Russia experts should admit that their understanding of Russia is far from perfect if they hope to analyze the motives and thinking of the Kremlin’s 'movers and shakers.'

The U.S. academic community should focus more on an interdisciplinary approach to Russian Studies if it hopes to understand Russia better. Photo: Mark Grubstein / RBTH

The world had changed in the last two months, entering the brave, new post-Crimea reality of revived geopolitical polarization and a low-intensity, hybrid form of warfare between Russia and the West. Against the background of these dramatic changes, Russia experts once again had to admit to the limits of their analysis and their understanding of Russia’s political ‘movers and shakers.’

Less than three months ago, as the world watched the Sochi Olympics, the media focused on corruption and the billions of dollars spent on this event, while casual observers shared their opinions on the grandiosity of the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies and photos of the yellow water and the ‘twin’ toilets in the Olympic city.  No one could have imagined the situation evolving in such a dramatic direction.

The memory of the Sochi Olympics is now a thing of the past. Instead, we have the drama of a renewed confrontation between Russia and the West. The search for who - or what - is to blame for such failure of imagination in the U.S. started promptly.

Journalists, academics, and policymakers joined the discussion pointing, as former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has, to a ‘shorter bench’ of Russia experts in the government, to funding cuts after the end of the Cold War that resulted in the thinning ranks of Russia experts with nuanced area knowledge, to a broader lack of interest in Russia and its neighboring region and, finally, to political scientists’ preference and the disciplinary reward system privileging abstract models and number-crunching at the expense of deeper area expertise.

All these factors indeed deserve careful attention, discussion and rethinking if the quality of policymaking on Russia is to improve. The discussion, however, should not stop at that.

The truth is that Russia scholars – political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists and cultural theorists – have been producing politically relevant and insightful work that could have arguably led to the understanding and intellectual capture of the ‘emergent possibilities’ in Russian politics and geopolitics in a more systematic and less fortuitous manner. Certainly, in a more systematic manner than when former U.S. presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin all but predicted in 2008 that Russia would invade Ukraine.

The trick, though, is that the scholarship in various disciplines needs to be combined and synthesized in order to understand Russia more accurately and deeply. Let me focus on three disciplines – political science, anthropology and cultural/Slavic studies - to argue that, when considered together, the recent scholarship has pointed to the potential of Russia’s sudden geopolitical aggression and could have enabled policymakers and experts to develop more forward-looking political imagination about Russia.

How U.S. political scientists see Russia

Thus, Russia experts in political science have been focused on the political regime and the nature, role and operation of formal and informal institutions – political parties, elections, and patronage practices – in a hybrid regime that combines democratic and authoritarian elements.

Among the major (and by now already banal) findings of this literature is that formal institutions do not constrain political leadership in Russia.

Decision-making is done in a closely-knit circle of Putin’s trusted associates and massive formal and informal resources are concentrated at the very top; the regime pursues strategic deinstitutionalization or creates ‘substitute institutions’; elections are frequently fraudulent even if Putin does care for public opinion and has pretty broad genuine support basis; the parliament is a ‘pocket’ one; and the parties and the media are managed from the Kremlin.

In short, besides potential popular wrath, the Kremlin is not constrained by much else, thus opening the space for potentially ‘surprising’ turns and twists in politics.

Most recent research on Putin’s regime risked revealing its early criminal origins, hammering the last nail on the coffin of Russian political institutions and revealing the bespredel (lawlessness in English) of which the Russian political establishment is allegedly capable.

The view from anthropologists, historians, and cultural theorists

While political scientists were for the most part busy with exploring institutions, anthropologists, historians, and cultural theorists looked into societal, cultural and psychological factors at play in Russia.

Among major themes that have dominated this literature are the issues of trauma, loss and wounded national identity that have been central to the formation of the Russian psyche after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Consider three exemplary and interrelated works by an anthropologist, historian and a cultural theorist.

Sergei Oushakine’s Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War and Loss in Russia (Cornell University Press, 2009) offered an understanding of Russian society through the exploration of “communities of loss” emerging in the new Russia. The book highlighted the emotional pain and suffering that Russian citizens have endured during the post-Soviet era.

Oushakine points to the dominance of despair – a combination of recklessness and hopelessness – that have become the driving forces behind action in a fragmented social world.

Yana Hashamova’s Pride and Panic: Russian Imagination of the West (Intellect, 2007) explores the type of society that emerged after the Soviet collapse through films (particularly those produced after 1991). Films were viewed as a social mirror, a template reflecting cultural values in the society.

Hashamova focuses specifically on Russia’s uneasy relation to the West that has shifted from “euphoric acceptance” to “paranoid rejection.”  Drawing on psychoanalysis, sociology and feminism, Hashamova explores the post-Soviet cinematic representations of Russian national consciousness exposing a mix of fear, anger, and anxiety as the emotions central to the post-Soviet Russian society.

In her analysis of Balabanov’s hugely successful blockbusters Brat (1997) and Brat-2 (2000) she argues, for example, that, “The fantasy structure of Russian viewers shifts in these films from demonized/idealized West to a morally superior, Russian (masculine) national identity.”

Finally, Steve Norris’s Blockbuster History in the New Russia: Movies, Memory and Patriotism (Indiana University Press, 2012) focuses on the Russian films of the 2000s, noting their pursuit of patriotic renewal and exploring cultural, economic, political and institutional actors involved in funding, producing, and marketing these films.

These are just few examples of cultural studies that uncover the emotions and aspirations lying ‘beneath the surface’ in Russian society and constituting a powerful charge – the social and cultural potential available for being used and manipulated by the political leadership.

The radical shift in the Kremlin’s discourse in 2011-2012 towards privileging the themes of patriotism, morality and traditional values, and the new discourse about Russia as a separate and unique civilization, different and even morally superior to the West, represented an important discursive shift on the side of the Kremlin in the direction of embracing the existing social and cultural potential.

In the absence of working institutions, organized social groups or independent elites that could have constrained the Kremlin’s decision-making, amidst the events in Ukraine, Putin was able to tap into that emotional charge present in the society. Not unsurprisingly, Putin was able to trigger a bout of national joy, securing legitimacy for the regime and obtaining a record-level public support for himself personally.

A solution in the cross-section of disciplines

In sum, the glimpse of things to come in Russia is available at the cross-section of disciplines. Deep understanding of Russia requires a synthesis of findings in political science, history, anthropology, sociology and cultural studies. Unfortunately, there are relatively few intellectual centers in the U.S. where such synthesis is cultivated.

The U.S. academic community should focus more on an interdisciplinary approach to Russian Studies if it hopes to understand Russia better. And establishing new centers for interdisciplinary studies of Russia and supporting the existing ones would tap into the strong disciplinary expertise already available.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.