Aleksanteri Alumni Talks



Series of open online seminars where alumni of the Aleksanteri Institute Visiting Fellows Programme present their ongoing and recently published research on Russia, Eurasia, and Central and Eastern Europe. The seminars explore this region in the present and past times, through lenses of a broad range of disciplines and methodologies.

These talks are held on Zoom and take place in the afternoon at 15:00 Helsinki time (UTC +3), unless stated otherwise. The presentations are followed by comments given by Aleksanteri Institute’s researchers and scholars from among the Visiting Fellow alumni, and a Q & A session. See below for details and register to the sessions!

Aleksanteri Alumni Talks continue along with the Visiting Fellows Research Seminars that feature ongoing research by scholars whom we are hosting at the University of Helsinki within the frame of the Visiting Fellows Programme.

Many of our online seminars are recorded and you can watch the Alumni Talk videos on our YouTube channel. Most recordings are available for the time being while some may be available only for a two-week period.

Scholarship in exile: challenges of helping Ukrainian academics and scholars at risk

Europeans have been showing robust solidarity with Ukraine for over two hundred days, and higher education and research institutions across the EU and North America are no exception. Several international initiatives coordinated by volunteers have been founded specifically to help Ukrainian students and scholars. In addition, many universities rechanneled their resources to create new positions and fellowships for Ukrainians. Finally, various organizations and programs, such as Fulbright or MSCA, pulled up their resources to accept more Ukrainians this year. Now that some time has passed, at the beginning of the new academic year, it is a good moment to look back and reflect on what has proved efficient and where there is still much to be done.

This alumni talk will engage with some challenges and problems that displaced Ukrainian scholars and students face in Ukraine and abroad as well as will address some of the best practices up to the date. Instead of being too critical or overly optimistic regarding what has and what has not been done, the goal is to prompt a safe and constructive discussions about the ways in which fellow scholars in Finland and in other countries can support Ukrainian academics and scholars at risk.

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Register your participation here. 

The Adaptability of the Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its one-hundredth birthday in 2021. Its durability poses a twofold question: How has the party survived thus far? And is its survival formula sustainable in the future? My forthcoming book, The Adaptability of the Chinese Communist Party (Cambridge University Press, 2022) argues that the CCP has displayed a continuous capacity for adaptation, most recently in response to the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the collapse of communism in Europe. As the CCP evaluated the lessons of 1989, it identified four threats to single-party rule: economic stagnation; socioeconomic discontent; ideological subversion; and political pluralism. These threats have led to adaptive responses: allowing more private activity; expansion of the social safety net; promotion of indigenous cultural production; and rival incorporation into the party. Although these responses have enabled the CCP to survive thus far, each is reaching its limit. As adaptation stagnates, the strategy has been to increase repression, which creates doubt about the ongoing viability of single-party rule.

Comments: Catherine Owen, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Exeter

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, University of Helsinki

Seminar recording on YouTube

Aleksanteri Alumni Talk Martin Dimitrov 3.5.2022

The Sovereignty Trap: On the Supervised State and Political Reform in Macedonia

A tension exists within contemporary practices of American and European diplomacy, which formally acknowledge a Westphalian logic of state sovereignty but nonetheless violate this logic on a causal basis.  This paper analyzes one example of this phenomenon.  In Macedonia (now North Macedonia), American and European diplomats have long held a prominent role in the country’s politics.  On the one hand, these diplomats routinely signal the sovereign responsibility of the Macedonian state over political decision-making.  At the same time, through media interviews and press conferences, these diplomats also publicly broadcast their policy preferences for Macedonia and thereby intervene in political decision-making.  Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, this paper examines the public speech of US and EU diplomats in Macedonia/North Macedonia and analyzes the rhetorical strategies by which they simultaneously assert and compromise the country’s sovereign right over political decision-making.  As the paper argues, this dynamic fueled perpetual anxiety about the character and quality of Macedonia’s sovereignty.  

Both Macedonian political leaders and US and EU diplomats thus engaged in recurrent assertions and evaluations of Macedonian sovereignty.  However, rather than defusing public anxieties about Macedonia’s sovereignty, these political performances only renewed and intensified them.  In this context, the question of sovereignty functioned as a trap, that is, as an ever anxious space of sovereign performances that could not possibly satisfy the contradictory expectations placed upon them.

Comments: Senior Researcher Brendan Humphreys, Aleksanteri Institute
Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki



Alumni talk on 17 Feb 2022



Measuring the Social Consequences of the End of Communism: An Overview of the Evidence from Economics, Demography, Sociology, and Anthropology

This Alumni talk will discuss the findings of Ghodsee’s recent co-authored book, Taking Stock of Shock, Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutions (Oxford University Press, 2021)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, more than 400 million people suddenly found themselves in a new reality, a dramatic transition from state socialist and centrally planned workers' states to liberal democracy (in most cases) and free markets. Thirty years later, post-socialist citizens remain sharply divided on the legacies of transition. Was it a success that produced great progress after a short recession, or a socio-economic catastrophe foisted on the East by Western capitalists? Taking Stock of Shock aims to uncover the truth using a unique, interdisciplinary investigation into the social consequences of transition—including the rise of authoritarian populism and xenophobia. Showing that economic, demographic, sociological, political scientific, and ethnographic research produce contradictory results based on different disciplinary methods and data, Kristen Ghodsee and Mitchell Orenstein triangulate the results. They find that both the J-curve model, which anticipates sustained growth after a sharp downturn, and the "disaster capitalism" perspective, which posits that neoliberalism led to devastating outcomes, have significant basis in fact. While substantial percentages of the populations across a variety of post-socialist countries enjoyed remarkable success, prosperity, and progress, many others suffered an unprecedented socio-economic catastrophe. Ghodsee and Orenstein conclude that the promise of transition still remains elusive for many and offer policy ideas for overcoming negative social and political consequences.

Comments: Linda Cook, Professor emerita, Brown University
Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Alumni Talk on Jan 27, 2022


Russia’s Civilizational Politics: Ideological Discourses and Analytical Perspectives

The concept of civilizational politics has been elaborated in the field of international relations but recently it has also been used in research on internal politics of several states. Studies of Russian civilizational politics mostly draw on the constructionist approach and focus on ideological discourses. The talk will first of all address the studies of ‘civilizationism’ as an ideological current. I will argue that this line of research can be complemented with ideas borrowed from civilizational analysis in historical sociology. In particular, the talk will demonstrate that the multiple modernities perspective allows us to re-consider the issue of historical legacies in post-Soviet Russia. The presentation will substantiate using the concept of interpretation of modernity for research on Russian civilizational politics. Thus, different ideological ‘ecosystems’ in today’s Russia (Laruelle 2017) actually develop their own interpretations of modernity which may include civilizational traits. The talk is based on my recent publications as well as on work in progress which is funded by the RFBR grant no. 19-011-00950.

In Russia, “civilizationism,” that is a view of the world as made up of separate, distinct civilizations, became popular already in the 1990s, and included both the production of new texts on “Russian civilization” and an active engagement with the classics of Danilevsky, Spengler and Toynbee. The civilizational paradigm was mainly advanced by oppositional figures and groups critical of the Yeltsin regime and more generally of Westernism and globalization. In the new millennium, it eventually became mainstream, having been advanced by both the Kremlin, regime-supportive circles as well as for more opportunistic purposes. My talk will focus on how the civilizational discourse of contemporary Russia can be understood as a combination of several classical identity-forming topoi – anti-Westernism, Slavophile notions about Russian spirituality, Russia’s imperial legacy as “genuine” multinationality formed around an ethnically Russian core – with more recent concepts from the political vocabulary: statehood, anti-globalism and multipolarity. The appeal of the civilizational paradigm, it will be argued, lies in its holistic ability to combine various notions of Russia, while highlighting internal coherence, external difference, and global significance. Moreover, it involves the story of how this Russia was challenged by competing, “Western” conceptions in the 1990s that falsely described it as a “national state” and not a “civilization.”

Comments: Markku Kivinen, Professor Emeritus Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki




Alexei Navalny and the future of the opposition in Russia

What role is Alexei Navalny and his team likely to play in the future of oppositional politics in Russia? With Navalny himself behind bars, and his team and supporters facing an ongoing, unprecedented crackdown, has the Kremlin successfully removed the threat posed by the man and his movement? Ben Noble will address these and other questions, drawing on his recent book on Navalny – Navalny: Putin's Nemesis, Russia's Future? (Hurst Publishers and Oxford University Press) – co-authored with Jan Matti Dollbaum and Morvan Lallouet. Ben was a Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute in 2018. – use discount code NAVALNY25 for 25% off when ordering directly from Hurst – use discount code ADISTA5 for 30% off when ordering directly from OUP.

Comments: Jussi Lassila, Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Aleksanteri Alumni Talk Noble

Usable Pasts after Stalin: The Crisis of Patriotism and the Origins of the Soviet Cult of World War II


Beginning in the1960s, the public celebration of the World War II victory in the Soviet Union acquired the characteristics of a state-sanctioned cult, which included ubiquitous monuments, commemorative rituals, and mass media productions devised, in part, to legitimate the aging political elite. Even amid the USSR’s collapse, the war remained, in the words of one Western chronicler at the time, the only “unquestionable victory of the regime.”

How did the war victory become the centerpiece of late-socialist commemorative ritual in the USSR? This paper explores the origins of the war cult, tracing it to ideological debates that emerged in the aftermath of Stalin’s death and subsequent denunciation. The dismantling of Stalin’s cult of personality exposed longstanding tensions between Russocentric and “internationalist” conceptions of the war victory, which had previously been subsumed to the Stalin cult. The paper argues that the war’s large-scale veneration developed as a means of diffusing Russophile and neo-Stalinist resistance to Khrushchev’s ideological project of “returning to the Soviet present” and of forging of a supra-ethnic, “Soviet” community of people. As many Russophile intellectuals grew concerned about the preservation of unique ethnic identities, histories, and hierarchy in the face of Khrushchev’s agenda, ideologists attempted to forestall this crisis by appealing to the war victory as the only mythology capable of reconciling Russian nationalist-oriented priorities with the ideological objectives of the party leadership.

Thus, the paper contends, the war cult that arose under Leonid Brezhnev was less a break with the commemorative politics of the Khrushchev era than their fulfillment.

Comments: Markku Kangaspuro, Director Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki


Aleksanteri Alumni Talk Brunstedt

What is ‘informality’? And what can Eurasian scholars contribute to global debates on governance, development, and “informality as bypassing the state”? 


Despite a growing number of studies featuring "informality" in their title, including many from the post-socialist region, little has been done to reach a consensus on what informality means, how to measure it and more generally to develop a widely agreed and shared theorization. A significant number of studies rely on intuitive understandings of the phenomenon, often intended as “the opposite of formal”, contributing to topical confusion rather than better defining what informality may be. The article that this seminar talk is based on, surveys extant literature on informality from a cross disciplinary perspective, tracing its origins and evolutions since the middle of the XX century. It then engages with the vast literature on informality that has emerged from post-socialist spaces, exploring the growing number of studies on the region to identify possible contributions of Eurasian scholars to global debates in informality-related fields, including corruption studies, shadow economy, informal governance and everyday construction of the political. By cross-comparing regional and world literature, I will attempt to provide a coherent framework for delineating and understanding “informality studies”, outlining its main characteristics to better understand the phenomenon, its applicability, and its boundaries. I will conclude with a call for more attention to the political dimensions of informality and ways in which measurement of informality can be used both as a proxy for quality of governance and to better investigate state-citizen relations. Being more visible in spheres of public life where a state fails to regulate, or regulates without taking into account the ultimate needs of society, informality could be used as a lenses to identify, and study, alternative forms of governance in a fashion already pointed out by feminist geographers.

Comments: Dr. Elena Denisova-Schmidt, Research Associate, University of St.Gallen (HSG), Research Fellow, Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Boston College

Register your participation


‘Cultural branding’ meets feminism in Russia: Reebok’s #BeMoreHuman campaign

Reebok, the global sportswear and footwear brand, launched its #BeMoreHuman campaign in Russia in 2019. The campaign turned to be controversial and caused 'online firestorm' among the consumers, marketing professionals, fashion industry representatives, activists, influencers, and other actors. The use of acute social issues in advertising campaigns by brands is known as ‘cultural branding’. In case of the Reebok’s campaign, the company offers a particular view on gender identity. Yet, the gender identity has a contingent character. We show how and why this contingent character of gender identity should be taken into account when global brands enter various national markets. Drawing from poststructuralist discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe’s (2001) and applying it to the discussion around Reebok’s #BeMoreHuman campaign in Russia, the presentation will analyze the online firestorms that it triggered. The discussion will revolve around different meanings of gender identity that various actors articulate. The talk is based on a work in progress for an article co-authored with Tatiana Romashko from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Comments: Olga Dovbysh, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki


Aleksanteri Alumni Talks Olga Gurova

Energy Threat or Energy Temptation? Russian Energy Chains from Siberia to Ukraine to the European Union

Scholars have often asked: how has Russia used energy as a weapon and element of threat against post-Soviet states such as Ukraine. Yet we cannot understand the threat of Russia’s energy power without also understanding the temptation Russian energy also means for many within these states --from the temptation of corruption-related profits to transportation fee income to subsidized prices-- benefits that are acquired through participation in the value chains of Russian energy exports.  It is this tension between energy threat and temptation in the arch between Vladivostok and Brussels that creates the puzzle that the book presented here -- Russian Energy Chains: The Remaking of Technopolitics from Siberia to Ukraine to the European Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021) -- seeks to solve.

Following three energy molecules (a natural gas molecule, an oil molecule, and a coal molecule) traveling from production jn Siberia to final use in Germany via Ukraine, the book analyzes how the physical characteristics of different types of energy, by shaping how they can be transported, distributed, and even stolen, affect how each is used―not only technically but also politically. Both a geopolitical travelogue of the journey of three fossil fuels across continents and an analysis of technology’s role in energy politics, this book forces us to rethink our view of “energy power” and how it can be used. (For more details see

Comments: Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, Professor in Russian Environmental Studies, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Moderator: Margarita Zavadsakaya, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki



Aleksanteri Alumni Talks Balmaceda

Stuck in Transition: Rebranding Post-socialism as the Global East?

Post-socialism as the main frame for understanding change in countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the FSU has been criticised as no longer relevant and oriented towards the past rather than the future. Yet, a new conceptual frame is still in the making. As diverging transition paths have led to variegated outcomes, including democracy, authoritarianism, and some ‘in between’ cases, the early-stage optimism gave way to growing scepticism about the validity of the transition paradigm. The multiplicity of post-socialisms does not fit easily into any overarching concept such as ‘transition’, ‘democratisation’, or ‘democracy with adjectives’. Hence, there have been attempts to rethink, revive, or rebrand the debates seemingly stuck ‘in transition’.

Human geographers also contribute to these debates by seeking to conceptually frame this part of the world that was defined as the ‘Soviet Bloc’ or ‘the Second World’. Attempts to find a new synthesis have formed around three arguments. First, framing diverse processes in the former socialist countries as part of totalising process of the installation of the global neoliberal order (Golubchikov 2016). Second, developing a post-colonial critique of transition and expecting post-socialist societies to “speak back” to the hegemonic core (Borén and Young 2016). Third, conceptualising the Global East as a de-territorialised phenomenon (Tuvikene 2016), an “epistemic space – a liminal space in-between North and South” (Müller 2020). While these conceptualisations try to overcome the limitations of the transition paradigm and offer new promising perspectives, many questions remain unsolved. Can democracy and market be a universal ideal? Can dividing the world into the Global North, South, and East be a way forward? What can/should be expected from countries ‘stuck in transition’?

Comments: Professor Sanna Turoma, Tampere University; Aleksanteri Institute colleague from 2009 to 2020. See Sanna’s research profile here

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki


Aleksanteri Alumni Talks Nadir Kinossian

Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine, 1000 to 1900: The Power of Magic

In her talk Dr. Worobec will provide an overview of what the systematic study of witchcraft laws, references, and eventually trials in Russia and Ukraine between 1000 and 1900 reveal about the evolving political ramifications of witchcraft beliefs, the place of magical practices in daily life, and the extraordinary power of magical words. She will highlight differences and similarities between Ukrainian and Russian practices as well as the ways in which Russian and Ukrainian witchcraft persecutions differed from their European counterparts. The talk is based on Worobec's latest publication, Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine, 1000-1900: A Sourcebook (Northern Illinois University Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press, 2020), co-edited with Valerie A. Kivelson (University of Michigan).     

Comments: Anatoly Pinsky, Visiting Professor, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki (Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute in 2016) 

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki


Aleksanteri Alumni Talks Christine Worobec

Regional Governors as Putin's Agents or Stakeholders? The story that COVID-19 pandemic tells about center-regional relations in Russia

The COVID-19 crisis has provided an opportunity to re-evaluate how federal relations work in today’s authoritarian Russia. In particular, the talk will demonstrate that the crisis has confirmed that the regional governors are an integral part of maintaining stability of the non-democratic regime in Russia. Because the whole system, and thereby the political careers of the incumbent governors, depend on Putin's popularity, the governors have an interest in maintaining this popularity – even at the expense of their own popularity in the eyes of their regional populations. This, in its turn, means that they are in fact not just agents, but also stakeholders in maintaining the authoritarian status quo in Russia.

During the course of the pandemic, regional governors have demonstrated their loyalty and willingness to shield President Putin from taking political responsibility for unpopular measures associated with COVID-19.  Further, the talk will show that the tasks that Moscow assigns to the regions during the pandemic are consistent with the goals of maintaining regime stability but create no incentives for improving the quality of governance in the regions.

The most recent manifestation of the regional authorities’ loyalty was a large-scaled campaign to prevent youth protests launched in response to January 2021 protests in support of Alexei Navalny.

Comments: Vladimir Gel’man, Professor of Russian Politics, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

The recording will be available later.

Varieties of Russian Activism today

In this presentation we reflect on a critical question in Russian politics that lies at the heart of our co-edited book project for Indiana University Press forthcoming in 2021: how do Russians act together to pursue shared goals through civic activism? This question demonstrates our break with existing studies in which Russian society is alternatively depicted as either passive—content with the strong leadership of President Putin—or nationalist and supportive of new Cold War policies. On the contrary, our contributing authors show Russians acting together to educate, inform, or engage fellow citizens, providing new insight into the continual change occurring in Russian politics and society. Common themes that link our studies are the accumulation of shared grievances, the role of identity and shared information, and the influence of opportunities, and resources. Considered together we highlight the dynamic nature of Russian society and civic organization as social forces gain experience and resources to make demands of governmental, economic, and cultural leaders.

Comments: Margarita Zavadskaya, Postdoctoral Researcher, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki


Aleksanteri Alumni Talks Smyth, Morris, Semenov

Counter-Enlightenment populism in post-socialist European Union: ‘Village-fascists’ in Slovakia

Dr. Juraj Buzalka will address the post-socialist populist movements in East Central Europe, and in Slovakia in particular. In his recent ethnographic research, Buzalka probed into the phenomenon that he calls village fascism, the radical version of Counter-Enlightenment populism. He shows how the combination of socialist modernization, agrarian legacies of pre-socialist and socialist eras, mobilized by the politics of memory, produce political movement challenging the liberal European project. The presentation focuses on the relatively prosperous citizens of post-socialist European Union who show an ardent support for radical politics. He employs a perspective of ‘cultural economy of protest’ that helps to understand the paradox of the European project as an actual societal progress and at the same time a cultural trauma for post-peasants, the bulk of post-socialist citizens who are connected to the countryside and feel that real power in society shall be defined and based there.

Comments: Katalin Miklóssy, Head of Discipline in Eastern European and Balkan Studies, University Lecturer, Aleksanteri Institute

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute.

Aleksanteri Alumni Talks Buzalka

Neo-Eurasianism Kazakhstani-style: foreign policy, power and identity in the Nazarbayev era

Luca Anceschi researched for almost a decade the many ways in which ideas and constructs associated with Eurasia influenced the making of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. This talk will present the key findings of this long-term research project, focusing mostly on the Nazarbaev era [1992-2019] while also shedding light on possible foreign policy avenues for post-Nazarbaev Kazakhstan.

The talk will illustrate the many narratives whereby the Nazarbayev regime articulated its visions for Eurasia and described Kazakhstan’s role in the wider Eurasian geopolitical space, touching upon the complex relationship that Kazakhstan established with Russia both bilaterally and within a series of multilateral organisations, including the highly controversial Eurasian Economic Union. Presenting the regime’s domestic power considerations as a key driver of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy-making will represent one of the talk’s main discussion points. The talk is based on Luca’s latest book, Analysing Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy—Regime neo-Eurasianism in the Nazarbaev era (Routledge 2020).

Comments: Anna-Liisa Heusala, Head of Discipline in Russian and Eurasian Studies, University Lecturer, Aleksanteri Institute

Moderator: Anna Korhonen, Head of International Affairs, Aleksanteri Institute

Aleksanteri Alumni Talks Anceschi