Igor Zevelev is a George F. Kennan Fellow with the Kennan Institute. We recently spoke to him about his research on Russia's policies towards Russians in neighboring states after the annexation of Crimea.

Describe your background and what brought you to the Wilson Center.

I was born in Tashkent in the former Soviet Union, and my parents moved to Moscow when I was 10. I have been living in Moscow since then. I graduated from Moscow State University, the Institute of Asian and African countries where I specialized in Burma/Myanmar. I was always fascinated by Asian countries. I thought in many parts of Europe there was little understanding of Asia, and Russia had very strong tradition of Asian studies that started long before the Bolshevik Revolution. I thought that many social sciences were too Western-centric, they did not account for Asian countries’ experiences sufficiently, and many theories were built on the basis of studying Western countries, and probably some of these concepts are not applicable to Asian countries.

I studied Burmese, Chinese, and English. English was my third foreign language.  After graduation I started my academic career. After defending my PhD I started working at the Russian Academy of sciences the Institute of Oriental Studies where I wrote on urbanization in South East Asia.  When Gorbachev started his reforms, by that time I had already worked at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations […] since then I have been studying International Relations and Russian Foreign Policy.

What project are you working on at the Center?

My focus right now is on Russian foreign policy toward its neighboring countries, the former Soviet republics. More specifically, my research is focused on Russian policy towards ethnic Russians living in these countries.  After the breakup of the Soviet Union, about 25 million ethnic Russians found themselves outside the newly created Russian Federation. An instant diaspora emerged when borders, not people, moved. My research addresses how Russian foreign policy takes this phenomenon into account; how do Russians think of this new political map in Northern Eurasia. I do not study the diasporas themselves, but rather concentrate on how Russian intellectuals and policymakers conceptualize these new phenomena. Different people and different political groups perceive these new diasporas differently. After 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, the major focus is Ukraine for both Russian policy and my research. The russkiy mir concept is one of the narratives that the Russian intellectual and political elite use when thinking about the new Russian diasporas. There are some other concepts too. For example, Russian ethnic nationalists talk about a “divided Russian people” which has a right to reunification.  For them, the “Russian World” is too vague a concept.  The Russian World after 2014 became a major concept outside of Russia but now the government downplays this rhetoric, the leadership of the country no longer uses this concept as in 2014 it was perceived as a tool of aggressive Russian policy towards Ukraine.

How did you become interested in your current research topic?

My personal background certainly informed my thinking about these issues. Many Russian intellectuals were born and spent most of their lives in Moscow and St Petersburg, and many do not know the experiences of those people who live outside of the Russian Federation. But I have this experience and, in part, it explains my interest in this topic. I am also interested in this topic because it is an essentially multidisciplinary topic. It is linked not only to foreign policy but also to politics and national identity discourses. It is impossible to answer the questions “Who are Russians?” “What are Russians?” without addressing the topic of my research.

Why do you believe that your research matters to a wider audience?

Studying this topic may help us to better understand the main drivers of Russian policy toward its neighbors.  I do not mean that the ethnic Russian diaspora is the major concern of the Russian government when it builds its relations with the former Soviet republics, but these concepts regarding the Russian diaspora are often employed instrumentally in order to justify or explain its foreign policy moves even if they are informed by other considerations, for example, the consideration of establishing hegemony in the region.  At the same time, this is a sensitive subject for domestic audiences – it is almost impossible for any politician to say that we do not care about ethnic Russians living in neighboring states.

What is the most challenging aspect of your research?

The major challenge in my research is that this topic can be addressed by many different disciplines. It’s related to the history of ideas, foreign policy, politics, and sociology. It’s very challenging to find the right set of concepts, theories, and assumptions to frame the research adequately. Another challenge is identifying the audience of my research: I think that I am not alone in struggling with this subject, it is not only academic but is also policy relevant and of interest to a general audience in and outside Russia. Finding the right language that is understandable to wider audiences while remaining academically rigorous is a challenge.

What do you hope the impact of your research will be?

I’m very much concerned about the current focus of Russia studies, particularly of Russian foreign policy and domestic politics, on the personality of President Putin.  The main questions are “Who is Mr. Putin really? What is his end game?” I am trying to look at broader underlying trends that might help us to understand the main drivers of Russian foreign policy which will remain after Putin leaves the political scene. I believe that some national identity discourses and some elements of Russian foreign policy will remain irrespective of who succeeds President Putin. It’s very important to look at these underlying trends that are more or less continuous in Russian foreign policy. My research focus is one of the themes that will remain irrespective of domestic political changes in Russia. That’s why I hope that attention to this problem will help a broader audience understand these consistent drivers of Russian foreign policy, and thus help to build a better and healthier Russian-American and Russian-European relationships which are currently at an all-time low.