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Denis Ivanov

PhD Traineeship at VU TSPMI

You are doing a research project that focuses on the consequences of growing socio-economic inequality in Europe. Can you tell more about it? How did you become interested in this field?

So, I am the final year PhD student at Corvinus University of Budapest, working within a Horizon 2020 project on populism called FATIGUE. It involves fifteen other doctoral students from a consortium of universities in Europe with the aim to study the recent wave of populism in Central and Eastern Europe from a multidisciplinary perspective. We have economists, political scientists and anthropologists in the project working on a common book as the main deliverable for the project. My particular research is about connecting socio-economic inequality with the rise of populism on the demand (popular support) as well as the supply (party strategies). In my work, I propose a new theoretical framework with insights from political philosophy, economics and sociology. I then test the theoretical framework using quantitative analysis of mass and expert surveys as well as look at the comparative example of populist incumbents in Hungary and Lithuania.

I became interested in this topic, because of its relevance and because I think some of my skills could be applied to further the scholarship on this issue. At the same time the topic of populism is very challenging, since at the time when I started my research there were probably two working papers on it, while now there is abundance of opinions, scientific journals as well as special courses focusing just on populism.

You obtained an MA in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe (MIREES) from the University of Bologna, Italy; how were your studies?

The studies were great! I spent the first year in Bologna, which I expected to be very calm: eating good food, going out and occasionally working on assignments. However, the reality was that although there was a lot of good food, we also had to study hard. I have spent the second year of my studies in Budapest, as a compulsory mobility period. I was also lucky to have the late professor Leonidas Donskis as one of my instructors, which was probably one of the all time best experiences of my academic life. Overall, the difference in perspectives on Eastern Europe and overromanticizing Russia in the West was the main challenge of my experience.

You were visiting researcher at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at University College London (UCL); what was your experience there? 

I have spent almost a year in London at UCL and also doing a secondment at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which was cut short by the pandemic. I ran away as soon as I heard about Boris Johnson’s initial “herd immunity” plan, and never regretted since. As a PhD student, I mostly worked with my supervisors at UCL SSEES: prof. Elodie Douarin as well as prof. Julia Korosteleva. The experience was very formative: we had frequent meetings, I was working with data and was able to draft my first article by the end of the term. UCL has abundant resources for PhD students and a multitude of soft-skill trainings focusing on presentation, getting rid of the imposter syndrome, focusing on dissemination of the results as well as writing retreats. I made sure to use them to my advantage and I think it benefitted me greatly.

You have worked and studied in many places, including Moldova, Italy, Hungary, and Lithuania, what were the main differences between these countries? Which country did you enjoy the most? How is Lithuania for you?

I am originally from Moldova and have left the country after my high school graduation, returning for shorter periods at different times. I spent seven years total in Lithuania as an undergraduate student and also worked in the private sector in one of the international companies with shiny glass windows around Vilnius. At some point I have decided that I would eventually like to try myself in an academic career, that eventually took me to Italy first and then Hungary. Places for me are mostly about people. I have a few, but good friends in all of the countries, and keep in touch with them on a constant basis. Studying the languages of the host countries definitely opens a lot of doors and is crucial to understanding the context of a lot of things. Since I am legally linked to Hungary, but emotionally attached to Moldova and Lithuania, I am quite biased to choose the favorite place. I love Lithuania for its rainy weather (joke), provincial calm, professionalism, love of freedom and basketball, and very high ambitions.

What is your main academic interest here in Lithuania? What do you mostly do here at the Institute?

Since I am in my last year of my doctoral studies, I am in Lithuania for half of the year mostly to focus on finishing up my dissertation. A part of the work is about Lithuanian populist parties and obviously being in the country helps to polish this part. I have presented a draft of it at a PhD colloquium at TSPMI and received good feedback and comments. Besides the dissertation, I am working on a research paper focusing on civil culture, vested interest and varieties of capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in countries with populists in power. My host is prof. Ainė Ramonaitė and, initially, my plan was to compare Hungary and Lithuania in terms of civil society resilience towards democratic backsliding. As it always happens with research, it has changed quite a bit, and now I am shifting my focus on the region as a whole and compare the late arrival of populists to power in Estonia with a quite an early and very successful Hungarian one. I will be presenting a working paper with some preliminary results at a departmental seminar in mid-June.

What do you do away from your studies? What does your free time look like?

I play basketball, but am currently recovering from a surgery on my knee, so all I can do is to watch Žalgiris not do well this season. I also have a toddler and as a young parent he is my free time. The three of us live in Prienai, which is a hometown of my wife, and is great for dissertation writing, picking up the local dialect and gardening, but is quite boring in terms of things young people do.

Finally, maybe there is something you would like to wish upon the VU TSPMI community?

Unfortunately, as a busy PhD student, I have not had a chance to fully engage with the community. However, from my view as an outsider, VU TSPMI is very influential and well-known within Lithuania, fully engrained in its political life with its alumni in leading positions in public sphere. However, it does not seem to have an international profile. I think it will change with time, but my wish is to invest in doctoral students, impactful research as well as internationalization of its student body and faculty members.