Russian Regional Science in an Asymmetric System
Chimiza Lamazhaa
The Tuva Institute of Humanities and Applied Socio-Economic Research under the Government of the Republic of Tuva.
As researchers of Russian science have already acknowledged (see here, here and here), the academic field in the country has become differentiated and polarized. Moreover, we must also recognize that the space it occupies has become a mirror image of the Russian model of asymmetric distribution of power and budgetary roles, and as a result experiences the same “diseases” and problems of asymmetry. On one side are the “central” scientists, who are “strong,” “authoritative,” and “commanding,” and on the other are the scientists in the regions, who are “weak,” “submissive,” lack independence and only act on instructions from above, waiting for commands from the Center. They are considered regional scientists and regional authors, while the research they conduct from the regions is called “regional science” (not to be confused with the concept of “Area Studies” as a scientific discipline studying human interaction with the social and political environment in a certain territory, currently being developed by The Regional Science Association).

Despite the fact that Russian regional science has taken shape and developed almost parallel to capital science from the beginning of the history of post-Soviet Russia, i.e. for more than thirty years, it still remains nearly unexplored for a number of reasons. Scientists from central Russian scientific institutions have little interest in the internal lives of their colleagues in the regions. Foreign researchers of Russia are more likely to turn to a more general view of Russian science, or at least individual areas of research. In addition, it is obviously difficult for either group to obtain a lot of insider information on the other. Most often, they discuss general issues of the internal differentiation of Russian science and general systemic problems that are holding regional science hostage. Regional scientists themselves do not raise issues concerning their work, since they may not even be aware of them or reflect on them. If these issues are discussed, then they are no longer discussed publicly, since they reveal the difficult conditions faced by regional scientists in their work. Discussion of these conditions would not be welcomed either by the leadership of their institutions or by the governmental authorities of their region.

After beginning my work as a regional Russian scientist and continuing to communicate and observe my colleagues from the regions, I can identify several problems facing regional science that are emerging from within. In doing so, I would like to note that my field of observation is limited to regional arts, humanities and social sciences, which, in my opinion, are more vulnerable than the natural sciences.
The Kalmyk Institute for Humanities Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Source: Wiki Commons
Science policy requirements

Under conditions of waning access to foreign grants and support through foreign research programs in recent years, and given the fact that since 2022, accepting foreign funds may even lead to criminal prosecution, the number of funding sources for regional scientists and their areas of research have dropped to nearly zero. Practically speaking, only two remain: the federal and regional budgets, which provide salaries and/or allowances in the form of grants. Moreover, the share of funds channeled towards federally funded research projects far exceeds the amount allocated for regional research.

Therefore, “central” science (which accounts for more than 30% of all scientific organizations and employs more than 60% of the country’s PhD holders), actually determines the scientific policy and how funding is distributed, and clearly holds a more advantageous position (the situation is also characterized by the concept of monocephaly). Under these conditions, regional science receives both instructions on what to research and the means to do so. The interests of the regional scientists themselves becomes secondary.

For example, policy regarding the study of ethnic cultures in Russia (the most important topic in regional science) is written from a standpoint that places the position and interests of Russian culture at the forefront. Since the 1990s, this emphasis has only increased, culminating in the Russian ethnicity being recognized as the “state-forming people” in 2020, as stated in the amendment made to the Russian Constitution (article 68, point 1). Consequently, scientific policy on the whole did not remain untouched by this “symbolic elevation of the Russian people to the role of ‘big brother.’” Therefore, the usual questions regional scientists must address in order to receive a federal grant are more tied to imbuing their own research with some sort of federal significance: why Russia’s ethnic cultures must be considered important/correct/correlated to Russian culture. When viewed in this light, ethnic cultures of regional communities become “small” and “insignificant.” The prevailing belief that it’s useless to suggest these topics for a large grant, as they’ll immediately be cut down.

But even in studies of ethnic cultures of the regions themselves, the guidelines are also set by the general scientific policy. Firstly, it is dominated by research that fits within the framework of classical scientific rationality, where the object of study must be abstracted as much as possible from those studying it in order to obtain “objective” scientific results. This leads to the formation of the belief that studying the present is wrong, and even harmful, since the scientist is immersed in a constantly changing object of study that is, in essence, still indistinct. Secondly, common discourse across all Russian science states that in order to work with a subject in the present, it is important to study the negative impact of external factors from outside the country: “globalization,” “Westernization,” and “modernization challenges.”

Some metropolitan culturologists spread the belief that “traditional culture, included in civilizational processes, is already fragmented,” and “the cultural integrity that we recorded at the turn of the 19th–20th centuries and which was associated with the traditional way of life is this integrity today broken into fragments.” And restoring these cultural fragments, included through the forces of the national intelligentsia in the regions, is seen as the prime directive. Therefore, regional science remains focused on topics of cultural heritage, its preservation, and reconstruction of old traditions. In general, culture itself is understood as a valuable element of the past, and the present is not even considered a part of the culture. This attitude also leads to a significant imbalance of scientific interests (in turning to the history of the regions, regional science ceases to deal with the present) and the loss of the social significance of science itself (scientists who lose touch with this reality are criticized by regional authorities and the community).

Issues of variations in cognitive activity, interaction between the subject and object of knowledge, methodological flexibility and open-mindedness — all things that have been discussed in the global scientific community for several decades, remain essentially beyond the scope of the training and interests of Russian humanities scholars.
The Dagestan Federal Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Source: Wiki Commons
Level of professionalism

In an asymmetric system, central science not only dictates the science policy across the whole country, but also reduces the quality of training that scientists are given. It continues to preserve the Soviet traditions of training “national professionals,” who must be helped to defend their dissertations in order to be sent back to their homeland to strengthen and develop the spheres of science and education back home.

As a whole, this approach to dealing with graduate students from the regions is maintained to this day. Scientists willingly accept young people from the regions and offer their scientific guidance, especially because there aren’t that many of them. And since these students do not remain members of these scientific communities for long, they remain on the periphery of the work they are training to do, and no significant requirements are, or historically have been demanded of them. They are given the assistance they need to conduct applied research on their own cultures on the basis of their own developed theories and nothing more; they are trained only as “applied specialists.” In addition, very little effort is exerted to give these graduate students a broad, theoretical education. The practice of writing articles for them, or sometimes, on the contrary, exploiting their free labor, was and is still prevalent to this day.

The most motivated youth from the regions try to study only in Moscow or St. Petersburg. But a significant part of those who live in regions farther from Moscow are trained not in central scientific institutes, but in other regional scientific centers that are closer, as finances also pose a problem here. Not every family from the more remote regions has room in their budget to send their children to study in the capital.

Nevertheless, the system of training scientific personnel in post-Soviet Russia itself has begun to experience big problems: excessive bureaucratization, formalism, custom dissertations, low mobility, low level of training of graduate students, etc., which led, among other things, to the creation of a free online community known as “Dissernet” in 2013, where activists began a public campaign against various forms of abuses within the sciences. As noted in their latest report, published in 2023, in light of the war for funding, which gives rise to conspiracies, unstable and uncertain work conditions, etc., all sorts of deviant practices have been normalized within the Russian scientific community. Moreover, these practices are growing within Moscow and gradually spreading to the regions.

Therefore, the quality level of professional training in regional science continues to fall and the bulk of these scientists become “applied specialists.” There is a strong belief in the regional scientific community that the scientists there cannot deal with theoretical issues, flesh out concepts, or conduct science in general. This, incidentally, is a belief shared by metropolitan scientists. At a meeting at one Moscow academic institute, the statement that there was a theory-based scientific school in some Siberian city was met with a telling chuckle from the audience.

The specific features of conducting scientific work in the regions means that the main task of leadership becomes providing the community with material and organizational resources, while scientific reputation and scientific activities fade into the background. Therefore, a general dissatisfaction with the working conditions and an attempt to change them leads young ambitious scientists to leave for megacities outside of Russia as well, which observers characterize as a centripetal trend and the collapse of the institution of regional science.
The Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan. Source: Wiki Commons
Journals and Conferences

This asymmetry is also visible in the hundreds of conferences held annually throughout Russia across all branches of science.

In addition to the natural divisions between scientists along their particular fields of study, we can also see the dividing lines between metropolitan and regional conferences, depending on who is organizing them. Both kinds of conferences may have the status of international, all-Russian, etc. But the scale and real significance of these conferences always depend on the organizers and their scientific connections and interests.

More often than not, if a scientist from the regions speaks about studying regional culture at a “central” conference, the organizers and audience will primarily be interested in it as an “exotic” topic. In this case, what is important for listeners is not even the result of the research itself, but rather the geographic remoteness of the topic and the territorial diversity that the speaker brings. Incidentally, the majority of Russian associations within individual branches of science are organized in approximately the same way: the leading role is played by metropolitan scientists, and the regional scientists’ main role is simply their participation; their geographical diversity serves only to demonstrate the “all-Russian” coverage of the organization’s activities.

The demand for research reports from the regions at metropolitan conferences is so low that scientists from the regions have a tendency to speak in a promotional style, i.e. to simply talk about certain traditions or share their opinion about the situation with ethnic cultures. Preparations for presenting the report are correspondingly scant—it is enough to gather information about the tradition, then talk about it and speculate about the prospects for its preservation and development. But these reports from the regions meet with more substantive interest at relevant conferences, where the speaker will receive professional interest, topical questions, and relevant discussions. Therefore, regional science can only communicate fully with those who share its concerns.

Practitioners of regional science themselves place metropolitan science on a pedestal. It is considered important to invite a metropolitan scientist to your conference in the region and include his report in the most honorable segment of the program: the plenary session. It has become an unspoken rule that scientists who come to the regions from the capital, often with their travel and accommodations paid for by their hosts, are met from the airport, accompanied everywhere, given cultural tours of the area, taken to restaurants every day, and given gifts before leaving. Regional scientists visiting Moscow, on the other hand, must get to the hotel room they paid for on their own, eat on their own, and leave on their own—overall, they are essentially left to their own devices.

There is also a noticeable division into “metropolitan” and “regional” in the editorial boards of scientific journals, and a corresponding attitude towards authors in both categories. The peer review system, even without discussing the shortcomings of the organization, etc., at its core also demonstrates an imbalance of power. Scientists from the regions have a strong belief that they should work their way into Moscow journals, and that they cannot do without personal connections. Although in recent years, thanks to the work of the Association of Scientific Editors and Publishers, the structure and organization of scientific periodicals in the country has noticeably improved, this division still remains. This is due to the fact that the largest scientific publishers are primarily concentrated in Moscow, in the hands of large scientific and educational organizations.

With the exception of publications specializing in the study of ethnic cultures, the general policy of other metropolitan journals is as follows: either authors from the regions thematically fit into their metropolitan discourse, or they exotically dilute the geography of research. The question of studying the content of the study itself may fade into the background. The interests of regional authors and regional research centers are taken into account only when it comes to ordering a special issue of a journal, for example, dedicated to a region and paid for by a customer from this region.

Yakutian sociologist U. A. Vinokurova characterizes the gap between metropolitan and regional science in the following way: “We indigenous scientists have our own focus and perceptions of everything that is happening on the ancestral lands of our peoples, while other scientists come from egocentric, maybe postcolonial, even imperial mindsets, and it is extremely difficult to have an open dialogue with them.” The contrast of interests gives rise to two trends: some regional scientists, resigning themselves to the attitude with which people view them, submits to the logic of “native thinking.” The others—more advanced, ambitious and critical—are trying to escape this attitude (by either leaving the sciences altogether or collaborating only with foreign colleagues, and then going abroad).

Patronage and patriarchy

Patronage in pre-Soviet (tsarist Russian) and Soviet science is described as a system of personal relationships between patron and client that arise within the framework of state support for science, just as they develop in the political system. In this case, the system of clientelistic relations contains chains of relations between scientists who occupy key positions, those who have personal connections and high patrons in the government and political system, and young people. It is obvious that this same system has been preserved in post-Soviet science in Russia, repeating itself and intensifying in regional systems.

There is the opinion that, in general, the main goal of most scientists in the USSR was to defend a dissertation, and not to publish an article or offer new analytical tools. “Hundreds of thousands of candidates and tens of thousands of doctors of science fought for titles and degrees tooth and nail, so that they could then rest on these laurels until retirement. In the regions, this situation is colored by the local flavor of ethnocultural traditions (especially in regions with culturally Asian and Eastern indigenous populations) and becomes even more visible in areas with small populations.

Older generations of scientists in the regions occupy more advantageous positions, receiving social status, bonuses, benefits, and honor along with higher academic degrees. And they form the highest “caste,” living outside of scientific competition, outside of criticism and without serious professional development. They grow accustomed not to working, but to performing “science-adjacent activities,” writing and publishing only when they are invited and in places where their work is not met with criticism, working on the same topic for years, or even decades, presenting outdated reports at conferences, sitting in on different local events as important figures who give their opinions. They begin to behave not so much as scientists, but as elders, primarily instructing, teaching and criticizing. In these conditions, ambitious young people, who also strive to obtain academic degrees, to develop themselves and advance scientific knowledge, are seen as competitors who may disrupt their quiet positions, as people who could elevate them to even greater heights of honor, and could also take away their extra pay.

The system of social relations between the sciences and the government is thus strengthened by the patriarchal system of social and cultural relations in regional communities.


On the whole, the results of modern regionalization of the Russian scientific community are isolation from national and international scientific communities, loss of variety and innovative potential, decrease in human resources, and increased dependence on regional authorities.

In light of the lack of demand from the “center,” unable to collaborate or compete with scientific communities outside the country, squeezed in the grip of limited funding that only comes from Moscow and the regional budget, and beholden to its own internal hierarchy, science in the Russian regions is experiencing significant difficulties in development and positioning. Regional scientists cease to recognize themselves, to view themselves as part of Russian science or as representatives of a larger scientific community.
  • Chimiza Lamazhaa

    PhD and a non-resident fellow at the Russian Program's Global Academy at The George Washington University
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