"Soviet studies are going through something of a renaissance in the United States," said Robert Legvold, director of the Columbia program. "This is a period of opportunity unlike anything we have seen in the past few decades."
Penn's Center for Soviet and East European Studies recently won a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to turn out much-needed Soviet specialists to replace a generation reaching retirement age.
Columbia has brought in about $2 million in gifts over the last year, including $1 million from the PepsiCo Foundation for its W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union.
Although student enrollment in Russian language began picking up several years ago, the Soviet Union's new policy of glasnost - or openness - and other changes taking place under Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev have accelerated the trend, experts say.
"One doesn't want to play personality cult, but there's no doubt that the personality of the leader is something that makes people curious," said Dan Davidson, chairman of the Russian department at Bryn Mawr College. Forty- three of Bryn Mawr's 1,100 undergraduates will major in Russian next year, more than the number majoring in either French or Spanish.
Jonathan Sanders, assistant director of Columbia's program, noted that the rise of Russian and Soviet studies began long before Gorbachev rose to power.
"But the prominence of his image on television and the excitement about the changes he is promoting have only solidified what was already a very strong trend growing out of a worry about the fate of the Earth and the simplicity of American policy based on the notion of the 'evil empire,' "
Added Elliott Mossman, director of Penn's program: "The renaissance is occurring because all of us - students, specialists and casual observers of the Soviet Union - are seeing that this phenomenon we call the Soviet Union is not solely a monolithic state but also a very complex society. We are rising to the challenge of understanding a complex society."
In 1983, the last year for which figures are available, 30,386 U.S. college students were taking courses in the Russian language at undergraduate and graduate levels, according to the Modern Language Association. The figure was up from about 24,500 in 1980 and is expected to increase by at least 10 percent in the association's 1986 count, which is now being tabulated. The association takes a count every three years.
Still, the number of Russian students pales by comparison to the 386,238
college students nationwide who were studying Spanish in 1983, the 270,123 studying French and 128,154 taking German.
What's more, as Sen. Paul Simon (D., Ill.) and other leading advocates of increased foreign-language study are fond of pointing out, Americans aren't studying Russian in nearly the numbers that the Soviets are studying English.
"There are now more teachers of English in the Soviet Union than there are students of Russian in the United States," noted Thomas R. Beyer, Jr., dean of the Russian School at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt. "In spite of the current renaissance, we still have a long way to go."
Nonetheless, at the undergraduate level, a number of leading academic institutions say they are creating new courses, adding sections to courses and hiring additional professors to accommodate the increased student demand for Russian and Soviet studies.
The interest "even goes beyond Russian to Eastern Europe in general," said Michael Flier, chairman of the Slavic language and literature department at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Three years ago, when he began teaching an introductory class in Russian civilization, Flier said, he had 35 students. Last spring, enrollment had swollen to 140, he said.
"I just introduced a new course in Russian art and it drew 25 students the first time," Flier added.
At the University of Michigan, Matthew Evangelista, an assistant professor of political science, said student demand was so high that his undergraduate course on Soviet domestic policy was offered twice last year, not just once as it had been in the past. Total enrollment, he said, was about 140.
"There are many more students applying (for Soviet studies), and consequently we are getting more highly qualified students than in the past," he said. "In the late 1970s, we'd take students who didn't have any language background. Now, that's really a prerequisite."
Whether sufficient jobs will be available for the increasing number of students specializing in Russian and Soviet studies remains to be seen. By all accounts, there are now job opportunities in academia, which listed 55 vacancies for Russian professors last year.
Government employment of Soviet specialists also is growing. But so far, private industry has not shown much interest in putting Soviet experts on the payroll.
"The main employer in the field is the federal government, and there are not yet that many corporations that are hiring Soviet specialists," cautioned Bruce Parrott, director of Soviet studies at the School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
On many campuses, college students' studies are being assisted by new satellite hookups to Soviet television.
The links - which are to be installed at Penn, Oberlin College and other schools in the coming academic year - enable students to watch everything from the Soviet version of the nightly news to Soviet call-in shows where government officials answer viewer questions.
At Oberlin, where students are to learn Russian by dubbing English subtitles for Soviet programs, more than $800,000 from the Philadelphia-based Pew Memorial Trusts is helping to finance the development of a curriculum in Soviet studies. During the coming year, the school also hopes to make use of the new television link to the Soviet Union to integrate Soviet conducting styles into its own well-known music program.
Student and faculty exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union, once a rarity, are also on the rise.
This summer, more than 175 teachers of English in the Soviet Union and Hungary are studying at Bryn Mawr, Penn and the University of Maryland under a bilateral program of the American Council of Teachers of Russian, headquartered at Bryn Mawr.
Under the same program, about 140 advanced Russian students from American colleges will study in Moscow and Leningrad during the coming academic year. The number is up 50 percent from a year ago.
Other kinds of exchanges also have excited interest on American campuses.
In April, Temple University and a number of other schools across the United States played host to five visiting Soviet humorists who showed American
college students how they satirized not only the United States but also their own country in cartoons and columns in leading Soviet publications.
In January, several American college presidents, including Swarthmore's David Fraser, were among the first Americans to visit with Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov soon after his release from Gorky.
Fraser said such academic contacts were important in promoting international understanding.
"Academics write books, and books help educate people," Fraser said. "If we can set a tone in our country of understanding of the Soviet Union - how they view the world and how they address concerns - we're all so much better off than if we are working on rather shallow stereotypes."