A biographical account of Fiona Hill: a former St Andrews student who went on to become a US National Intelligence Officer.

Fiona Hill

Over the summer my attention was drawn to the book: The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. In the book, the authors argue that Siberia is burdensome to Russia and that its inhabitants should be relocated to the warmer regions. The book received mixed reviews. It was badly received by those who believed that the main reason for founding large cities in Siberia was to maintain Russian sovereignty over a place so rich with natural resources. On the other hand the book was well received by those who thought that people should live in a climate suitable for modern living and not one in which survival is a struggle.

The book’s strength is that it gives a correct factual account of how life in such a harsh climate is unprofitable; many people living in the North-Eastern Siberian cities feel economically trapped there against their will. The low incomes do not permit them to relocate and because their properties are not worth much (no one wants to invest in such a remote place), the citizens of the North cannot afford to buy or rent in the warmer Southern regions, even if they manage to save enough money for the necessary travel.

However, many of the book’s conclusions are drawn from the misguided application of mathematical calculations, which do not take into account the distinction between the Soviet Union and Russian Federation. Also, the argument is based on estimates concerned with the associated costs of dealing with prolonged cold weather such as heating, maintenance, house insulation, warm clothes – general costs incurred when dealing with harsh environmental conditions. Yet this is hardly fair to Siberia: the cost of dealing with earthquakes in Tokyo or Los Angeles, by the same argument, suggests that people should not live in those areas either. The solution proposed by Hill and Gaddy is a relocation of the younger generations, away from Siberia, leaving their parents and old people behind. This proposal is as harsh as the Soviet policies once used to populate the area and even though a problem exists there, perhaps another solution will prevail in the future.

After researching the book it turned out, to my great surprise, that one of its authors, Fiona Hill, has an impressive political career; and moreover, that she completed her MA Degree in Russian and Modern History at the University of St Andrews. Born in 1965 in Bishop Auckland in County Durham, England, she took advantage of travel opportunities available during her school years and spent time in both France and Germany. It was her aptitude for languages and her mother’s Scottish nationality that eventually brought her to St Andrews. It seems that attending the university, with its highly regarded professors and diverse opportunities, was a good starting point for this daughter of a miner and a midwife, who was also the first person in her family to experience higher education.

In 1987, during her academic year abroad, she used a grant from the British Council to travel to the Soviet Union and whilst there she studied Russian at ‘Maurice Thorez Moscow State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages’ (the largest and oldest university in Russia). Whilst in the USSR she took a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Khabarovsk. (The Trans-Siberian Express seems quite popular amongst St Andrews students, but I wonder how many of them have come up with an idea for a book, on their way to Khabarovsk?) In Moscow, Hill worked as an unofficial correspondent and translator for NBC, which enabled her to meet Maria Shriver, and in 1989 she completed her MA Degree.

After working in the North of the UK, mostly in local politics and exchange programs with Russia and Eastern European Countries, she won another grant and left Britain; this time for the other participant in the Cold War, America. In 1991 Fiona completed an A.M. Degree in Soviet Studies at Harvard University and quickly became a translator for Kennedy School of Government, working with Graham Ellison and Grigory Yavlinsky. She considered the possibility of returning to the UK at this time, but after receiving an offer to continue her Research at Harvard, she accepted and in 1998 completed her History PhD, becoming a Frank Knox Fellow. Her dissertation topic formed an integral part of the qualification and shows her deep interest in Russia: “In search of Great Russia: Elites, Ideas, Power, the State, and the Pre-Revolutionary Past in the New Russia 1991-1996”.

In the period from 1991 till 1999 she held a number of positions involved with directing technical assistance and research projects at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. During this time, in November 1999, she testified before Congress on the impact of the second war in Chechnya. From 1999-2000, prior to joining Brookings Institution (one of the Washington’s oldest think tanks, which conducts independent research into social sciences; primarily in economics, governance and foreign policy), she was appointed Director of Strategic Planning at the Eurasia Foundation in Washington DC, serving as Advisor to the President on issues of strategy.

Fiona Hill has written a number of books and articles about Russia, with predominant focus given to the region’s politics and use of natural resources. After co-writing The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold (2003) with Brookings Senior Fellow Clifford Gaddy, she wrote a monograph: Energy Empire: Oil, Gas and Russia’s Revival. Her other selected publications include: Beyond Codependency: European Reliance on Russian Energy; One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? The Realities of a Rising China and Implications for Russia’s Energy Ambitions, with Erica Downs, and Dinner with Putin: Musings on Modernization in Russia.

Participating as a guest speaker in television documentaries such as Siberia, How the East was won, (released in 2004) has helped to establish Fiona as a prominent authority figure and expert on Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union. As such, from 2006 till 2009, she served as National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council, before returning to Brookings Institution.

Now a director of the Center on the United States and Europe, Dr Fiona Hill has achieved a great deal since her time as an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews. She has been a consultant to The Hague Initiative (an international roundtable on the resolution of conflicts in the Russian Federation and the former Soviet Union, with a special focus on the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya), and a consultant to the United Nations Special Envoy and Mission to Georgia and Abkhazia. She is also the President of the Board of Trustees of ‘American Foundation’ at the University of St Andrews. To have achieved all of this by her mid-forties is incredibly impressive and, what’s more, makes Fiona’s future look like a very promising one.

As for her current personal life, Fiona is now a US citizen; she is married to Kenneth Keen (they both achieved an A.M. degree from Harvard in the same year) and together they have a five-year-old daughter.

This person is an inspiration. She has proved that success comes when you do something you love and that there is no goal too high if you have the determination to see it through.


Anna Devie


Image Credit – Heinrich Böll Stiftung


For those interested:

There is a good review of The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, written by British writer and journalist James Meek: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n13/james-meek/reasons-to-be-miserable

More detailed information about Fiona Hill can be found at: http://www.brookings.edu/experts/hillf.aspx