Property and Power

Vera Smirnova, Research Fellow at the Institute of Regional Studies and Urban Planning, Faculty of Urban and Regional Development, shared her research interests and experience of building strong connections at HSE with The HSE Look readers.

​What are your research interests?

To put it shortly, my research is about land, capital and power: how land is acquired by different actors, such as the state, businesses, corporations, or local citizens, and how this acquisition is legitimized.

My dissertation was focused on land acquisition and the origin of private land ownership in Russia during the late imperial period, including analysis of the ideas and narratives around the topic as well as the legal frameworks and practices. I worked in the archives and used critical discourse analysis to explore how the transformation in land ownership was perceived by different government officials, social groups, landless citizens, and peasant proprietors, what the land meant to them, and how they conceived of its ownership and the resulting consequences. Part of the analysis was to see how this discourse contrasted with and borrowed from the Western political thought about private property, social contract, and individual freedom, and how it shaped specifically Russian understanding of land ownership.

My first degree was in architecture in Vologda State Technical University and I was very interested in the topic of what makes the space ‘private’ or ‘public’. When I received Fulbright Graduate Fellowship and moved to the USA for my Master of Science in Architecture program, it finally clicked for me that what was standing behind the private/public space issue was directly related to who holds the right to land and it gave a new direction to my research in urban political geography. You could say it was a blend of architecture, urban planning, and political science that brought me to work on my PhD in a multidisciplinary program ‘Planning, Governance, and Globalization’ at Virginia Tech (USA).

As a research fellow at HSE I am continuing this topic but in the context of Post-Soviet period: What is our current understanding of land ownership and private property? How does it relate to the ideas and discussions in the late Russian empire which tried to introduce private ownership of land in 1906? Has the Land Code of 2002 about land privatization really introduced ‘private ownership’ in a common sense or are we living in some kind of a hybrid model?

I am planning to interview some of the experts who provided policy advice for this legislation and its implementation, and, while it’s more difficult and risky, I would also like to get interviews from people who participated in land appropriation, for example, real estate developers or large agricultural companies. There’s also a lot to be studied in terms of how the profit from land privatization circulate between urban and non-urban spaces, but this is a question for further research.

How does your stay at HSE help to develop your research?

I am very lucky to work at the Institute of Regional Studies and Urban Planning, as it has a strong analytical profile in the policy issues related to my research. This gives me access to many interviewees among experts and policymakers whom I would have a hard time reaching on my own, and moreover, it raises my credibility to work in Russia in general.

A first article on the theoretical part of my research was just published in a special issue of one European journal in geography and I am now starting to work on the interviews. It’s very important to formulate questions well, so as to gather the necessary information but also to be tactful and neutral as a researcher – and it’s quite a challenge to be neutral on this topic, knowing how many people have lost their land given what we know from our history and own experience.

What about social life at HSE?

Thanks to the events organized by International Faculty Support Unit in September and throughout the autumn I’ve met a lot of other young postdocs and tenure-track professors, and we meet quite often and regularly as a group. It’s nice to get such a social circle when you are new at the university, but it’s also been a very enriching experience in terms of discussing research. Everyone has unique expertise and research topics, and since most of them are interdisciplinary, we click well together and share ideas, see the limitations of our research, and discuss how best to take them into account etc. History, political economy, urban studies, sociology – all of our previous knowledge and current research combined, especially in a relaxed and friendly environment, provides good ground for discussions and, at least for me personally, is highly motivating. Being an academic researcher and belonging to such a lively community is very important to me, it’s a vital part of my identity. My Institute also very actively organizes and participates in roundtables and workshops, so there are many opportunities for professional discussion and networking in my field, starting from discussing issues about tactical urbanism, smart urbanism, and participatory planning, to policy recommendations in the sphere of social housing.

Do you work with students in some way?

Faculty of Urban and Regional Development at HSE has launched several long-term ‘workshops’ for students, dedicated to a wide range of research areas in the field of urbanism under the supervision of researchers. It’s an extracurricular activity and the results can be quite varied – a publication in a journal, or online, or a presentation at a conference or another type of event. It’s a way to create an informal learning space, based on the collective research. Me and my colleague Daniela Zupan also offered a topic for such a workshop titled ‘City in the Periphery’, to explore how spatial and power relations are perceived outside the capital, how the discourses of various urban planning innovations are circulated or implemented, how small cities try to keep their identity or create it anew. We have 13 students from the MA programme with whom we are meeting every two weeks and going to present our work at the April Conference this year - we’ll see how it goes!

Read more articles in the full March 2019 issue of The HSE Look