradition continued on a recent Monday, with a lecture by Andrew Kuchins ’81, Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Kuchins ’81

Kuchins discussed “U.S. – Russian Relations: From Reset to Rethink” in a lecture sponsored by the Center for Russian Culture (the event was recorded by New England Public Radio and can be listened to here). 

Located on the second floor of Webster Hall, the Center contains one of the largest private collections of Russian books, periodicals and archives in the West. It encompasses thousands of books, nearly four hundred boxes of manuscripts, letters, records, and hundreds of drawings and artifacts – as well as 48 samovars, urns traditionally used to heat water for tea in Russian homes.

The Center for Russian Culture on the second floor of Webster Hall 

“We’ve had delegations from Russia come visit and they just melt,” Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz mused that the Center and the Pioneer Valley region could even make an appropriate backdrop for high-level U.S.-Russian diplomatic talks. Already, several delegations of Russian dignitaries have passed through the Center and have come away very impressed.  

“If you want an environment or locale that will immediately set the tone and soften these hard-edged people, no one else has this,” he said.

At the lecture, Kuchins was introduced by Amherst Professor William Taubman, who moderated a Q&A after the talk that touched upon recent events in Russia, Ukraine and the Crimean region. Taubman is author of a Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, and is writing a biography of Mikhail Gorbachev. Kuchins also is planning to meet students with an interest in international relations, in meetings sponsored by the Career Center.

“The theme of the lecture was set several weeks ago, the topic is very clearly related to what’s going on now in Ukraine and Crimea, and Andrew is one of the most knowledgeable sources imaginable on this topic,” Rabinowitz said. “We’re very fortunate that Andrew visited at this critical time in U.S.-Russian relations.”

Kuchins is published widely and frequently called on by business, government, media, and academic leaders for comment and consulting on Russian and Eurasian affairs. His more recent scholarship has been devoted to issues including U.S.-Russia relations and the “reset,” Russia’s Asia strategy, and the role of energy in the Russian Far East.

The Center exists because of the generosity of Thomas P. Whitney ’37, who spent many years in Moscow during the 1940s and '50s as an official with the U.S. Embassy and as an Associated Press correspondent. His fascination with Russian culture would subsequently result in a collection known to many as The Whitney Russian Collection. He donated the collection to the college in 1991.

“Tom Whitney’s vision of the center was to promote and foster relations and understanding between Russia and the United States through cultural exchanges, concerts, lectures and access to his collection,” Rabinowitz said. “That was the whole impetus behind it and he was thinking about this before the fall of the Soviet Union.”

Over the past two decades, several delegations of Russian business and government officials have visited the center, many of them through visits arranged by Massachusetts Sen. Stanley Rosenberg. As well, scholars from Russian request access to the collection with some frequency.

“I haven’t seen any diminishment of interest or warmth toward us and I don’t think we will see that here,” Rabinowitz said.