Digital Russia Studies: What’s ahead for the Russian Studies community?

22.10.2019
ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 5/2019. For researchers investigating Russia, digitalisation has resulted in the emergence of a wealth of new big data sources, such as social media and various other kinds of ‘digital-born’ content that allow us to investigate Russian society in novel ways.

The ‘digital’ is profoundly changing Russia today. While in the mid-1990s less than one per cent of the Russian population had online access, today Russia is Europe’s largest Internet market, with around 90 million adult users. In response to digitalisation, the Russian government, as countries elsewhere, is actively developing digital strategies, looking to reform education, finance and telecommunications and increase governmental efficiency. Russian businesses are seeking to reap the benefits afforded by information and communication technologies and big data as they operate in and expand into domestic and global markets. Russian citizens, meanwhile, are actively engaging in the production and consumption of web-based content, while their dealings with state authorities increasingly occur through online e-government portals. Arts and popular culture are experiencing new trends, where literary authors experiment with virtual personae and hyperlinked narration, while visual artists explore collaborative and cooperative online work.

This transformation of fundamental aspects of everyday life is marked, however, by state attempts to control the online sphere by regulating data flows, blocking access to unfavourable online content and unruly platforms, exerting pressure on major domestic and international Internet companies, and seeking to shape global Internet governance to reflect its preferred terms. At the same time, such socio-political events as the success of the oppositional leader Alexey Navalny or the capacity of the Telegram messenger services to continue their operations despite attempted banning can be attributed to the opportunities for civic resistance; societal responses to these ongoing transformation processes that could well turn out to be unintended consequences from the state’s perspective.

For researchers investigating Russia, digitalisation has resulted in the emergence of a wealth of new big data sources, such as social media and various other kinds of ‘digital-born’ content that allow us to investigate Russian society in novel ways. The accelerating speed at which Russian archives are being digitised means that important collections of research materials have become more easily available. The wealth of computer science methods, ranging from simple automated keyword sorting to complex machine learning algorithms, allow us to tap into the opportunity to combine different types of data that have not previously been used together, or to explore patterns in large datasets not easily graspable with a ‘manual’ approach.

The ways in which digital transformations are manifesting themselves in the context of Russia require scholars to brush up on their methodology skills, such as methods in computational linguistics, and to gain competence in the new technical systems, such as Russian social media platforms. This does not mean, however, that we all should become computer scientists now. On the contrary, in order to take advantage of the manifold opportunities for applying digital methods to the study of Russian society, politics and culture, we need to understand the vulnerabilities, uncertainties, legal and ethical controversies involved in working with Russian digital research materials. In this regard, the humanities tradition of invoking context as an essential element of scientific explanation can leverage some of the criticism that is being directed at digital methodologies and the use of big data in social research.

Daria Gritsenko is Assistant Professor at the Aleksanteri Institute and Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities (HELDIG), University of Helsinki

Mariëlle Wijermars is Assistant Professor in Cyber-security and Politics at Maastricht University and the co-founder of Digital Russian Studies at the University of Helsinki