Associate Professor of Government Laura Henry does her research within the broad area of state-society relations in the former Soviet Union. Her interest in this topic, she explains, lies in the enormous puzzle it poses for political scientists as a kind of large-scale human experiment; until 1991 the people of the Soviet Union lived under an authoritarian, single party regime but now, given the regime's collapse and the gains in personal freedom, how will Russian citizens act politically?
Questions in this field, such as whether democratization in the former USSR occurred by default or whether the Soviet repression permanently altered citizens' political tendencies, clearly have profound importance in our understanding of society, politics and humans in general.
Henry has done research in this area through the lens of grassroots environmental politics in Russia. Her two current projects deal first with citizen action and efficacy in the current regime and, secondly with how the political atmosphere surrounding climate change in Russia has altered over time.
The first explores the role of the complaints system, a vestige of the old Soviet regime through which citizens could file their complaints with the state, in contemporary Russian politics. Henry has found that many Russians choose to use the complaints system instead of engaging with politics through voting or involvement with NGOs. Her project, which involves numerous interviews with Russians and a careful perusal of the complaint archives, asks whether this choice is a viable means of self-representation or if, in reality, it contributes to semi-authoritarian regime stability.
The second project examines the effects of internal and external pressures on Russian climate change politics. "The Kyoto Protocol is intended to combat climate change worldwide," Professor Henry explains, "but due to Russia's post-Soviet industrial collapse, the protocol does not require Russia to lower greenhouse gas emissions, or to combat glaring inefficiencies in its system."
One example she cites are the wasteful systems of aboveground pipes that are used, to this day, to transport heat throughout many Russian neighborhoods. Henry examines whether transnational incentives and grassroots activism direct against such inefficiencies are leading any change in policy.
One persistent question that drives her work is what influences the way citizens of different states practice politics; is there some "natural" political behavior that we are all conforming to or are there enduring cultural differences that are likely to persist? In addition to the tremendous scholarly value of her work, her intellectual and emotional ties with the people of the former Soviet Union provide purpose for her research.
"I lived through [the collapse of the Soviet Union] as an undergrad and I developed this deep curiosity and optimism about how the Russian people might take advantage of this political opening," Henry said. Her projects, she says, give her the chance to meet and learn about those people in the former Soviet Union taking real action to improve the lives of others.