Russian politics is a “moving target” for WMU Fulbright scholar
Post-Cold War Russia has provided WMU political science professor Dr. Jim Butterfield with an exceptional model for conducting research on transition environments and the role civic initiative plays in defining the public agenda and addressing collective action dilemmas.
With a Fulbright joint research and teaching grant secured for the 2009-2010 academic year, Butterfield took a sabbatical to conduct research about the opportunities and challenges small businesses face in southern Russia—a research interest sparked more than 20 years ago when he was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. He also taught comparative politics at Saratov State University, which was his No. 1 destination choice to conduct his research and teach because of the relationship he helped WMU forge with the Russian university in the mid-90s.
“The country was somewhat of an enigma to us during the Cold War, and my gut instincts in college were that our demonizing of the Soviet Union was probably based as much in ignorance as in meaningful assessments of what it was about,” Butterfield said. “The near knee-jerk distrust was equally shared by both sides, something I discovered firsthand as a graduate student doing field research.”
As an undergraduate at Indiana University, Butterfield began studying the Russian language and continued as a graduate student at Notre Dame. Learning the language helped him receive an International Research and Exchanges Board grant for 1986-87—the only way to conduct field research in the Soviet Union at the time because of the country’s restrictions limiting scholarly exchanges.
“In 1986, at the beginning of the perestroika era, it was apparent that the Soviet Union was attempting to change,” he said. “Gorbachev was new in his position and was testing his ideas of glasnost, perestroika, and by 1987, competitive politics. I'm generally interested in transition environments and the role civic initiative plays in defining the public agenda and addressing collective action dilemmas. In the time I've been studying this society, it has gone through the reform era of perestroika, the collapse of communism and the Soviet bloc, the turbulent 90s of democratization and marketization, and the last decade and a half of capitalist consolidation and simultaneous democratic decline. It's always a moving target. This is what makes transition environments so fascinating: the institutional flux, the high level of uncertainty, and the corresponding high potential—either for things to work out well or to work out very badly."
Among other topics, Butterfield investigated how small and medium enterprises dealt with endemic corruption. In a country like Russia, some might think it would be difficult to poke and prod officials and academics about corruption. To the contrary, Butterfield says that corruption is a major focal point of business associations and that there is a surprising amount of cooperation between them and some government agencies.
“Everyone was quite willing to talk,” he said. “The riddle of how better to promote small and medium enterprise development is one that many in Russia are wrestling with, so it's a topic they are generally very willing to talk about. Many small business leaders have been on study trips to the United States, where they've met leaders of chambers of commerce and specialists on small-business development, so interacting with an American researcher is something most were comfortable with. Some were a little surprised that a Russian-speaking American had come all that way to learn about developments in provincial Russia, but that leads them to be even more cooperative. American academics have been poking around post-Soviet Russia for nearly two decades now, and the novelty for their Russian counterparts has worn off in many cases. Some scholars have found it a challenge to get time with officials and even other academics. But it hasn't been a problem for me.”
When Butterfield wasn’t researching small-business associations, he was teaching a semester of comparative politics to fourth-year students at Saratov State University. The class covered democratization, including transitions to and consolidation of democracy. This was the first time since Butterfield began conducting research in Russia that he had the opportunity to simultaneously interact extensively with Russian students.
“One of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of my sabbatical in Russia was the opportunity to get to know Russian students,” he said. “They are very similar to students at WMU. Some have a clear idea of their career interests, some don't; some are highly motivated, some significantly less so; some are highly intelligent, while others are above average; some work to put themselves through college, while others do not; some participate freely in class, while others are more introverted. They all share the same intellectual curiosity and excitement about the future that students exhibit everywhere.”
“I'm also gave presentations at the invitation of one or another department,” he said. That has continued on return visits since his sabbatical, including a short-term lecture series on a second Fulbright grant in May 2014. “I've given lectures on American government, the American system of higher education, graduate education in the United States, environmental policy and alternative energy technologies, and a comparison of U.S. and Soviet societies in the 1950s and 1960s. But the most popular topics are US foreign policy and US-Russian relations. That has especially been the case since our relationship has deteriorated." He notes that students are genuinely interested in the topic and assume that they get inaccurate depictions of the US in the Russia media. But he notes further that "they also assume we get an inaccurate depiction of Russia in our media. In both cases, they're correct. Both media and government officials in both countries are more interested in demonizing the other side than in exploring the complex realities of each society. In that regard, we're moving backwards toward something like our Cold War relationship, although fortunately it is not quite so tense as it was back then – at least not yet."
Butterfield also gave a lecture series in Tajikistan in February 2010 and served as a visiting faculty member in Kazakhstan in May 2013. For the last several years, he has been the faculty director of WMU's Summer in Istanbul study abroad program.
WMU offers study abroad programs in Russia at Saratov State University in the fall, spring and summer. Fields of study include Russian language and culture. Visit the Broncos Abroad site to view study abroad program details.
By Nate Coe