Author Archives: ninto

Sari Autio-Sarasmo

A few academics are as capable in juggling the diverse responsibilities of senior researcher, project manager and pedagogue as Sari Autio-Sarasmo. Sari has been involved in countless high profile international research endeavours – the latest being the Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies, Choices of Russian Modernisation (2012-2017) – in both scholarly and administrative roles but nonetheless kept a close contact with her students from undergraduate to PhD level. Her own on-going research is centered on innovations, diffusion of knowledge and digitalization in Russia in a global context.

How does she manage to keep all balls in the air? “It is actually very rewarding – the idea at the University of Helsinki is that researchers teach and teachers do research. In today’s global and very competitive world we have to offer students the latest information based on our scholarly work. Students are extremely bright and critical, they have qualifications to understand the complicated world better than the older generation. This is a challenge that we take seriously.”

In 2009 Sari was preparing for the 9th annual Aleksanteri Conference as head of organising committee. The conference held extra significance as it was also the final event of a three year research project Knowledge through the Iron Curtain. Here’s what she told the Aleksanteri News about technological cooperation between the two, politically hostile blocs during the Cold War:


The KIC project ended in 2009 but spurted a lively continuation involving active networking with Nordic universities. Three PhD dissertations and several publications including an edited volume Reassessing Cold War Europe have been accomplished around the themes of Cold War studies thanks to Sari’s efforts.

But what keeps her busy today? “I’m happy and excited about my new role as leader of a minor subject programme in Russian studies aimed at master level students from different faculties and disciplines. The new module focuses on the hot spots of Russian society: all courses are constantly updated in order to give the latest information. The modular structure is an efficient way of broadening the base of Russia experts in different fields of society and business.” In addition, Sari is involved in planning an international Master’s Programme in Russian Studies to be launched by the Faculty of Arts in autumn 2017.

What about Cold War? Some people feel that it’s not a question of history anymore but on its way to return. “There has been a lot of discussion about the new Cold War but conceptually it is very problematic. The post-WWII world was completely different from the current situation. True, we live in politically turbulent times and it is difficult to say where all this will end, but I’d rather see a totally new concept created or the concept of Cold War at least clearly re-defined”, states Sari. She does not believe in the rise of new Iron Curtain in the world of science and technology. “It’s clear that the political sphere is now quite separate from science. In today’s globalized world science and technology are so interlinked that it will live its own life in spite of political disputes.”


Riikka Palonkorpi

In 2016 Riikka Palonkorpi smoothly handles the task of coordinating three doctoral programmes under the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki, with more than 600 PhD students to look after. But seven years ago when she was interviewed for Aleksanteri News 1/2009 she was a PhD student herself.


Riikka defended her dissertation entitled Science with a Human Face: the Activity of the Czechoslovak Scientists František Šorm and Otto Wichterle during the Cold War, in 2012 at the University of Tampere. Her work got a very positive reception in the Czech academic community. “My dissertation was recently translated into Czech and will be published in the Czech Republic by the publishing house Academia. After my defense, I also had the honor to be interviewed as an expert on Wichterle for material that is used in Czech schools”, rejoices Riikka. The interview was recorded in the middle of an exhibition built around Wichterle and the history of the soft contact lens in his native town Prostějov.

So, it seems that Otto Wichterle is considered an important figure in the Czech Republic. What about the status of science and scientists in general? “Czechs are proud of their high technological skills and standards and of the people such as Wichterle, who defended the value of science in times when the regime downgraded academic freedom. However, although scientists are widely appreciated and respected in the country whose economy has been rapidly growing in the recent years and unemployment is one of the lowest in Europe, links between academia and enterprises are relatively weak and the salaries at institutes of higher education are low.”

In Finland, the economic situation is glummer and also the challenges faced by academic community are different.  Riikka sees a sort of surprising resemblance here, however: “Sometimes the recent heavy cuts at the universities in Finland, administrative reforms and science policy discussions cause a slight feeling of déjàvu: they remind me of the atmosphere back in socialist Czechoslovakia. Just like back then, scientists and scholars these days have to justify the significance of their work in front of the society and state to the extent that it takes a lot of time and energy from their actual work.“

There is subtle hope in this analogy: despite the difficult times, Czechoslovak science managed to thrive and develop. Let’s hope this rings true for Finnish scholarship as well!


Katja Lehtisaari

In an interview with Hanna Ruutu for Aleksanteri News 2/2015  Katja Lehtisaari spoke about ongoing research projects related not only to changes in Russian media business environment but also to the role of media in the semi-authoritarian transitional regimes of Central Asia. At that time, she was a visiting research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. Now she’s back, so we asked her for an update.


Katja is one of the members of the new Russian Media Lab team coordinated by the Aleksanteri Institute. In that context, her research has been increasingly focusing towards the questions of media regulation and formation of media policy.

“Russian media market has continued to go through changes in regulation. Together with economic constraints like falling advertising figures, these changes seem to lean towards the concentration of ownership on the hands of wealthy Russian owners while the role of non-instrumental commercial publishers, especially foreign investors, is diminishing.”

Katja is one of the few Finnish scholars experienced also in Central Asian questions. She visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan  together with the Central Asian media research group last winter and is now preparing for a teacher exchange trip to Kazakhstan in November. “The visit to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan gave an excellent overview of the media landscape as well as societal developments in these countries, and we are working on analysis based on the interviews with Kyrgyz editor-in-chiefs and media experts.”

In media studies, comparative method is a fruitful way to understand global changes in news media. “I have lately also worked on another comparative project, on the business models of Nordic news media companies. This project has helped to contextualize many ongoing changes that are common to news media around the world mainly due to rapid development in digital technology and online environment”, concludes Katja.


Vladimir Gel’man

Study of politics in the time of major political changes is both a blessing and a curse, especially if one’s project is devoted to Russian politics. Vladimir Gel’man began Finland Distinguished Professorship at the Aleksanteri Institute in 2012, soon after the wave of anti-regime political protests, which swept Russia during the elections. After that, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, aggravating conflict with the West, and repressive turn in domestic politics, dramatically shifted the landscape of research on Russian politics.

Below  you can read the Face of the Month interview by Anna-Maria Salmi, published in Aleksanteri News 3/2012 (p.2) – a lot has certainly happened since then!

Vladimir Gelman 2012

“In many parts of the world, Russia is perceived now as a source of instability and multiple threats, and discussions on the “new Cold War” turned into a mainstream of Western media. On the one hand, there is a high policy and societal demand on analyses of ongoing political developments in Russia. On the other hand, many recent changes were so unpredictable and their consequences so unintended that many analyses are at risk to be outdated even before publication”, says Vladimir in 2016, and gives a telling example: “I finished the manuscript of my book, Authoritarian Russia: Analyzing Post-Soviet Regime Changes just one day before the end of Yanukovych’s rule in Ukraine, I got comments of reviewers just hours before the crash of Malaysian Boeing over Donbass, and received proofs of the volume exactly at the day when leader of the Russian opposition Boris Nemtsov was shot dead nearby the Kremlin. Still, the book has not lost its relevance.”

That being said, he would not consider ongoing political processes in Russia as a complete deviation from its post-Soviet political trajectory. Recent changes are a rather logical extension of authoritarian tendencies in Russia since the Soviet collapse. Thus, a scholarly analysis of Russian politics and governance in comparative perspective is still relevant.

“Indeed, present-day Russia is a kind of El Dorado for experts on the study of clientelism, corruption, and institutional decay as can be read in our forthcoming volume  Authoritarian Modernization in Russia: Ideas, Institutions, and Policies. Russian realities offer a rich evidence for both testing of existing theories and development of new approaches. The articles in the volume seek answers to important questions such as why did Russia opt for authoritarian governance after the Soviet collapse, what are the mechanisms of political governance maintaining this project and why, despite so many shortcomings and flaws, has this project remained attractive in the eyes of a large proportion of the Russian elite and ordinary citizens. ”

To Vladimir Gel’man and his team, questions of the logic and mechanisms of the authoritarian governance in Russia and its effects on Russia’s politics, economy, and society appear crucial. “Comprehensive analysis of these issues require systematic collective research efforts. Our aim is to promote these issues on the research agenda and encourage further discussions among specialists in the field”.

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik, a recurrent visitor at the Aleksanteri Institute, was introduced as Face of the Month in Aleksanteri News 2/2008 as the first scholar to participate in the now well-established Aleksanteri Institute Visiting Scholars Programme. In 2008 she had just defended her PhD thesis on victimhood discourse and denial of war crimes in Serbia.


“When I first came to the Aleksanteri Institute, Serbia was in a very dark place: it still hadn’t met all of its obligations to the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and its EU integration prospects looked very poor. There was little political progress, unemployment was high and young people had few opportunities”, says Jelena. “Today things look different: Serbia is an EU candidate, there is increased investment and lots of economic activity. On the other hand, the old networks still dominate both in politics and business, unemployment is extremely high and people have little faith in the government.“

Jelena has found her academic home at the Aston University, where she holds the positions of Lecturer in Politics and International Relations and Deputy Director of Aston Centre for Europe. Happily, she also maintains close ties with the Aleksanteri Institute. “Each time it has been absolutely fantastic to work here. The institute provides a rich intellectual environment, as there are people here working on cutting-edge projects”. Jelena can next be seen in Helsinki at the end of May, discussing new collaboration with Aleksanteri researchers on the idea of civil society in the Western Balkans.

Go for a free ride in our time machine – read the Face of the Month story by Anna-Maria Salmi first published in Aleksanteri News 2/2008!

Saara Ratilainen

Saara Ratilainen shared her thoughts as Face of the Month in Aleksanteri News 2/2013 just before her PhD defence on women’s print media and consumer culture in Russia. Read the interview written by Niina Into (on page 2).


Today, Saara coordinates a budding new research project called Russian Media Lab at the Aleksanteri Institute. The project focuses on Russian media and freedom of expression and at the same time aims at deepening the Russian expertise of Finnish journalists.

“As a member of the research team my main interest at the moment is to examine, how popular culture, online fan communities, and different amateur-based media projects respond to the question about freedom of expression in contemporary Russia”, she explains.  Can they provide mmedialabroundedodels for alternative voices to be heard more broadly in society and what kind of citizenship do these spheres of culture support?”

“Consumerism and cultural identity remain central reference points also when considering the freedoms and limitations to express oneself, one’s identity and relationship to the predominant ideologies, values and cultural ideals. My study of online fan communities, for instance, shows that brand-conscious everyday consumption functions as an important background, against which Russian young internet users define themselves as participants in creative communities and users of interactive media.”

Russian Media Lab held an open seminar, Russian Media Today,  as part of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day festivities on May 2, 2016 in Helsinki.


Faces of Aleksanteri

IMG_0361The Aleksanteri Institute is often identified by a photo of its beautiful facade on Unioninkatu 33. What makes the Institute so great are not the grand premises though, but the amazing people who work here.

Since 2008, Aleksanteri News has been publishing a series of profiles called Face of the Month. To date, over 30 Aleksanterians have been interviewed in the series. As part of our 20thanniversary celebrations we decided to re-publish some of those stories. Take a free ride in our time machine during the following weeks to see what Russia and Eastern Europe looked like to our researchers in 2008, 2009, 2010… and how those same people see it today.

A lot has changed as you will see, but most questions that we’ve brought onto the agenda over the years still seem relevant now – maybe even more so.  Did we manage to predict any of the developments? Would it have been possible? Where should Russian and Eastern European Studies be looking now?

The series begins with a 2008  interview with Mikko Palonkorpi about the aftermath of the war in Georgia…



Mikko Palonkorpi

Mikko Palonkorpi was the very first researcher introduced in the Face of the Month series of Aleksanteri News. In the autumn of 2008 he, as the primary Finnish expert on Caucasus region, had just survived an extremely intensive period in the media. The war in Georgia had ended in mid-August, but the aftermath was just beginning. Here’s what Anna-Maria Salmi wrote in 2008 after interviewing Mikko:


(Aleksanteri News 1/2008)

What is the situation in Georgia now?

“Relations with Russia have improved since the Georgian Dream coalition rose to power: the Georgia-Russia border is now open and trade embargo has been lifted. On the other hand, Russia has implemented “borderization policy” in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by unilaterally re-labelling the administrative borderlines between Georgia and two of its breakaway regions as state borders  In fact, Russia has been slowly expanding these “borders” for its own advantage and thereby occupying more Georgian territory in a process of creeping annexation. Russia has also signed treaties with separatist entities in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thus making prospects for Georgia regaining its control over these two territories in a near future seem unlikely.

Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration has made steady process in eight years, milestones being an Association Agreement with the EU and European Commission’s proposal of visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Georgian citizens, which could be achieved already later on this year. NATO membership for Georgia however, is not much closer now than it was in 2008,” says Palonkorpi.

Renewed heavy fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, Iranian nuclear deal and deteriorating Turkish-Russian relations over Syria have all affected Georgia. On a more positive note, tourism industry in Georgia has witnessed a spectacular growth in recent years.


Supporters of the  Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia celebrate the election victory of the coalition in Tbilisi in 2012. Photo by Mikko Palonkorpi. 

Mikko Palonkorpi is currently running his own company Mikko Palonkorpi Photography that offers consulting and photography services (contact: