This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar at Brookings introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been edited from the audio recording.
My name is Alina Polyakova, I’m a David Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and at the Center for United States and Europe. I work at the triangle of Russia, Europe, and U.S. relations, and everything in between.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: The question of where I grew up is always a complicated one. I was born in the Soviet Union and actually grew up in Soviet Ukraine in Kyiv. My family immigrated in 1991, before the fall of the Soviet Union, to Atlanta, Georgia. So I went straight from the Soviet state to the south in the United States, and spent the rest of my childhood there.
Q: What inspired you to become a scholar
A: I’ve always been interested in understanding how the world works. In college I studied economics, which to me was an unsatisfying answer as to how the world actually worked. After spending a year in Germany as a Fulbright scholar, I did my graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley in sociology, so I’m actually a sociologist not a political scientist. I studied the rise of far-right political parties in Europe and I spent about two years doing interviews in Ukraine as part of that research.
Sociology started to fill in some of those gaps about society, culture, and power that economics didn’t really touch in a specific way. At the end the day I was interested in sociology because of the theoretical concepts and ideas it allowed me to engage with. I think this desire for knowledge is probably what drives most of us to be scholars, to understand what is driving the change in the world that we find ourselves embedded in.
Q: What do you think is the most important issue that we’re facing today?
A: I think the most important issue we’re facing today is asking “what will the international order look like in the very near future?” We’re certainly in a time of incredible flux and unpredictable change.
If we look back at the world since the end of the last major conflict, which was World War II, it looks pretty stable and the trend lines were all pointing in the same direction. Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the transformation that’s happened in Russia is not what we expected. The return to authoritarianism in Russia and its continued grasp in China was not what most thinkers predicted in the early 1990s. And the internal transformations happening in democracies today—in the United States, in Europe, in Central and Eastern Europe—mean that we’re not looking toward a world that looks like where we came from. And we actually don’t know what this new world of geopolitical competition—a multi-polarity or however you want to define it—will look like.
I think some of the challenges to democratic institutions that we’re seeing today are driven by internal grievances and internal political movements across the Atlantic. But authoritarian states like Russia and China are exploiting the growing polarization of our societies. The combination of these trends presents a very concerning picture going forward. A world that looks like it could be dominated by authoritarians versus democracies. I certainly hope that’s not the case but this is, I think, the biggest challenge facing the global order today.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: What I’m working on now is not something I ever thought I would work on given my background as a qualitative and quantitative researcher. I’m increasingly working more and more to try and understand the implication of emerging technologies on the global balance of power. One of the things that is driving the societal global change is the massive digital revolution that the entire world has undergone in a very short period of time. We don’t understand or know what the consequences of that are going to be.
One thing I’m trying to understand is what are the implications of technologies—like artificial intelligence and decentralized ledger technologies that underlie crypto currencies—for the future of political warfare, for the future of disinformation, and how state actors and non-state actors will use these tools in malicious ways.
I like to joke that I always look at the dark side of things. The title of my first book was actually The Dark Side of European Integration. Now I’m attracted to tech from this particular point of view, from this particular lens, because I think we need to understand the negative implications, in addition to the positive transformative implications, of the new digital space that we find ourselves in.
Q: If you could recommend any books for our listeners, what would it be?
A: In terms of books, I have to confess that I try to read a lot of fiction. I try to stay away, for pleasure anyways, from reading what I work on all the time. I’ll recommend two books, one in the nonfiction space, and one in the fun, fiction space.
In the nonfiction space, one book I always go back to and think of very fondly might surprise people. It’s called The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias. It’s a book I read in graduate school about how culture transforms itself through the constant conflict and competition between social classes. Though this has nothing to do what I’m working out now, I find it absolutely fascinating.
In the fiction space I really enjoyed a trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. The first book in the trilogy is called Sea of Poppies. It’s historical fiction but he himself is an anthropologist and uses a lot of original text and original documents from the time period he writes about. It’s about the emerging opium trade in India and the opium wars that take place later between the Brits and the Chinese over Hong Kong. I think it actually provides a lot of interesting historical context for what we see happening today in that part of the world.
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