“What I really want to know is what you think about the annexation of Crimea!”
It was 2015 in Russia, and all was not well.
I was on the second leg of a Fulbright research fellowship. The first leg was spent in western Siberia in 2014, starting just after the downing of flight MH17 and the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia. I’d arrived with the intent of conducting research on nationalism and support for authoritarian rule. My stay began with my host reacting with obvious horror and panic about the topic—evidently, he had not read my proposal—and then attempting to foist an unqualified research assistant (“She’s two meters, red head, and not stupid”) in a transparent attempt to monitor my movements.
That first leg of fieldwork concluded with my apartment getting tossed while I was visiting a friend. They even unrolled the toilet paper in search of kompromat. I had two sets of eyes on me from the moment I stepped out, even bumping into my tail on occasion as we circled a park. As I prepared to return home, I was called for questioning by both the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Federal Migration Service. In the end, I was charged with a nonsensical administrative violation. When I asked whether it would be ok to return next year, they shrugged and said, “Who is to know? Things can change.” As I left their office, they waved and said, “don’t believe the lies about Russia!”
The next year, I re-located my research to the Urals.
My colleague leaned back, smiled, and waited for the students to engage. He was a foreign scholar, like myself, invited to join a group of Russian university students and their professor for a class discussion. He’d been working in the region for a while and Crimea’s annexation already felt like a long time ago. His question aimed to be provocative—to stir the pot in the hallowed Western tradition of encouraging classroom discussion on controversial topics.
Instead, he got silence and nervous looks, interrupted only by our host’s sharp intake of breath. She later explained that the students might have been worried about denunciations, which could be sent anonymously to the authorities and provoke a potentially ruinous investigation. She was also worried that she might be denounced. After the class, I pulled my colleague aside to explain that the Russian government had criminalized the term “annexation” as infringing Russia’s territorial integrity, with a penalty of up to five years in prison. Whereas he would likely just be deported if someone decided to denounce him, our host would almost certainly pay a greater price. Rarely in life have I seen someone look so horrified at the realization of what he’d done with a single utterance.
At the time, the experience set me to thinking about the ethical responsibilities that scholars bear when researching authoritarianism to protect their networks and respondents. As a US citizen conducting research in Russia with State Department funding, I became keenly aware that one’s very presence can be toxic to others when your identity and intentions are reduced to your passport nationality. Of course, this experience is not limited to Russia, and the realization led to my guest-editing a special issue of Social Science Quarterly that addresses the methodological and ethical issues involved in “observing autocracy from the ground floor” from a comparative perspective.
In light of the war launched by Russia in Ukraine, I have been thinking hard on whether I drew the wrong lessons. I sought to protect my respondents as best I could from any possible dangers from participating in my research. I shared their vulnerability through my family in Russia, particularly when the police banged on their door at 7 am and searched their apartment looking for me. In practice, minimizing their risk meant learning to use the regime’s double-speak, to respect the unspoken, and to leave certain claims unchallenged. Where once I prided myself on carefully navigating the social world of autocratic rule, in practice I was doing exactly what made this war possible: normalizing the state’s domination of discourse and accommodating its ubiquity.
Today, for myself and other scholars of Russia, understanding the lack of popular outrage and protest over the war in Russia must begin with our own capitulation to the regime in the name of data collection. This is a tough pill to swallow. In moral terms, it makes me no different from those who went along and kept their heads down after Crimea’s annexation to keep their jobs or to avoid arrest. And in privately reproaching my colleague for putting our host at risk with his attempted classroom provocation, I did the regime’s bidding in enforcing its preferred behaviors.
University ethics boards might say that I was correct. My conscience says otherwise.
Those of us who studied protest and patriotism in Russia since 2014 searched for areas of social autonomy and political change in the hope that change was possible, yet that moment has already passed us by. Instead, we have arrived at the point that Putin’s regime no longer needs to court public opinion—it simply manufactures claims, relying on a handful of loyal subordinates and punishing a minority of dissenters while most people simply hum along. So, to whom to we owe our loyalties, when following our research ethics reproduces the banality of evil?
In pondering this question, I keep returning to a conversation I had with my dissertation supervisor while I was a student. He began his professional career as a Sovietologist (though he dislikes the term) and always insisted that it isn’t for Westerners to determine what is best for Russia, for “only Russians can decide that for themselves.” One day, as we watched the trees passing by our train returning from London to Oxford, he looked up and asked, “do you think Russia will ever become a democracy?” I was stunned. It never entered my mind that he might have a preference. More than that, I had internalized that I wasn’t supposed to have a preference in the name of scholarly objectivity.
Russia’s war has shocked us to our moral core. There is no question that our first obligation in the West is to Ukrainians who are suffering in the war. I would argue that we also owe a debt to those who stood their ground in Russia and Belarus. But as scholars, our enduring obligation is also our privilege: to be sure to say the quiet parts out loud for our students to hear.