Research plan

1. Russian Modernisation Revisited

The 'Choices of Russian Modernisation' Centre of Excellence meets a number of urgent practical and theoretical needs in academic communities worldwide. The practical need is to better understand and explain Russian modernisation. This is a crucial task with regard to contemporary Russia, its development needs and the related global implications. The theoretical need is to gain a better understanding and explanation of modernization itself on a more abstract level. The Russian case is an ideal one with which to dig deeper into the evolving nature of modernisation, given that it captures aspects of westernizing modernisation, Soviet modernisation, some anti-modern or traditional tendencies in the form of pan-Slavism and Eurasianism, and new variants of modernization espoused by the so-called BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India and China), which are emerging global powers that, at least partly, defy any previous models. A number of choices must be made with regard to Russian modernisation. Roughly speaking, the key choices are between

  • Modernization based on the Western democratic model, be it that of Europe or the United States or something else,
  • Modernization based on the Eastern model, whether that is Russia's own way, the Chinese way or something else (or authoritarian modernisation) and
  • A refusal to modernize and a preference to look for and retain old traditions.

Previous research has not sufficiently considered all these dimensions of Russian modernisation, their mutual interrelationships and more generic theoretical possibilities. Despite some interesting theorizations concerning the various paths and forms of modernity, and a near-consensual understanding that modern development can no longer be encapsulated in the traditional 'West and the rest' formula, Russian modernity has remained an enigma that social scientists have approached from various perspectives with somewhat atomistic results. The CoE discussed here maintains a continuous dialogue with the previous paradigms and approaches.

The most widespread approach in Russia – the so-called tsivilizatsionnyj podhod – sees Russia as a unique civilisation. Proponents of this approach have returned to traditional discussions and have revitalized the idea of Russia as a Eurasian civilisation. In our view, this approach is problematic. Eurasians argue that Russia is destined to follow the path defined by its history, which is based on the Asiatic mode of production, authoritarian etacratism and collectivist cultural values. In Russia, this discourse has been imposed largely by the development of China and authoritarian 'Asian' capitalism in various developing countries. Defining Russian identity as unique (for example, in the discourse on Eurasianism) seems to raise several new issues. Difference is seen everywhere, in Russian values, forms of ownership, legal and political institutions and people's attitudes, just to name a few areas. Like civilization theories in general, Eurasian theory is problematic because it tends to be abstract and totalizing in an essentialist vein. Russian cultural theory has responded actively to the idea of 'multiple modernities' by suggesting an approach of New Cultural Anthropology for studying 'closed societies' that is close to our own approach. In Russian economic policy, the choice of modernization is currently seen from a technology-centred perspective, in which new technological innovations open the path to modernisation. This approach seems to involve a strong Soviet-type legacy in terms of understanding economic modernisation.

In the context of major Western theories, totalizing approaches are also widespread. One influential such interpretation is the concept of the 'patrimonial model'. This perspective sees Russia as being determined to stay on its path of state-dependent authoritarianism. In contrast, the 'transition' discourse emphasizes the future, albeit in a finalistic manner. The transition paradigm sees Russia proceeding on a linear developmental path that is defined by the systemic features of the market economy: democracy, liberal administration and the rule of law. Both discourses see developments in Russia as being determined by inevitable structural and cultural constraints. Empirical studies, however, have shown that development is more hybrid in nature, connecting global and local influences in both formal and informal rules of the game.

A consequence of this approach is that experts on Russia have reached little, if any consensus. Some experts see less and less difference between modern-day Russia and the Soviet Union, while others regard Russia as a more or less 'normal' European state, both internally and externally. This has led to diffuse policies with regard to Russia, both at the bilateral (Finnish) and European (EU) levels. One reason why scholars have struggled to understand Russia is the complicated and contradictory relationship between the reality and the rhetoric prevalent in Russian discourses. In the Soviet period, the lack of reliable information was used to explain this difficulty. Information is much more freely available in post-Soviet Russia, and it is clear that a more comprehensive analysis, which draws from Russian history and culture, must be placed alongside social science models in order to fully grasp the significance of official discourses and their reception in Russian society.

2. Vision: aims and current progress

In order to grasp the internal Russian political and cultural constellations of modernization and their position vis-a-vis the larger global community, this Centre of Excellence proposes a multi-level, interdisciplinary approach, which enables close dialogue and interaction between studies on different themes and periods. The CoE aims to redefine the research agenda on Russian modernisation. This new approach, known as the 'Finnish School', will eventually result in a new paradigm in Russian studies and will be an important agenda-setter in Russian studies. It will also provide policy implications at the most fundamental level of EU-Russia relations. In Russian studies, this 'Finnish school' represents an interdisciplinary and multi-positional research programme based on shared research problems regarding a joint set of methodological and theoretical approaches. It combines in-depth empirical analysis of Russia with theoretical ambition that extends beyond the Russian context.

The CoE advances a Finnish approach that emphasizes choice and agency, intended and unintended results and the social constitution of culture. In this regard, Russia faces five major challenges:

  • Diversification of the economy. Russia’s modernisation prospects will be based on its economy regardless of the approach adopted. Therein the key challenge is economic diversification. While Russia must reap full benefits from its energy resources to generate the necessary finances, it also must lessen its excessive energy dependency in domestic economy and foreign trade. Our approach to diversification refers not only to the diversification of industry but also to the social and organisational forms of public and private units involved in economic activities.
  • A hybrid political regime. The development of Russian institutions remains at the core of the modernisation process. All the sub-projects in this thematic area are connected to the question of what the Russian state is like today and what will determine its institutional development in the future. Although all sub-projects are organisationally independent, they are linked to each other through the connecting concepts of agency, rules of the game, and cultural self-understanding. The cluster team produces a comprehensive picture of Russian institutional development and the study of agency, and therefore includes political and legal systems, public administration, companies, social networks, and the media
  • Choice of the model for the welfare regime. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialist welfare structures have experienced rapid, large-scale changes and constant reformulation. Modernisation and institutional reforms have not necessarily proceeded as expected and Russian welfare institutions remain rather weak and of low quality. This cluster examines welfare on the one hand as structures and processes, and on the other hand as interaction frames and agency.
  • Basic orientation in foreign policy: conflict or integration. The intertwined nature of domestic politics and international relations means that the quest for modernisation also affects Russian foreign policy. Russia’s foreign policy has been based on the aspiration to establish and strengthen its position as a great power. However, there are several ways to define the term ‘great power’. If Russia wishes to modernise according to the Western model, it must be recognised as a fully-fledged liberal democratic country that is embedded in key international liberal organisations. If Russia chooses the Eastern style of modernisation, it will use its economic power, especially in energy politics, to control key areas close to its borders and make its voice heard as a great power. The greatness of a traditional great power would be based on military power and direct territorial control.
  • Constructing a post-communist form of rationality and cultural identity. The projects within the ‘Cultural and Philosophical Interpretations of Russian Modernisation’ cluster place Russia’s modernisation in a historical framework, which is investigated through its major cultural entanglements. These include the discourse on rationality, imperial legacies, language and identity, mechanisms of self-understanding and the collision between Orthodox Christianity and Islam. All of these subject areas are critical to Russia’s future and expertise on them is crucial for an analysis of the alternatives for Russia’s modernisation. The historical process of Russia’s modernisation is rooted in the Enlightenment period and intense empire building and it draws attention to questions of secularisation and religion, nation and empire.

Our most significant synthetic conclusion is that in each of these challenges we can identify several discourses, agencies and action frames. The interaction of top down strategies and bottom up processes complicates the structuration processes and make them contradictory. Analyzing both the intended and unintended consequences in Russia’s modernisation efforts seems to be highly relevant on all levels of analysis. If we want to analyse the patterns in this kind of a complex system, an effective method for modelling such a phenomenon must offer insight into its separate facets as well as into the self-organizing, complex pattern produced by their overall interaction. The individual facets can be studied within traditional disciplines whereas interdisciplinary study is a logical candidate for developing specific, whole, complex systems to study such phenomena. Consequently, an interdisciplinary approach draws insights from relevant disciplines and integrates those views into a more comprehensive understanding. Our understanding is that Giddens’ theory of structuration allows the thematisation of research focus in terms of various agencies and structures, but this sociological theory does not give specific concepts for economic, political and cultural analysis. We do not have master discipline in the sense of Parsons’ functionalist sociology. The relationship between various facets of society is not theoretically given. It is an empirical issue.

The results of the CoE are expected to challenge traditional and contemporary views on Russian modernisation. At the same time, the programmatic intention seeks to "bring Russia back to Russian studies" and to the core of social theory as such. The CoE maintains that Russia should not be seen only as an empirical case; we view it as a challenge for our understanding of basic social processes of modernization in general.

3. Theoretical and methodological development

The CoE builds on the existing high-quality projects and networks in an effort to consolidate a distinctive and coherent Finnish school in Russian studies. The methodology is based on a multidisciplinary research programme that shares a common set of methodological and theoretical approaches. The idea is to challenge the traditional dualism between East and West, between totalitarianism and modernization and between history and social science. For the CoE, Russia is more than just an empirical case; given the challenge involved in understanding the basic social processes of global modernisation, Russia should be at the very core of social theorising.
The research programme of the CoE will study Russian society on the basis of four broad theoretical and methodological frameworks. The first level is the phenomenological description of the basic institutional matrix of Russian society and state. The intention is to provide a multi-disciplinary overview of the formation of Russia and its state institutions. In addition to conventional political institutions, studies will also analyse social structure, gender, technological development and the spatial formation of Russian development. Providing a background to the individual institutions are investigations into the distinctive ethos of Russian society.
Secondly, the contemporary transition is hermeneutically placed in the context of Russian tradition and intellectual self-reflection. The CoE's approach to Russian intellectual history is interactive, in a dialogical sense. Russia's history of ideas and traditions of social science will be taken into account, while state-of-the-art Western humanities and social sciences contribute to the dialogue. The extensive scholarly networks between the Aleksanteri Institute and Russian academic research institutions have made it possible to implement such an approach. The third level is the theory of social structuration. The processes of the construction and erosion of the Russian state and nation are analysed as the institutionalization of intended and unintended results of particular hegemonic projects. The relationship between political ideologies and actual social processes in Russian studies has been over-simplified, as if the social institutions were a mere implementation of ideas. Serious examination of unintended results in social and historical analysis opens up new perspectives for understanding both Soviet history and contemporary Russian transformations.

Finally, the CoE will seek a range of critical approaches to Russian society. Russia has always been a source of various forms of social critique and even utopia. In the contemporary situation, the CoE will look for the actual alternatives of social development and the forms of critical social discourse that might be relevant for Russia's future. Based on this theoretical approach, the research programme is founded on three hypotheses:

  1. Russian modernization remains an ongoing process of interaction between universal value patterns and specific cultural codes.
  2. Resources are not the main problem with regard to the structuration process of Russian modernisation. The main problems concern the constitution of the rules of the game, agency and culturally determined self-understanding.
  3. The modernization process must be conceptualized as a complex interaction between the macro and micro levels of society. Intentional and rational processes at the macro level of state and national economy may imply unintended effects at the micro level of individual actors (enterprises, consumers, citizens, localities) and vice versa.

These hypotheses cannot be subjected to a straightforward empirical test. Instead they must be developed and modified in an intertwining process of conceptual and empirical analysis.
The hypotheses define the CoE's common horizon on contemporary Russia, which is analysed within the following research clusters:

  • Diversification of the Economy
  • Authoritarian Market Society as a Challenge;
  • Welfare Regime;
  • Foreign Policy;
  • Cultural and Philosophical Interpretations of Russian Modernisation.


Each of these five clusters includes research projects that will define their actual empirical approaches, as well as detailed conceptual solutions in dialogue with other projects, both within that particular cluster and with the other clusters.

4. Current theoretical and methodological development (update 2016)

For our approach, it is fundamental to understand that we are looking for the link between the modernisation strategy of the Russian government and the general modernisation theories in social science.
The call for Russian modernisation has often been associated with a speech by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in his 2009 state of the nation address (Medvedev 2009), although similar expressions were already in President Putin’s speeches previously. However especially during Medvedev’s presidency the slogan of modernisation became widespread. In fact, it is an evident and dominant topic even in the contemporary situation where the public rhetoric is more concentrated on foreign policy challenges and the outside world tends to see a slowing down of the reform effort. In his presidential address in December 2014 Vladimir Putin emphasised that economic growth, technological modernisation, innovation and international competitiveness are among Russia’s top priorities. Only such elements, Putin argued, would guarantee the country’s influence on the world stage and its resilience as a nation (Putin 2014).
The topic remains relevant because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation has had to re-build its state identity and the associated political, social and economic systems, and the country must also define itself as a nation, a state and a society, vis-à-vis global development on one hand and the Soviet and Imperial Russian legacy on the other. Since the early 2000s, in an effort to consolidate power, Russia’s rulers have rallied behind a unifying conservative-liberal ideology that has partly replaced and partly built on Soviet and traditional models. A conservative turn and a simultaneous modernisation effort seems to be a typical Russian paradox. However, global social imaginaries and normative ideas concerning personal liberties, social-economic welfare, political freedoms, and the rule of law are all key elements for any twenty-first century state as part of the evolving multi-level global order. These are global modernisation challenges with which Russia must deal.
We do not have all-encompassing and totalizing concepts of the Russian way of modernisation before the empirical analysis has taken place. Rather, we have two basic dimensions in our research setting. The first aspect is a generic theoretical approach found in Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory. This approach has its strengths, as it can be used for generating concrete research settings concerning the various challenges in Russia’s institutional development. The second starting point is the understanding of Russian modernisation as five fundamental challenges.
Our understanding of the research setting is presented in figure 1 (below)

We are moving ahead both theoretically and empirically on both of these aspects. (1) On the one hand making Giddens’ structuration theory empirically relevant and on the other hand (2) trying to create synthetic answers concerning the major challenges of Russian modernisation.
(1) Russian studies in general do not have a high profile in epistemological or methodological reflexivity. This implies that we have no ready-made answers to such questions as how to use the grand classificatory concepts of modernity, modernisation, or entangled modernities in empirical research? Or, how to theorize modernisation in a way that can also explain the ongoing contemporary transformation effort in Russia? In fact, we do not have any self-evident concepts to start with. We should specify what kinds of explanations we are looking for, and, what is the significance of empirical results for the theory? To what extent is theorizing about coming up with creativity, speculation and imagination? To what extent we can rely on existing paradigms and to what extent should we aim at creating new concepts, coming up with ideas about solving problems in a hypothetical and heuristic way? At what level will our concepts and statements be falsifiable?
In several studies, especially by Kivinen, Gel’man, Aalto and others, we have tried to show how Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory, as a conceptualisation of the constitution of society, can become the hard core of the new interdisciplinary paradigm (or research programme in Lakatos’ sense) in Russian studies. This hard core is abstract enough to avoid too strong functionalist assumptions of the classical modernisation theory and open enough to empirical research to avoid totalizing explanations of Russia that previous, too structurally-based paradigms are suggesting. We argue that Giddens’ theory cannot be empirically tested but it opens a ‘protective belt’ consisting of specified concepts of structure and agency within several disciplines, leading to series of propositions that can be empirically tested and periodically adjusted.
(2) Within classical (functionalist) modernisation theory, traditional and modern societies were counterposed using some of the Parsons’ key model variables. Instead of this kind of counterposing, the new approach that we are suggesting aims at specifying the Russian way towards and through modernity in terms of institutional development by conceptually informed empirical structuration analysis with regard to five major macro level challenges. In order to develop our research setting more concretely, we have ‘to operationalize’ the various aspects of structuration in each of the five challenges. This can be done by creating middle range theoretical concepts and by proceeding through specified hypotheses. In this way we take a step back from reduction in abstract categories (for example, differentiation and integration cf. functionalist tradition and Arnason) as well as from the totalizing efforts to subsume arbitrarily all kinds of phenomena to all-encompassing civilizational concepts.