«In Russia the measure of a scientist’s influence is the measure of his guilt»

Machine trans­la­tion

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

,   21.03.2023