An interview with Renata Mustafina, ICSID visiting researcher
Renata Mustafina, a PhD candidate in Political Science at Centre de recherches internationales (CERI/CNRS), Sciences Po (France), spent two months at ICSID working on her research. We asked Renata to give us some feedback. In a short interview, she talked about her stay at the Center, her professional growth, and what other scholars should take into account if they decide to conduct research in Russia.
What is currently the subject of your research and why did you choose this particular topic?
My research project explores human rights mobilizations and uses of law in the context of protest-related trials in contemporary Russia. These cases are usually framed as «political trials» in the media and within the activist circles, both in Russia and abroad. This frame leaves almost no agency for the defense lawyers. In contrast, I argue that despite lawyers’ structural weakness and power balance in favor of the accusatorial party, defense lawyers play an important role in the protest-related trials. In my analysis, I combine the insights from the sociology of law, legal profession, and mobilization. My study is based on a series of in-depth interviews with lawyers and observations of their work in courts. I study the variety of legal and extra-legal strategies that lawyers employ in politicized cases.
Why did you choose the Post-Soviet region as a subject of your research (if this applies to you) and the Higher School of Economics as a place to do it?
I’m originally from Russia, so when I’ve started to engage with social sciences, my research projects quite naturally were derived from Russian political and social debates and addressed Russian empirical reality. However, even if my materials are deeply connected with this socio-spatial context, I like to think that my research is less influenced by «area studies» approaches but engages more with comparative political/legal sociology. This focus and its methodological premises prevent the researcher from exoticizing its object and restrain us from treating the phenomena we observe as ‘a Russian exception.’
What do you think about the Center and the work it does?
International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development brings together brilliant researchers, both professors and PhD candidates, both Moscow-based and international ones. I found the Center’s environment to be conducive to the progress of my study. I benefited a lot from the advice of the colleagues with expertise in the sociology of the legal profession. I also got great feedback during the presentation of my study at the center’s workshop.
Do you have any advice for foreign colleagues who are going to do research in Russia for the first time?
It depends on what you want to do during your fieldwork: archives, interviews, observations, whether you want to stay in Moscow or go to the regions. It is important to have some formal letters from your institution or director of research for the archives; it is extremely helpful to secure some interviews in advance to be able to begin quickly, however (and it depends of course on the interviewees and their socio-professional environment) particularly in Moscow the researcher needs to be ready to adapt regularly to the interviewees and go through cancellations on the short notice etc. ICSID’s physical location is thus also great: several metro stations from the center of Moscow, it gives an excellent opportunity to stay in the working environment while trying to «catch» someone spontaneously.