MOSCOW, RUSSIA. DECEMBER 8, 2015. Russia's sports minister Vitaly Mutko and president Vladimir Putin (L-R) shake hands as Putin's adviser for military and technological cooperation Vladimir Kozhin, Russian Olympic Committee chief and the State Duma's deputy chaiman Alexander Zhukov, and Russia's first vice prime minister Igor Shuvalov (L-R sitting) applaud at a joint meeting of the Council for Physical Education and Sports under the President of Russia and the Organising Committee for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Mikhail Metzel/TASS
L-r: Dennis Coates, a professor from the University of Maryland with an expertise in the economics of sports, and Dan Paracka, a professor at Kennesaw State in the university’s Division of Global Affairs and director of campus internationalization.

It’s more than a mere coincidence that Kennesaw State University’s “Year of Russia” is taking place as so many headline grabbing controversies swirl around U.S.-Russian relations. The university’s annual country study program has been taking a wide-ranging look at a specific country or region every academic year since 1984. Each so far has been at least five years in the making before the many related activities are let loose on campus.

Dan Paracka, a professor in the university’s Division of Global Affairs and director of campus internationalization, told Global Atlanta that by placing an intense spotlight on individual countries for a solid year the relations with the U.S. and the international dynamics of each country are generally brought to light, often in unexpected ways.

He cited last year’s events in Brazil, the subject of the 2016 “Year of..” program.The 2016 Olympic Games were going to push Brazil favorably into the headlines as the first Latin American country to host a Summer Olympics.

But 2016 also brought intense political strife and the tragedy of hundreds of babies born with microcephaly due to the zika virus.

In August President Dilma Rousseff was impeached setting off a sweeping investigation of corruption scandals endured during the worst economic crisis in decades.

The aftermath of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the upcoming 2018 World Cup soccer competition were addressed in a lecture at the university on Feb. 23 by Dennis Coates, an economics professor from the University of Maryland, who focuses on public policy issues with an emphasis on sport and sports economics topics.

Since 1993 he has been conducting research in conjunction with graduate students at the National Research University — Higher School of Economics, which was established in 1992 by Russian economists and leading reformers in the Russian government with the aim of promoting economic and social reform in Russia.

Kennesaw State is focused on Russia during this year’s ‘Year of…’ program.

“I have been blessed to be able to go to Russia and work with those people,” he said, adding that while some of his research may have reached conclusions critical the management of sports there, he has never experienced any sort of retribution.

He said rather modestly that he was hired to help emerging Russian sports economists publish in English to assist their efforts to gain international recognition. He also has conducted a variety of studies including a review of the importance of sports teams to establish brand recognition. In addition, he initiated surveys to determine the popularity of Russia’s holding mega events such as the Winter Olympics.

The overwhelming consensus his research found from the 1,600 respondents was that the government should pay for such an event with common answers being “We have far bigger problem than hosting the Olympics,” or “We don’t trust the government to use the money carefully.”

Dr. Coates never mentioned the famous “McLaren Report” of the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren who found widespread doping across a number of sports including widespread state action to hide cheating among Russian athletes in several international events leading up to the Sochi Games as well as the Sochi Games themselves. The current deputy prime minister of Russia,Vitaly Mutko, chaired Russia’s successful 2018 FIFA World Cup bid and made light of the doping and corruption allegations surrounding its selection.

Dr. Coates, however, did place such allegations into a historical context tracing the first signs of Russian athletes doping to the 1952 Olympics and evoked the Stalinist purges providing the backdrop against which the Russian players performed.

While soccer was viewed as a “bourgeois sport” and teams that played outside of Russia often were viewed by the government with suspicion for buying consumer goods.

He also described the pressure on the athletes to win medals to demonstrate their superiority over Western athletes and the government’s efforts to expand the number of events and countries involved to show their global dominance.

Russia clinched the bid for the 2018 World Cup in 2010 over bids from England, Portugal and Spain as well as a joint bid on behalf of Belgium and the Netherlands. It has selected 11 host cities where Russia, as Brazil had to prepare for its games, is in the process of building new stadiums and refurbishing old ones while airports and train stations are being modernized so that the sites may be more accessible.

As with the development of Sochi, Dr. Coates made it clear that President Putin’s supporters would undoubtedly benefit from the funds and construction work required.

Meanwhile Dr. Paracka  acknowledged to Global Atlanta that the current whirlwind of charges and countercharges highlighting the U.S.-Russian relations placed the “Year of Russia” programs in the spotlight.”  He quickly underscored, however, that the university programs’ often highlighted underlying domestic and international issues facing the countries being studied.

Russia was chosen for study this year way before the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, he added, primarily because of the strength of Kennesaw State’s academic commitment and engagement.

Alice Pate, chair of the university’s history and philosophy department, has a doctorate in Russian and Eastern European history. Political science professor Thomas Rotnem also is a specialist in Russian area studies. John P. “Jack” Moran teaches a post-Communist European history course and worked in the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1996. Mikhail Melnik, an economist and tax expert, participated in the Russian Fiscal Reform project in the late 1990s sponsored by the USAID and World Bank.

Based on their Russian connections and experience in Russia, Dr. Paracka said they played key roles on the planning committee. Their efforts were encouraged by Daniel Papp, the president at the time, whose academic scholarship centered upon international security policy‚ U.S. and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) foreign and defense policies and international system change.

Already a number of Russia related events have taken place including an overview of its experience during World War I, its preservation of world heritage sites, an analysis of its domestic politics and policies as well as it fiscal reform among several cultural programs.

Others still are to take place including a cultural program focused on “punk” culture, a performance of Anton Chekhov’s play, The Three Sisters and an international symposium focused on U.S.-Russian relations “in a global context.” The symposium is to include academics from throughout the country and General “Phil” Breedlove, retired NATO supreme allied commander for Europe and the U.S. command.

The “Year of Russia” is to conclude on April 22 with a Russian folk music concert.

The program is to finish with a balalaika concert of folk music.