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Looking at the Grey Zone in Russia

Published On May 28, 2015 | Blogs, Interviews, Uncategorized

Katerina Tertytchnaya is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. Her dissertation, generally, examines hybrid political regimes in Russia. Below, Katerina talks with us about her research.


What is the main idea(s) of your research?
My work looks at ‘grey zone’ or hybrid political systems – that is, systems that combine public political competition with an organizational and institutional field that renders this competition unfair. It’s important, I argue, to move beyond binary categories, thinking of political regimes as either democratic or authoritarian, as this doesn’t encapsulate the complex reality of the world around us. I look at one such example of hybrid regimes, Russia, and ask how political hybridity so often emerges with the consent of the governed. I am intrigued by the fact that hybrid regimes are resilient to economic downturns and persist often despite deteriorating economic conditions. Here’s an example: In 2009 public opinion surveys showed that the percentage of Russians who were satisfied with their household’s economic situation was the same at the onset and in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, while incumbent popularity ratings as the country navigated through the worst phase of the 2009 recession remained well above 70 percent. Such survey findings invite us to consider the effects of income poverty and economic insecurity on people’s political attitudes and on their ability to foster democratic accountability more broadly.


What have you found so far?
For the first part of my Ph.D. project, I have focused on political behavior – enquiring about the connection between personal and national economic conditions in post-socialist Russia. Empirical results so far show that economic dislocation and the retrenchment of the extensive Soviet welfare state in the early 1990s made personal experiences too consequential and hence difficult to ignore when citizens evaluated the performance of the economy and that of incumbents. Likewise, far from distorting Russians’ ability to link individual economic experiences to economic and political evaluations, ‘hybrid’ consolidation during the 2000s increased public expectations about the welfare role of the state, and in doing so, heightened the visibility of personal concerns for political evaluations. My findings also suggest that economic insecurity generates economic pessimism – shown by exaggerated reports of the national unemployment rate, for example. I hope that by considering the relationship between the objective and subjective economies in Russia, my work will help to advance comparative enquiry and will also contribute to keeping behavioural research in hybrid systems well integrated into one of the most dynamic areas of public opinion scholarship, that of the origins and nature of people’s economic and political assessments.


How did you become interested in your topic, and why is it important to you?
I have always been fascinated by the post-Soviet transition experience and have been most intrigued by the ‘endless patience’ story the literature so often tells us, portraying Russians as possessing a ‘boundless’ capacity to endure economic hardship. As interesting as this cultural paradigm sounds, it never truly resonated with my lived experiences in the region, so I was genuinely motivated to study contentious behaviour in that part of the world. There are many more stories to be told about how people buffered the effect of transformational shocks and about their everyday experiences and interactions with the state. This bottom-up dimension to political enquiry makes the topic even more important for me. Last but not least, over my years at university. I was privileged to have inspiring teachers who were able to share their passion about social enquiry and Russia with us. I took my first Russian politics module in Strasbourg; the class coincided with the outbreak of the 2008/9 natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, so we had the opportunity to discuss political developments on a daily basis. The ‘energy wars’ were definitely a research-agenda defining experience for me.


What implications do you hope your research will have beyond your dissertation?
As I mentioned above, I believe it is fundamental to understand how the state and individuals interact and why certain political arrangements promote specific types of responses on the part of the masses before we turn to questions such as how to promote economic development, or how to forecast Russia’s international behaviour. For many years international loans and credit were counter-productively directed towards transitioning regimes – the hope being that they will embrace democracy. Moving beyond this normative assumption, which has been repeatedly falsified, is very important.


Do you have any advice for wannabe researchers?
Yes – to watch Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon. Doing research is absolutely fascinating and it definitely helps if wannabe researchers are embarking on graduate work that inspires and challenges them. A constructive approach to research challenges (never problems) is also pivotal – addressing them will be a constructive learning experience in itself. Likewise, I would encourage researchers to engage with the world around them, as it is often too easy merely to specialize on a single question and thereby lose sight of the broader picture. Attending conferences and talks helps to acquire a much better understanding of one’s broader research discipline. There are many ups and downs in the research life of graduate students, so it is important to acknowledge this in advance and to remind oneself that it is all part of the process. In other words, it’s key to think of graduate school as a journey as much as a final destination.



Photo credit: myheimu (Creative Commons).