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Known Unknowns: Studying Russia after 2022

The project is aimed at addressing the challenges of studying Russia after 2022, evaluating how the production of knowledge about Russia is changing in the current conditions when the regime reduces the level of transparency and various restrictions limit access to Russia-related data for scholars and social scientists.

Based on a series of expert interviews, the project identifies what are the main challenges for studying Russia in these increasingly deteriorating conditions and what solutions can be used by researchers to adapt to this situation.

In particular, the study explores how the researchers deal with intensified ideological control and censorship, restricted access to primary sources, and decreased integrity of administrative data in Russia. It also investigates how researchers continue their work after various restrictions that were introduced after 2022 largely disrupted international academic cooperation in various domains of Russia-related research.

The project demonstrates that, as they are trying to keep necessary professional connections but avoid toxic Russian academic institutions, scholars focusing on Russia sometimes opt to collaborate with researchers in Russia on an individual basis. Moreover, initiatives for Russian at-risk scholars are also becoming increasingly important in this context.

When it comes to the emergent issues of accessing reliable data about Russia, researchers try to adapt to these challenges by triangulating between different data sources and methods. They also have to increasingly rely on online methods of data collection, such as web surveys, online interviews, and online ethnography. It also becomes necessary to develop independent repositories of data about Russia and independent mass media aggregators, as well as introduce more consistent and systematic data archiving practices.

Apart from the interview-based analysis of emergent challenges and solutions, one of the key outputs of the Known Unknowns project is a “hazard map” of official Russian statistics. The map is designed to demonstrate to the researchers, experts, and journalists how to properly use Russian government data. The hazard map rates 30 indicators to raise awareness of the distortion risks associated with them. It helps to understand which data can or cannot be trusted, to what extent, and for what reasons.

Additionally, as a part of the Known Unknowns project, the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom launched a short-term research scholarship program. The program provides two residential and three non-residential scholarships at Ruhr University Bochum for researchers studying contemporary Russia.

The project has already been presented at the 2023 Aleksanteri Conference at the University of Helsinki, at Russia: Known Unknowns workshops at Ruhr University Bochum, as well as at the Russia at War seminar at the University of Tromsø, the Knowledge Production from the Outside workshop in Kirkenes, and New reality. New normality. Two years after 24.02.22 online conference.

Project results

Known Unknowns: Studying Russia in Condition of Growing Non-transparency (publication date: February 2024)
A hazard map of official Russian statistics (web version in English, detailed PDF version in Russian;
publication date: March 2024)

Mass media publications:
— Meduza. Podcast “The Naked Pravda“: “How studying Russia became a paradox”
Russia.Post. Vlada Baranova: “Turning Point? The Ethnicization of Social Issues and What Indigenous Communities Think About It”
Eurasianet. Арсений Веркеев: «Можно ли не доверять опросам в России?»
Russia.Post. Arnold Khachaturov, Maria Popova: “Even in the Current Climate, there are Ways to Study Russia, and Many of them Lie in the Realm of Digital Methods”