Helsinki to become leading centre of Russia research

The new RussiaHUB brings together Russia experts from different disciplines. The crisis in Ukraine increases the importance of research in these fields.

Helsinki aims to become the number one centre of knowledge on Russia. The University of Helsinki Aleksanteri Institute is joining forces with other scientific institutions, universities, businesses and policy makers. The new consortium is named RussiaHUB Helsinki.

In practice, the university will apply funding for new professorships, research projects and seminars. In the course of 2015, RussiaHUB will open a visitor space in the centre of Helsinki. The goal is to disseminate information on Russia outside the realms of science and beyond Finnish borders.

Lesson learned from the fall of the Soviet Union

The crisis in Ukraine is not the reason for the new hub but it demonstrates the importance of expertise, says Vladimir Gel’man, a FiDiPro professor and researcher working at the Aleksanteri Institute.

– When the Soviet Union collapsed, research on Russia in the neighbouring countries nearly ceased. We don’t want to make the same mistake now.

Russia’s role model is the superpower that the Soviet Union once was. It’s dangerous to look to the past for role models.

Gel’man conducts the study of political structures of modern Russia at the institute. The talk about the Soviet Union is intentional: he truly compares Putin’s Russia to that of the Cold War era.

– Russia’s role model is the superpower that the Soviet Union once was. It’s dangerous to look to the past for role models.

– Russia is paying a high price for Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea the Russian people were still enthusiastic, but that enthusiasm has subsided. They don’t want to enter a war.

Gel’man predicts that Russia will withdraw from Eastern Ukraine, if only it can do so gracefully. Russia cannot, however, stop the recession – the consequence of western sanctions and the decline of oil prices.

– Russia will face the biggest depression since the early 1990s.

The forceful whims of inner circle top leaders

Gel’man has researched Russian domestic politics since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the time he was an activist with an engineering degree. The exceptional road to becoming a professor is understandable, since there was no study of homeland politics in the Soviet Union. The field of study did not exist.

At the moment Gel’man is researching the reforms of the Putin government and their implementation. The tax reform turned out successful, the school reform did not.

– The achievements of the government depend on the whims of a small group of top leaders. The development of Russia is hindered by this authoritarian governance model which is unsuitable for a large country.

– What’s happening in Donetsk is a model example of the consequences: they make stupid decisions.

Every other semester in St. Petersburg

According to Gel’man, a politics scholar can be critical even in Russia, as long as the criticism doesn’t become too personal.

Problems occur instead with finding reliable sources of information in Russia. For example election data or survey results may be untrustworthy.

Gel’man thinks Helsinki is an ideal location for a home of Russia expertise. However, a researcher can’t merely sit in a neighbouring country. RussiaHUB cooperates with Russian colleagues. Gel’man himself spends every other semester in St. Petersburg, where he lectures at the European University.