#ScholarSpotlight with Matthew Blackburn
Matthew Blackburn is postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University. He completed his doctoral thesis on nationalist discourses and the imagined nation in Post-Soviet Russia at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on political legitimation, memory politics, nationalism and identity politics in the Post-Soviet space. His recent publications include ‘Mainstream Russian Nationalism and the “State-Civilization-Identity”’ (Nationalities papers) and ‘Political Legitimacy in Contemporary Russia’ (Russian Politics) (2020).
In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Matthiew discusses nationalism and national identities, Russian and post-Soviet space and the importance of adopting interdisciplinary approaches in social studies.
What is the focus of your research?
My research straddles both political sociology and political science. My macro focus is on the question of Russia as a nation-state and the development of nation-building and political institutions, whilst my micro focus is on social identities and group identity politics - how they work and how they influence people’s political behaviour and participation. My main research thus mainly regards interrogating both the federal level and the presidential level, then assessing how these top-level policies are received on micro levels, i.e., by small groups of individual communities.
Why is your research important to you?
I spent four years living in Russia before I started my PhD, during which I had the opportunity to become more fluent in Russian and elaborate further on my perspective of Russian pressures. This is the reason why my research is important to me: it talks about my identity as a researcher. I am the kind of person who doesn’t like to be desk-bound or to keep a distance from the object of my inquiry. In contrast, I think it's exciting to constantly challenge yourself and stay updated with what is going on in the world, then try to adequately and faithfully reproduce this from the point of view of the groups that you investigate. Scholars who have studied a lot of social science literature without being an active part of their research are potentially more prone to fail, as they adopt frameworks that often are alien and inappropriate to the objects of the inquiry.
When I started my PhD I found it very difficult to agree with two types of research commonly adopted in my field, namely Russian culture and politics. The first of which is extreme positivism and the latter of which is extreme postmodernism. I felt these two areas were causing me a degree of dissatisfaction from reading and it gave me the inspiration to try and do research that could be pushed in different directions.
Which academics’ work has inspired some of your key thinking?
I could mention three books, which all have something in common: their fascinating scope, original arguments and impressive details. They are also all books whose authors successfully leave their baggage at the door and retain a good degree of detachment on the subject. The first book is “Rulers and Victims. The Russians in the Soviet Union” by historian Geoffrey Hosking. In this book, the author pursued his research while directly interacting with Soviet people, on trains or in offices, which make his works extremely interesting from a sociological point of view. The second book is Serguei Oushakine’s “The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia”, in which the author inquires how the shocking experience of the nineties and the sense of loss that followed provoked a certain unexpected kind of solidarity and a common identity of defeat, of being cheated, among Russian people. The bottom-up approach that Oushakine pursued gave me a lot of inspiration by showing that you can go to the micro-level and you see how these types of things are collectively imagined. The third book is written by Yurchak Alexej and titled, “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation”. This book brought me excitement on the need of inquiring about a generational question. I thought it was an inspiring book and it has encouraged me to trace the last Soviet generation and compare this to the young people of today. Similarly, during my PhD, I collected data from my interviews and tried to understand how people who are socialised in different contexts have different ways of seeing the world than others who absorb different discourses.
What issues do you see your field being focused upon in the next several years?
When I did my PhD, I was focused very much on nationalism and national identity. Today I feel that I don't necessarily frame my work in this way anymore. Instead I use the term legitimation and investigate how political authorities attempt to keep winning new methods of legitimation in a 21st-century authoritarianism context. My position is that Russian politics contribute to the development of so-called hybrid regimes. However, to assess this concept, it is necessary to shift the focus away from the Kremlin, the central ministries, and Putin. Instead, we should admit that Russia is a huge and diverse country, which includes different regions. These regions turn on themselves and constitute different kinds of micro political systems that are run in many different ways. Therefore, I believe that Russian studies should focus on the regional level. I am aware it is a difficult issue for several reasons, firstly, because it will cost money – since, in some places, there is no infrastructure of contacts and already established networks. However, I think that it is an important aim to achieve. Otherwise, we are condemned to blindness in the research community, as we don't know how bad or how good things are in the regions. Secondly, the next biggest challenge for the field is probably interdisciplinarity, which may also represent an opportunity for area studies. Despite being exploited as a buzzword that people throw on their application to get a grant, interdisciplinarity is a serious aim to achieve and the rewards of carrying out a genuinely interdisciplinary project can be potentially huge and ground-breaking. This is a big issue that new generations of scholars have to face, as in order to move the field forward and make their names, one cannot repeat what others have already done before.
How does your research link to or have an impact on global policy issues?
This is a difficult question for me. I did my PhD in area studies, a field in which you do not necessarily show the impact of your research. Instead, you are trained to be a specialist within a certain region and acquire language capacities with cultural understanding. However, now that I am advancing in my academic career, I need to learn how to do it – and do it fast. Hence, my focus now is on the aspects of my research that would be most useful to provide inputs over the nature of the political system in Russia and assess the foundations of the legitimacy of the current system. I think it is a relevant issue, above all, to explain the reasons behind the success of the Kremlin in their informational campaigns, domestically and abroad. However, on the other hand, looking at the regional political actors in Russia also allows me to talk about the impact more clearly. So in detail, in my present research agenda, I’m looking at how political actors cope with the various pressures from different sides, such as federal authorities, regional elites and, of course, the voters. This will enhance our understanding of why people still engage in covering a political role at the regional level, despite the fact that so many outcomes seem to already be predetermined. Therefore, I have ended up looking at the five guiding principles of EU’s policies and some of the documents the EU posted to Russia since one of the points within this is supporting Russian civil society and promoting people-to-people contacts. We need to provide a very fresh and accurate actor-centred perspective on how people themselves negotiate politics. Thus, my impact is to try and make the argument that we can clearly understand the nature underlying what is going on in terms of regions and regional politics. Then the EU may be able to come up with other ideas to improve its dialogue and relations with Russia.
What is the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when starting your academic career?
My advice for those who are entering academia is that you have to learn everything yourself. You must learn to read efficiently, write successfully, publish, create your network, collaborate, win grants, manage the workload, and do all of that without any effective line manager. Unfortunately, there will be nobody breathing down your neck to make sure you are moulding yourself into a successful academic. You need to become an efficient “machine” as soon as possible, because if you don’t, you can’t expect to survive in the grim Darwinian conditions of the neoliberal academic job market. Plus, you have to be ready to live for quite a long time – perhaps forever –in precarious working conditions, combining two or three jobs, hunting for the next post, the next grant. I am saying all this pretty dark and grim stuff because I think that people who are starting a PhD need to understand the magnitude of the task which they are undertaking, to give themselves a chance to progress in their academic path. Too few supervisors, many of whom were hired at different times, have no idea about today’s post PhD job market and, as a result of that, those people are inclined to be optimistic. They create expectations that rather turn into very nasty surprises. I think that it is not really fair. We must realise that the “idyllic days” are over and now it is very tough, but if you are aware of the situation, you can do it.
What is one must-read book/ article for scholars not in your field?
I would go for a book that came out a couple of years ago, “Putin v. The People. The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia” by Samuel Green and Graeme Robertson. The reason I choose this book is that there is no oversimplification, just data and sources about why people support Putin. It also investigates what happens at the regional level and is extremely well written, touching on salient issues and providing good arguments which are well defended and provided good evidence. It is a good example of a book that ticks all the boxes, even for someone who is not a specialist in Russia.