Regional Researchers’ Expertise Caught in the Crossfire

An independent research community is a critical infrastructure.

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 2/2023.  “If the truth is the first victim of war – the researcher’s freedom of expression seems to be the next one,” says a colleague, Associate Professor of War Studies Ilmari Käihkö in his column ( 19 Jan 2023). Many of us share this feeling. The work of a researcher should certainly not be subordinate to the political shaping of opinions, because that would come into conflict with the reliability of the researcher, professional ethics where integrity is in central role and credibility of research work itself. “The politicisation of science threatens researchers’ freedom of expression – and therefore, everyone’s deeper understanding of the world,” Käihkö continues. A researcher must not lie, even if they are asked to.

How, then, can we ensure the reliability and integrity of our own research activities? The work continues, but at the same time everything has changed. Multi-annual cooperation relationships, publication in Russian, participation in seminars, field work – all these were put on hold from the beginning of March 2022. This has resulted in certain deficits and re-orientations. Many research plans and research questions have been omitted and replaced by others. This year has brought in a record number of requests for interviews and presentations, sometimes even on surprising subjects. When I’m appearing in public, I wonder who it is that is talking through me.

When at the Hakaniemi Market on a summer day I assured the Canadian television team in English that there are enough well-equipped civil defence shelters for the people of Helsinki, I was speaking as a random citizen. “I just planted potatoes,” I added, bragging slightly with a smile on my face. When I was talking on the same subject in a live interview on a Russian opposition channel in Russian, I appeared as a Finnish expert. I did not smile when I answered the questions about whether we fear Russia will attack Finland as a result of us joining NATO or whether we are worried about a cold winter.

The stereotypical assumption about a nationality is just the tip of the iceberg that the public sees. It hides the quality of expertise. In my case, this expertise covers philology and regional and cultural research. I am qualified to observe ambiguity, polysemicality, nuances and unspoken presumptions. I have mastered metaphors, symbols, quotes and linguistic registers. I have also considered them in recent months when listening to the public speeches of Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow. The hardest thing is not to interpret what he says, but what he leaves out. The impression of his words falling on deaf ears, of the emptiness of the ritual, is becoming stronger.

The famous Russian semiotician Juri Lotman (1922-1993) predicted a year before his death that the collapse of the Soviet regime would open up a historically unique opportunity to give up the dualistic either-or world view and to move towards “European values”, towards greater tolerance. If the opportunity was lost, Lotman said, there would be a historic disaster. That’s the atmosphere we’re living in right now. The message of apocalypse is repeated in the figures of speech of secular, military and spiritual leaders. A popular video on YouTube shows an avalanche of tanks while someone says The Lord’s Prayer, while in the background can be seen banderols with text “Forward, Russia” in different languages. But the situation is still open. There is a reality behind the apocalyptic symbols and speech, but there is no deterministic vision or one single interpretation of the future. The threshold for the use of nuclear weapons has either lowered or not – depending on who you ask.

It has become clear during the last year that as the sense of security falters, the mind becomes more alert. The main task of regional research is to bring the multidisciplinary research community with its various perspectives and the other actors in society further together. It is the responsibility of the research community to work together to ensure that we do not fall for black-and-white thinking. Independent, source-critical, open, reliable and peerreviewed research data must be available to our decisionmakers. In this spirit, we will organise the Valtakunnallinen Aleksanteri-foorumi 2023 conference under the theme “Expertise in the Shadow of War”. The conference will be held in Finnish on the 12th of May. Welcome!

Valtakunnallinen Aleksanteri-foorumi 2023

The Forum brings together different actors from Finnish society to reflect on and develop expertise on Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe. The Forum consists of thematic working groups and panel discussions with representatives from higher education, administration, business, politics, NGOs and students.