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Russian Visitor Building Database With Professor Sharon Werning Rivera

By Lisbeth Redfield
Posted July 23, 2007
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There are plenty of students on the Hill in the summer doing research or work. Most of them are Hamilton students, but sometimes we get visitors such as Alyona Blokhina, a student from Russia spending her summer in Clinton to work with Assistant Professor of Government Sharon Werning Rivera.

Blokhina just has completed her first year at one of Moscow's most prestigious universities, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where she studies comparative politics with a focus on democracy. She is in the U.S. this summer at Rivera's invitation, helping Rivera compile a large-scale database of approximately 3000 individuals prominent in the Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin eras. She is currently updating the database with biographical data on individuals prominent in 2004, which will be used by Rivera to reexamine the "militocracy" claim.

This database is a long-standing project of Rivera's. On the basis of biographical data from 2002, Rivera published an article (with David W. Rivera, lecturer in the Government Department) titled "The Russian Elite under Putin: Militocratic or Bourgeois?" in the April-June 2006 issue of Post-Soviet Affairs. The article investigates the widespread assumption that, since Vladimir Putin took over the presidency from Boris Yeltsin in January 2000, large numbers of siloviki--that is, those with experience in the military and security agencies--have been recruited into government service.

The authors find that claims of the "FSB-ization of power" under Putin are real but overstated, and that there is an increasing presence of business representatives in the government and society at large. Even several years into the presidency of former KGB lieutenant colonel Putin, the elite should be regarded as considerably more bourgeois than militocratic, a finding with potential implications for both stability and democracy in Russia. The article was written with support from the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

Blokhina enjoys her work. She had her first taste of serious research several months ago, when her university required her to write a research paper and she chose to study comparative democracy. "I like the feeling that you're on the right track," Blokhina said, and expressed her excitement on seeing her theory proved true in recent research. She looks forward to being able to use the database for her own future research. Blokhina, who originally considered being a journalist, views her own research as an attempt to speak to the academic world in different language. "I'm trying to present it in a more literary fashion," she explained.

So how does a student get from Moscow to Clinton, N.Y.? Blokhina is at Hamilton through a Class of 1966 Career Development Award given to Rivera. This grant, established by the class on the occasion of its 25th reunion, provides a stipend and research funds to "enhance the quality of undergraduate teaching at Hamilton." Rivera, a friend of the Blokhina family, learned that Blokhina was interested in comparative democratization and invited the student to come to Hamilton for she summer to help Rivera with her own research.

Although this is her first trip to the United States, Blokhina is a seasoned traveler. She has worked in England and studied in France, and is enjoying her visit to Clinton and the U.S. She has visited Cape Cod this summer and experienced local events such as watching the Boilermaker and visiting the Herkimer Diamond Mines. Blokhina has also been to Utica in a service capacity, translating for Jenney Stringer '08, who is organizing community gardens for the FX Matt apartments, and presenting a jewelry-making workshop with Winter Burhoe '08, who has a fellowship for promoting cultural awareness in Utica.

In August, Blokhina will return to Russia to start her school year ("I'm not really getting a vacation," she admitted). She won't be staying forever though – the enthusiastic traveler plans to pursue a master's degree at the French university for political science. And what does she think about Clinton? "Other students are amazing: they take me on different trips with them. As I like to travel that's always so much fun!" 

-- by Lisbeth Redfield

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