Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests 3

What explains the trends of extrajudicial assassinations on foreign soil from the Stalinist Soviet Era to Putin’s current regime? The state-sponsored assassination of defectors on foreign soil may not be exclusive to Russia; but, a comprehensive look at its historical timeline exposes a politically oscillating phenomenon. It is often the secret intelligence agencies that perpetrate the extrajudicial killings; but, the historical prevalence of said crimes fluctuates given the leader at the helm of the nation. I am considering conducting a comparative statistical analysis of extrajudicial assassinations from the time of Stalin’s Great Purge to the more-recent poisoning of a Soviet defector, Sergei Skripal to explain this tendency. That said, after reading more on the topic, the state’s relationship with international law emerged as a critical dimension to the puzzle.

Not only did the Soviet Union play an influential role in shaping the field International Law (especially post-WWII), but one could also argue that the state’s violations of international law and ex-post facto manipulation of it is a continuation of its shaping of international law1. International law is essentially accepted by all states as a legitimate formula for action whereas unbridled national interest is not. Russia invokes international law to elude culpability and justify its actions as globally acceptable. Has international law evolved in tandem with Soviet/Russian legal perspectives and its extrajudicial assassination practices on foreign soil? If so, what explains the parallel evolutions of Soviet Union/Russian Federation’s extrajudicial assassinations and International law?This feedback loop would be an interesting concept to unpack. For this research, I would rely more on historical tracing, to elucidate the reciprocal relationship between the USSR/Russia and international law (maintaining the timeline constant).

The Soviet Definition of International Law, which espouses Marxist-Leninist ideologies, championed state sovereignty and self-determinism and opted for a positivistic interpretation of law over customary law1. At the time, many Soviet jurisprudence experts dismissed international law as inherently “bourgeois”; however, this line of thinking was later overshadowed by a more pragmatic approach2. Law professor Andrei Vyshinskii argued that Soviet participation in shaping international law could be advantageous, and the Soviet Union began wielding international law as a tool of foreign policy. Later Vyshinkii became the procurator general of the USSR and provided legal expertise for the Moscow Trials2. During the volatile period of Stalin’s Great Terror campaign, Soviet citizens were prohibited by law from leaving the country to settle elsewhere and those who sought political asylum were branded defectors. The 1929 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee bestowed the GPU (State Political Directorate) with the right to “liquidate” defectors abroad without additional documentation3. The NKVD special operations unit organized overseas assassinations of political enemies and personal rivals of Stalin. By 1937 extralegal measures and kangaroo courts ran rampant, and under Vyshinskii a man named Aron Trainin outlined a Soviet version of international criminal law2. His legal definitions were not only borrowed in the Nuremberg Charter but also strongly influenced international law.

In his book Russian Approaches to International Law, Lauri Mälksoo provides a detailed analysis of how Russia’s perception of international law has developed to offer the reader insight into Russia’s engagement with international law4. This big-picture analysis will help inform my research. I think that by unpacking the state’s trends of extrajudicial assassinations, it will help explain the state’s (reciprocal) relationship with international law, and vice versa.


1.Oliver, Rozanne D. Soviet International Law: Theory and Practice. Honors theses, University of Richmond, 1972.

2. Hirsch, Francine. “The Soviets at Nuremberg: International Law, Propaganda, and the Making of the Postwar Order.”The American Historical Review113, no. 3 (June 1, 2008): 701-30. doi:10.1086/ahr.113.3.701.

3. Kolpakidi, Alexander, and Klim Degtyarev.Внешняя разведка СССР (Soviet Foreign Intelligence). Moscow: Litres, 2017.

4. Mälksoo, Lauri.Russian Approaches to International Law. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests

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    Dr. Boesenecker

    You are off to a good start here Tina with some good thoughts on the direction that your research might take. I like the fact that you are organizing your thoughts around scholarship and the debates in existing scholarship, since identifying the debates among scholars (debates about what we understand / what we don’t understand) is one important part of identifying your own specific research puzzle. As you keep reading and conducting background research, work on honing in on the outcome (the specific trend, event(s), state of affairs) that you want to explain. The “what explains…?” question that you articulate in your post is a good starting point, but working to develop the puzzle in even more depth will strengthen the overall research. Don’t become committed to a given methodology just yet since you will have to think about how you would conceptualize your research in all 3 of our methodological worlds–and you might be surprised by what you learn in doing that. I look forward to seeing how the research develops!

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    I think your topic is especially interesting given its salience to today’s world. You also sound like you’re doing a good job of identifying the key scholars and pieces within your topic area, which is definitely something to keep up as we go along. I also think your idea of applying statistical analysis to these killings to track their correlation with international law would be a really cool direction to go. From my layman’s perspective, here might be a few things to think about: how do we deal with the problem of attribution in these killings? In the recent attempt on Sergei Skripal’s life, Russia has vociferously denied any involvement, though few may believe that. Even if you had the gumption to go through archives for every incident to apply your own standards of attribution, there still might be problems of access, since many of those documents could still be classified. If your own direct analysis through archives isn’t possible, then it might be worth considering the implications of which other “truth” to which you’re subscribing by using conclusions reached by governments or media outlets. Also, though I love your idea of a statistical analysis, I wouldn’t discount the value of a syntactic-type historical narration (not that you necessarily did, but something to keep in mind). We haven’t really dug into the details of all the different methodologies yet, but I think that each route definitely has its own merit and would be interesting in different ways. I think this is going to be a really cool project and I can’t wait to see where you take it!

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    Tina, you clearly have a strong base understanding that is informing your research, and it seems as though it will help you as you move forward. As you develop your project, it’s possible that it might help you to determine specific cases that you can use as a basis for your research. I know that you have a historical time frame, but it is still a lot of time to cover in it’s entirety. Given our time frame for the project, narrowing it will both give you a specific basis that you can return to throughout your project as well as ensure that your project is a manageable size given the level of analysis and detail you are looking to accomplish. In addition, while it may be beyond the scope of your research, I would be curious to see how this expands into the international stage in terms of the impacts from the case studies that you are examining for your research. Finally, I would like to say that I am looking forward to seeing where you go with your research because it seems as though it should be very interesting.