2023 President's Address: De-Centering Russia: Challenges and Opportunities

De-Centering Russia: Challenges and Opportunities

ASEEES 2023 Presidential Address

Juliet Johnson, McGill University


Although it’s not yet a widespread practice in the United States, in Canada we often begin important events with a land acknowledgement. Here’s one I adapted from language suggested by the City of Philadelphia:

“For centuries, the land now known as Philadelphia was home to and cared for by native peoples. These include the Lenni-Lenape and the Poutaxat. We recognize these Tribes’ strength and history of resistance to colonization. We commit to honoring their history, presence, and future. We further know that our modern systems of growing food and owning property are built on the stolen land of Indigenous people and the enslavement of African people. These violent acts continue to impact Black and Indigenous communities today.”

What is acknowledgement? Acknowledgement means forthrightly naming wrongs that have been done and recognizing their ongoing contemporary implications. But more importantly, acknowledgement imparts a collective responsibility. If they are to be meaningful, words of acknowledgement should be precursors to action, not substitutes for it.

So as we meet once again under the shadow of war, I want to speak for the next half hour about the call to de-center Russia in our scholarly lives, and on our own responsibility to act. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has prompted a welcome thirst for acknowledgement backed by action in our academic community. How can we move from words to deeds to meaningful institutional change? What complications and pitfalls lie in our path?

I speak from my own position as a political scientist who was, for the first several years of my career, completely focused on Russia and wrote my first book on Russian banking in the 1990s. I then gained a much deeper understanding of Russian politics and of the need to de-center Russian perspectives in my own work when I started doing field research in other countries of the region a little over twenty years ago. I came away both with a better understanding of the diversity of the region and Russia’s complex role in its histories, as well as with a more profound recognition of the pervasiveness within Russia of paternalistic and harmful views towards other peoples of the region. Here’s one small personal example. After spending several weeks doing research with Kyrgyz colleagues in Bishkek, I traveled to Moscow and went to dinner at the home of a Russian acquaintance, a sociologist. As a hostess gift, I brought her two beautiful Kyrgyz embroidered pillowcase covers. When I offered them to her she refused even to touch them, saying “why would I want something so provincial”? All these years later it still shocks me to think about it.

I also speak today acknowledging that many of you have long been working towards de-centering Russia in your academic research and teaching, and in our association. The call for de-centering Russia is far from new. What’s new is the increased willingness to listen and to act. It’s to our collective shame that it took a devastating war to do it. But maybe it can be a transformative moment. So, how can we effect meaningful change in our fields that outlasts the war?

To address this question, I’m going to talk about three issues.

First, what does it mean to de-center Russia?

Second, where are we as an association coming from and what concrete progress has been made?

Finally, I’ll discuss why we as scholars of the region can’t do this alone, and how we might build support for our efforts among broader audiences.

So, what does it mean to de-center Russia in our scholarly lives and associations?

Let me first emphasize that “de-centering” is NOT a call to stop studying Russian politics, society, culture, and language. As our incoming ASEEES president Vitaly Chernetsky said in a recent media interview, “no one is canceling Russia.” Instead, it is a call to abandon a particular understanding of Russia that marginalizes others and privileges a “Great Russian” narrative.

So de-centering Russia above all requires acknowledging the perspectives, choices, and central roles of other countries and peoples in the region, including indigenous and racialized peoples. What does that mean in concrete terms?

It means not equating Russia with the Soviet Union, and in historical studies of the USSR, not treating the non-Russian Soviet peoples and republics as somehow lesser or “peripheral”. It means acknowledging the complicated imperial and colonial nature of the Soviet Union in regards to its non-Russian peoples and to Central and Eastern Europe. De-centering contemporary Russia means not naturalizing a Russian “sphere of influence” or using terminology like the “near abroad” or “former Soviet republic” to characterize the sovereign states that border Russia. If you wouldn’t talk about the “former Soviet republic of Russia,” you shouldn’t talk about the “former Soviet republic of Armenia.”

De-centering Russia also means taking a pluralistic view of the region as a whole, and even questioning whether or not it is in fact a meaningful region. To what extent does it still make analytical sense to talk about a “postcommunist” or a “post-Soviet” region, especially one implicitly centered around the Russian Federation and Soviet-era legacies? “Postcommunist” and “post-Soviet” as descriptors increasingly obscure more than they reveal, implying continuities and similarities that in many cases no longer exist.

De-centering Russia means questioning the still-predominant narrative that privileges the relationship between the United States (or the “West” more broadly) and Russia. Just like it’s not all about Russia, it’s not all about the US or the West, either. For example, one of the most infuriating implications of the popular narrative that Western expansion of NATO and the EU is to blame for Russia’s ongoing violence in the region is the implicit assumption that the countries wanting to join both are somehow pawns to be swapped between Great Powers. No, these peoples made and continue to make their own choices. And more than that, it is Ukrainians, for example, that have re-united and reinvigorated a faltering European Union and have through sheer force of will and blood made themselves a viable potential member state.

De-centering Russia means understanding Russia itself differently and in all its complexity. Henry Hale, Tomila Lankina, and I recently faced this challenge when we agreed to co-edit the 10th edition of the Developments in Russian Politicstextbook. How can you de-center Russia in a Russian Politics textbook? Is that even possible? Well for one thing, there’s a full chapter about Russia’s war on Ukraine. Throughout the book we consciously tried to not take elite Russian narratives at face value (that is, avoiding the “Russian gaze”); to reflect on Russia’s multinational, multiethnic, and imperial character; and to include previously marginalized perspectives and voices in the work.

On that note, and most importantly, de-centering Russia in our academic lives means raising the voices and prospects of scholars and students from across the region. It requires solidarity. This won’t just happen on its own. As Erica Marat, for example, has recently written in regards to Central Asia, “international discussions of Central Asia continue to be dominated by Western scholarship … Stepping into the next decade, we need to be more intentional about representing the entirety of our field.” (in Central Asian Studies, December 2021).

Such intentionality is the first step towards change.

So, what does progress look like? At ASEEES, where are we coming from and what progress has been made?

This year is the 75th anniversary of our organization. It was founded in 1948 as the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies and it was from the start very much a creature of the Cold War. AAASS held its first national convention in April 1964 at the Commodore Hotel in New York City. Looking back at the program is instructive. Alexander Gerschenkron gave the keynote, entitled “What We Are Doing” - and hasn’t that been the theme of pretty much every presidential address since then?

There were nearly 70 speakers on the program. Of these, only three were women. Not surprisingly, the panel titles freely conflated Russia and the Soviet Union, and of the 15 panels, there were only two on Eastern Europe.

As Norman Naimark noted in his 50th anniversary ASEEES presidential address, “The focus at the [association’s] founding on Russia and Russians to the exclusion of the other peoples of the Soviet Union is striking. There were a few voices in the academy and out who tried to bring Ukrainian, Baltic, and Belorussian concerns to the attention of the Slavic studies community, but with little success.”

People knew about the problem from the beginning, but knowledge was not translated into action. This original Russo-centrism, exacerbated by the Cold War, begat an institutional path dependency that proved difficult to combat.

I don’t want to imply that nothing changed. There was some meaningful progress, especially after 1989. To give just a few small examples: In 2007 then-president Mark Beissinger made “Empire” the official conference theme and gave his presidential address on the “Persistence of Empire in Eurasia.” In 2010 AAASS managed to change its name to the still imperfect but more inclusive Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. ASEEES’s prizes, fundraising, membership, conventions, and regional scholar and graduate student grants gradually and palpably began to reflect greater diversity.

But it has now been many years since the Soviet collapse – most of our graduate students and even many assistant professors weren’t yet born when it happened. People grow complacent and institutional change in normal times is slow. Today, we are not in normal times. The profound shock of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine has spurred the association and its members to reflection and action.

ASEEES is an organization of its members, and it is at its best when it serves as a focal point and clearinghouse to amplify diverse voices and share new approaches in our fields. Last year, in response to the full-scale invasion, the annual convention spotlighted Ukrainian studies and the work of our Ukrainian colleagues. Over 90 scheduled sessions last year addressed Ukrainian studies.

ASEEES has undertaken a range of Ukraine-centered initiatives in the wake of the war. The Association launched a fundraising campaign for the Ukrainian Studies Dissertation Research Grant Fund, developed a resource page and webinars to facilitate support for displaced and embattled Ukrainian scholars and students, created a centralized calendar for Ukraine-related online events, hosted forums on the war and decolonization in Slavic Review, and worked to highlight the massive international mobilization, led and inspired by Ukrainian scholars, to uplift and fund Ukrainian academia and Ukrainian perspectives. 

At our conference this year, at least 175 sessions explicitly address the annual theme of “Decolonization” in some way – that’s nearly 30% of the total, which must be some kind of record. As one scholar recently remarked on a social media platform that I refuse to name, “The conference program for ASEEES23 may have more occurrences of the word ‘decolonization’ than any other I have read. Take that, Putin!” The theme clearly resonated with many.

I was especially inspired by the young scholars who spoke yesterday at the Presidential Plenary on “Decolonization in Practice” - Zukhra Kasimova, Chelsi West Ohueri, Viktoriia Savchuk, Jennie Schulze, Darya Tsymbalyuk, and Brian Yang.  Scholars like these are the future of our association. Darya has also posted on her personal website her moving and challenging remarks, entitled “Do Not Despair: A Letter to a Scholar Whose Homeland Will Be Attacked by Russia Next.” I encourage everyone to read it, and to really listen.

All this shows not only that there is a hunger for change, but that we ourselves can change quickly if we actually want to do so. No more excuses. Now the challenge is to build on what’s been done so far, both within and beyond Ukrainian studies. We can do much more individually and collectively, and I hope that our conversations at this conference have helped to advance that goal.

But deeper institutional changes, beyond our individual scholarship and beyond ASEEES, require those outside our fields to invest in change as well.

How do we explain the need for de-centering Russia in academia to outsiders? One of the legacies of our own long-time Russo-centrism, and of the Cold War, is that others have internalized the view that studying Russia and Russians is inherently more important than understanding other countries and peoples of the region. The challenge is thus not only transforming our fields internally, but explaining to outsiders why it is important to do so and why these efforts should be supported with money and time.

There are at least six groups of people to persuade.

First, we must persuade our academic colleagues who don’t work on the region. I vividly remember a workshop I did for my last book, which compared central bank transformation in five countries in the region. During one of the breaks, a well-known international relations scholar pulled me aside to warn me that “people will only care about the Russia chapter.” In the end that book didn’t have a Russia chapter, it instead had a chapter comparing central bank development in Kyrgyzstan and Russia, and it turned out fine. But it is just a fact that our non-specialist colleagues typically regard research on Russia as inherently more important and it is often better rewarded professionally.

This attitude entrenches a vicious circle of Russo-centrism. Who sits on admissions committees and hiring committees? Who writes the job advertisements? Who evaluates applications and tenure files? Scholars of the region will typically be in the minority, if they are present at all. From a social-science perspective, a non-specialist might very well make the Russo-centric assumption that a Russian specialist can teach about the entire region while simultaneously considering an expert on Central Asian politics to be “too narrow." 

We see these problems in our disciplinary conferences as well. My political science colleagues can testify to the train wreck for area studies that is the American Political Science Association annual meeting. I heard Emily Channel-Justice yesterday lamenting that the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association had all of two panels on Ukraine. There are even issues in related regional studies associations. Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans have often been treated as afterthoughts in European studies, as somehow secondary to the “real Europe,” meaning Western Europe.

All of this takes intentional work to change. For example, Milada Vachudova took the initiative to put together a special “snap” roundtable on Ukraine at the 2022 European Union Studies Association conference, and Maria Popova gave a powerful keynote address at last summer’s annual meeting of the European Consortium for Political Research entitled “Ukraine is Europe.” We must continue to talk loudly and often, not only to each other, but to our disciplinary colleagues.

The second group to persuade is university administrators. Administrators are the ones who decide which hiring lines to grant, which centers to promote, which funding priorities to champion. This is ever more difficult and important in times of budgetary stress, and in fields that devalue areas studies more broadly. The education challenge here can be immense. Here’s another story for you. For many years Dominique Arel’s Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa has held the Danyliw Research Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine, which is one of the most important annual interdisciplinary gatherings of Ukraine specialists in the world. As is usual at such events, at this year’s meeting the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences opened it with words of greeting. In these introductory remarks, she admitted that when she started her job, she had asked the chair of political science something to the effect of “is this Ukraine chair really important?” This is so often where we start.

Each new department chair, new Dean, new Vice-President, and new President must be actively engaged with. We need to think about new methods of outreach to administrators, and to work across disciplines in doing so. Moreover, if you’re at a place in your career and life in which it makes sense, please consider taking on these important administrative positions yourselves and using your power for good. Those with expertise in Soviet bureaucratic practices may find it to be a special advantage in working in administration. 

The third group is students. Students arrive with their own preconceptions and interests influenced by Russo-centrism. Every time Putin does something terrible, our Russian Politics and Russian History classes fill up. Yet even when we can manage to offer a broader set of courses on languages, literatures, histories, cultures, politics, and so forth, it can be a struggle to get enough students to take them. Here we can continue to work both to make existing courses and syllabi on Russia more inclusive, and to use our collective voices to encourage students to explore a wider range of inquiry, including across disciplines. We can also try to teach and, especially, to co-teach interdisciplinary courses when possible.

For graduate students, we need to address the professional ramifications of doing more inclusive research in the region, and for those not from the region, investing time in learning languages other than Russian. Will there be jobs? Publications? Funding? Recognition? Here the fact that it has now become much more difficult to do research in Russia might ironically encourage and reward this greater diversity, as students who once might have done Russia-focused research reorient their work instead. Maybe Russia has helpfully de-centered itself.

The fourth group is funding agencies and donors. Many funding agencies and donors, especially in the US, have established priorities and implicit practices that strongly privilege Russian studies. When we sit on selection committees and boards, we can help to change that. Please, if you are able, volunteer your time for these roles when asked to do so and volunteer yourselves for these roles.

We can also encourage funders to direct more attention towards supporting regional scholars, regional exchanges, regional collaborations, and different and more equitable models of scholarship. In many places the situation is simply dire, as universities are chronically underfunded, as our Ukrainian colleagues literally research and teach from bomb shelters, and as authoritarian leaders in Russia as well as in backsliding and repressive regimes elsewhere in the region actively repress critical scholarship.

The fifth group is policy makers. In North America there is a continuing battle for scholars of the humanities and social sciences to justify their mere existence and to show that we can be “useful” and “practical.” Lobbying and organization is needed. For example, when ASEEES sends out a call to contact your representatives, please do so. This is a perennial problem and in practice we honestly don’t have much control over this, but let’s keep doing what we can. Moreover, we can work harder to bring a broader range of knowledge into policymaking as well. Imagine if US policymakers had spent more time before the full-scale invasion listening closely to experts on the Baltics and other East European states rather than focusing predominantly on Russia and Russia experts – might policy have evolved differently? Scholars of Russia and others who already have a seat at these tables can lead the push for greater inclusivity. That, in turn, will make for better policy.

The last group is the public. Colleagues in the United States – at Thanksgiving, how many of your family and friends asked you to explain what Putin is thinking? This is a Russia-centering question, focusing on Russian goals, actions, strategies, and motivations to the exclusion of others. Public perceptions of Russia do not easily align with a de-centered approach, and there is resistance to accepting new narratives that deviate from established views. Many scholars have been doing tireless and uncompensated work to get better, more accurate information out to the public. Let me give another shout out to my McGill colleague Maria Popova, who since February 2022 has done over 350 media interviews as well as written an accessible book about the run-up to the war with Oxana Shevel.

Finally, I want to emphasize that we are all in this together. Only by listening to and working with each other can we move forward in de-centering Russia, especially given such challenging international and institutional environments. It’s not just up to the scholars of Ukraine, or the Balkans, or Central Asia, to do this on their own. To echo the apocryphal quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin when signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, “We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

As many of you know, Vitaly Chernetsky’s chosen theme for next year’s ASEEES conference is liberation. In the ensuing year, let us work to liberate ourselves from old blinders, old assumptions, and old patterns of inaction. Let us not allow cheap talk or symbolism to become a substitute for deeper change. And, most importantly, let us hope that by the next time we meet, we can pay tribute to the liberation of Ukraine.