On June 2-3, 2022, about 60 experts on Russian social sciences from across Europe, Russia, and the United States took part in the Third Wisconsin Russia Project Young Scholars Conference, held in Madison, Wisconsin.
The research presented at the conference encompassed the five thematic areas of inquiry of the Wisconsin Russia Project: education, labor markets, and inequality; law and society; political economy; identity, place and migration; and demographic change. During the two-day conference, emerging social scientists and senior scholars had a chance to interact and exchange feedback in multiple academic fields. The conference took place in a hybrid format, which included both in-person and virtual presentations. Participants both in the conference meeting rooms and online were able to of one another.
“Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine poses many difficult challenges for young social scientists who have been conducting research on Russia, no matter where they are based, so it is especially important now to bring together scholars based in Russia, the United States, and elsewhere who share common research interests for the purpose of exchanging findings and providing feedback to each other,” said Professor Ted Gerber, the CREECA Director, Director of the Wisconsin Russia Project, and a panel discussant at the conference. “The hybrid format of the conference allowed scholars based in Russia to participate despite the political circumstances which have made it nearly impossible for them to obtain US visas. The values of open scholarly exchange and debate must be sustained, and we are grateful to Carnegie Corporation of New York for its support of our efforts to do so at the University of Wisconsin. I know that I learned a great deal personally from attending the conference sessions, and I’m encouraged by the breadth and depth of research on Russia that our participants are conducting.”
Gerber chaired the opening plenary session on “Civil Society, Public Opinion, and Social Processes,” which featured presentations on civil society in Russia, perceptions of crime, food supply and poverty, and the incentives to join opposition political parties in Russia.
In line with the rising conflicts over the past throughout the world, themes of collective memory, identity-building and national unity received a timely coverage in the session “Place, Memory, and Belonging.” Ekaterina Mikhailova from the University of Geneva analyzed the question of pan-Slavic unity in her paper “Performing Slavic (Dis)Unity at the Russia-Belarus-Ukraine tri-border point over time.” Wisconsin Russia Project postdoctoral scholar, Marat Iliyasov, addressed conflicting reinterpretations of national histories in his paper “Clash of collective memories in post-war Chechnya.” Iliyasov showed how both sides of the opposing political elites sought gains through reinterpreting the Chechen political and military history of the last 30 years. Research on identity was also the focus another session called “Identity politics,” which included presentations on Russia’s gay propaganda law, the political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Syrian migrants in Russia.
Presentations in the field of demography included studies of health, exercise, alcohol consumption, marriage, and fertility. Victor Postonogov from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor examined how marriage affects alcohol consumption, finding that in Russia, male alcohol consumption increases by up to 30% after marriage while female alcohol consumption remains the same or decreases.
The relationship between Russia’s autocratic state its economy in the post-1991 environment has been explored extensively in academia for the past 30 years, and Andrey Yushkov from Indiana University produced new insights on this theme in his analysis soft budget constraints in post-Soviet states, which featured innovative techniques for comparing budget constraints across Russian regions.
An example of new research addressing one of the great challenges of recent years (the COVID-19 pandemic) is the study by Maria Ukhvatova, from St. Petersburg State University, of the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Kremlin in her paper “The Symphony is Over? The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Russian Orthodox Church-State relations.” Ukhvatova investigated this relationship in terms of separate dynamics between the Church and the state, and between pragmatists and fundamentalists within the ROC.
Support for the 2022 Young Scholars Conference was provided by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The $700,000 grant funded the third phase of the Wisconsin Russia Project, an initiative to strengthen Russian studies, broaden the pool of Russia experts at UW-Madison, support research by emerging scholars in the social sciences on Russia, and build an international network of social scientists who study contemporary Russia. CCNY has funded the project and CREECA has administered it since 2016. UW’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education has also provided vital support.
Young scholars in various fields of social science benefited from the feedback and questions not only from their counterparts, but also from more senior scholars, who served as panel discussants. The conference helped promote scholarly discussions among social scientists across the world who are working on Russia, which, even before Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, had become exceedingly difficult due to geopolitical tensions between the Russia and the United States, a crackdown on academic freedom within Russia, and limitations on international travel due to COVID-19. The Wisconsin Russia Project rests on the firm conviction that critical evaluation of key social science topics of Russia by the scholars from all over the world pushes research forward, improves global knowledge about the workings of Russia’s politics, economy, society, and educational institutions, and helps overcome national barriers that divide social science communities.
Discussants from UW-Madison and other universities contributed to the sessions by asking critical questions and emphasizing the links between the various papers. Cynthia Buckley (University of Illinois), Peter Krug (Professor Emeritus, University of Oklahoma), Barry Ickes (Penn State), Graeme Robertson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Peter Rutland (Wesleyan University), Natalia Savelyeva (Center for European Policy Analysis, Washington DC), and Peter Solomon (University of Toronto), as well as four UW faculty members who constitute the Wisconsin Russia Project Steering Committee, provided valuable feedback and suggested potential strategies for publication and future research.
The WRP Third Young Scholars Conference 2022 was an opportunity for researchers at all stages in their academic careers—from graduate students to emeritus professors—to connect and exchange research ideas and findings during ten thematic panel sessions, as well as during coffee, lunch, and dinner breaks (for those who participated in Madison). The hybrid format of the conference facilitated connections between junior scholars from institutions as varied as the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Perm State University, Corvinus University in Budapest, Northwestern University, and the University of Massachusetts. The conference organizers noted the difficulties in obtaining a U.S. visa hindered the direct participation of many scholars from Russia. Nonetheless, the conference demonstrated the value of the hybrid format, which expands access to the event to participants and audience members who, for various reasons, are unable to attend in person, while at the same preserving the special advantages of extended in-person contact (both within and outside panel sessions) for those who could make it to Madison. The interdisciplinary and international approach brought together a diverse group of scholars who were eager to learn about and contribute to social science research on contemporary Russia.
Although the conference inevitably came to an end after two days of intense discussions, it represented the beginning of new relationships among peers and senior researchers:
“The conference is a great catalyst to future academic collaborations and keeping the network of Russia scholars active. The acquaintances made during the conference often evolve into enduring academic partnerships and valuable research outcomes,” said Ted Gerber, Director of CREECA and Wisconsin Russia Project, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
CREECA extends a special thanks to the WRP graduate project assistant Özlem Eren for her work in organizing the WRP 2022 Third Young Scholars Conference. For more on the project, visit russiaproject.wisc.edu.