Russian Studies is Thriving at ASEEES

Bookcase file photo, adapted from image at nlm.nih.gov

(PONARS Eurasia – ponarseurasia.org – Sarah Wilson Sokhey, Assistant Professor, University of Colorado Boulder – November 20, 2017)

[Article also appeared at ponarseurasia.org/article/russian-studies-thriving-aseees]

Timothy Frye’s assertion last month in The National Interest that Russian studies are thriving, not dying was soundly confirmed at the annual ASEEES conference this past weekend. More than 3,000 area studies specialists-many of them experts on Russian politics-converged in Chicago to share their research methods and findings on a wide range of topics and pressing issues. The conference revealed at least two exciting areas of current research on Russia.

First, innovative new work is being done on political behavior and public opinion in Russia, for example:

  • Frye presented survey evidence showing that sanctions did not lead to a “rally around the flag” effect in Russia but did drive some anti-American sentiment.
  • Denis Stukal collected data showing that bots constitute more than 50 percent of accounts in the Russian political Twitter-sphere, but that these bots do not tweet more than humans and their political content is often ideologically neutral.
  • Despite the authoritarian context and cultural stereotypes, Russians do not like electoral manipulation: work by Ora John Reuter and David Szakonyi reveals that many Russian believe their elections are free and fair and are turned off by perceptions of ballot box fraud. In other words, the Kremlin may have to work hard to continue convincing Russians that it does not cheat, or at least that it does not cheat too much.

Second, the wealth of expertise on regional politics extends to economics.

A highlight of the conference was the panel discussing Juliet Johnson’s book, Priests of Prosperity: How Central Bankers Transformed the Post-Communist World (Cornell University Press, 2016), which was hailed as a new foundational work and won three ASEEES awards. Drawing on research in 17 countries from 2000-2014 including 160 interviews, she explores how bureaucrats in the region operated in a wormhole network (a concept she develops building on the Einstein-Rosen bridge in physics), which allows them to draw on the expertise of the transnational community to successfully establish central banking systems of their own. The book reveals two important shortcomings by central bankers in the region that she identifies as: sins of omission (when central bankers establish themselves as so independent that they fail to coordinate with other domestic actors) and sins of commission (which pertains to the serious lack of regulation in the banking sector).

There is a strong tradition in the study of economics in Russia and the region. Johnson’s session included praise and insights from other experts whose recent work constitutes an impressive list:

  • Hilary Appel, Tax Politics in Eastern Europe: Globalization, Regional Integration, and the Democratic Compromise (University of Michigan, 2011).
  • Rachel Epstein, Banking on Markets: The Transformation of Bank-State Ties in Europe (Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Timothy Frye, Property Rights and Property Wrongs: How Power, Institutions, and Norms Shape Economic Conflict in Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  • Mitchell Orenstein, Privatizing Pensions: The Transnational Campaign for Social Security Reform (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Clearly, the study of political economy in the region is alive and well.

Frye’s op-ed in The National Interest was a response to those decrying the lack of expertise in Russian politics. The cutting-edge work by many ASEEES participants proves there is an abundance of knowledge about Russia and the region for those willing to listen.

[featured image is file photo, not directly related to article subject matter]