Five Questions With … Gulnaz Sharafutdinova

Note:  2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions For …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students.  Our first guest is Dr. Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, who was a faculty associate with the Center before she moved to King’s College London in 2013.  Stephen Norris, Director of the Center, asked Gulnaz five questions on the eve of her latest book being published, The Red Mirror.

  1. Your book, The Red Mirror, is about to appear with Oxford University Press.  The blurb for it states that“The main source of Putin’s political influence lies in how he articulates the shared collective perspective that unites many Russian citizens.” Can you give us a good example of how this works and how Kremlin-supported media outlets have “tapped into powerful group emotions of shame and humiliation–derived from the Soviet transition in the 1990s–and politicized national identity to transform these emotions into pride and patriotism”?

Yes, in the book I rely on social identity theory to illustrate the source of Putin’s influence in Russia and this theory highlights the power of the collective perspective (in this case, specifically, of national identity) as a legitimizing factor for the Russian president.  The Kremlin-supported media have done a lot to equate Vladimir Putin to the image of ‘strong Russia,’ Russia ‘rising from its knees’, Russia capable of standing up to the West, etc. The latest example of this strategy (that is not discussed in the book but relates directly to my main argument) is probably Russia’s Covid-19 ‘vaccine’ story: it is undoubtedly a political issue and ‘being first’ in this race after the vaccine is used by the Kremlin to transmit domestically the collective image of Russia as a country that has beaten the West. I argue in the book that this strategy is especially potent because it builds on the socially shared representation of the 1990s as a time when Russia was humiliated and weak. This idea of the ‘1990s trauma’ is also systematically used by the media and has acquired a political significance by now. You only need to watch such opinion makers on the Russian TV as Vladimir Soloviev, to see how often the references to the 1990s are made in public discussions.

2. What are some of the misconceptions or other scholarly interpretations that The Red Mirror aims to correct? What interpretations does it complement?

In writing this book I was specifically trying to reach out to the broader Western audience that might have experienced the revival of the thinking patterns characteristic of the Cold War era. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and the associated rise of Putin’s popularity and a degree of euphoria that many Russian citizens have experienced, such return to ideas of the Cold War is probably not very surprising, if unfortunate. One way I noticed the return of these ideas was the visibility of the term homo sovieticus (a Soviet man) in the media and intellectual discussions. This happened not only in the Western media but also in the Russian media and discussions. Confronted with the puzzle – how and why could so many Russian people declare with pride ‘Crimea is ours’ – many intellectuals fell back onto the Cold War frame of totalitarianism. According to this frame the Soviet system produced a specific human product – a Soviet man – whose various negative features still play out today and condition Russia’s return to authoritarianism. My own inquiry into this puzzle brought me to understanding the importance of identity politics, media framing and leadership along with the historical context. Though a political scientist, I relied on a theory from social psychology that highlighted the significance of collective identity in a specific context and that understood the issue of leadership from a group perspective.        

3. Now that this major project has ended, you’re working on two more, one a short book about the uses and abuses of the term “homo sovieticus” and one about Russian regional variations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:  can you give us a short hint at what you have discovered in these projects?

The short book on homo sovieticus I am working on now aims to uncover the genealogy of this term. While we often use various terms thinking that they have some shared meaning that we all refer to, terms and concepts also go through a historical evolution that reflects the history, ideas and lives of their authors. In the book I zoom in on a number of intellectuals from Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and Russia who have participated in developing this term, the related ideas and for whom the ‘problem of a Soviet person’ was centrally important. Just to give you an idea: among the main heroes of this book are Czeslaw Milosz, Georgy Markov, Aleksandr Zinoviev, Yuri Levada, Svetlana Alexievich and Natalia Kozlova.   

The Covid-19 pandemic worked to bring my attention back to the regions because the Kremlin transferred the anti-crisis management during this pandemic to the regional level government. The most interesting thing in this regard has been ‘the information management’ done by the Russian government at various levels to hide the spread of Covid-19. There are now new, ‘search-engine’ based methods to follow the spread of the pandemic in Russia that some data scientists have been developing, so that there is a more objective picture of what’s happening on the ground.

4. Putinism (and not just Putin, but the system that bears his name) has formed the subject of your scholarly works so far. How might you further explain this system?  Will Putinism survive Putin?

Although I do use the term Putinism sometimes, as a political scientist I prefer to talk about the institutional dynamics of Russia’s political system, about the political economy component of the system, about the driving elements of the system and things like that. Crony capitalism – the institutional set-up characterized by highly interconnected political and economic spheres – is, unfortunately, one of the foundational components of the Russian system of power that is not likely to go away even when the Putin presidency that has become a national symbol of Russia might end. Institutional evolution and institution-building is one of the core questions in political economy and, if there is one thing we know about, it is that that building effective institutions that serve public purpose is not an easy task. It will certainly remain as an important task in Russia’s future.  

5. You and I both started our careers at Miami and at the Havighurst Center, which was led by Karen Dawisha from 2000 to 2016. Now that you’ve moved on to London, how might you look from afar at the Center, at Karen, and their impact?

Thank you, Steve, for this question, as well. I am a bit worried that I might contribute to developing Karen’s ‘cult of personality.’  Joking aside, Karen’s face is the most visible photo I have displayed on my kitchen refrigerator and I frequently look at the photo with longing, love and appreciation for her role in my life. If I may say – I want to be like her, when I grow up – though I also realize that I would never have her bravery, strategic vision, and institution-building talent. The Havighurst Center is ‘the collective Karen’ for me (if there is ‘collective Putin,’ why not ‘collective Karen’? but I did warn you about the cult of personality, didn’t I?). The most important thing about the Center for me is that I consider it to be one of the centers of intellectual prowess about Russia and a kindred community I am honored I was a part of. Please do not take it as my attempt to flatter (you know me as a rather straight forward person), but for me, working with such people as Venelin Ganev, Neringa Klumbyte, Zara Torlone, Scott Kenworthy, Stephen Norris, Ben Sutcliffe and others– was provocative intellectually. I miss that intellectual and cross-disciplinary enrichment and, perhaps, from a distance, I have developed yet a stronger appreciation for my friends as first-rate scholars on Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe. And who is responsible for bringing these minds to the Center? It was Karen Dawisha.

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