Inaugural Young Scholars Conference Held in Madison

On July 27-28, 2018, more than fifty Russia experts from across Europe, Russia, and the United States gathered in Madison, Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Russia Project Young Scholars Conference.

Close-up of audience members at Young Scholars Conference
Participants at the 2018 Wisconsin Russia Project Young Scholars Conference listen to a presentation at a session titled “Ethnicity, Language, and Migration” on July 27, 2018. (Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman)

During the two-day conference, emerging social scientists had the opportunity to share and build their expertise in a variety of research topics, including political science, economy, law, sociology, demography, and migration. Senior scholars in these fields also attended the conference to offer feedback and direction to their younger counterparts.

“Russia has the second largest stock of migrants of any country in the world. After the US, it is the only country that has a similar magnitude of this kind,” said Professor Ted Gerber, former CREECA Director, Director of the Wisconsin Russia Project, and a panel discussant at the conference. “It is great to see that we are now seeing an emerging body of work that deals with these issues.”

Gerber led the discussion for a session on “Ethnicity, Language, and Migration,” which featured presentations on the interactions between language, politics, and identity in the Russian context, as well as a study on the perceptions and experiences of refugees displaced by the conflict in Ukraine. Of particular interest to two presenters—Dmitri Dubrov from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and Zuzanna Brunarska from the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw—is how society reacts to the increasingly multiethnic demographic makeup of the Russian Federation.

Russia’s relative economic strength and extensive porous borders make the country a preferred destination for migrants, in particular those from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation itself contains a number of autonomous republics and regions dominated politically and demographically by non-Russian groups.

“I feel like Russia really gives you a wide research perspective and is just an interesting country for a social science researcher, especially one interested in inter-ethnic relations,” explained Brunarska, whose research exploits this variation in demography to examine more closely the attitudes of both ethnic Russians and members of titular ethnic groups towards different migrant groups.

Zuzanna Brunarska responds to question at conference
Zuzanna Brunarska, Assistant Professor at the University of Warsaw Centre of Migration Research, responds to a question following her presentation on Russian attitudes towards immigrants, July 27, 2018. (Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman)

Support for the 2018 Young Scholars Conference was provided by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The $1 million grant funded the first phase of the Wisconsin Russia Project (WRP), an initiative to strengthen Russian studies, to broaden the pool of Russia experts at UW-Madison, and to build an international network of social scientists who study contemporary Russia. The WRP has been administered by CREECA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2017. In September 2018, Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded CREECA a second grant of $900,000 to continue the work of the WRP through September 2020.

During the July 2018 conference, participants took full advantage of the opportunity to connect with peers and senior scholars from distant locales. Graduate students and junior scholars from as far away as Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok and Ural Federal University in Ekaterinburg met with counterparts from Columbia University and Stanford to discuss common areas of research.

An important goal of the conference was to provide young scholars of social science in Russia with feedback, mentorship, and guidance that complements or surpasses that available in their respective fields of research. Discussants from UW-Madison and other universities challenged participants to identify common threads between the various papers and suggested potential strategies for moving forward with publication and future research.

“The comments and feedback were very useful, and not only the comments from the audience, but also talking afterwards with Ted Gerber and Yoshiko Herrera,” explained Brunarska.

Senior scholars not only offered their advice, but they also pushed participants to clarify their train of thought for an audience working in a broad range of disciplines. “If somebody is asking questions which I think I have answered,” said Brunarska, “it means that I have not yet answered it properly. There is always a better way to explain things.”

A conference participant stands next to a table at the conference welcome dinner
Conference participants get acquainted at the 2018 Young Scholars Conference welcome dinner, July 25, 2018. (Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman)

The conference participants represented a wide variety of policy institutes, think tanks, and centers of research beyond institutions of higher education. These include, among others, the Moscow-based Institute for Law and Public Policy—which assists Russian lawyers in submitting cases to the Russian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights—and the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg, Germany, which conducts labor market analysis on an international level.

Despite their different academic and research backgrounds, however, participants at the conference were united by their knowledge and endless curiosity for Russia’s social, economic, and political scene.

“When doing research on Russian regions, something that we should hold on to as researchers is this incredible diversity in key variables—these differences in ethnicity, culture, and institutions,” said Paul Dower, an assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics at UW-Madison and the discussant for a session on political economy. “We should take advantage of this, and these young researchers do a great job of illustrating those variations.”

According to Gerber, the social science work highlighted during the conference presents unique opportunities for comparative research. “It is important that this kind of work engages with theories that have been developed in other countries,” he said. “By looking at Russia and the US or Germany, we get a sense of whether or not those theories are transportable or generalizable, or if Russia differs in such a way that it leads us to question them.”

As the inaugural WRP Young Scholars Conference came to a close, participants were eager to maintain new relationships with their peers and senior researchers. Many also expressed hope that the conference will become a regular event. “I will be happy to see it developing, not only in terms of going to another conference,” said Brunarska, “but also in terms of trying to keep this new academic network alive.”

Thanks to continued funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Wisconsin Russia Project plans to hold a second Young Scholars Conference in summer 2020.

CREECA extends a special thanks to the WRP graduate project assistant Kristin Edwards for her work in organizing the 2018 Young Scholars Conference. For more on the project, visit