Vladimir Gel’man: Russia today resembles the final decades of the Soviet Union

Russia’s powers-that-be are afraid of criticism. Dissidents are limitedly allowed to air their opinions. Further, the fear of independent thought has led to pressure to European University at St. Petersburg, believes a professor who worked at the University for many years.

You could say that Vladimir Gel’man, professor of Russian politics, transferred to the University of Helsinki at the time, as his employer, the European University at St. Petersburg lost its educational license and became unable to provide teaching in its usual manner.

The official reason for revoking the license was the many small problems uncovered in the inspection of the University’s buildings – windows had been installed and walls moved without permission – but Professor Gel’man believes the real reason was that those in power were afraid.

 “They don’t like it that people are being taught to think independently. Those in power fear for their positions, even though I think their fear is excessive,” states Gel’man.

In this way, Russia resembles the final decades of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin knows that the people are unhappy, but tries to prevent critical voices from being heard.

However, Gel’man is not exiling himself by moving to Helsinki. He spent 2012–2017 at the University of Helsinki under the Finland Distinguished Professor programme and wanted to stay. The difficulties of the European University by chance coincided with his decision.

This is not the first time Gel’man has been at the right place at the right time. The professor was working as an engineer in the Sverdlov Machine-Tool Factory in the early 1990s when he became interested in political research. As the Soviet Union had had no critical research in politics, there was a great demand for scholars in this area.

Gel’man completed his doctoral dissertation in 1998 on the development of Russian politics. The rise of authoritarian power was already apparent.

 “In the 1990s Russia had no order. And as researcher Adam Przeworski has said, since any order is better than any disorder any order is established. This is why Vladimir Putin managed to gain the people’s support.”

Gel’man is still studying the political change in the former Soviet Union. He is currently working on a comparative study on how the governance of various parts of society has developed in the region.

 “For example, financial governance is fairly strict these days – nobody wants to repeat the chaos of the 1990s.”

On the other hand, regulation of the social and health sector has clearly been thought of as less urgent.

In his study, Gel’man plans to compare Russia, Georgia and Ukraine. Of these, Georgia has the highest level of governance for the most part, and Ukraine the lowest.

 “In Ukraine, regulation has been the slowest to develop. The people in power have concentrated on in-fighting, and things have not progressed.”

Vladimir Gel’man

Professor of Russian politics

Born in Leningrad, USSR in 1965

Completed his doctoral dissertation on Russian domestic policy in the 1990s at the St. Petersburg State University in 1998

Assistant professor at the European University at St. Petersburg 1996-2005

Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg from 2005

Executive director of the Centre for Modernization Studies of the European University at St. Petersburg, 2008-2011

Finland Distinguished Professor at the University of Helsinki 2011–2016

Vladimir Gel’man held his inaugural lecture Agency Matters: Explaining Post-Soviet Political Regime Dynamics on Wednesday 29 November 2017.