The 83 regions that comprise the Russian Federation provide an excellent vehicle for conducting comparative political analyses. They vary on a number of theoretically interesting dimensions while their membership in a federation controls for other dimensions that are challenging for globally comparative studies. Statistical analyses can be conducted because an array of data is available on most or all of the regions for most of the post-Soviet years. As in the discipline more generally, however, some scholars prefer small-n studies backed by detailed fieldwork. Moreover, subnational political developments have been of major significance to the development of the Russian polity overall. In particular, the Russian Federation’s current hybrid of liberal and authoritarian elements grew from the politics between the regions and the federal leadership in the Kremlin. Challenges to what Vladimir Putin has called the “power vertical” continue to emerge from the regional leaderships.
It is not surprising, then, that Russia’s regions have attracted significant attention from political scientists in Russia and in the West. The overall literature on Russia’s regions numbers in the hundreds. Even restricting oneself to those scholars seeking to contribute to comparative theory building using methods of comparative analysis, several dozen are at work, including quite a few who received their PhDs in the 2000s. Now, at the start of the third decade of post-Soviet Russia, and hence of analyses of its regions, an appraisal is much needed.
As in comparative politics more generally, the theoretical approaches employed include the institutionalist, the bargaining-/interest-oriented and the identity-oriented or constructivist. Methodologically, large-n and small-n analyses compete, but too little is known about whether their findings complement or challenge each other. Among those doing statistical analyses, different approaches to measuring key concepts prevail. This community has avoided polemics over theoretical assumptions or differences in methodologies. The other side of the coin, however, is that relatively little effort has been put into examining how theoretical and methodological choices have influenced the accumulation of knowledge and the utility of that knowledge for understanding politics beyond Russia.
A focused two-day conference involving leading scholars with different theoretical and methodological approaches can begin to address this need.