Colton lecture sets standard for critiquing political leaders

By Hristina Mangelova ’16

Timothy J. Colton, a Morris and Anna Feldberg professor of Government and Russian Studies and the chair of the Department of Government at Harvard University, spoke to community members in the Barn on Monday, November 4 in a lecture titled, “Political Leadership after Communism.” The lecture, which was sponsored by the Levitt Center Speaker Series, focused on leadership in post-Soviet countries.

Colton’s scholarly experience has earned him a position with the American Council of Learned Societies and as vice-chairman of the National Council for East European, Russian and Eurasian Research.  Currently, he also sits on the editorial board of two academic journals.

Colton’s book, Yeltsin: A Life, has revealed high praise amongst scholars, including Hamilton’s associate professor of Government Sharon W. Rivera, who recommended it to the audience.  The work of nonfiction focuses on the political tactics of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation ,who served from 1991-1999.  Specifically, the book identifies the obstacles Yeltsin faced when he began leading a post-communist state and discusses how his political strategies helped shape the Federation into the Russia of today.

Colton began his talk by establishing the importance of leadership in post-communist states, and then went on to talk about the “analytical pitfalls with the study of political leadership.” Some of the points he stressed were the complexity of the Burns Paradox (also known as “leader-followers nexus”), the importance of distinguishing opportunity and initiative and the fact that “leaders share the stage with numerous other players and forces.”

Eventually, Colton returned to his first point—the importance of leadership in post-communist states. Being a leader in a post-communist state, he said, is more difficult and challenging than being a leader in an already established state; the same way reforming communism in Russia, for example, is nothing like reforming the health system in the United States. One of the reasons for this, according to Colton, is that in post-communist states there are weak civil societies, which may seem advantageous for leaders but in practice make it hard for them to “relate to [the] mass constituents.”

Colton also pointed out that presidentialism is a very popular form of government amongst counties with a communist past because, to some extend, it “enforces the communism from the past.” However, he noted that the majority of post-communist leaders do not have “democratization” amongst their priorities. Instead, they are more interested in bringing about political and social stability and economical growth.

When Colton was asked if he could see Russia becoming a democratic state by Western definitions, he explained that Russia has come a long way—nowadays people can go out in the streets and express their disapproval of the government. While Putin is Russia’s leader, he argued, Western influence and democratization will not be sought after.

Canadian-born Colton admitted that this was his first time in upstate New York, and he expressed his desire to come back to Hamilton for another event. Hopefully, the members of the Hamilton community will have more opportunities to hear from this Harvard professor.


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