This year’s recipient of the BISA Distinguished Contribution Prize discusses her early life, the fall of the Soviet Union and her passion for teaching with BISA Chair Mark Webber.
Margot Light is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has been an authoritative scholarly voice on Soviet and Russian foreign policy since the 1980s. Informed by a deep knowledge of Russia’s politics, culture and language, Margot’s work has also been sensitive to broader, theoretical developments. Her first book The Soviet Theory of International Relations was followed by others, edited and co-authored, analysing the internal and external factors that shape Russia’s approach to the world. Early in her career Margot co-edited two state of the art books on IR theory (one of these, International Relations: A Handbook of Current Theory, ed. Margot Light and A.J.R. Groom – was republished by Bloomsbury in 2016). She has also written widely on ethical, normative and gender issues in IR.
Margot has played a leading role in nurturing young scholars and in supporting women in the profession. She co-convened the first course in the UK dedicated to the study of women in international relations and set up the LSE Women Group – a forerunner of #LSEWomen. Margot was Director of the Human Rights Programme in the Commonwealth of Independent States based in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the LSE from 2006 – 2016.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in South Africa in 1940, went to school and university there and, after graduating, moved to Southern Rhodesia, as it was then called. I came to the UK in 1963.
How has this shaped you?
It made me quite political right from the very start, certainly very aware of the complications and injustices of a divided society.
My parents were both born in South Africa, but we were an immigrant family and I myself became an immigrant. That made me aware of, and very fearful of, nationalism, and also quite an activist.
What was your experience as a student and how has this influenced your career and intellectual interests?
I had a previous career. I came to the UK as a physiotherapist. In fact, I probably wouldn't have been able to get into the UK so easily otherwise, because I wasn't a political refugee. I think the geographic and political journey from South Africa may have influenced my next choices, but it didn't influence my being a physiotherapist.
I went back to university to study Russian and Soviet Studies with International Relations, and that was my path to an interest in foreign policy and the Soviet Union. I was very fortunate, of course, that I went back to university at a time when education was free. So I obtained a free second degree and, indeed, a free PhD degree too!
What was it that inspired you to study what was then the Soviet Union?
I wanted to study Russian but I hadn't done Russian A level (I hadn't done any A levels in fact; I had a matriculation) and the only way you could study Russian ab initio at university was to study Russian and Soviet Studies together with a social science subject and I chose International Relations.
Then I had an enormous piece of luck: I won a British Council scholarship to the Soviet Union, so I spent a year as an undergraduate at Moscow State University. That gave me a huge advantage in terms of language fluency and, consequently, the level of degree that I got. At that point Area Studies certainly had an intellectual cachet. And, if one was to become credible as a specialist on a particular country or region, then acquiring the language was very important.
Being a mature student also worked to my advantage, because the University of Surrey employed me part-time as soon as I graduated. This served as an example to other students that even if you were an adult you could learn Russian. I was employed initially to teach Russian language, but gradually began to teach Soviet Politics and International Relations as well.
While I was at Surrey I became very closely connected with the Centre for the Analysis of Conflict which was run by John Burton, first at UCL and then at Kent University. Burton was quite a dissident in IR circles in the United Kingdom. He believed in – and practiced -- conflict resolution and, therefore, in second-track diplomacy. Part of this endeavour was an attempt to increase Soviet-Western understanding by running a series of seminars with Soviet theorists - and I helped organise and participated in those meetings.
When you were writing and working on the Soviet Union, and particularly researching your book, Soviet Theory of International Relations, what was your assessment of its future and of its stability? Did you ever foresee that the great communist project would be brought to its knees?
I knew that the strength of the Soviet Union was vastly over emphasized. I could also see that the totalitarian model was completely inappropriate as a way of analysing Soviet politics. The models that were used to inform policy in the West tended to exaggerate Soviet strength and stability. They were skewed in this way because one way to get defence budgets funded was to be sure that everybody thought that the Soviet Union was extremely threatening and was about to attack.
However, even knowing those things, I didn't believe the Soviet Union would collapse. I still think that it could have survived, even economically, for at least another 20 years or so. So I was as surprised as everybody else when it disintegrated.
Gorbachev is often blamed in Russia for bringing about the Soviet Union's demise. Is that true or was he just a tragic figure with few options?
Even in the West, which tends to glorify Gorbachev, I think that his courage is underestimated. Gorbachev was not the first leader to embark on reform in the Soviet Union but he was the first reformer who took the necessary second and third steps toward radical reform. The problem is that once he took those steps, things unravelled rapidly. Gorbachev totally underestimated the forces of nationalism and the effects that these would have on the cohesion of the USSR. He made tragic mistakes, not just in dealing with nationalism, but in some of the economic reforms that he instigated.
Do you think that it was inevitable that post-Soviet Russia would try and reassert itself?
Yes, but things might have been different if Keynesian economics had been fashionable at the time communism fell, rather than neoliberalism. The 1990s, the first post-Soviet decade, were excruciatingly painful for Russian citizens. There was economic chaos, there was extreme poverty. The picture of Russians standing around metro station exits holding a few possessions trying to sell them in order to earn enough money to pay for food was just almost unbelievable and extremely painful. There was also a lot of lawlessness and corruption and very little control of the country. There was a great danger that that the Russian Federation would disintegrate in the same way the Soviet Union had. The sense of isolation and anxiety in Russia was compounded as its east European neighbours were welcomed into European institutions. It was the dislocation, humiliation and sense of insecurity of the 1990s that made Russians welcome Putin and his attempts to reassert Russia’s position in the international system.
In 1994 you wrote (in a piece co-authored with the late Fred Halliday) that gender analysis ‘is now one of the most dynamic areas of IR, with consequences that have only begun to be recognized.’ How significant do you think gender/feminist analyses has been since in IR?
It's thanks to Fred Halliday that we set up a Master’s option in Women and International Relations. We had a great deal of fun doing it but it was difficult because we both taught two other subjects. Fred was a Middle East specialist, I was a Soviet specialist and both areas were changing rapidly. Gender has gone on being important in IR and there has been progress – there are more courses; there are research groups such as BISA’s Gendering International Relations; and reading lists have been rethought -- but perhaps not quite as much as Fred and I hoped at the time. Attention and interest in gender became diverted by the next theoretical turn.
People are now seeing that other categories – race, for instance - are marginalised in the study of IR and there are some very strong voices on that. Is that change long overdue?
It is long overdue. There is perhaps a similar trajectory to the interest previously shown in gender and women. First, notice is taken of the absence of race in historical narratives and accounts of the development of the international system, then IR concepts themselves are examined for bias. Debate here can get extremely heated and people can feel very undermined.
And related, how do you feel the standing of women in the Social Sciences/IR has changed since you entered the profession?
It's important, as is the fact that all the BISA prize winners this year are women. But that isn’t to say that in the profession as a whole women have made such progress. The proportion of professorships held by women in the UK has actually declined recently; and I came across an article which pointed out that in the United Kingdom there are only nine black female professors, and only three of those are in Politics. So there is a huge gap still to be made up.
Area Studies, having once been very strong in the UK, is now somewhat marginalised and it's possible that in the next REF after this we could see the disappearance of the Area Studies sub panel. What do you think has led us to this point? Area Studies is where individuals have a very fine-grained expertise on a country. I just wonder why over the last 10 or 20 years this has become under-appreciated?
I think it's partly a result of cuts. In the case of Soviet Studies, an awful lot of the funding was a product of the Cold War - you had to know your enemy. Everybody thought that when the Cold War ended, peace would break out all over and in-depth study of Russia was no longer so necessary. I think it's a great tragedy because I think that Areas Studies benefit the country as a whole, not just so that you have specialists who can advise policymakers, but also as a means of informing decisions on cultural and business ties.
Over the years, I found that the qualifications of students applying for, say, International Relations were far higher than those applying for, say, Russian politics and Area Studies. When universities get ranked on so many dimensions, there is a tendency to expand the areas where you get the best students and to diminish or shut down the areas that attract applicants who don't have such good results.
What are your reflections on teaching and what makes a good teacher? What is its proper status in the academy?
I find teaching very rewarding. It gives you instant gratification. You can often gauge immediately whether you've got something across successfully. Sometimes you can see it on students’ faces and that's very rewarding. You have to think on your feet because students question you, and it keeps you young because you're with young people all the time.
I was intrigued by the introduction and the measurement of this thing called ‘impact’ . Really the greatest impact we have is from our teaching. What you teach affects not just the students you're teaching now, but the students they in turn may teach, or even the children that they bring up, or the way in which they deal with their associates in their professional lives. University teachers make a huge impact by teaching and I think it's much undervalued.
If you could return to your early life would you still pursue a career in academia?
It has been immensely worthwhile and extremely rewarding. I have had the opportunity to work and publish with wonderful colleagues and to teach amazing students. I'm not sure, though, that I would advise my younger self to do it now, because academia has become more and more bureaucratic and managerial. Even though the teaching part will always be very rewarding, the research might be interesting and exciting, and the writing may be worthwhile, it increasingly imposes huge strains and stresses. But it has certainly given me a wonderful life.