Postdoc Spotlight: Yana Gorokhovskaia

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Yana Gorokhovskaia is a postdoctoral research scholar in Russian politics. She’s been at the Harriman Institute since fall 2016, organizing public events about Russia as part of the Carnegie Grant for Russian studies, and conducting research on authoritarian regimes and the evolution of civil society in post-Soviet states. 

Her recent work revolves around patterns of protest and electoral dynamics in Russia. She is currently pursuing two projects: the first investigates tactics used to mobilize vulnerable voters across Russia's regions, and the second looks at the evolution of grassroots political organization and campaigning among the opposition in Moscow.

I met with Yana at the Harriman Institute on January 29, 2019. What follows is an edited and condensed transrcipt of our interview.

Masha Udensiva-Brenner

Where are you from?

I was born in Rostov-on-Don in Southern Russia, an industrial city on the Sea of Azov. We moved to Ottawa when I was eight years old.

Why did you leave?

The situation in Russia had deteriorated. My parents, both geologists by training, worked for a company that provided topographical maps and conducted geological surveys for the state. There was a period of about 18 months when their salaries weren’t paid. And, even if they’d had money, there was nothing to buy. 

On top of that, a couple of years before we left Rostov the water was contaminated by heavy metals. There were a couple of instances when I got sick and my hair started to fall out in chunks. Once that happened, my parents decided to leave. We applied for visas to several places and Canada accepted us. 

What’s your academic background?

I went to an art high school for painting and sculpture, but discovered that while I really enjoyed art, there were many more talented people than myself. I was really interested in history as a kid, and went to Carleton University [Ottawa] for my BA/BS, where I studied history and law. In my last year I signed up for a class on transitional justice, which is the study of the way societies deal with past injustice—Nuremberg trials, South Africa dealing with apartheid, etc. The woman who was teaching that course more or less recruited me into the master’s program in the law department. 

How did you end up studying political science?

When I finished my M.A., I considered applying to Law School, but when I spoke to lawyers I realized that the day-to-day practice of law was not interesting to me. What I found interesting was the effect of laws on society. My M.A. adviser suggested political science. I applied to Ph.D. programs and, for financial reasons, ended up at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

I had a pretty rough start in the Ph.D. program. Partly because I had no prior experience in political science. And partly because political science thinks of itself as a science with laws and regularities and testable hypotheses; coming from the humanities that sounded ridiculous to me. Since then I’ve kind of drunk the Kool Aid… 

By my second year I found my niche in comparative politics. I like the approach because you can answer any kind of question if you think about what kind of data you need to answer it, and how you are going to analyze that data. The possibilities are limitless.

What was your dissertation about?

I examined different forms of political participation under authoritarian conditions, using Russia as a case study. In Russia, a lot of people who had come out of the protest movement of 2011-12, many of them young people, 18, 19 years old, had run for local government and won. I was curious why anyone in their right mind would get involved in organized politics in Russia, especially on the local level, where you don’t get paid, you have no support, and, in reality, have the ability to make very few changes. You’re in control of things like putting up a park bench somewhere or fixing lighting. Despite all that these people were streaming into politics. 

I found that most of the new local politicians had a background in activism. They had tried for years to solve local problems—protect parks, preserve historical buildings—and had been met with resistance from local officials, a feeling that one activist described to me as hitting “rubber cement.” This experience motivated them to get involved in local government and the anti-regime protests of 2011-2012 gave them the opportunity to get elected with the help of opposition electoral initiatives.

I also had quantitative chapters that looked at whether or not the volume of protest in a region affects how competitive a gubernatorial election is. Gubernatorial elections were also resurrected in the aftermath of the 2012 protests. Sort of a concession to the protest movement was that regions would have direct elections of governors. 

found that volume of protest does make elections more competitive—they are less likely to be stolen because what the regime reads from protest in a region is that there’s active civil society that will hold you responsible if you try to steal an election. So that’s how they become more competitive. My dissertation is a mix of interview-based work and then quantitative analysis of aggregate electoral results. A lot of it was motivated by things that I saw on the ground when I started to do field work.

What are you working on at Columbia?

I’ve continued this work on political participation both from the perspective of manipulation of competition by the regime and also from the grassroots level. On the grass roots level I’ve found that local level competition helps develop political capacity among opposition actors under authoritarian conditions, because they’re barred from participating in executive or regional elections, they have to start at the local level.

In some ways the regime incentivizes this. With the reintroduction of gubernatorial elections, the only way you can register as a candidate for governor is by collecting signatures from local deputies in your region. So the first step to getting an opposition gubernatorial candidate on the ballot is to get opposition local deputies elected. We see this coordinated effort at captured local government in Russia and it’s spreading out from Moscow to other cities. Next summer there’s going to be a campaign in St. Petersburg for local deputies.

There was another municipal election in Moscow in September 2017 and I went the following month to re-interview the people I’d talked to four years earlier. In 2017, there was a five-fold increase in participation of opposition candidates, and they won a quarter of all seats. In 2012 the opposition only managed 70 seats, in 2017 they got 267; they captured some neighborhoods in Moscow completely. 

I’m interested in explaining how this is possible. Not only the transition from protests to organized politics, but also how they have managed to become successful. Basically, what we are seeing is that opposition politicians are adapting to constraints placed on them by the regime.

The other part of my work has focused on regime malpractice, and the manipulation of elections; ways in which vulnerable voters are incentivized to support the regime. I’m looking at whether or not this has an impact on voter turnout across regions in Russia. In the last two years, I’ve published three academic articles about this.

My other work at Columbia is connected to the Carnegie grant Harriman received for the study of Russia. I’m organizing events of interest to the public in New York—on sanctions, sports diplomacy, pension protests. I am also trying to be available to write short analytical pieces about things as they happen in Russia. 

What’s your advice to doctoral students entering your field?

To keep alternative careers in mind. Political scientists are well-trained to do various things, and there are options beyond the traditional university setting. You need to be aware of other possibilities as you move through grad school.


To read more about our postdocs visit Postdoc Spotlight