Center «Res Publica»



The Res Publica research center at the European University at Saint-Petersburg was founded in 2005. Its research belongs to the general trend of contemporary European social and political thought. The latter attempts to summarize the 2500-old tradition of reflection on how people might live in freedom together, which stems from Antiquity.

What we do

Research is our primary field of activity. Apart from conducting studies we engage in educational and experimental projects. 

Educational activities

Our educational activities first and foremost consist of translating classical texts in republican theory. We have translated into Russian a number of books authored in the late XXth century by founders of republicanism. Among them are Liberty Before Liberalism by Regius Professor of History and Politics at the University of Cambridge Quentin Skinner, chapters of Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government by Princeton University Professor Phillip Pettit (which were published in Сontemporary  Republican Theory of Freedom, a volume of texts translated from English). We have also published Res Publica: A History of the Concept, a volume of translations from German as well as Gasparo Cantarini’s treatise De magistratibus et republica venetorum from Latin. The latter, written in 1526, served the Republican glory of Venice no less than texts by Niccolo Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini served that of Florence, or so it was believed in the times of Shakespeare. We are currently working on translating one of the classical republican books -  The Commonwealth of Oceana written by James Harrington in 1656, which is one of the republican thinking milestones of the English Civil War era.

Apart from translation work, our researchers give public lectures and participate in discussions in culture centers, clubs and on other public intellectual platforms across Russia. We publish popular science and analytical articles in mass media and on leading Russian educational websites. Among our recent projects (November-December 2018) was the launching of a course titled “Civil education: seven days of participatory projects in a modern city”. We also recorded a series of video lectures on the basis of this course.

Our regular public seminar features lectures by our research staff and by invited experts from adjacent scientific realms such as political theory, philosophy, history, linguistics etc.

Research activities

Our center’s research activities consist of conducting interdisciplinary research in three areas:

Our block of research in medieval studies of republics primarily entails studies of republican practices in medieval cities of Novgorod and Pskov. Alexey Vovin and Pavel Lukin have conducted two studies based on a common principle - comparison of medieval Russian cities with medieval European communes which had pronounced republican character. The results obtained by Vovin were published in a monograph The Urban commune of medieval Pskov in the XIVth - early XVIth centuries ("Городская коммуна средневекового Пскова: XIV - начало XVI века",  EUSP press, 2019). Pavel Lukin is working on a monograph Novgorod and Venice. Comparative historical essays on political culture in the Old Russian republic”

Vladimir Korshakov is finishing his dissertation on political functions of church in medieval Novgorod. Although the significance of civil worship and the role of archbishop (the only hierarch in medieval Europe elected by drawing lots) are hard to overestimate, research in politics has usually ignored it and focused almost exclusively on secular phenomena.

 A distinct place in this block of research is occupied by the study of the Great Bridge in Novgorod, which was made possible by underwater excavation. The Great Bridge in Novgorod was the only permanent bridge in Russia up to the XVIIth century. It was a genuine public space akin to the important bridges of medieval Europe such as Rialto in Venice. According to the chronicles, the bridge hosted important public events. Underwater archeological excavations have confirmed that in the XVth-XVIth centuries the Bridge was the locus of intensive economic activity. Divers have discovered coins, fragments of tableware, pottery, trading utensils and various goods. The 2018 archeological season brought new unexpected discoveries - the foundations of a bridge dating back to the Xth century. This will contribute to refinement of hypotheses regarding Novgorod topography of the earliest period.

The research on Russian republican thought of mid XVIIIth - early XIXthe centuries, performed by Victor Kaploun and Natalia Potapova, consists of studying archeology and genealogy of Russian Enlightment thinking and republican traditions of Russian culture of the last third of the XVIIIth century. The main focus is on Russian political language and basic political concepts that reflect Republican values of common good and shape the possibilities of common cause. In particular, Victor Kaploun researches classical Russian culture of the era of Radishchev, Karamzin, Pushkin and the Decembrists. Its foundational values can be traced all the way to Antiquity. They are exactly what has been inconspicuously passed from generation to generation of Russian literature readers, togеther with fundamental models of virtuous and valiant behavior. Thus, we are all, as Catherine II would say, Republicans at heart. And although many of our compatriots, raised within Stoic-Roman or Greek models of Russian culture, fail to notice this antique layer, it is what lies at the heart of our literature, and as such shapes basic institutions of morality.

Natalia Potapova’s research project, Legislative Commission of Catherine II: shaping of the new political language and practices focuses on creation of the Russian law code in 1767-1768. Historiography lacks consensus regarding the significance and activities of the Legislative Commission. Was it merely a stage decoration in the republican show meant to conceal the inconvenient and incorrigible Russian reality? Or yet another attempt to adjust the optics of the police state, only this time not by sending out commissioners and fiscals, but by gathering the electives in the capital, so that they would report on their vision of needs and moods discussed in the Senate, and would serve as “witnesses” to administrative cases? Or was it a starting point of civil liberties? An attempt to build a “republic” by the sovereign, a not entirely consistent and logical one due to participation of the plethora of actors who understood its task differently? An endeavor to push representatives of different estates to contribute to creation of common things and drafting of common rules of using them? Was the rhetoric of Roman republicanism merely an arbitrary decoration of it all?

This project sets out to research the interaction between various elements of political languages and the role they played in the discourse of deputies in the Legislative Commission. The theoretical model is based on Bourdieu’s hypothesis that the linguistic sense and the expressions habitual in the community are a special case of dialectical relationship between habitus and institutions. The primary emphasis is made on researching the functioning of the new classical republican rhetoric and practices of deliberation aimed at reproduction of rational discussion. We accept and seek to verify Hugh Hudson’s hypothesis that in Russia habitus bore more significance than the will of the ruler. We would like to find out how informal pressure weakened, how subversion of traditional hierarchical subordination took place, how the impulse of civil liberties given in the Catherine’s Order transformed, how practical possibilities of civil participation were explored in course of Commission sessions, and how the shared experience of “the other reality” was shaped and changed. Also, Natalia has published one of the most prominent recent books devoted to reevaluation of the Decembrist movement titled Tribunes of dank casemates

Another block of our center’s research consists of projects in republican theory that are mainly focused on history of republican thinking and practices. The book authored by Oleg Kharkhordin, head of Res Publica center, Res publica, or the public cause(2020) in a popular form describes major developmental stages of republican thinking from the times of Antiquity to modern day. Published by Harvard University Press in 2018, Republicanism in Russia: Community Before and After Communism (2018) is an academic rather than popular summary of the work performed by the center over the last ten years. In 2019, a group of researchers led by Kharkhordin published To Live with Dignity, a volume of articles on dignity, one of the key republican concepts. 

Apart from the theory of political and social structure of classical republics, our center performs analysis of functioning of things that lie at the basis of contemporary societies. In res publica, res can be translated as causes or things, and that is why one often comes across the expression “public things” in  Roman law textbooks. Research conducted in our center in mid-2000s was mainly preoccupied with analysis of things that knit together a contemporary Russian city or even a yard. The results were published in Infrastructure of Freedom. From the Communal to the Public is an analysis of how contemporary social movements that defend urban legacy often employ classical republican themes from Russian culture and history. This topic was popularized in a series of newspaper columns in Novaya Gazeta

Experimental activities

The experimental block tests republican practices in the communities that would like to implement such forms of co-living. It helps test major research hypotheses. From 2013 to 2019 testing activity also included attempts to see to which extent cities that wish to adopt participatory budgeting (participation of population in drafting and realization of a small part of city budget) are indeed capable of that. This project came to be known as Participatory budgeting in Russian municipalities. Participatory budgeting usually means that a small part (1 to 5 per cent) of municipal budget (of a settlement, district or city) is reserved for expenditures decided by a special budgetary committee. Half of the committee members are municipal officials, while the other are citizens who were elected by means of casting lots and other republican procedures. 

For the sake of popularization this project has been widely covered in the media - both in Vedovosti (e.g. here and here, and in local newspapers in the towns that hosted republican experiments (for example, here). One of the major tasks of the project is to involve into the dialogue with the administration those citizens who previously avoided it for various reasons ranging from distrust of authorities to lack of information. The administration provides the citizens with information on city budget and ways of using it, the main legal aspects and practices in the sphere of municipal management. The sum allocated by the administration is then distributed by the budgetary committee. As a result, citizens get a real opportunity to make a difference in the life of their urban community, and the authorities receive fresh ideas and an opportunity to recruit new engaged members on their team.

Beginning in 2019 the project has been developed by the research team led by Lev Shilov and the Center for Humanistic Urbanism (Urbanism and Participation).

As a part of our center’s experimental activities we have also worked on devising a model of a public ‘republican’ register of Russian. The classical model of republican liberty is often employed on a microlevel, from homeowner associations to municipal authorities. Firstly, at this level there are no barriers for active representatives of this small group to meet in person to solve problems. Secondly, when people unite over “common things”, be it a struggle against invasive housing construction or working on beautification of a common yard, they often implement republican models, even if unconsciously.

Research shows that contemporary Russian society almost entirely lacks an emotionally neutral but interested and polite “public” register, usually employed in discussions of important issues in parliaments. Discussions among civil society groups in Russia are usually quick to deteriorate into an intensively-personal register of online social networks, or into the language of official cliches that belong in documents. The results of this study were published in a book edited by Nikolai Vakhtin and Boris Firsov, The Public Muteness Syndrom: the History and Modern Practices of Public Debates in Russia (НЛО, 2017), especially in articles by Boris Gladarev, Oleg Kharkhordin and Dmitry Kalugin.

A logical continuation of this work would be devising a code of public dialogue and education in methods of such public non-violent and non-insulting discussion of common problems. The task would be to create a Russian counterpart to what is called  Robert’s Rules of Order in America or Rules of Parliamentary Procedure in the UK, but grounded to the rules of discussion in such groups as a gardening cooperative, municipality or gathering of a civil society organization. Merely translating western codes of public discussion will not work. For example, Robert’s Rules of Order were translated into Russian twice in the early 90s. However, they did not take root here because of being inadequate fits for the Russian debate and discussion practices. Luckily, there is a set of rules of holding discussions that were devised in 1906 by Sergey Muromtsev, Chairman of the First State Duma, and Moisey Ostrogorsky, a specialist in sciences politiques, and a Sciences Po alumnus. They were later perfected by V.Maklakov over the course of work in the Duma up until 1917 (even the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks sometimes resorted to using these rules in discussions at the revolutionary Petrograd Soviet). Adapted to the needs of the XXIst century, such a code of rules could be of service to civil society. WIthout such a code, civil society groups often experience problems when trying to quickly and effectively draft a collective position on what to achieve and how to achieve it.