International researchers at HSE
Julian G. Waller, Ph.D Candidate at the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University and ICSID Associate Fellow, told us why he studies the Post-Soviet region and how he enjoyed his life in Moscow.
What is currently the subject of your research and why did you choose this particular topic?
I work on political institutions in electoral authoritarian regimes. To that end, my dissertation research focuses specifically on the activity of parliaments over the lifetime of a given electoral authoritarian regime, trying to find systematic patterns for when parliaments become sites of opposition obstruction, policy-making activity, or even engage in inter-branch contestation with the executive. The project is comparative in scope, but a major part of the micro-level exploration uses the case of the Russian State Duma over the last two decades as a critical one. In terms of choice, the topic comes out of the broader recent interest in political science about the role of legislatures and parties in authoritarianism. Many of these neoinstitutional theories, in my view, treat parliaments at an overly abstract level, focusing on questions of their existence or single vs. multi-party nature and how that may affect regime durability, survival, and so on. I wanted to dig more into variation in activity, not presence - it's hardly a surprise that many people see such institutions as rubber-stamps, yet there's still a steady string of commentary on various happenings that go on inside such legislatures. And its unsatisfying to say they simply solve some functionalist problem of intra-elite coordination or rent distribution. When is the rubber-stamp really a rubber-stamp? And in what ways does it deviate from that in one specific way or another? And critically - when? Even an interest aggregator or rent-distributing institution isn't always doing these things - legislative crises and uncertainties happen even in non-democracy, and we need a better understanding of why and how. That's the idea anyway.
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?
My language training and prior abroad experience has been primarily in Russia and Ukraine, and I've had an enduring interest in the politics of the region for a long time. Given variation in the types of authoritarian rule in the post-Soviet space, as well as its influence in the literature on how we conceptualize these sorts of political regimes, it's a natural fit to explore in-depth. As for HSE in particular, well if one wants to understand the Russian parliament, it makes little sense to do it anywhere but Moscow. HSE is a well-known and respected institution inside and outside the country, and is notably accepting and interested in foreign researchers spending time here. I can't imagine a more collegial and helpful institution for a foreign scholar trying to do serious, productive work in Russia today.
What do you think about the Center and the work it does?
The International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development has been a home for me during my time in Russia. Although I was often away from the Center itself in archives or conducting research interviews, it has been a welcoming place to do work. The amount of output it has in terms of research papers, the significant number of visiting and affiliated researchers, and the regular seminars and conferences it holds has been very impressive. Truly an institute that lives up to its name and one that I hope more Western colleagues will know about and collaborate with in the future.
Do you have any advice for foreign colleagues who are going to do research in Russia for the first time?
Make sure to build in a decent amount of time in your schedule for day-to-day frustration and slowness. Sometimes the archives are closed or your interviewee needs to reschedule at the last minute. Ensure that breathing room for the frustrations and it will make life much better. Russia is a fairly open and accommodating place for research on a good day, but bad days happen and just need to be accepted as such. It really will be an amazing experience regardless, so getting hung up on a negative day is just not worth it.
What is your impression of Moscow? How did you enjoy living here?
I had previously lived in Ufa and Saint-Petersburg in prior years, and had really only visited Moscow for a day or so before this stay at HSE. So living here has been a really eye-opening and unique experience - and very different from the few other parts of the country I'd been acquainted with. Moscow is enormous - growing up in a very small town outside of Boston and living in Washington, DC for the last seven years, I had never really lived in a city of comparable size before. In Moscow everything is dynamic and full, you can find whatever you could possibly want. And of course the history and sheer density of museums, government institutions, and interesting neighborhoods makes for an experience that's never dull. I'll avoid making a comment about which of Russia's two capitals I prefer living in, but I will say that I feel very lucky to have been able to experience Muscovite life, if even for a fairly short stay.