U4 Society Workshop

Organized by Russia Platform of Ghent University, in cooperation with Tartu University

Bear RussiaU4Society Workshop – “Russia: what kind of power?”

University of Tartu, Estonia, November 2021

The workshop is postponed to November 2021. Exact dates will be announced by June 2021


This workshop addresses the question what kind of power applies to Russia. In doing so, it seeks to offer a platform for interdisciplinary discussions around different conceptualizations of power in the domestic and foreign relations of contemporary Russia.

Given the multiple research questions that the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis have opened up in relation to Russia’s power, the call for papers now also welcomes papers that deal with topics relating to the effects and implications of the current pandemic and crisis for Russia’s power, such as the new understanding of hybrid threats, Russian ‘health diplomacy’, disintegrative trends in the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, COVID-19’s impact on the situation in eastern Ukraine, domestic decentralization within Russia and the new situation for Russophone communities in the Baltic states.

A growing number of conceptual outlooks in academic scholarship are competing to qualify and explicate the kind of power that applies to Russia. Scholars studying Russia’s foreign policy have for a long time been interested in understanding the intricacies of established notions such as soft power and hard power and their different dimensions, be it economic, cultural, normative or military. However, since the annexation of Crimea and the following war in Donbas, a new interest in understanding Russia’s power has developed, as these events revealed a strong perceptional gap between an increasingly illiberal Russia and a wider West. New concepts have emerged that are specifically designed to better qualify and understand Russia’s power. Mark Galeotti, for instance, has qualified the Kremlin’s dark power as a state’s capacity to intimidate in contrast to the soft power analogue of attraction through positive relationships. Christopher Walker, in turn, has proposed the idea of sharp power in reference to Russia’s (and China’s) interferences in Western democracies.

Interpretative attempts of established approaches to contemporary power in Russia, such as ideological and institutional perspectives, are also part of the academic discourse. However, they leave open many gaps, as they fail to fully grasp Russia’s post-/trans-ideological hybridity. Putin’s conservative project is usually referred to as an alleged crux of the regime, yet there is much more convincing evidence of Russia’s post-/trans-ideological hybridity, which neither sits well with nor respects either liberal–conservative or left–right divisions. Ultimately, Putin’s rule appears to have evolved into a trans-ideological amalgamation of diverse narratives belonging to different semiotic and language registers, those of religion, science, memory politics, and public morals. The trans-ideological pinnacle of Putin’s regime may be understood as a revolutionary conservatism in the sense that it revolts against the existing international order instrumentally resorting to conservative policy justifications.

The institutional perspective does not seem to possess a satisfactory answer either due to the widely acknowledged dysfunctionality of formal institutions under Putin’s rule and the constitutive importance of what Carl Schmitt would have suggested to be sovereign exceptions. Deeply embedded in liberal academic traditions, institutional analysis of post-Soviet political systems revolves around concepts of good governance and democracy promotion through diffusion, which might be compatible with the Foucauldian idea of governmentality. With the growing understanding of the limitations of inferring substantial conclusions from studying established practices of governance, liberal institutionalists started looking in the direction of hybrid forms of political rule, unintended consequences of political moves, and failures of authoritarianism as a chance for democratization. The most traditional explanations of the democratic downslide, from the liberal institutionalist standpoint, are the ‘bad’ policies of Western democracy promoters, the still vivid and extant legacies of Communism, and the domestic (ethnic, religious, and linguistic) diversity within some of the post-Communist countries that prevents them from national consolidation on a non-coercive basis. The problem with this cluster of approaches is of course not in its focus on institutions but in its understanding of institutions as allegedly self-sufficient objects of research, which leads to a disregard of the multitude of practices and discourses unfolding beyond the institutional framework.

Another strand of literature places the concept of illiberal sovereignty at the center of discussion. While such a lens yields a lot of potential, arguably, in the case of Russia, sovereign power has to be stretched beyond the Schmittian “friend-foe” binary distinction, and treated from two perspectives - as grounded in the legal system, with references to laws and legislation that traditionally constituted the gist of sovereignty, and also producing particular forms of biopolitical control, regulation, and surveillance.

In sum, given the plurality of plausible scholarly explanations and their diverging understandings of power in Russia, there is a growing need for analysis of both mainstream and alternative conceptualizations of power in the domestic and foreign relations of contemporary Russia. In this regard, the effects and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic have opened up a new series of questions concerning Russia’s power, thereby further testifying to the broader relevance and need for analysis of Russia’s power.

The workshop, being an extension of the annual colloquium of the Ghent Russia Platform organized by Ghent University, invites scholars affiliated with the Universities of the U4Society network (Ghent, Göttingen, Groningen, Tartu and Uppsala) to participate in interdisciplinary discussions around different conceptualizations of power under Putin’s rule, a topic that continues to be re-actualized, not only by the proposed changes in the Russian Constitution , but also by the implications and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participation is also open to scholars from other universities. Costs of participation of scholars from the five U4Society universities will be covered by the respective universities via the U4Society network. Paper-givers from Russian universities who do not have access to funding opportunities can apply to Ghent University’s Russia Platform for a reimbursement of their travel expenses.

The call for proposals has been closed. The draft programme will be published by June 2021. Selected papers will be considered for publication in a special issue or an edited volume.

The workshop coordinators are Andrey Makarychev (Tartu University) and Fabienne Bossuyt (Ghent University).

The first Ghent Russia colloquium
The second Ghent Russia colloquium
 The third Ghent Russia colloquium