Wisconsin Russia Project Researchers Make Connections Across Campus

In 2016, the Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded UW-Madison a $1 million grant to fund the Wisconsin Russia Project (WRP), an initiative to strengthen Russian studies, to broaden the pool of Russia experts at the university, and to build an international network of social scientists who study contemporary Russia. As part of a wider effort to seed collaborative research projects between Wisconsin researchers and their Russian colleagues, the grant funds—among other things—several post-doctoral fellowships, visiting graduate student fellowships, and visiting researcher awards.

Wisconsin Russia Project post-doctoral fellow Dmitriy Vorobyev explains the electoral process for governors in the Russian Federation to UW-Madison undergraduate students of Russian. (Photo credit: Elena Shirikova)

Since the implementation of the WRP in fall 2017, select visiting scholars and students from Russian and American universities have taken advantage of the vast research potential of UW-Madison. “In two months here, I feel like I have learned more than in three years of graduate school,” says Maria Ukhvatova, a WRP graduate student fellow. “It makes me want to dig deeper.”

Ukhvatova, a native of the oil-producing Khanty-Mansiysk region in western Siberia, arrived in January 2018 from the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg. She is quick to explain how she thrives off the feeling of academic community at UW-Madison. “You feel like you are a part of something… a real community. You are never alone!” she says. Ukhvatova studies issues of religion and voting behavior in Russian regions, but her most remarkable findings have been in the “Red Belt”—former bastions of support for the Communist party that have subsequently become the most religious parts of the country.

In conducting her research, she has found the relationship with her supervisor, UW-Madison Professor of Political Science Yoshiko Herrera, to be indispensable. While writing an article recently accepted for publication, Ukhvatova relied on Herrera’s academic connections to resolve blind spots in her research. “In Russia it is a strange topic, so I could not find the right materials there,” she says. “[Professor Herrera] and her colleagues at different universities were so helpful.”

Meanwhile, other WRP scholars and students are collaborating directly with their partners on the “Wisconsin” side of the initiative.

WRP post-doctoral fellow Dmitriy Vorobyev, an assistant professor at Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg, Russia, is spending the 2017-2018 academic year studying issues of political economy at UW-Madison. He recently co-authored an article describing the correlation of corruption levels and election cycles of Russian governors, and currently works with Professor of Political Science Scott Gehlbach.

Asked how his research benefits from time in residence at UW-Madison, Vorobyev emphasizes the ample opportunities he has to make face-to-face connections. “The main help is the opportunity to communicate with people,” he says, before clarifying, “I am connecting with professors and graduate students in the Department of Political Science, and with grad students in the Economics Department. The best help is coming from people whom I actually see daily.”

The reach of the WRP also extends to the Law School, where graduate research assistant Alex Straka has found himself in an unlikely position. “For law students, there are very few opportunities to do research independent of your courses,” he says. “This has given me a chance that the vast majority of us do not have.”

Straka studies the system of legal education in Russia under the supervision of Kathryn Hendley, the William Voss-Bascom Professor of Law and Political Science. In fall 2017, Straka met visiting graduate student fellow Aldar Chirninov from Russia’s Ural State Law University. For Straka, working with a fellow student of law from Russia was ideal. “Aldar was one of my first interviews,” he explains. The two shared insights on the quality of their education and, in particular, the practical learning they undertook as law students. “In the US it’s called an ‘experiential learning opportunity,’” clarifies Straka.

These interactions not only helped shape the direction of Straka’s research, but also provided both WRP fellows with a chance to engage in a valuable cultural exchange with their normally distant counterpart. “The practice of law increasingly spans across borders, whether it is mainly in transactional suits or something else,” says Straka. “Becoming more familiar with the Russian legal system and my future counterparts, knowing their background and their training… I think it just helps you have a better understanding of each other.”

Visiting graduate student fellow Kristina Butaeva discusses issues of inequality in Russia with Russian Flagship students. (Photo credit: Elena Shirikova)

When not fulfilling their academic duties, WRP scholars have been busy participating in other facets of academic life at UW-Madison, such as giving presentations (in Russian) at “Russian Tea,” a weekly discussion group for language students organized by the Russian Flagship Program. According to Marina Tsylina, a Russian tutor and the leader of Russian Tea, the recent participation of highly-informed native speakers is a welcome addition. “Our more advanced students like to be intellectually challenged, and this is exactly what these meetings provide,” she says. Students who have not yet reached advanced competency in Russian nonetheless have something to gain from the discussion. “It gives us food for thought at our individual tutoring sessions,” remarks Tsylina.

Vorobyev, who in February presented on the election process for Russian governors, was impressed by the Russian Flagship students’ grasp of the Russian language. “I was very surprised by how well some students spoke Russian,” he says. “Maybe they had some accent, but the way they communicate and the phrases they used… it was stunning.”

WRP scholars have so far led social science-oriented discussions at Russian Tea on other relevant topics, including LGBT issues, income inequality, and local history. While the sometimes technical content of the presentations is certainly challenging for American students of Russian, the Russian-speaking presenter faces a similarly difficult task that has much less to do with the language barrier.

As Vorobyev points out, “Even talking generally about Russian politics to Americans is very difficult. They certainly do not always know the background and context that we take for granted.” Somewhere at the intersection of language, social science, and dialogue, these students and scholars are attempting to bridge the gaps that divide two cultures.

Since the implementation of the program in 2017, WRP scholars have regularly contributed their time and expertise to the outreach mission at CREECA. Many of the events in which they participate, including the CREECA Lecture Series and a February 2018 discussion of Russia’s influence in US elections, are captured in our podcast series.