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By Ray Downs
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Early during the course of Nikolai Zlobin's appointment as visiting professor at Webster University (or, as the institution likes to refer to itself, World Headquarters), he was speaking to a classroom of undergraduates, referring to his homeland as "the former Soviet Union," an accurate enough name for what is again being called Russia in the uncertain post-Cold War world.
One student, though, was confused, and raised his hand. "What do you mean by 'former' Soviet Union? What happened?"
Add this to the list of anecdotes that depict the sorry lack of historical knowledge that American students possess. And include this as another reason why teachers such as Nikolai Zlobin are good to have around to inform the uninformed. Zlobin has not only studied and examined closely this calamitous century but has witnessed and been a part of the event that will define the beginning of the next century, the dismantling of the communist system in Eastern Europe and in "the former Soviet Union."
"Any institution would be lucky to have him," says Zlobin's former department chair, Art Silverblatt. Zlobin has a sterling resume and a long list of accomplishments. He is the former chair of the political-history department at Moscow State University, where he also received his Ph.D. He is the author of nine books and co-authored the first Russian history textbook for high-school students in the era of Perestroika. He served as an advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev, and to Boris Yeltsin until it became clear that being connected to both was politically impossible. "I did not realize they were such political enemies," Zlobin confides. "Personally, they can't stand each other."
Since coming to America in the early '90s (he learned English by watching American television: "I watched Jay Leno and I Love Lucy, but I have no idea who Jay Leno is or what I Love Lucy is about"), he's received two grants from the MacArthur Foundation and another from the Soros Foundation. He has been a visiting scholar at American University in D.C. and at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, as well as at Webster. He's been invited to speak at Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and other universities around the United States. He's served as a special correspondent for both Literaturnaya Gazeta, the newspaper with Russia's largest circulation, and Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the more independent paper of the new Russian press.
As a journalist, he's gained access to some of the most prominent figures on the world stage. Zlobin arrives for an RFT interview with photos of himself with, among others, H. Ross Perot, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Lech Walesa, Ralph Nader and Gorbachev (or "Gorby," as Zlobin calls him). Zlobin is also acknowledged as one of the first in the West to report on the growing influence of organized crime in the new Russia in a piece published in the New York Times in 1994, "The Mafiacracy Takes Over." Because of this article, a return to his homeland is a dangerous option. Zlobin's father, who at 80 is the oldest working professor at Moscow State, called his son after the story was published, telling him, "I love you, but don't come back."
Despite the realities of the know-nothing status of American students, Zlobin enjoys teaching them. "I'm always surrounded by students," he says. "Maybe they're not very educated, but they want to be." Zlobin likes St. Louis as well. He's lived on both coasts but prefers this city and the curiosities of Midwestern life. His editors in Moscow are interested in his writing about an America Russians never hear about. "There's no international journalist in this area," he observes. The Midwest is also a good place for him to be as he continues research on a book on Harry S Truman, which will be the first Russian reassessment of the "man from Missouri" since the collapse of the communist empire. "Truman amazes me with his foreign-policy team," says Zlobin. "The world in which we've lived was shaped by Truman. A lot of people don't realize that. He's still a very underappreciated president. In Russia he's the bad guy."
Any institution would be lucky to have Zlobin, as Silverblatt says, especially Webster, whose relatively high course loads and low salaries don't especially attract or keep faculty of Zlobin's reputation. "I'm losing money teaching here," he laughs.
According to Zlobin, he could go anywhere: Georgetown, American U., the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Smithsonian. Call him crazy, but he'd like to remain at World Headquarters, Webster University.
But he won't. Zlobin has been working as a visiting professor at Webster since 1995 with a series of one-year appointments at the exceedingly low-scale salary of $20,800 annually. He was told at the beginning of this academic year that the chances for a further extension were nil, although he could remain as an adjunct, being paid $2,100 per course with no benefits.
Jim Staley, associate vice president of academic affairs at Webster, in discussing Zlobin's status with the school, prefers to focus on the fine points of defining full-time and part-time faculty. Although Zlobin has worked under annual contracts and has been provided benefits, Staley emphasizes that the school's one Russian scholar -- who during his four years at Webster created an international communications program that didn't exist before -- has been a part-time employee and thus vulnerable to the whims of what administrators call "university needs."
Staley says that in the past, Zlobin filled "specific areas of need. That's why the university offered him teaching appointments years back. Those interests have grown and sustained."
But given Zlobin's credentials, his scholarship, his impressive student evaluations ("There's almost a Nikolai Zlobin cult," says Linda Holtzman, former chair of the Communications and Journalism Department) and Webster's self-promoted international scope and World Headquarters moniker, wouldn't this be the ideal person for the school to keep?
"Webster has no comment on its personnel decisions," responds Staley in a tone that must be practiced by administrative apparatchiks worldwide.
Holtzman, who has worked closely with Zlobin for the three years, responds more openly about the possible loss of the school's Russian expert. "I don't usually say 'irreplaceable,'" she says, but she feels the word is apt when speaking of Zlobin. "He's unbelievable, one of the best teachers I've ever seen. The guy's brilliant -- his scholarship, the depth and breadth of his experience. It is rare to find someone with his high intellect, with the uncanny ability to connect with undergraduates. But," she qualifies, "if you ever play cards with him, watch out."
Holtzman recognizes that the school administration "wants to see excellence in scholarship and in teaching, but they also have a budget."
These budgetary determinations have Zlobin in a quandary. "I thought Webster would be more open to international innovations," he says. "It's not big money. Come on."
Ironically, one of Zlobin's themes in discussing the relationship between Russia and the United States in the Yeltsin era is one of missed opportunities. "This is what drives me crazy," he says. "I'm trying to tell everybody. I talk to State Department people and a lot of big guys in Washington about this. How stupid it is that Yeltsin, the most pro-Western Russian leader in a thousand years -- he was in power almost 10 years and we didn't use this opportunity. Clinton's foreign policy toward Russia failed completely. The next (Russian) president -- it doesn't matter even if he is an extreme democrat -- he won't be so pro-American or pro-Western."
However Russia turns, Zlobin emphasizes that America needs people with a knowledge of Russian affairs. "It is the last empty market where everybody needs goods, so you will need lots of experts on Russia. And if relations turn back to the old Cold War system, you will definitely need experts on Russia. It's very important to have programs on Russia and Eastern Europe."
Those programs won't be found -- or taught from such a unique perspective -- at World Headquarters, Webster University, once Zlobin's gone.