Skip navigation
LMC 2023

Studying Russia: Getting the Reckoning Right

Russia is becoming harder to study, but understanding it is crucial. To ensure their work
is cogent, unbiased, informed, and thus as useful as possible, scholars must engage in
debate, question assumptions, and be open to new technologies.

Olga Oliker

Director of the Europe and Central Asia Program at the International Crisis Group

AP Photo/Scanpix
A view of empty Red Square closed in advance of May 9 Victory Parade preparation with the St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin Mausoleum in the background. Photo: AP Photo/Scanpix

As war rages in Ukraine, Russia area studies seems at a crossroads. Critics argue that the field is due for a revolution, that analysts have not been sufficiently critical of Russian narratives, and instead accepted and reinforced Kremlin views of its exceptionalism and right to regional dominance. Some suggest less energy spent on Russia in general, and more on Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and their neighbours.

Others would judge the quality of any work on how well it directly serves the greater good, for instance, by supporting Ukraine’s resistance. Meanwhile, Russia’s isolation – long in the making but now accelerated – increasingly limits both the availability and reliability of data. To provide the analysis that can inform better policy, scholars must continue to study Russia, even as they confront their own biases, engage in debate, and embrace technology.

Newspapers and Twitter chats provide ample proof that policymakers and casual observers alike continue to conflate Russia with its fellow successor states to the Soviet Union. But the analytical communities that study these topics in both the West and Russia itself have long been more nuanced, if not entirely free of neo-colonial attitudes.

An Evolution

Soviet studies, back in the day, often did not particularly differentiate between Russia and the Soviet Union. The research that focused on Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Estonia was the purview of a small subset of academics. Western policymakers paid little attention to what most saw as domestic politics in a country where, in their assessment, domestic politics did not matter.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union proved them wrong, and dissolved Soviet studies along with it. While it took time and energy and evolution, the three decades since have seen the development of many fields of study, differentiated by geography, culture, and other variables. Modern specialists in the South Caucasus do not claim to understand Turkmenistan and vice versa, unless they have done the necessary comparative research.

Neocolonial vestiges remain, to be sure, but manifest in unexpected ways. For instance, in the regional studies literature a “Russia lens” as such may be far less of a problem than the privileging of English and Russian languages, and the resulting silencing of many indigenous voices. True, it was Russian colonialism, including in its Soviet form, that kept the Russian language dominant in many countries – a trend that has been lately turned. But now, a highly Anglicised information space encourages scholars to try to reach English-speaking audiences first and foremost.

How Bad is it, Really?

This is not to say that there is enough study of any of the countries in this complicated geography. But the need to study Ukraine does not obviate the need to study Russia. Indeed, in security studies, an emphasis on Russia makes sense for the same reasons as does an emphasis on the United States. Russia, like the United States, has proven itself far more likely to wage wars of choice than Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, or modern-day Spain.

Nor does the academic literature and debate on Russian foreign policy accept Kremlin’s narratives wholesale. To the contrary, many scholars have long recognised the impact of Russian colonial and neo-colonial attitudes towards its neighbours, even as they and others make arguments rooted in, for example, centralised decision-making, gender, and ideology. Even the schools of thought that discount domestic factors in Russia and elsewhere engage in a long-standing dialogue on the roles of less and more powerful states in the international security system. All of this feeds a rich debate, which helps explain Kremlin behaviour and define options to respond.

This is not to say that all is well in Russian studies, or in the study of other post-Soviet countries. But if nostalgia for both the Russian Empire and the Soviet past has proven worryingly resilient, there are now plenty of folks happy to point it out and drive nails into both coffins. The resulting debate enriches the field although, as the above-mentioned newspapers testify, it has not fully reached all the audiences it needs to.

Dangers ahead

Back in the day, failure to recognise the diversity of thought in the USSR made it much easier to overlook the dynamics that contributed to its downfall. Today, an analyst who doesn’t question their assumptions about present-day Russia is bound to draw some wrong conclusions (as evidenced by the current reassessment of Russian military power).

Distorted analysis cannot but feed bad policy. Anger and wishful thinking are just as dangerous as worst-case scenario planning – all three lead to inadequate preparedness. For example, the very important efforts underway to characterise Russian society and explain support for war (and other pathologies) may be at particular risk of falling into broad, ill-supported generalizations that verge on, and thus help justify, prejudice.

Experts can mitigate those risks with extra diligence in checking their own biases, and by being open to critique and debate.Russia’s continuing closure, meanwhile, poses huge substantive problems. Statistical data, never perfectly reliable, has become even more dodgy. Survey research will be harder and more limited, to the extent it continues at all. Russian limits on and surveillance of visitors will make their research trips less fruitful. The prohibition on Russians, including experts, publicly voicing critical opinions on such topics as the state of the Russian armed forces limits their and everyone else’s ability to accurately gauge developments. It also guarantees, and intentionally so, that media and other sources of information simply cannot deliver the information they used to. Western policies that make it more difficult for Russians to travel will also diminish the capacity for Russian voices to reach audiences.

Aside from the resulting inaccuracies, Russia’s closure risks replacing collaborative work between those based in Russia and those outside it with Western-based analysis of Russian thinking, mostly in English. This Cold War style approach, which has remained common in, for instance, study of Russian military thinking, will then expand to the rest of the field.

It also all but guarantees that some analysts will make political choices about which Russian voices they report and amplify by, for instance, emphasising either opposition- or Kremlin-affiliated ones. Aside from distorting complex realities, this renders people outside of Russia the arbiters of what is and is not reported to the world at large.

A young woman walks past a globe-shaped street installation in the village of Nizino in the Leningrad Region. Reuters/Scanpix

New Tools, New (and Old) Problems

Although the evolving new normal is an abysmal one, it is not the death knell for research. Unlike the Western scholars who sought to study the USSR, today’s analysts will not be drawing conclusions based on who stands where on parade viewing platforms.

Many tools and approaches may be lost or hamstrung, but new ones have emerged, many tied to advanced technology: from satellite imagery to social media to databases and other government-produced material. The latter may no longer be publicly available, but it can be and is leaked, sold, and otherwise disseminated. Russian expatriates – many of whom retain their domestic contacts – offer valuable resources to the Western analytical community, at least for now. Advanced technology that lets Russians who remain mask their identities means their knowledge and voices are also not entirely lost. And, of course, official voices and carefully worded commentary also convey information.

But the new tools come with their own dangers. Scholars must decide if they are comfortable using – and trusting – illegally harvested data, as well as exposing their research subjects and collaborators to risks. Does a person’s ignorance of the public availability of posts amount to their forfeiture of privacy rights? What laws and guidelines should apply when dealing with residents of a country where the rule of law is absent? What does a Western-based scholar owe, and what can they do for a colleague who has been arrested?

Charting an Uncertain Course

The field, then, has its work cut out for it. In the best-case scenario, hearty but open debates will enable the community to test hypotheses while improving how they use technology and vet data, all without sacrificing morals and ethics. In the worst-case scenario, ideological subsets of the field will barricade themselves off with like-minded comrades and fight for access to policymakers while denigrating alternative views and perspectives. While the former scenario may be aspirational, it is something to strive for. Accepting the latter, meanwhile, would doom both analysts and policymakers to getting Russia wrong for years to come.

Related articles