By Anne Cardenas, CCOHR Communications Fellow & Oral History Master of Arts student
The Harriman Institute at Columbia University was established in 1946, as the Russian Institute. My great aunt, Virginia Rhine Stein, was a member of the first class of the Institute. I’ve always looked up to her and love the connection we have from time spent in DC and public service. I’m especially excited that we now share the bond of attending Columbia as well. I spoke with her a few weeks ago about her experience at the Russian Institute and how it shaped her subsequent career.
Virginia was born in rural Arkansas in 1922 and attended Hendrix College. Upon graduating she interned in the Department of Agriculture and then worked for the FDA and the Board of Economic Warfare. After the war, and on the recommendation of a supervisor, she enrolled at Columbia University. She spoke of the origins of the Institute:
“During the war, the US government had to look to Russian emigres, ‘white Russians,’ for expertise on the Soviet Union, or Russia, and it was perceived, there was a conviction that we needed to have an indigenous, American cadre of experts in the Russian field and in the language as well, and that is the background for the thinking that went into the establishment of the Russian Institute.”
She eventually became one of these experts, working on the Soviet Union desk at the U.S. State Department, following the developments of women, the youth movement and education in the Soviet Union.
Her recollections of her time in graduate school at Columbia, in some ways, are not very different from what graduate students might experience today. She mentioned that the first class of 30 students organized themselves into a student body, where Marshall Schulman served as President, and she was Secretary. They organized seminars and held regular meetings. She also spoke of the pressures of the program, with intense Russian language courses. She even signed up for a life drawing class on Friday nights to “escape from the intensity of the course study.”
Of her time at the Institute, she said, “I learned to do research...and it broadened my outlook on the world.” I imagine the hundreds of graduates of the Russian Institute (and Harriman Institute) since that first class would agree with her.
In 2015, together with The Columbia Center for Oral History Research and INCITE, the Harriman Institute began a project to document the Institute’s role in foreign policy and academia. Interviews with prominent professors, staff and affiliates of the Harriman Institute can be found in Cold Wars and the Academy: An Oral History on Russian and Eurasian Studies.