De/re/composing Authoritarian-Neoliberal Assemblages: Ethnography of Russian universities and beyond

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisMonograph


Universities are more than educational institutions. They are entangled with a multiplicity of powerful forces: imperial histories, neoliberal ideas of competition, and state-formation projects, which embed higher education institutions into world politics and international political economy. Capital and state penetrate universities in order to reproduce particular social relations, for example, by reinforcing the accumulation of resources, training the necessary workforce, producing ideologies, or strengthening state coercion.

This dissertation is an investigation into the neoliberalization of and in Russian universities. The neoliberalization of academia, i.e., subjecting university activities to the ideas of market efficiency, has permeated academic discussions, with contributions from different contexts and areas of academic life. However, most of the research on neoliberalization of universities uses epistemological points of departure from the Global North. In this dissertation, I theorize the workings and shapes of neoliberalization from another epistemological standpoint, taking into account its connection to other projects of power that universities become a part of, in particular the statist projects of the Russian authoritarian neo-imperial regime.

In order to analyze the connections between seemingly incompatible elements of authoritarian governance and neoliberal reforms, the concept of assemblages informs the theoretical, methodological, and analytical frameworks of this study. Assemblage theorizing enables analysis of neoliberalization – along with authoritarianism – beyond the binary of the global and the local, to show how it is actualized in a specific manner producing recontextualized compositions. The focus here is on authoritarian-neoliberal assemblages and their compositions, decompositions, and recompositions, or de/re/compositions: these are thought of as projects of power that are always in motion, yet may be temporally stabilized and entangle seemingly paradoxical elements in order to mutate and survive. Neoliberal policies traditionally associated with the idea of free markets, deregulated competition, and privatization in Russian universities became attached to authoritarian governance, massive state control, and neo-imperial imaginaries of Russia’s greatness and uniqueness.

Methodological choices for this research have been informed by the logic of relationality and heterogeneity that assemblage analysis assumes. In order to analyze the de/re/compositions of university neoliberalization and authoritarian governance by the Russian state, various datasets were generated through nonlocal ethnography. The methodology of nonlocal ethnography drew attention to the multiplicity of socio-material elements of the assemblage and made it possible to let go of universal understandings of neoliberalism and authoritarianism. The main sources of data were interviews, participant observation of academic events, university visits, policy documents, media publications, and discussions in Russian academic journals.

Each empirical chapter analyzes a specific domain in the field of higher education. Chapter 5 shows how Russian universities are assigned different statuses as a state project to manage global international academic competition in search of “Russian” greatness and success. In chapter 6, the Bologna Process is analyzed as a neoliberal Eurocentric project, demonstrating the frictions it produced with the Russian search for sovereignty. Chapter 7 describes academic labor where neoliberal policies are imposed and chapter 8 shows how the aim is to ensure academic performance, cost- efficiency, and often (when entangled with authoritarian politics) political loyalty. Finally, chapter 9 presents alternative academic projects – the life in the ruins of an authoritarian-neoliberal university.

This dissertation contributes to two big strands of research in International Relations: on the global workings of neoliberalism and its relation to the authoritarian neoliberalism, and on the compositions of the contemporary Russian Putinist regime and its place in world politics. Contrary to the previous research on the Russian authoritarian regime which sees (neo)liberal reforms as a way to democratize the Russian state, this dissertation shows that neoliberal reforms oftentimes reinforce authoritarian and neo-imperial control. The dissertation enriches the scholarly understanding of the politics of oppression and dispossession which both authoritarianism and neoliberalism generate and proposes possible projects to reclaim academia.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
Publication statusPublished - 2024
Publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


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