This manifesto presents the objectives of CORUSCANT, the Paris-based, European branch of the Russia Program of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the George Washington University. CORUSCANT, the Research Collective on Contemporary Russia for the Analysis of its New Trajectories (in French: Collectif de recherche sur la Russie Contemporaine pour l’Analyse de ses Nouvelles Trajectoires) was launched in autumn 2023. This multidisciplinary collective proposes to rethink research about contemporary Russia as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is challenging traditional methods and questions on the country. CORUSCANT unreservedly condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine and expresses its full solidarity with the Ukrainian people. We stand with all those in Ukraine, Russia and the world who oppose this aggression and fight for the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.PDF Version.****
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been earth-shattering for Russia specialists. Not because we had been naive, but because in the early morning of February 24, 2022, we suddenly realized the countless dramatic consequences of Vladimir Putin’s fateful decision. Besides consternation, we felt anger, sadness, incomprehension and, most often, the need to step back from our research and help colleagues, relatives and friends in danger, whether in Ukraine, Russia or Belarus. Now that the shock has passed, and that our research conditions have been unmade, possibly for years, it is time for us to rethink the way we study Russia.In Ruins? Russian Studies after Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine
As political scientist Vladimir Gel’man recently pointed out in Post-Soviet Affairs,
February 24, 2022 has been a genuine “exogenous shock” to social science research on Russia.1
Similar in magnitude to the shock caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has had the exact opposite effect. In 1991, the dissolution of the USSR put an end to Sovietology and opened promising perspectives for researchers—not least free and virtually unrestricted fieldwork in most of the post-Soviet space. As a result, our knowledge of the region has been tremendously enriched, and our scientific approaches deeply renewed.
On the contrary, almost eight years after the start of the war in Ukraine, the brutal escalation of February 24, 2022, has meant that Russia will most likely remain closed to fieldwork in the foreseeable future. Many methods developed over the last 30 years of openness have been undermined if not made obsolete—a turning point that our colleagues have already started exploring.2
This manifesto is our attempt to contribute to this ongoing conversation.
First of all, February 24, 2022, has upset our very relationship with Russia. While this is nothing compared to the tragedies of the Ukrainian people or political refugees, many specialists have gone through a crisis. The study of Russia — like that of so many other topics—is often grounded in the fascination, or even passion, for the country and its culture. This needs to be questioned. We have dedicated whole swathes of our lives to studying Russia and mastering its language. We have lived and worked there, sometimes for many years, forging many personal bonds. We have dedicated our careers to analyzing Russia, in order to understand its nuances and complexities. February 24, 2022, has caused a personal and professional watershed that requires us to question our methods and approaches, and to renew our research questions and practices. What does studying Russia — and Russian politics especially — mean in the context of the war in Ukraine, and what does it imply for those studying it? Answering these questions raises difficult ethical, epistemological and methodological issues.
First, the lack of access to the field and to primary sources is gradually narrowing the perspectives of Russia specialists. For our generation of scholars, trained in the 2000s and 2010s, research conditions in the country have sharply deteriorated in recent years. Many have been confronted with pressure, intimidation, tailing, interrogations, restrictions on access to archives, refusal of interviews, etc. After the Covid pandemic border closures, the war now means that Russia is almost completely closed off. Physical and in situfieldwork has become impossible, with few exceptions. In the medium term, this could lead to a considerable impoverishment of our knowledge. While this is true for senior researchers who already had the opportunity to do fieldwork, the impact is greater for young researchers who have started or wish to start a PhD. The impossibility of doing fieldwork is not only scientifically damaging, it is outright discouraging. Studying a country where you cannot go can feel prohibitive, and many candidates will probably turn to other regional areas or abandon their research.
Second, in France as in other Western countries, virtually all research cooperation agreements with Russian universities and all student exchange programs have been suspended. Informal networks have often unraveled. The war has also made it difficult to maintain high-quality training courses in Russian language. This could ultimately lead to a lack of training and a collapse of the number of students, both in secondary education — an important source of Russian-speakers in France — and in universities.
Finally, it is vital to preserve and develop Russian studies in order to also understand the ways in which Russia’s power is projected abroad. Russia represents a security challenge for the entire European continent, but the issue has repercussions further afield — sub-Saharan Africa being a case in point. In this region, Russia’s influence is expanding, while France’s is declining. Sadly, we have to admit that almost every significant event comes as a “strategic surprise”, and is only commented on speculatively, in the heat of the moment, on social networks and TV channels. The result is an information overload that blurs the understanding of the deeper issues at stake. By training experts, renewed Russian studies must provide government departments, local authorities, businesses and civil society with professionals who are crucial to informed decision-making.Renewing Russian Studies
The situation is paradoxical: Russia is now at the center of acute attention. Yet, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has never been so inaccessible, and difficult to analyze. Faced with this challenge, we need to organize ourselves to rebuild and renew our field of study. This is what we, political scientists, geographers, historians and sociologists specializing in Russia, propose to achieve with CORUSCANT. Our collective has defined four medium- and long-term objectives and the solutions to fulfill them.Epistemological Objective: Russian Studies between Decentering and Refocusing
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has brutally exposed the need for us to thoroughly rethink our research themes, teaching methods and scientific practices. The aim of our collective is to participate in the debates that recognize the problems affecting our field, in order to contribute to its reconstruction.
Within Slavic or post-Soviet studies, Russian Studies have institutionally dominated over studies of the countries and regions that have been under Russia’s domination. For a long time, a de facto equivalence has prevailed between Russian, Slavic, Eurasian and post-Soviet studies, making many departments in our field often ostensibly Russian-centric.3
These structural and institutional hierarchies have shaped our ways of thinking about power relations, and the ways in which we have produced knowledge.4
Many researchers have studied the former imperial territories of Russia through a Russian prism — whether linguistic, cultural, or political. This has to stop.
This requires two seemingly contradictory moves: decentering Russian studies — in particular when the history of the USSR and the Russian Empire is concerned — refocusing on Russia itself when research on the present Russian Federation is concerned.
Decolonizing Slavic Studies and decentering Russian Studies is currently central in many debates. Far from being new, these questions were already at the core of debates on the colonial nature of the USSR, even during the Soviet era.5
Still, February 24, 2022, was a brutal reminder that these questions matter, and that we had collectively overlooked them. The calls to use decolonial studies, following the pioneering work of Madina Tlostanova, resonate particularly today.6
CORUSCANT intends to build on these foundations to create a space for multidisciplinary discussion, organize meetings, share our experiences and materials, and support doctoral students in the production of new knowledge and approaches. For those of us working on the Russian Empire and the USSR, for example, this means striving to ask new research questions, rethinking our course syllabuses together, diversifying the authors we cite and using other sources along the lines recently proposed by Sofia Dyak and Mayhill Fowler.7
Or, to use the expression of Walter Mignolo, a major thinker on Latin American postcolonialism, “think and do differently.”8
This need to decenter the study of the imperial phenomenon does not
mean that we should not focus on Russia itself — especially as far as the contemporary Russian Federation is concerned. Post-Soviet studies, Slavic studies, and Russian studies have been confused for too long and it is now time to consider Russia in itself, in a different category than the former Soviet republics. Now that the Russian borders are closed, many scholars may be tempted to study Russia by turning to its accessible “margins”, notably the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. On the contrary, we advocate avoiding these methods of “extracting” information and “resourcifying” post-Soviet countries, which often unconsciously reproduce Russia’s (neo)colonial posture.9
As Russia specialists, we cannot readily turn to and pretend to discover other fields and areas of study in the post-Soviet world, as if these fields did not require specialist knowledge, and first, language skills. This is especially true since the question of the decolonization of knowledge has been central to scholars of these countries for decades. Instead, following Victoria Donovan’s recommendations, we propose to adopt collaborative methods, perceiving the people and objects we study not as resources but as partners in the co-creation of knowledge.10
We aim to continue to study Russian realities, both domestic and international, but without considering that the former Soviet republics constitute a privileged vantage point, or their territories substitutes for fieldwork in the Russian Federation.A New Toolbox for Russian Studies
To achieve these goals, we need to confront head-on the enormous problem posed by the inaccessibility of Russia, while avoiding the temptation to resourcify the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Our generation — and many of those who have trained us — has had the opportunity to work during a time of relative openness. For the last three decades, most of our research has been the product of in-depth field investigations in the Russian Federation. Without a doubt, doing research, but often also working, teaching and living in the country, and for several years, has enabled us to gain irreplaceable professional and personal experience. However frustrating the country’s new closure may be, it should remind us that ethnographic methods never had a monopoly on the production of knowledge about a given society. It could even be argued that overreliance on fieldwork-based research has led to a regrettable neglect of topics inaccessible to this type of investigation, due to the increasing authoritarianism of the Russian regime. With CORUSCANT, we intend to reinvent and renew our empirical approaches. Our collective is exploring several steps to maintain the collection, processing and analysis of relevant sources.
A first step is to work collectively and share our accumulated resources. This will be particularly important for doctoral students. An impressive quantity of documents, archives, journals, posters, etc. have been digitized, and are available outside Russia. Several platforms already exist, and we want to make them more visible, accessible and comprehensive. CORUSCANT, in partnership with the Russia Program, aims to enable widespread and legal sharing of these resources.
The second and principal step is based on the exploration of Russia through “digital fieldwork”.11
Over the past decade, open-source investigations have become essential for documenting topics as diverse as organized crime, elite corruption and contemporary conflicts. The investigations carried out by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and Bellingcat into the Russian regime and the war in Ukraine are the most successful examples of these methods. Generally referred to under the acronym OSINT (open-source intelligence),
these investigative methods are made possible by the omnipresence of sensors that digitize an increasing proportion of human activities and generate “digital footprints”.12
Due to the history and structuration of the internet in Russia — known as the Runet — these traces abound in Russia. Russian platforms are dominant in the country, a dominance that has only been reinforced by “sovereign Runet” laws. And these platforms are less restrictive than their Western counterparts when it comes to data extraction. Access to the Runetfrom the West might be curtailed by the acceleration, since March 2022, of the decoupling between the Russian and Western information spaces. At the same time, digital authoritarianism and systemic corruption have made legal and illegal digital data freely available and abundant.13
These sources are widely used by intelligence services, journalists and activists to document war crimes or hostile information operations. But in our field, scientists have barely started to think about how they could be used for research and analysis.
CORUSCANT aims to develop methodologies and tools for digital investigation able to meet the challenge of understanding the major issues of contemporary Russia. We have started working on how ethnographic fieldwork can be “augmented” by digital technology to ensure the continuity of our research projects. This approach can also be extended to other fields, such as history, for which these materials and “leaks” in particular, could also become usable archives.
Of course, we have no intention of totally replacing ethnographic and in-person inquiry with digital investigation, or qualitative methods with quantitative ones. In the same way that we intend to adapt OSINT approaches to academic research, we will strive to devise new methodologies at the crossroads of disciplines (computational sciences and Russian Studies in particular) that, for now, have little in common.
These tools and methods have already been developed in partnership with the GEODE Center of Paris 8 University and with the support of George Washington University. They are centralized within CRYSTAL, a GEODE-hosted platform offering an integrated system for collecting, processing and analyzing digital data and traces for political or strategic analysis. Several methods are involved, such as network analysis, social media analysis, textual and semantic analysis of large web corpora, and digital network mapping.
CORUSCANT plans to enhance this platform in two ways. First, by developing specific tools for exploring the Russian-speaking Internet, and second, by organizing training sessions on how to use CRYSTAL in a Russian-speaking context—the first of which will take place in Paris in Spring 2024. These week-long sessions will bring together some twenty North American and European specialists on Russia, with the aim of creating a transnational community.Towards a Dialogue with Policy Makers
While some progress has been made in recent years, we still deplore the lack of dialogue between academic research and political and strategic decision-makers in France and at the EU level, on Russian matters especially. The war in Ukraine has shown that this dialogue is needed more than ever. The speed at which military operations are evolving and the succession of “strategic surprises” (in the Sahel, for instance), leaves little room for in-depth dialogue between researchers and civil servants who operate in a context of urgency. We believe that this dialogue is essential if we are to develop public expertise and policymaking based on scientific knowledge and not dictated by the media or social networks.
Beyond the Russian case, in societies increasingly subject to emergency situations — ecological, social, security, geopolitical — what role can the humanities and social sciences play? Can we shun any contribution to public debates when politicians, experts and journalists are all over the issues we have been working on for years? It’s up to us, researchers, to conceptualize, put into perspective, compare and analyze, and this mission must complement knowledge production. And it should not be reserved for more peaceful times, or topics that fit our political and moral preferences. In situations as dramatic as those we are experiencing, we believe that producing knowledge about the adversary can even be a duty.
This is why we draw inspiration from the fruitful dialogue on Russia established in the United States and in the United Kingdom between the academic world and policymakers — without idealizing it either. Our position borrows from our American colleagues who, in the 1950s, founded Sovietology under the motto “know your enemy.”14
It is also inspired by the model of strategic studies and war and peace studies, that have built many bridges with the public sphere. We believe it is necessary to lay the foundations for a European approach to “knowledge of the enemy.” By this, we do not mean Russia in itself, but the regime responsible for the war, and the cultural, social and political forces that have enabled it.Creating an International Network for the Emergence of New Russian Studies
The scale and complexity of the crises caused by Russia makes it all the more necessary for French and international researchers to work together in order to build new Russian studies. Developing new methods largely relies on the sharing of information: databases, research tools or qualitative sources, etc — all these tools require integration in international exchange networks. This also implies forging or renewing links with Russian researchers who are working on similar subjects and who have left Russia in large numbers in recent years.
To meet this challenge, we aim to better integrate French research and institutions into networks sharing information and data relating to Russia that are active in Europe, the United States, and the world. All too often, we find that French researchers are under-represented in these networks and we intend to make CORUSCANT a forum for dialogue at the European level. CORUSCANT is also conceived as the Paris-based European branch of the Russia Program at George Washington University. The war in Ukraine, and the dramatic evolutions of the Putin regime have made researching Russia a challenge. This challenge can only be met collectively.