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The Center for Russian Studies at Tel Aviv University has begun its work

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The “Chubays Project” at TAU turned out to be scientific, it will deal with the history of Russia to study its future

The Center for Russian Studies (CRS) at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tel Aviv University has begun its work. On April 16, there was a presentation of the launch report of the new center – Russian Future Initiative. Contrary to its name, the project appears surprisingly non-political. In order to talk more or less seriously about Russia’s future, CRS intends to deal with the recent history of Russia – economic, political, social, and cultural. The period that interests CRS is from 1991, when the collapse of the USSR occurred and Russia appeared as a separate state, to the present day.

In Russia and Israel, the media has already reported that one of Israel’s universities intends to create a CRS on the funds of Israeli and Russian sponsors-entrepreneurs. Anatoly Chubays, a well-known Russian reformer and former Russian government vice-premier, as previously reported by JP, repatriated to Israel in May 2022. However, the assumptions that a think tank would be created in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Beersheba to prepare scenarios for new reforms in the so-called “post-Putin” period were unfounded. The CSR presentation was purely academic, and Anatoly Chubays is only mentioned as the organizer of the group of sponsors of the new center, whose task is a comprehensive study of Russia’s possible future based on the analysis of the events of its recent past.

Social Sciences Instead of Futurology

In Israeli social science, there are already several centers studying Russia, including on the TAU Faculty of Social Sciences and other faculties. Israeli historians, economists, sociologists, culture experts, and specialists on Jewish community life in Russia and the former USSR are well-known in professional circles and in Russia and the world. Academic science in this sense has no boundaries; Russian Studies have been widespread since the 1950s, the beginning of the “Cold War,” primarily in US and European universities. However, CRS is likely the only Israeli scientific center currently studying the last 30 years of Russian history. As it became clear during the presentation, working on these topics between Russia’s history and the present will be more scholars involved in contemporary research than historians – part of them will work in Tel Aviv, part in Russia and Europe. For example, Victor Vakhshtayn, a sociologist and former dean of the Sociology Faculty at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, will continue his research in the field of social capital studies within the CRS project. Alexander Baunov, a political scientist and author of the popular 2023 book “The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended,” currently working and the Berlin Carnegie Center and as visiting researcher at the Florence University Institute, will continue his research on the structure of Russian elites. Dmitry Butrin, an economist and economic editor of the Moscow “Kommersant,” is an economist in the CRS project. Finally, from Moscow, within the CRS project, cultural studies of Russian culture will be conducted by literary scholar Alexander Arkhangelsky, who continues his work on a series of Russian documentary films.

Over the five years that the CRS initiative is planned, it is assumed that other researchers from Israel, Russia, and other countries will join – the authors of the initial report hint that representatives of other social sciences, such as international relations, may also be involved. The main idea of the research, however, primarily involves working together among CRS staff and working within interdisciplinary research. As the center’s staff explains, which, as it turned out, has been working at TAU’s Faculty of Social Sciences under the leadership of professor Itai Sened since February, the latest Russian history now looks quite unusual in scientific description. There are several “histories of Russia” since 1991, almost none of which are related to each other. One is the history of changes in Russian society at the elementary level. Several others are different parts of the economic histories of the huge populated country, which has appeared as a successfully reforming economy, a backward world gas station, a kingdom of state capitalism, and a battleground for warring oligarchs and siloviki since 1991. Finally, there is the history of the transformation of Russian culture in all its layers – from the return of religion to it to new cults of strength and aggression.

These parts are challenging to reconcile with each other even in publicist descriptions. However, the declared task of CRS is to approach the possibility of “understanding Russia” in its new form in a purely academic sense. In this model, the “cultural” component will not contradict the “political,” and social development will not contradict the economic. CRS assumes that this is the only way to speak reliably about what can and cannot happen to Russia in the foreseeable future because, at least since 2012-2014, forecasts about what would happen in Moscow even next year have usually turned out poorly. And the war with Ukraine, the political protests of 2012, and the current economic upswing have become unexpected for researchers.

However, the same, emphasize the researchers of CRS, can now be said about any other country in the world – quick and bright forecasts, let alone politically engaged ones, attract attention but are just as quickly forgotten. In any case, part of the political sector of neither Israel nor Russia will become the “Chubays Center” in such a composition and with such a research program. However, Tel Aviv University is getting new research team whose answer to the question “What is happening in Russia?” may be more fundamental than before.

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