The scholars’ topics cover a wide range both geographically, and with regard to methodology, discipline, and focus. The seminars are a platform for advancing and sharing knowledge of the present, past, and future of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe, and Eurasia, and each session has ample time for questions and discussion. All students, scholars, and other interested audiences are warmly welcome to attend!
The Visiting Fellows Research Seminars are streamed online and can be watched on our YouTube channel for a two-week period after the presentation, in c. a week’s time from the seminar. To get a video link for viewing a presentation after that, contact Anna Korhonen.
Along with the Visiting Fellows Research seminars, join Aleksanteri Alumni Talks, online seminars with Visiting Fellow alumni.
Russia and Kazakhstan have rapidly decreased the use of prison as a form of punishment in the last 20 years. What is the place of the prison in the culture and politics of these two countries? What do people think is the purpose of prison and how well do the prisons of these countries fulfill this purpose? What characteristics are related to punitive attitudes towards criminals? Drawing on 24 focus groups in six locations across the two countries and two representative national surveys, this talk will discuss the drivers of decarceration and the relationship between this policy and public sentiment about how to deal with offenders, framing this within the broader history of Soviet repression and the Gulag. The seminar will also consider the data in light of the extensive use of prisoners as combatants in Russia's war on Ukraine.
Speaker: Gavin Slade, Associate Professor of sociology, Nazarbayev University Read more.
Chair: Judith Pallot, Professor, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki; Professor Emeritus, University of Oxford
Venue: Online and Unioninkatu 40, room 17, Metsätalo C wing (max capacity in the room is 20 participants)
In this lecture Visser draws on his ongoing research project that investigates how digital innovation unfolds in the context of Russia, with its strong state involvement and an autarchic turn. It focuses on agriculture, where large corporate farms (‘agroholdings’) are increasingly using technologies like drones, GPS-steered combines, big data and AI. The research studies how Russia’s longer-standing policy of food self-sufficiency, intersects with the new rush to build up technological sovereignty in response to Western sanctions. Drawing on earlier fieldwork and new desk-top research, it subsequently investigates what implications such techno-politics have for Russian agriculture, and global food security.
Over the past decade Russia transformed into the World’s largest grain exporter, with numerous African and Middle Eastern countries heavily dependent on its wheat. In the long-term Russia’s importance as food exporter is expected to rise further, with climate change bound to affect more southern located grain-exporting countries negatively. As such, the trajectory of agricultural innovation (or lack thereof) will have implications far beyond Russia itself.
Speaker: Oane Visser, Associate Professor, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, part of Erasmus University Rotterdam Read more
Chair: Daria Gritsenko, Assistant Professor in Russian Big Data Methodology, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Venue: Zoom and Unioninkatu 40, room 17, Metsätalo C wing (max capacity in the room is 20 participants) Register here for the Zoom link
Often ‘illiberal’ forces are equated with populism, which is usually characterised as reactions to a loss of traditional values and ways of life, as well as to elitism. Social forces rooted in working class culture can be disparaged as ‘illiberal’, especially when they are juxtaposed with urban middle class activism.
Rather than writing off the politics of the weak and poor as reactionary or ‘illiberal’, this paper seeks to understand the nature of their social struggles and moral concerns. It examines the attitudes and values of the so-called ‘illiberal’ social forces in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. These social forces have emerged partly in response to elites’ economic and political domination, widespread social suffering and a sense of inequality. The feelings and evaluations of leaders and activists of these forces are understood on their own terms. In doing so, their accounts reveal their emotions and lay morality that combine both descriptions of how the world is, and aspirations of how the world ought to be. Recent political protests and uprisings in the region have arguably demonstrated that working class groups have been more active than middle class forces in demanding social change.
Speaker: Balihar Sanghera, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Kent Read more.
Chair: Anna-Liisa Heusala, University Lecturer, Head of Discipline (Russian and Eurasian Studies), Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Venue: Zoom and onsite
The remarkable progress achieved in some countries worldwide regarding gender and sexual equalities at the end of the 20th – early 21st century has met a growing wave of resistance taking different forms. Ukraine is among those countries where thanks to the political pressure from the European Union combined with the efforts of the local civil society, the laws to prevent and eliminate discrimination, protect women from domestic violence, and promote LGBT people’s rights were adopted in 2010-2017. However, this progress, too, was met by the opposition from the various conservative and religious groups.
The seminar talk will discuss anti-gender resistances and how their activities can be gendered and even queered. I argue that the activity of these groups fits into the definition of heteroactivism, or “the coordinated ideological response to sexual and gendered equalities rooted in an unwavering belief in the centrality of heteronormativity...as foundational to a healthy and sustainable society” (Browne and Nash 2017b, 645). Unpacking the mobilization frames used within the Ukrainian heteroactivist movement, the talk aims to complement our understanding of the regional dimensions of heteroactivism. The goal is to go further in studying commonalities and differences between spatial, cultural, and geographic specificities of ongoing ideological processes evolving against the background of resistance against gender and sexual equalities overlapping with emerging nationalisms and nation-state building in the post-soviet space.
Speaker: Maryna Shevtsova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie EUTOPIA-SIF COFUND Postdoctoral fellow and a Visiting Professor at the Sociology Department, University of Ljubljana; Senior FWO Fellow at KU Leuven, Read more.
Chair: Marianna Muravyeva, Professor of Russian Law and Administration, Aleksanteri Institute and Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki
Venue: Zoom and onsite
Coordinated anti-regime voting in autocracies is an important prerequisite for the prospects of regime change. The existing literature traditionally considers opposition political parties as key drivers of voter coordination. Some authoritarian regimes, however, successfully discourage political opposition from coalition formation via either pork-barrel politics or selective repressions, or both. Is coordination of opposition-minded voters possible under such circumstances? If it does, what are the factors mediating the impact of coordinated anti-regime voting in autocracies? This manuscript seeks to answer these questions by investigating the ‘smart vote’ campaign in the course of Russian elections held from 2019 to 2021. The analysis is based on district-level data covering individual candidates’ election returns, affiliations, past electoral experience, other personal characteristics, and specific district-level properties. The analysis indicates that the ‘smart vote’ support significantly boosted the electoral results of individual candidates. The campaign’s effect was stronger in electoral districts located in capital cities of Russian regions than elsewhere. The ‘smart vote’ impact was, however, mitigated by high turnout rates.
Speaker: Mikhail Turchenko, independent scholar Read more.
Chair: Margarita Zavadskaya, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Venue: Zoom and onsite
For any given regime, the power to control the official interpretation of national history is considered to be an important and efficient instrument for nation building and nation maintenance purposes. As pointed out by Michael Billig, “nations do not typically have a single history, but there are competing tales to be told” (Billig 1995: 71). Thus, historical narratives are subject to construction, re-construction, and contestation. School history textbooks—and the educational system in general—represent important locales for such struggles between competing historical narratives.
As history books, school history textbooks represent a special genre. Complicated issues are as a rule reduced to undebatable “shared truths” ready for student consumption. In this context, the past is first and foremost meant to provide meaning to and legitimation of the present and to help staking out a common course for the future. With their near universal reach to entire cohorts of youths, school history textbooks are a powerful tool for spreading the message of the current regime of who and what the nation should be—and for legitimizing the powers-that-be.
In my paper, I examine continuity and change in how some key moments of Russian history are being presented in school history textbooks in the Russian Federation in order to explore changes in the understanding of the national self. Since textbooks have to be preapproved by the authorities to get on the list of recommended textbooks, these books can be taken to represent the official view on how these key moments are reinterpreted to fit the current approach to national history, and, thereby, also the current understanding of the national self.
I rely on Soviet school history textbooks in use in the early 1980s (pre-Perestroika) as a “baseline”. Then I trace how the narration of the same key events have been depicted in two sets of post-independence school history textbooks: textbooks that were in use in the mid-1990s (the first generation of post-Soviet textbooks), and the late 2010s (those currently in use), respectively. What historical “facts” remain constant? What has changed? And what can these shifting interpretations of historical events tell us about changes in the evolving understanding of the national self—and about the regime’s legitimation strategies?
Speaker: Helge Blakkisrud, Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs
Chair: Markku Kangaspuro, Director, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
The formation of new and innovative businesses belongs to a standard cure of crony capitalism. The common expectation is that once established innovative businesses would combat the corrupt politico-economic systems from within. The unique qualities of high-tech businesses, such as transparent private ownership, autonomy from the state, mobility and trans-nationalization of corporate activities, make them to the widely assumed leaders of modernization who would demand better governance and policies from the state.
In the light of enduring bad governance, the (relatively) well-developed high-tech business in Russia failed to fulfil these expectations. Most accounts of the failed modernization in Russia made Russian state responsible, while the high-tech business is assigned the role of the victim. Acknowledging the significant contribution of the Russian state to bad governance, this study highlights the complicit role of the high-tech businesses. Drawing on evidence from statistical and survey data as well as in-depth interviews, it traces the mechanisms of business-state interactions through which the high-tech business participates in Russian crony capitalism and contributes to the persistence of bad governance in Russia. The study also suggests several explanations of the business behaviors.
Speaker: Inna Melnykovska, Assistant Professor in comparative political economy, Central European University, Vienna Read more
Chair: Vladimir Gel’man, Professor of Russian politics, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Venue: Zoom and onsite
At a time when the Russian state increasingly restricts journalistic freedoms, it is crucial to understand the ways in which Russian journalists push back against state pressure. My current book project explores the daily resistance tactics that journalists in Chechnya and Dagestan utilize to circumvent state-imposed censorship. My project draws from the data I collected over nine months of ethnographic fieldwork in the North Caucasus (2014- 2017), digital ethnography, and over a hundred interviews.
For this seminar, I will focus on discussing journalistic resistance practices in the republic of Dagestan. I will provide an overview of the Dagestani media field, and will explicate how Dagestani journalists employ creative resistance techniques and establish three distinct forms of resistance: textual, behavioral, and conceptual. I will particularly focus on the tactic of creating “safe spaces,” both physical and digital, by Dagestani journalists and activists, and speak about how these digital safe spaces contest the concept of “echo chambers.” I will also discuss how creating interconnected online safe spaces by journalists who work within an authoritarian environment is relevant to the understanding of the concepts of social media ecosystems and the highly debated role of the on-line technologies in resistance and protest movements.
Speaker: Elena Rodina, subject matter expert at MS in Communications, Northwestern University
Chair: Olga Dovbysh, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
This paper addresses different dimensions of remembering Muslim traditions in Russia’s Urals by exploring how remembering past Muslim figures becomes a spiritual practice in a Bashkir Sufi circle. Here, remembering the prophets, saints, and martyrs (awliya and shuhuda) does not simply mean revisiting the past and celebrating a Muslim heritage as in a secular and “horizontal” conception of time. Rather the connection with “dead” saints, prophets, and mythical figures such as the Bashkir hero Ural Batyr is also “vertical” in the sense that these holy figures intimate the living to become aware of the eternity that awaits them after death and that they can also glimpse in this world. These practices of remembering also translate into the reawakening of pilgrimage sites and a sacred geography. Although tangible and material, the revival of pilgrimages at the saints’ graves and construction of new mosques become an invitation to open one’s heart to the presence of God in this life, going beyond an immanent plane of existence. I connect my exploration of remembering as a spiritual practice to recent debates in the anthropology and sociology of religion on mediation, materiality, divine presence and the religious self. In particular, I want to foreground Muslim ontologies and epistemologies to propose new ways of approaching the relationship between human life and the divine and between immanence and transcendence.
Speaker: Lili Di Puppo, Aleksanteri Visiting Fellow
Chair: Judith Pallot, Research Director, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki; Professor Emerita, University of Oxford
Messianism is often referred to as one of the inherent features of Russia’s culture and politics. It functions almost as a self-evident truth, i.e., everybody knows about Russian messianism and there is therefore no need to elaborate on it. The annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine and the so called “conservative turn” in Russian politics have revived talk of Russian messianism. Some have interpreted these developments as a manifestation of the revival of Russian messianic imperialism.
Considering the increasing prominence of messianism in the contemporary debate on Russia, it is surprising how little substantial data and analysis has been produced concerning the contemporary dynamics of this phenomenon. In regard to the fundamental issue whether contemporary Russian foreign policy is messianic, experts’ opinions are divided. Some hold that messianism disappeared with the fall of the USSR. This is also the position with which most of the Russian political elite would agree. Others, however, insist that the sense of mission is an indispensable part of the Russian worldview. In my talk, I will present the main findings of my research whose main goal was to characterise messianic motifs in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation (2000-2018).
Speaker: Alicja Curanović, Associate Professor, University of Warsaw. Read more.
Chair: Sirke Mäkinen, University Lecturer, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki