Wisconsin Russia Project builds avenues for virtual international collaboration

Collaborating with scholars and partners across borders can be challenging at the best of times, but a global pandemic adds an entire new layer of complication.

Ted Gerber, director of the Wisconsin Russia Project (WRP) and the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA), recognizes the increased difficulty for scholars in both U.S. and Russia to collaborate.

“Tensions between our countries as well as the challenges we both face make it more important than ever for social scientists in the United States and Russia to forge collaborative relationships,” Gerber said.

The Wisconsin Russia Project is an initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and administered by CREECA, with additional support from UW–Madison’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education. The project builds on the already robust social science research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and brings together an array of UW–Madison academic departments, faculty, and scholars with social scientists from the Russian Federation. It is a cooperative effort to generate expanded scholarly knowledge of Russia’s economy, society, politics, culture, and institutions; train new generations of social scientists who focus on Russia; and foster close collaborations and networks between U.S.- and Russia-based social scientists.

Global health concerns have not stopped WRP from continuing its mission. Earlier this summer, program staff made the difficult choice to postpone its bi-annual Young Scholars Conference, which draws international participants who present research on issues in Russia ranging from education and labor markets and law and migration.

In lieu of the conference, Gerber and his team hosted a daylong Virtual Workshop on current social science research on Russia on June 5. The workshop allowed WRP pre- and post-doctoral scholars to present research and gain feedback. By offering their work for review in advance of the workshop, participants were able to gain more focused insights on various aspects of their work.

The theme of the morning session was “Political Economy, Education, and Inequality,” while the afternoon session focused on “Identity and Conflict. In all, 17 graduate students, scholars, staff, and faculty took part in the event, with participants logging in from Madison to Moscow.

Workshop participants as shown on streaming site during virtual workshop
Top Row: Grigory Grigorev, Sasha Klyachkina, Natalia Savelyeva; Bottom Row: Kathryn Hendley, Austin Charron, Nikita Zakharov (Photo courtesy: Ryan Goble)

“Shifting to a virtual workshop made for more fruitful and detailed conversation,” Gerber said. “Hearing from more senior peers and faculty members gives scholars a chance to revise and better prepare for publication.”

“We might not have done the virtual workshop had it not been necessary, but we have found it useful in bringing together people who are geographically scattered, which our network is going to be by its very nature,” Gerber said.

WRP participants are based in the U.S., Russia, and Western Europe. However, virtual events diminish the impact of the distance between participants and program partners. As such, Gerber expects virtual events to continue playing a key role even beyond the pandemic as WRP seeks to create a highly engaged network of social science scholars focused on Russia.

In addition to hosting the virtual workshop regularly, in the future Gerber plans to continue holding virtual “salons,” in which scholars connect informally and converse about current events, new research, and issues in social science. He also sees virtual activities as a way to continue engagement with past program participants and other partners. In time, the network will hopefully expand even further by including other programs funded by the Carnegie Corporation.

“International programming at universities in general has been particularly challenged by the pandemic—health concerns, challenges for international students, travel,” Gerber said. “At times like this, a project such as ours, where the goal is to encourage collaboration across traditional boundaries, needs to find new ways to sustain and continue these endeavors.”