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HSE has been a great home base for me to return and recharge my batteries

Elizabeth Plantan, Ph.D. candidate in Government at Cornell University, discusses her work at the International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID HSE) and life in Russia.

Why did you choose Post-Soviet region as a subject of your research and the Higher School of Economics as the place to do your research?

I have been interested in Russia since the beginning of my undergraduate career and studied in Russia during my junior year abroad. That initial interest in Russia stayed with me as continued on to an MA program in Russian & Eastern European Studies at Indiana University - Bloomington and now for a Ph.D. in political science at Cornell University. The Higher School of Economics has an excellent reputation among Russia scholars in the West. The International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID), in particular, came highly recommended by several top Russia scholars who had been formerly-affiliated with ICSID themselves.

What is currently the subject of your research?

My dissertation is a comparative study of environmental social movements in Russia and China. As a visiting researcher at ICSID, I have been taking advantage of my time in Moscow to conduct in-person interviews with Russian environmental activists and civil society leaders for my research.

Why did you choose these topics?

Russia and China have similar legacies of rapid industrial development and economic reforms that swept across the natural landscape and left an array of environmental problems in their wake. How each of these countries deals with its environmental problems in the modern era is of great concern not only to local citizens in both countries, but also to the international community for global conversations on climate change. In terms of domestic politics, environmental issues provide insight into the mutual relationship between government, civil society, and business actors. Understanding these relationships will lead to greater understanding of environmental politics and policymaking in both countries.

What kind of research do you plan to carry out in the future?

I will continue to conduct in-person semi-structured interviews with environmental activists and other actors involved in environmental policymaking in Russia and China. In addition to interviews in the field, I am also considering conducting a broader survey on environmental consciousness in both countries.

As I know you have been learning the Russian language for 9 years. What practical advice can you give to your colleagues to make their efforts at learning Russian more successful?

If you can, try to do an intensive course before your fieldwork in Russia. This kind of intensive coursework will undoubtedly improve your ability to hit the ground running once you get to Russia for your research. For scholars from the United States, there are many universities and institutes that offer summer intensives that can accommodate advanced students focused on preparing for research abroad. Honestly, even after 9 years, I still make mistakes. I think it’s important to not be afraid to allow yourself to make those mistakes. Chances are, you’re still being understood, and it’s better to try to get your point across than to be embarrassed about making a mistake. 

Do you have practical advice for foreign colleagues who are going to do research in Russia for the first time?

Advanced planning is helpful with regards to visa, travel, and housing arrangements. However, once you get to Russia, being flexible is more important. For example, if you’re focused on interviews, a flexible schedule allows you to meet with potential interviewees whenever they’re available. This also allows you the freedom to travel around the country as needed, if you find out that certain interviewees are all in a different region or city. In addition to flexibility with your personal schedule, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a strong institutional affiliation and network of scholars with whom to connect in the field. Although I’ve had a very fluid research schedule, HSE has been a great home base for me to return and recharge my batteries.