The events of February 24th have called into question the deep foundations of the humanities and social science disciplines that study Russia, their raison d’etre. How and why should Russian literature, history, and society be studied now? Is a methodological revision of the foundations of the respective disciplines possible? To study Russia in light of all that has happened? Shift to other objects of study? Or should the question be posed radically differently at all, and it is not about the material?
Victor Vakhshtayn, professor at the Department of Social Sciences of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), who was forced to leave Russia even before the invasion of Ukraine began, discusses what is happening with Russian Studies, whether it is possible to find a resource for continuing to work under the current conditions, and what the extent of responsibility of social scientists for what happened is. In 2022, Viktor Vakhshtayn was put on the list of foreign agents by the Russian Ministry of Justice.
T-i: After February 24, the field of science in Russia and the field of Russian Studies changed. This has presented us with a number of very difficult problems, which I would like to talk to you about today. First of all, how do you see these transformations?
VV: Let us first set the coordinates. What do we call «Russistics», «Russian studies», or, more broadly, «studies on Russian material»? There are four models of knowledge translation associated with this field (regardless of whether we understand it narrowly as «Russistics» or extremely broadly). These models took shape well before February 24th.
The first model is working with Russian material in order to transmit it to a conditional «Western» reader. Here, too, the palm belongs to historians and literary critics. A group of people-a very small group, given the limited interest in «Russian heritage» in the global academic world-act as official dealers and distributors. Colleagues who do this, for the most part, are already «well established» in good American and European universities. They have close ties with Russia. They sometimes write in co-authorship with Russian academics who have direct access to the «field»: to archives or to sociological data (especially when it comes to good old Sovietology in its new packaging). By the way, there was a similar model of one-sided broadcasting in Russian academia with regard to North Korea or Mongolia. There were «official specialists» and «authorized experts» on these countries.
The second model was research of Russian material by Russian academics for Russian readers. The results of such research were broadcast either in teaching or in academic publications (until recently academic journals in Russia were uncensored) or, in special cases, in political documents for «decision-makers». However, this model is more related to applied research and much less to the humanities. Although representatives of the social sciences worked in both the first and the second logics.
The third model is the direct opposite of the first. Researchers work with «Western» material (theories, data, methodological solutions) and translate it «inside» the country, essentially translating it. Translation in the broadest sense of the word. Sometimes this translation resulted in something truly original.
The fourth model is the ideal of the natural sciences. Researchers, physically located in Russia, publish their research in normal English-language journals that have nothing to do with Russia. This seems to be a museum rarity in our disciplines.
Russian studies in its pure form is only the first model. For the previous 20 years I have worked mainly in the third (less often in the second) logic. The theories to which my books are devoted are «Western» theories, translated for Russian colleagues and reduced to Russian realities, working on Russian cases. «The Eurobarometer in Russia,» which I led for 10 years, is a European project based on Russian material. This is how Theodore Shanin programmed our research school in his time: to make world science in Russian. In a sense, this is the anti-Russian studies.
T-i: That is, the fact that you are not engaged in Russian studies is a fundamental enough story for you?
VV: Maybe not so much a matter of principle as of generation. Those who entered science 10-15 years before me (on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union or immediately after) had an unenviable choice: either you leave immediately, integrate into «normal academia» and occupy the position of «official dealer of Russian material,» or you stay on the ruins of absurdity, waiting for a miracle. My generation of sociologists learned from those who academically socialized in Europe in the 1990s but returned to Russia. We already had new universities — Shaninka and European. Emigration was no longer the only rational strategy, the only way to do research.
Those who left in the 1990s faced a lot of obstacles. The first thing they had to sacrifice was their scientific interests. A handful of people were lucky enough to fit into the global field of Russian studies, telling English-speaking audiences about immortal Russian literature and bloody Russian history. But what if you were a sociologist? Well… you could write about gangsterism, oligarchs, or the informal economy. At the very least, you could write about the political realities of the Russian transition period and the difficult transition to democracy.
To my shame, I was neither a historian nor a literary scholar. I did not want to be a distributor of «sociological material» about Russia at a British university. My first subject was the history of microsociology and epistemology of the social sciences. And the position of an enlightened Indian, selling beads to Europeans in the name of his tribe, did not appeal to me.
So my choice was largely shaped by Shaninka, with its mission in the early 2000s: to form a community of Western-oriented, but predominantly Russian-speaking scholars who, working in Russia, could produce something meaningful in the actual theoretical discussion outside Russia. This was a task of translation and translation, but also of creating a new theoretical «language» in Russian. Then the priorities shifted. In the generation that followed me, the value of the Russian language declined in a natural way.
T-i: Has anything changed with this classification and with your position after February 24? To what extent can the line you adopted still be in demand?
VV: Therein lies the irony. Russistics or Russian Studies turned out to be more or less a winner. The question «What exactly is going on in Russia?» was posed to those who had had time to become experts before February 24. Not those who had left the country because of repression or war, but precisely those who had already been integrated into the university community as an expert on Russia. And if before that such experts sometimes felt their irrelevance and said that no one was interested in Russia now, unlike, for example, the Middle East (where funding, chairs, grants and stakes went), now colleagues have cheered up: «Putin has made our subject relevant again!» Political scientists, sociologists, and media researchers have had better luck. Philologists have to prove that this relevance also applies to them-for example, by wasting their energy and their readers’ time on endless opuses about «the nature of Russian colonialism as exemplified by Brodsky» or «cynicism as a cultural imperative in the novels of the late Pelevin.» I am friends with some — infinitely talented and educated — scholars of this cohort, so I simply try not to read what they write about the «responsibility of Russian culture.»
The fourth model hasn’t changed much. People were physically in Russia, but they were embedded in research projects that had nothing to do with Russia. They simply changed locations and continue to do academic work from other places.
It seems to me that the second and third models took the main hit. The second logic — doing research in Russia, on Russian material and for Russian-speaking readers — has been discredited. Especially among sociologists, political scientists and economists. Sociologists-empiricists have been told directly: «All these years you have been collecting data, analyzing it, publishing in Russia and teaching, but you have done it without respect for Russian statehood. No loyalty, no science. Someone left and is now painfully trying to fit into the academic market under the first or fourth model. Someone swore an oath and received as a bonus the projects of those who left. Some stayed in Russia in «internal exile,» hoping that they would not be reminded of their former influence, especially if their research was used in political games. As we know, the measure of influence in Russia is the measure of guilt. The closer researchers were to power (which is the hallmark of the second model), the greater the risk for them to remain in Russia if they were disloyal.
For the third model, however, February 24th was a collapse. Both morally and academically. In Russia, such work to maintain oases of normal science is now automatically considered an undermining of foundations. Sociologists of the third model are agents of pernicious Western influence. But the «official distributors of knowledge about Russia» in Europe also perceive their colleagues as agents of the Muscovite empire. These «distributors» feel quite comfortable remaining members of the editorial boards of Russian journals while publishing semi-anonymous articles about the dangers of this new wave of academic migration for European universities. Russian studies has proven to be a curious source of English-language denunciations of Russian-speaking immigrant scholars.
T-i: That answers the question, what happened for you after February 24?
VV: Yes. This is the collapse of my life project, too — the creation of an actual, Western, European up-to-date social science in Russian. We have achieved something in 20 years. Not much. But not much either.
T-i: Then there are two branches here. The first: is some new project possible for you, and if possible, from what resources, and should we not think about some new goal-setting? The second has to do with what post-Soviet humanities are in general. You could probably say that it was such a project that the community built in pushback from the Soviet model. How effective was this movement? Was «another science» built in the end? Was it possible to free ourselves from the Soviet legacy?
VV: Let’s start with the second branch, then. The social sciences and humanities have different historical dynamics here. In the 1990s, the humanities really had the goal of freeing themselves from the inertia of Soviet science, with its ideological pathos and teeth-grinding archaicism. It seems to have succeeded. Somewhere better, somewhere worse. New humanitarian journals («NLO»), a new generation of authors and readers, and a new type of institutions have appeared. But all of this is a continuation of the «post-Soviet» humanitarian project of the 90s. Here, it seems that there was no second revolution — an anti-post-Soviet turn. (However, maybe I just don’t know humanitarian kitchen very well).
In sociology, the «post-Soviet» period ended by the end of the 2000s. Partly because of generational conflict, partly… just exhausted. For twenty years sociologists have been scaring their colleagues with the figure of the «Soviet man,» trying to advise authorities, spewing streams of pathos-laden journalism, passing off linear distributions of opinion polls as results of scientific research. During this time, a new generation of people grew up who, thanks to expanding academic oases, traveled to conferences, published in English, mastered advanced methods of data analysis, and engaged in theoretical discussions. They were not interested in hearing about the heavy legacy of totalitarianism under the guise of academic results. Post-Soviet sociology as a project was incompatible with the idea of normal social science.
Therefore, Russian (rather than post-Soviet) schools were formed around those who, after spending the 1990s in Western academia, returned to the early 2000s. Thus, domestic social science ceased to be an arena of political confrontation between «Westerners» and «Slavophiles,» becoming a space for theoretical disputes between micro- and macrosociology, cultural sociology and ethnomethodology, frame theory and theory of practice. All this was made possible by the «third model,» the model of translation.
T-i: Can we call it colonial?
VV: Let’s do a mental experiment. Here you have the situation of a major specialist in Russian studies from a small university on the outskirts of Europe. He is an official dealer in «Russian culture» somewhere in Denmark, periodically visits Russia, speaks at official conferences, drinks with Russian academic maîtres, sits on their boards, associations, and editorial boards, and simultaneously wages a relentless struggle against imperialism, promoting a healthy postcolonial approach. His knowledge of Russia is supported by the work of a dozen younger colleagues in Russian universities who supply him with «material. In Denmark, he is an expert on Russia because of his connections in the «field»; in Russia, he is a representative of the «real Western academy.» This is a very common practice of double representation.
The second situation: you have a specialist in cultural sociology somewhere in the Higher School of Economics. Having studied at European universities and published a dozen articles in top journals, he creates his own research center, which quickly becomes an «outpost» of the Yale School of Sociology in Moscow. Thanks to him, an active group of young researchers and teachers is emerging in Russia.
Which of them is more colonial? The vivacious postcolonialist who publishes in English generalized retellings of texts by his Russian colleagues about the hardships of provincial life? Or the «agent of Western influence» who has come to the «country of native aspen trees» with «alien American theories»? Ironically, when the latter is forced to abandon everything and urgently relocate, the former will publish a text about how overstaying Russian academics will now try to transfer their colonial intentions to the European academy, reproducing here the «Moscow of the 2000s.»
I will now briefly answer your first question, about «what to do? The ramification is simple.» With greater or lesser losses, we can all integrate into the science of our host countries. We can all somehow continue our academic existence: apply for grants, run from internship to internship, from one temporary position to another. Sooner or later everyone will settle down in decent places. Some will be safely employed in the fourth model, some in the first. Of that I have no doubt. Or we will try to reassemble the intellectual communities that have emerged over the past 20 years in new conditions.
There is no universal recipe or ready-made answer. We are all currently being tested on «terminal values.» To say: «That’s it, I have shaken off the ashes of Russian academia from my feet» would mean, in a sense, that nothing of value has been created in Russia over these years. The founding fathers like Theodore Shanin built their cities in the wilderness, created pockets of civilization there, but winter has already set in: the white walkers have broken through the wall and it is time to retreat south. For those who have retreated, all is not yet lost; life goes on. I understand that logic. I’m just not ready to subscribe to it. Not yet.
I will spend the next few years trying to collectively relocate. Reassembling the Shanin community in the form of a network of research centers and educational programs. The Shania academic culture that has developed over the past twenty years is worth trying not to lose it in the whirlwind of a new migration of peoples.
T-i: The question is, what kind of grain we will transplant to new soil…
VV: The answer has to do with both research and the social shell of research. As for research, it is easier for those who work with fundamental projects. If you are doing microsociological research on technically mediated interactions, your research results are not tied to Russia. They either have value in any cultural context, or they have no value at all. In my department at Shaninka, most of the young professors worked with this logic. But there is another group — those who have dealt with current Russian empirical material. For example, they dealt with the institutional transformation of schools by examining the processes of their politicization. Or with the perception of technological innovation — the birth of a new «technological religion» of the 2010s. Or the Eurobarometer in Russia, a study of the attitudes and behavioral strategies of large social groups. These data have not yet lost relevance, but they are rapidly becoming obsolete…
T-i: That is, those who are capable of working with sociological empiricism are now out of the country and out of their field. And they have what, at the time it was all over, had been collected. This data is rapidly losing value, and…
VV: And so, if there is no asset in the form of basic science, but there is a desire to maintain a connection with Russian empiricism: to continue to collect it, to watch the dynamics, what and how has changed after February 24 — it is extremely difficult for them to do. However, the theoretical and methodological groundwork left over from the previous period has not gone anywhere. A former student of mine (who later became an Oxford Scholar and a colleague on the faculty) studied Buryat shamans, models of their self-organization, and various strategies for interacting with the authorities. She has published several interesting theoretically loaded articles in English-language journals. (She managed to elegantly combine anthropological community theory with sociological frame theory.) When she moved to Israel, she did not replace one religious group with another, as her colleagues at the university that invited her. She used the same research lens, but now to study the Israeli bureaucracy: she did a project called «anthropology of the MIA.» A sort of «tribes of passport workers.»
This is what concerns the content of sociological research. Empiricism is not transferable. The «field» cannot be taken away with it. It is possible to take away those theoretical and methodological innovations, developments, «moves» that made it possible to work with this «field.» However, these efforts and approaches were developed in a quite specific and atypical for Russian universities intellectual environment. In the environment of hermetic master’s programs for 20 people with a completely free choice of subjects. With courses that the professor reads for 5-10 students who choose it, shares his research and shows how it works. With co-authored work by professors and graduate students with publication of several general papers after graduation. Four-day intensives that bring the community together, not through rituals, but through informal, non-hierarchical bonds of trust. Collective analytical readings of texts. Seminars, where all these methodological and theoretical techniques are born, allowing us to combine contemporary Western discussion with Russian material. This is a school in the proper sense of the word. But school is not research. It is a social shell, a design shop, where the tools of future research are produced.
T-i: Is there anything that could be said as a fundamental contribution of the new Russian science to the world?
VV: No. Basic science cannot be Russian or French. It is either science or it is not. Only the «material» and the language in which it is created can be national.
T-i: But we remember the era when Russian humanities gave birth to theories that influenced the entire history of humanities in the twentieth century. The post-revolutionary period gave rise to, well, at least the great school of Russian formalists and not only that. In the 1990s, when everything became «possible» again, we failed to regain this momentum, to return to this state, although this mood did exist. Why?
VV: This is a question best addressed to specialists in the history of the humanities. Sociology had a different dynamic. There was nothing to return to in the 1990s. Because there was no anamnesis of either formalists or Vygotsky. From the beginning, Shanin’s goal was rather educational: that Russian scientists would speak the same theoretical language as their Western colleagues, that they would be able to translate knowledge gained in Russia to the West, and that they would be able to translate the world’s discussions into Russia. The birth of a new intellectual milieu came later. Through the connection of many elements that did not exist in the «source.» The same seminars of many hours of collective reading of a single theoretical text. They searched for hidden paradoxes, problematized, outlined alternative interpretations, and reassembled the conceptual schemes contained in it. It would seem to be just an educational practice, another text-centered format. But then the same model is reproduced in outreach research intensives, only now the object is not a theoretical text, but collected empirical material. Academic life is routine and poor in formats and communication frames. New formats were created in «oases» like Schaninka. Although they themselves are only a social shell, a form of research life.
T-i: You mean these are institutional forms?
VV: No. Institutional forms are about staffing, rates, and things like that. We’re talking about informal things that have to do with styles of thinking, frames of communication like analytical readings. All of the innovations that have been created in these 20 years, at least insofar as I can talk about, have been about form, not content. The content was quite conventional. Both in Russian- and English-language publications.
T-i: Are you saying that ways of interacting within the community like summer schools and analytical readings were the find that could be transposed?
VV: Yes, I would say that the community itself and the way it exists: its practices, its forms of life, were a key innovation. That is to say, the main differences between Shaninka and the University of Manchester, which gave birth to it, are in form, not content. And these forms eventually went far beyond the walls of Shanin. Into Oxford Foundation seminars or Gaidar Foundation retreats. In the frame of Shani’s analytical reading in 2018, colleagues in more than 10 cities of the Russian Federation worked.
T-i: To what extent can we even transpose this kind of thing outside of Russia?
VV: I would like to know…
T-i: These principles of the organization of scientific communication that we are talking about work in such a way that they favor some territory in the vastness of Russian higher education, wacky science, which is poorly integrated into the world, largely secondary, speaks other languages, appeals to other experiences; and we sort of contrast ourselves to all this science as a sort of «province», favoring an elitist «ghetto». There has been much debate about whether we can do something about this «Wacky», «regional», «mass» (whatever you want to call it) science in this way? Can we make a difference here?
VV: Nothing needed to be done with this science, it could not be transformed, only left alone. Now it is adapting perfectly to the new circumstances of life in Russia. But I have absolutely no interest in talking about it: I am sure that the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences will survive the current era. It will be engaged in the study of spiritual staples.
T-i: The question then arises, what is our responsibility? How far do its boundaries extend?
VV: That’s another question. The boundaries of my responsibility are the boundaries of my community.
T-i: Please explain.
VV: The concept of responsibility has two bases. First, only those who make choices can be responsible. If we are «responsible for those we tame,» it is only because we could have done without. You made a choice to leave the country. So you have accepted responsibility for your half-starved existence in dilapidated houses on the outskirts of half-European cities and for the hatred directed at you by half-informed people. And also for the fact that your departure will destroy something that was dear to you… Or you made a different choice not to leave. Like Viktor Frankl. Which means you took responsibility for what might happen to you in the near future. Not for the country. Not for what happens. Only for what you could have prevented by your own departure. This part of responsibility theory assumes personal choice, free will, reflection, and a minimal ability to predict.
Second, responsibility is a characteristic of your connections with other people. You are connected with those whom you have «tamed.» And therefore you are responsible for them. Jewish law holds parents responsible for the actions of their children until their religious majority (age 12 for girls, 13 for boys). The more connections, the greater the responsibility. Napoleon, upon becoming emperor, declared, «I take responsibility for everything France has done from the time of Charlemagne to the terror of Robespierre.» As Hannah Arendt interprets his words, «All these things have been done in my name insofar as I am a member of this nation and a representative of this political community.» This part of the theory of responsibility includes your influence on others, your relationship to them, the relationship of power and subordination, and most importantly, the relationship of belonging and identity.
When I say that the boundaries of my responsibility are the boundaries of my (Shanin’s) community, I mean only that. So it is important not to confuse responsibility with guilt. Guilt is what is imputed to you by some external authority as a result of your individual actions (provided these actions were free and rational). For example, if people, as members of the liberal intelligentsia and academic community, became voluntary whistleblowers for the authorities and wrote denunciations on their «Western-oriented» colleagues — this is a question of individual guilt, which will sooner or later be imputed to them. The question of accountability is not a question of guilt. It is a question of identity, of connection to a community, of the degree of influence within that community, so responsibility always involves some network of social relations. What is my community, which I influence, is part of my responsibility. The boundaries of responsibility and the boundaries of community coincide.
T-i: But then how do we define the role of the public stage for people of science, the role of the public intellectual, whose addressee is not the community but society?
VV: The public intellectual is a miscarriage of the academic world. He has no community, only an «audience.» He constantly talks about his «responsibility to society,» but this is part of self-presentation. If you are not the Napoleon of Hannah Arendt’s example, you have no responsibility to «society.»
T-i: But then, how is social science situated in the space of politics? What is its role? Can we have no influence on the political situation?
VV: We influence it by our presence (or absence). Here it is simply necessary to be aware of the differences between Russian and Western academia, on the one hand, and between the humanities and social sciences, on the other.
From whom more often do you hear phrases along the lines of «They don’t listen to us! We could explain that X, Y, Z is a dangerous historical precedent! But who cares about our opinion?» First, from humanitarians. Who are convinced that their research could have a beneficial effect on the authorities if the authorities took an interest in it. Secondly, the establishment of European universities, which are hermetically sealed and far less connected to the government than the big Russian universities of the 2000s and 2010s. I take all this talk about the «responsibility of scholars before society» and the class of «concerned intellectuals» and the need for «public engagement» as part of an academic ideology — the ideology of people who have formed in their academic bubbles and are trying to get out of them in order to influence anything outside of them.
Our situation was somewhat different. More precisely, it was the opposite. First, in Russia there were no hermetically sealed academic bubbles; the connection between academia and the state was exceptionally strong. Second, sociologists were much more in demand by the authorities as consultants.
And Russian sociologists, alas, were especially in demand: not a single major reform or modernization project was without «sociological support.»
So we needed, on the contrary, to hermetically seal the practice of academic life, counteracting the constant pressure of the authorities. First, it tried to turn universities into consulting centers for its modernization projects, then it recognized in these «intellectual ghettos» ideological enemies and a «fifth column.»
In Russia in recent years, maintaining this position and keeping the academic community, which is united solely by its interest in the world of research, beyond the political interests of the other big players, has become an almost religious maxim. Especially since accusations of «apoliticalism» and a desire to «create an ivory tower» were poured on us from both sides of the political barricades, from zealots of all stripes. At some point, the «oases» really turned into «ghettos.» Well… For twenty years we were the Western academic ghetto in Putin’s Russia, now we will be the Russian-speaking academic ghetto in the West, we are not used to it.
Ultimately, we took an oath not to countries, but to our science, not to society, but to our community. It would be strange to give it up now for media or political lentil soup.
T-i: Don’t the social sciences have a regal way of influencing?
VV: No, of course not. The problem with social science is not that it is not influential enough. The problem is that if it is influential enough, it ceases to be science.
T-i: You’re not optimistic about the future?
VV: Not in the slightest. There is only responsibility for the people in my community, my colleagues, graduate students, and students, the desire to give them the opportunity to continue doing science in a rich intellectual environment. There is an imperative to preserve that academic practice and form of life that emerged in Russia 30 years ago thanks to Theodore Shanin. And optimism is psychological. We will do what we have to do and be what we will be.
The questions asked: EVGENIYA VEZHLYAN