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What We Miss When We Talk about Democracy and Authoritarianism: Why Some People Support Parties of Power in Ukraine and Russia

Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 9:30 am – 11:00 am

Traditional regime-type designations—democracy, authoritarianism, and their hybrid cousins—help us think about how power is enacted in relationships between states and society. At the same time, they obscure important aspects of individuals’ experiences. This talk revisits state-society relationships in contemporary Russia and Ukraine, asking how we might better understand the underlying politics. Drawing on extensive fieldwork-based research, the talk analyzes the political economy of popular participation in what would seem to be imitations of democratic institutions, from staged electoral contests to elite-driven social movements. In these contexts, far from simply reproducing elements of the Soviet past, such performances express a post-Soviet shift in the social contract. This presentation shows how spatial variation in the ways individuals interact with state agents can illuminate how and where fractures develop in public understandings of political legitimacy—and how ordinary people even may come to disagree about the proper boundaries of the polity.

Jessica Pisano is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the New School for Social Research in New York City and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. She received an AB in History and Literature at Harvard University and an MPhil and PhD in Political Science from Yale University. Her research and teaching focuses on contemporary and twentieth century politics in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Her prize-winning book about the political economy of the Ukraine-Russia borderlands, The Post-Soviet Potemkin Village: Politics and Property Rights in the Black Earth, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008. Her work has appeared in journals such as East European Politics and Societies, Journal of Peasant Studies, Problems of Post-Communism, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, and World Politics, among many others, and as chapters in edited volumes. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. She is currently completing a book manuscript about political theater in Russia and Ukraine and researching the twentieth-century history of a single rural street in Eastern Europe.