CREECA’s Yoshiko Herrera takes the virtual stage this fall to discuss race and jazz in Russia, U.S.-Russian relations

While 2020 has been the year of social distancing, mask-wearing, and remote meetings, the necessity of moving lectures and seminars online has also opened up opportunities to reach new audiences.

Yoshiko M. Herrera, UW-Madison professor of political science

One of several CREECA faculty members taking the virtual stage this fall is Yoshiko M. Herrera, professor of political science. From the local CREECA community, to REECAS scholars and government officials, to K-14 educators, Herrera has been engaging diverse audiences on timely and important issues, such as racialized identities in Russia and U.S.-Russian relations during the U.S. presidential election.

In September, Herrera helped kick off the Fall 2021 CREECA Lecture Series with a roundtable discussion, joining three other REECAS specialists from UW-Madison.

CREECA associate director Jennifer Tishler moderated the discussion on the scholars’ research trajectories, from their first spark of interest in studying the region to current projects. Herrera shared that her interest in Russia began with a study abroad trip to Eastern Europe in 1990, and then she became more interested in Russian regions after traveling to southern Russia (Krasnodar and Kislovodsk) in 1993 and Ekaterinburg in 1994 for language study.

Fall 2020 CREECA Faculty Roundtable Panelists: Ted Gerber (Conway-Bascom Professor of Sociology and CREECA director), Yoshiko M. Herrera (Professor of Political Science), Manon van de Water (Vilas-Phipps Distinguished Achievement Professor, Department of GNS), and Łukasz Wodzyński (Assistant Professor of Polish, GNS), with moderator Jennifer Tishler.

After the publication of her books Imagined Economies (2005) and Mirrors of the Economy (2010), Herrera’s research evolved to address social identities and xenophobia in Russia—a topic she has published on with CREECA colleagues and graduate students. A central theme that transcends this work is her focus on the measurement of social identities and the effect of identity on politics.

Herrera shared developments on her latest project on the treatment of African American jazz musicians in Russia. “The work on xenophobia and racism in Russia, including work by Ted Gerber and myself, paints a pretty negative picture,” Herrera said. “However, most African American jazz musicians report extremely positive treatment by people they encounter in Russia.”

As she explained it, “Russians see them as doing what they’re supposed to do, being very good jazz musicians because of an essentialist view of African American culture as the core of jazz music. Russian club owners and promoters book musicians who are very talented, and hence the stereotype is enforced by market mechanisms.”

And it was Herrera’s specialization in economics and social identity that resulted in invitations to speak on U.S.-Russian relations at other occasions this fall.

In October, Herrera was a panelist at the conference U.S.-Russia Relations in Light of U.S. Elections hosted by the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies of the George Washington University. The line-up of speakers included scholars from Russia and the U.S., as well as U.S. government officials. The conference featured three discussions on critical aspects of U.S.-Russian relations ahead of the U.S. presidential election, and Herrera lent her expertise on the panel “Does the Economy Matter? U.S.-Russia Relations During a Perfect Economic Storm.”

In November, Herrera presented on U.S.-Russian relations for 14 U.S. (post-)secondary educators who were awarded a year-long Engaging Eurasia Teacher Fellowship—a collaborative outreach initiative organized CREECA and three other Title VI National Resource Centers. As part of the fellowship, educators deepen their understanding of the history and current events of post-Soviet space. They engage with REECAS experts to discuss conflict in Eurasia to develop pedagogical resources based on these conversations.

Herrera weighs in as a panelist at the conference U.S.-Russia Relations in Light of U.S. Elections hosted by the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies of the George Washington University.

Whether Herrera is speaking to scholars, diplomats, policymakers, or educators, she has focused on four hurdles that impede economic and political cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. First, distrust between the nations remains very high, Herrera said, explaining that one of the challenges to overcoming distrust is disagreement about the past, which makes building trust difficult because no side will apologize, let alone accept blame.

Herrera also maintains that a lack of shared goals, as well as shared agreement on strategy for goals that are shared, hinders U.S.-Russian relations. For example, Herrera told audiences that “the U.S. has pursued policies of economic sanctions, but Russia and other countries question those motives.”

Third, Herrera noted that there are fewer channels for communication between the U.S. and Russia today.  The lack of bilateral government communication has fizzled since 2014, a serious matter in Herrera’s eyes. “Military and diplomatic contacts haven’t resumed. 133 of the 757 U.S. Senate-confirmed executive posts remain vacant, as well as many ambassadorial positions. For much of the Trump administration, no one has been there,” Herrera said. And concerning civic engagement, Herrera adds that travel for tourism, study, and business have also fizzled and even worsened during the pandemic.

The final hurdle is domestic politics, from Putin’s fragile basis of support, to uncertainty about U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration, to the politicization of Russia more generally in U.S. politics. “The legitimacy crises in both the U.S. and Russia are fuel for promotion of external enemies and nationalism, which unfortunately translates into anti-Western views in Russia and anti-Russian views in the U.S. These sentiments are new at the mass level,” Herrera said.

Herrera presents on opportunities for U.S.-Russia cooperation for the Engaging Eurasia Teacher Fellowship.

Looking forward, Herrera does see possibilities for U.S.-Russian cooperation heading into 2021.

On the economics panel, Herrera highlighted that cooperation might be fostered by businesses, pointing to recent headlines that JP Morgan Chase had named two new Russian advisors. “The political stalemate is not impeding this sort of cooperation,” she said.

And to educators, she noted several shared interests that could lead to more cooperative U.S.-Russian relations—nuclear proliferation, terrorism, violent extremism, cybersecurity, international humanitarian efforts, climate change, and the Coronavirus pandemic.

To catch up on Professor Herrera’s work, visit her home department webpage for a list of publications or check out her Google Scholar page and follow her on Twitter to be the first to know about upcoming publications and lectures.

Written by Ryan Goble