Bringing together strong voices and different points of view
The International workshop ‘Explaining Contentious Politics in Russia: Innovations in Theory and Data Collection’ will bring together Russian and foreign experts. Regina Smyth, Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Indiana, USA, gave a special interview to HSE news service.
— You've been teaching courses on Russian and Soviet Politics, Democracy and Elections, Comparative Democratic Institutions, and West European Politics etc., for a long time. What interests you most as a researcher in this field?
— I have always been interested in the relationship between a state and its citizens. I want to understand how that relationship works or fails to work effectively in different contexts. A lot of my research has focused on elections as the primary mechanism that links the two because voting is the most common mode of citizen participation in government. I've also looked at protest, volunteerism, and lobbying as other models of participation, especially when voting fails to work as citizens expect it should. I admired how the Russian opposition used election monitoring as a tool to encourage political participation and mobilization. It was an important political innovation. Most recently, I'm interested in how citizens think about different types of political participation and how factors such as history and emotions influence that thinking.
— Why and how did you start studying Soviet and Russian politics? Who is your favorite Russian or Soviet politician and why?
— I started studying Russia when I was very young--just 11 or 12. President Nixon had gone to China and my very beloved teacher predicted that the trip would bring an end to the Cold War. He encouraged me to study Russian language. His prediction was off by more than a decade but my love of Russian and Russia stayed with me. I first traveled to Russia in 1979 as a High School student. It was an amazing experience that pushed me to continue my studies at university.
Russia has rock star politicians--from Gorbachev to Putin--and it is hard not to be fascinated with them. Still, the politicians I tend to like the most were the candidates and party leaders that I interviewed in the regions and districts during the 1990s and early 2000s that were doing their best to figure out how to make life better for people under the new competitive rules. Some of my favorites came from the most unlikely places -- Communists in Yaroslavl who had fought in the War and were true patriots and a fellow from the LDPR in Saratov who asked me a lot of questions about dating practices in the US. He was especially interested to know if it was true that women paid their own way on dates. That seemed like a good capitalist idea to him. These regional politicians, many of them very young, had great political instincts and really were very clever. I always learned a lot from them and enjoyed my conversations with them.
— What has changed in Russian politics since you've published in 2006 your book 'Candidate Strategies and Electoral Competition in the Russian Federation: Democracy without Foundation'?
— Oddly, the most notable change around my book is that the electoral system that is at the center of my argument is back--the revised law on political parties and the election law to the State Duma now look very similar to the one I studied. My research focused on the effect of the mixed system on the decisions of candidates and party leaders between 1993 and 2003 and explored how those rules undermined representation of popular interests. The "Foundation" that I was interested in was the information, organizations, and patterns of cooperation that make accountability and representation work effectively in competitive electoral systems. Now, I have a great new project to understand how the incentives in that law will shape behavior in the next election. Of course, the context in which the rules will operate has changed quite a bit. After December 2011, I think that the state-society relationship in Russia has shifted profoundly and I'm really interested to see how these changes filter through the rules. The role of regional leaders is greatly diminished and it will be interesting to see if the new rules prompt changes in regional politics. I'm also keen to see if there will be significant evolution in the political party system under the new rules.
— What are your expectations of the workshop in Moscow? How did your cooperation with the HSE start?
— Irina Soboleva has done an amazing job bringing strong voices and many points of view together in this workshop. It is an exciting event. I am most interested in hearing about how scholars study protest and participation in Russia. Our initial focus was on research methods and designs and how we can accumulate knowledge by taking very different approaches. I admire the tremendous development in political science as a discipline in Russia over a very short time. This growth is clear around the study of protest. Really talented scholars focused their efforts on understanding the patterns of protest that emerged after December 2011 and we wanted to find out what they had learned about doing research and about protest from that work. We are very grateful to HSE for the opportunity to put on the conference.
My cooperation with HSE started with an exchange between Indiana University and HSE. I was lucky to give a lecture as part of that exchange and to meet Professor Mark Urnov, whom I had met in the early 1990s. With the help of Mark and Professor Andrey Melville, I was able to get a Fulbright Grant to be in Russia in 2011-2012. When the protests began, I was very lucky to have established ties to the Laboratory for Political Research and Irina Soboleva and Anton Sobolev, two very accomplished and energetic young scholars. Working with them on the protest project has been really rewarding and I'm very proud of our collaboration.
— You are an expert on Russian politics. What do you like about Russia?
— I do know Russian and like most foreigners, read and understand much better than I speak. I am always trying to improve my language skills by listening to radio through the internet, watching movies, and reading.
I really enjoy being surrounded by history when I am in Russia. I love to walk around Russia's cities and see the architecture, parks, and monuments. I've been lucky to have traveled fairly extensively outside of Moscow and see the countryside as well as regional capitals. I admire the strength and determination of Russians who have faced amazing hardship with such strength and grace. Finally, I love the arts. I have a daughter who is training in theater in New York and another who dances and had the amazing opportunity to train at Moscow State Academy of Choreography last year. We all admire Russian literature, art, theater, music and dance. We especially admire how Russian parents introduce their children to the arts at early ages. I've been sad to see how difficult it is for families to get tickets these days.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE news service
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