Russia Needs a Realist Paradigm

15 november 2014

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: When you begin writing, be sure about how you both end each sentence and the entire text. Do you happen to know the double-space paradox? Some people single-space words and some double-space them.

RIAC met with Timofey Bordachev, Director of Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Higher School of Economics, to talk about the new textbook published under his guidance and his education methods.

Dr. Bordachev, how would you describe your textbook’s academic innovations?

Due to underlying historical reasons, the Soviet science of international relations existed within the rigid boundaries of the Marxist-Leninist paradigm, with the entire expert community either unaware or deprived of vibrant Western theories.

After 1991, many Russian foreign policy experts turned to works by their foreign colleagues, primarily from the United States, which resulted in the emergence of a formidable school which included Pavel Tsygankov, Alexey Bogaturov, Andrey Melville, Marina Lebedeva, Mark Khrustalyov and many other remarkable scholars and pedagogues.

Some of these teachers in the fullest sense of the word adopted the liberal trends that surfaced in the U.S.A. during the second half of the 20th century. Simultaneously, the Russian national school arose, unquestionably led by Alexey Bogaturov. This school adopts a more Russian approach, establishing concepts that offer an alternative to foreign ideas and are loosely attached to American models. At the same time, Russia appears to have absolutely forgotten about the classical realist school, a most significant area of the science on foreign relations.

Interpreted both through structural realism and neoclassical realism, the realist school invariably provides the most comprehensive rationale for the use of force in international relations, the niche of the state in the world arena, as well as the degree of interaction for states and non-state actors. Realism gives answers to questions that cannot be answered by liberal scholars.

Although the realist approach has definitely seen great demand from governments, societies, and academics, this school has long been neglected in Russia.

Hence, the academic innovations of the textbook written under my guidance at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics are grounded precisely in the attempt to create the first Russian teaching material on international relations theory through the prism of the classical realist paradigm.

The textbook is based on a course of lectures on international relations theory read since 2008 at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs for those majoring in international relations, and since 2013 – for world economy students.

The textbook opens with the ABCs of the realist paradigm, the basics of international relations science, and overviews of classical works. In my opinion, the fundamentals of international relations science offer the currently confounded political and analytical communities tools to analyze and forecast the development of the international environment.

Do you think that this textbook will prompt Russian academics to acknowledge the existing gap in the science of international relations and lead them over to the realist paradigm?

This is something I would like to achieve, although it does not appear feasible in the near future. I hope that with help of this textbook, our students over time will grow into independent researchers and develop their own academic works. I am counting on the scholars of the future, those who surpass the bachelor’s and master’s levels of exploration to plunge into the realm of scholarly analysis and gradually build an ironclad national realist school made of ideological rather than impulsive realists.

Working on the textbook, did you draw upon your own years in university to make the text more intelligible and readable?

We have intentionally chosen a popular style to avoid confusion and make the text easily readable for students at the second-year bachelor level. The point is to provide undergraduates with answers and the knowledge needed to seek answers on their own. It is genuinely easy reading, and students who have read it agree.

What kind of challenges did you face working on the textbook? And how did you handle these problems?

The key hurdle was the shortage of Russian research on the topic. We have outstanding scholars but en masse the English-language literature many times exceeds everything written in Russian. Hence, most of the works we suggest as reading materials are in English.

The second key problem for any textbook author is selecting things to leave out, i.e. theories, schools and methodologies that are marginal. We saw our mission in formulating an accessible essential minimum for any student to skillfully solve medium or even top-level analytical problems, define the subject and object for research, and compile a matrix for tackling analytical problems.

Does your textbook have practical assignments?

There are cases for solving international political problems using certain theoretical approaches. For example, I ask my students why the United States invaded Iraq. Some say to demonstrate superiority, some insist to establish democracy and some believe the aim was oil. I reply that some are realists, some are liberals, and some are Marxists, although none understands the core point. My job is to explain how to properly and skillfully arrive at conclusions.

I don't care about students' beliefs and the theoretical paradigm they choose to approach problems. The only imperative is to do the job well. I don't care about the roads that young specialists choose, I only want them to keep their feet on the ground rather than speeding forward on all fours. This is our central task because we are training operatives rather than academics.


Back at university, we often lacked practical assignments, while theory was in abundance.


To a great extent, this results from the organization of studies. At the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, we try to handle the problem through seminars focused on building the capacity to define the object and subject of research, select the theory and use it to formulate a hypothesis for solving the problem, and then skillfully and fluently develop it in an essay or a term paper.

Our students must be ready to apply theoretical instruments with ease, in autopilot mode, starting with a theoretical solution and then grasping the nuances, because in real life, actions must occur immediately.

Do you have any plans to promote the textbook beyond Russia?

It appears plausible, with the post-Soviet space being the likeliest target area. China and Southeast Asia may also find the materials attractive because these countries are a tabula rasa as far as the science of international relations is concerned. But now they are arrive at a view that they are living in a world operating under certain laws that were established before they emerged as independent, sovereign and powerful actors. In order to understand the laws used by the outside world, these countries should have command over key patterns offered by the theory of international relations.

The Asian market appears quite promising for Russian science and education in the realm of international relations, and we can offer schemes that are more flexible than those of our Western counterparts, who regrettably often impose their standard paradigms.


What do you think about promoting works by Russian scholars abroad in general? Is this necessary or is recognition by the Russian academic community is sufficient?


Sure it’s a must. Any text is aimed at developing new social objects and new content, as well as changing human thinking.

We should realize that the United States and Europe, who publish the bulk of international relations journals, implicitly set extremely high political requirements for foreign authors. And political benchmarks are always much more difficult to meet than methodological standards.

What would you recommend students to begin with in view of publication and at what age should they join the process?


They should begin with reading established authors. Then comes a quality term paper during the first year to be followed by a second-year paper devoted to conceptualizing a work by a recognized scholar. Only after that, in my conservative thinking, can one undertake the autonomous development of substance and ideas.

RIAC cooperates with many young authors and devotes much attention to cultivating youngsters. Could you suggest a formula for writing successful or unsuccessful articles?

A text needs to be no more than half a page long, and ideas should be formulated in three paragraphs, i.e. the core of the argument, observations about its occurrence, suggestions about the modus operandi, and the resolution of the problem. When you begin writing, be sure about how you both end each sentence and the entire text. Do you happen to know the double-space paradox? Some people single-space words and some double-space them. Do you know why? Some people already know the phrase they are putting down, and some think and write simultaneously. The latter write a word and make a space, then think and automatically make one more to continue. If the text is thought-out, you will never find double spacing. Just be sure about the outcomes before doing the job.

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