Standpoint Universities

Irina Savelieva: «You should have seen the world outside your hut»

Machine translation

The Institute for Humanitarian Historical and Theoretical Studies (IGITI), created by historians Irina Maksimovna Savelieva and Andrei Vladimirovich Poletaev in 2002 within the walls of the Higher School of Economics (Vyshka), was part of the process of building institutions for new humanities knowledge that began 30 years ago and which can now be considered finally over. Its fate is in many ways indicative of the entire new Russian humanities. Negotiations have recently begun about the Institute’s liquidation. The few employees who remained were offered to move to the Center for Memory Studies and Mental Models. T-invariant asked Irina Savelieva to tell us how the history of IGITI is seen from today’s perspective, what factors led to the institution’s demise, and what role the management strategies of the Higher School of Economics played in this.

T-invariant: What was IGITI to you? How do you see its history?

Irina Savelieva: If I were ever to create an IGITI museum, there would definitely be two exhibits in it. A paper napkin from Patio Pizza would open the exhibit. On it, in 2002, the eight people who created IGITI wrote a seven-point strategy. For almost 20 years, that napkin lay on my desk. Then I put it away in some folder — I was afraid to lose it. Now the napkin is in Moscow, I am in America and it is unlikely that anyone will ever find it. The last item on display was a sheet of paper that hung on February 13, 2023, on the bulletin board in the canteen at Basmannaya Street, where among the reports of finds, disappearances and visits, the inscription: «Freedom and Money for IGITI!» With a note: «give it back». I saw it, of course, only on the photo… These two pieces of paper, in fact, for me very well delineate the beginning and the end of IGITI.

There were several stages in the history of our institute. We created it as an interdisciplinary project. We were interested in a multilateral interdisciplinary approach to humanitarian phenomena, in a fundamental theory of humanitarian knowledge. At this stage, IGITI was a small group of intellectually strong and sophisticated people who quickly began to diverge on important administrative positions. Five years later, Andrei Poletaev and I found ourselves pulling the institute together with Natalia Samutina and Boris Stepanov. But gradually we formed a team of strong young researchers. A completely different stage began, very tumultuous, very powerful. And in 2010, by the time of Andrei’s death, IGITI had already moved to the next stage of development.

The main thing that happened then was that we really transformed from a small group into an institute, and everyone became exceptionally united. We worked on enthusiasm of the kind that, in general, is very difficult to expect from people of science. And I got used to the fact that this was the only way to work – forgetting about time, distracted from my family… We were very supported at the Higher School of Economics at that time. We became a real institute: the number of employees was up to 45 people, which is a lot for a humanitarian center with a theoretical theme. In the 2010s, IGITI became phenomenally younger. When we created the institute, almost everyone was in their 50s, but ten years later the average age of the staff was down to 35. There were a lot of young people, because at that time the History and Philology Departments were established at the Higher School of Economics, we had our own Humanitarian elective courses at IGITI, which attracted hundreds of students, and we had our own master’s program, the History of Knowledge in a Comparative Perspective. Hence, there were a lot of graduate students and interns. That must have been about six years ago. And the changes, which were very tangible for me, began. There were more and more rigid administrative practices being introduced at Vyshka, which I can assess, in general, ambivalently. But for IGITI, they turned out to be rather punitive.

T-i: And for example?

IS: For example, the need to publish not just in foreign journals (we have done this from the beginning), but in journals that are in the first quartile of the Scopus and WoS databases, which for humanities students like us practically meant constant Russian roulette. To get into the first or second quartile, you have to write an article for a year. And the likelihood of it being accepted into the journal is very slim. You can sacrifice topics and look for in-demand topics. But this is often a road to nowhere.

At the same time the remuneration of a HSE researcher consists of a very small basic part (salary) and premiums for publications in journals with a high quartile. The possibility of receiving internal grants has been taken away from academic staff. Before the quartile requirement appeared, bonuses were much easier to obtain — with our publication activity. And completed to the first or second quartile, almost everyone has put in a situation where, either you live on little money researcher and moonlighting, or, playing this game, one day you get a normal salary for a year, but you know that the next year or another year you probably will not get it. And then I told the staff what people would have started to do even without my advice: go to the faculty and stay at the institute part-time. Because the teaching salary is twice as much. For a reason that is not entirely clear to me, the leadership of Vyshka from a certain point on began to implement a policy of segregation with respect to research staff, while almost all of us were teaching on the faculty part-time, while receiving as internal part-timers a salary for teaching that was half as much. There was talk of a switch. But what I didn’t think about was that going to the faculty was not only 900 hours instead of 450, but also the administrative workload, and participation in various faculty projects… This outcome had many consequences. And one of them, the most important one, was that the institute’s young people were left without the mentors who had been the backbone of IGITI since the 2010s. Life at IGITI was set up in such a way that young people were constantly hearing in academic ordinary life how these already mature scientists (also actually young) were talking, what they were thinking, how they were joking. How they come up with not only seminars but also capo parties, talk about landmark conferences, reminisce about their years of study, how they rate a premiere play or a cult film. We’d often go into a cafe after 9 p.m., we couldn’t get separated. And that was very important.

T-i: And why?

IS: This is true academic education from hand to mouth, without any didactics. Of course, we had the famous seminars, the presentation and tutorials, the intense academic life. But academic daily life was also important. When we existed at Petrovka, everyone just sat until 9 p.m. in two cramped rooms, and everyone was stuffy, but good. It’s like a family: if you have a conversational family, as they say now, you take a lot out of your childhood simply because you are allowed to participate in the conversation from an early age, you are not isolated from the culture of reflection. And you get such a head start in your life that it’s very hard to underestimate. It’s the same in academia. We who are lucky enough to remember our academic teachers. For me, the role of my supervisor Nikolai Vasilievich Sivachev or my mentor Pyotr Andreyevich Zayonchkovsky was very important, but I could not spend much time with them. As a young scholar at IGITI, I had the opportunity to be among colleagues of this type of academic culture day in and day out, and generally understanding the distance, to feel involved.

In 2019, I decided to step down as director. There were several reasons, but the most important one was that I saw a successor. I handed over IGITI to Alexei Pleshkov, who had once come to us as a student. There was only one liberal arts department at Vyshka at the time, the Philosophy Department, and two students came as interns every year, but only Alyosha survived. Our friendship began 12 years ago, during a difficult year for me and for IGITI when Andrei Poletaev died, Alexei, then still a student, offered to take over the duties of the academic secretary of the Institute. In time, he defended his Ph.D. thesis and rose to become an effective deputy director. At IGITI, during this time the middle generation became the older generation. As I said, most people had moved on to teaching positions and were present at the Institute less and less frequently. Colleagues would come to events, participate in everything, publish and pull projects on themselves, but the routine academic communication of different generations, when knowledge and style are transmitted, was no longer there. Young people, under the leadership of thirty-year-old Alexei, took over the institute and, it must be said, very selflessly transformed IGITI and held the bar. Our foreign postdoc, Jan Surman, came up with the idea of luncheon seminars, which became an attractive meeting place for everyone. Powerful new international partners emerged, among them Lorraine Duston and Peter Galison. Foreign professors Galin Tikhanov and Michael Gordin have become our guest researchers. The international reputation of the Poletayev Institute grew steadily. The outlines of a new IGITI began to show, I called it so. But it did not last long … Who knows, they hit us at the end of 2020. And we are not talking about management strategies. Then came the blow back in the fall of 2021. I seriously considered quitting at that time, but I could not abandon the institute in its hour of need (although I was sure that this was not an hour that could be survived and endured). The consequence of these blows was the removal of Alexei Pleshkov as director on April 1, 2022, although two years before that all the supervisors in one voice praised him and even seemed to schedule him as the next dean of FGN. But no, in the new environment he definitely could not play that role. Alexei Pleshkov is now at the Université libre de Bruxelles, and I hope that the main roles are ahead of him, as are almost all of my colleagues at the Poletayev Institute. After Pleshkov’s departure in April 2022, Boris Stepanov took over as director. One of the oldest in terms of seniority, he has been at IGITI since 2003, Boris has been with us through all stages and has always been the most involved employee and a trusted friend. I understand what it took for him to take on this role at a time like this.

T-i: Let’s go back a step. In conversations with Vyshka employees, I used to hear constant complaints about the formalization of the criteria, about the fact that management sets virtually impossible tasks, and therefore thinks it can give less money. Was that how it worked out?

IS: Well, more or less, there’s a story here. In 2005, at Vyshka created the Science Foundation (under the leadership of Andrei Yakovlev) in order to increase the publication activity of Vyshka teachers, which at the time was very low. I served on this foundation for a very long time, both as a board member and as a coordinator of the humanities department. In the beginning, the main criterion was quantitative. They counted the number of publications by each staff member, then gave everything that passed the quantitative bar for review and awarded points. Then two bonuses were established for publications. The small one was for the small number of publications that passed peer review. At the last stage it was, I think, 30,000, and at the beginning it was probably 15,000 and was almost equal to the salary of a research assistant. And the big bonus was much higher than the salary; it was due for a higher number of points, and usually for monographs. We tried to maximize the objectivity of the evaluations. Each publication was subjected to two peer-review processes; articles from popular science journals, even such authoritative journals as Otechestvennye Zapiski or Untouchable Stock, were filtered out.

This went on for several years. Between 2007 and 2014, humanities scholars were coming in on very good salaries. But then Vysshki had a new task – to get into the program «5-100»(1), then – to take a leading place there. And according to the terms of the program, it was necessary to publish in foreign journals. In the beginning this was not a problem either, because foreign journals in the Scopus and WoS databases are normal. All had to strain, learn to write in English, in general learn, who did not know how, to write in the patterns of foreign scientific periodicals. This is not difficult, although it requires extra effort. But then it turned out that you also need to have a high impact factor. To have it, you need to publish in the I-II quartile journals.

This is just one example. There is much more to say about formalizing evaluation criteria for departments and staff or setting unrealizable tasks. Formalization is not necessarily evil. Impossible tasks can be a challenge. Over the past 6 years, we have accomplished virtually all of the «impossible tasks.» The problem is that formalization in today’s university easily becomes a way for the administration to manipulate, the rules changed arbitrarily and frequently.

T-i: How do you assess whether this idea of catching up and overtaking the Western academy was viable at all? Or did it do more harm than good?

IS: I think about this a lot when I evaluate the history of IGITI as being complete. But it’s not just about IGITI. You see, when an administration sets a goal, there is a distortion of meaning in the process of achieving the goal. That’s natural. Because if the university needs to increase the impact factor of all four thousand faculty members who work there, it is not interested in any single faculty member, any single institute, any single discipline, or any unsigned monographs. He is interested in encouraging the maximum number of these four thousand employees to publish in journals with a high impact factor. By that time, there were not only mathematicians in the university, but also physicists, biologists, geographers, and IT specialists – people who could be more easily induced to publish their papers than the humanities. And the humanities were becoming a disadvantage, as we were constantly pointed out.

T-i: Why is it easier?

IS: Well, because representatives of natural disciplines have dozens times more journals of the first and second quartiles than humanities, these journals have low volatility (change of quartiles), they are better profiled, they have a shorter publication cycle, and they reach the citation peak sooner. We have few journals, high volatility, large thematic dispersion, etc. A scholar of agrarian history can get, theoretically, into the journal History and Theory, for example, but to do so he must write an outstanding article on theory. And if he is, as they now say, «never» a theorist? Getting into a journal that specializes in political history or the history of emotion is almost impossible for him, too. And there may be no journal on agrarian history… If you do, for example, Russian studies, you only have a few specialized Western journals at your disposal, and one will be on twentieth-century history, another on new imperial history… Or you have to try to get into, for example, some thematically “foreign” journal, which, again theoretically, may have an article on Russian topics, but who needs it there…

T-i: There is this idea that the Higher School of Economics is a mirror of the political processes going on in the country. These things we are talking about, were they somehow connected with the political stiffening, with the conservative turn?

IS: What we’re talking about is not. These are all obvious signs of the internationalization of education, of science. Vyshka in these years has been characterized by insane expansion. The rector until 2020 wanted the university to get bigger and bigger. More students (and thus faculty), more disciplinary areas (and thus departments), more research projects, more international laboratories. This expansion required money, and its amount depended directly on the place in the «5-100» ranking. In this sense, not all of Vyshka’s departments brought bonuses. The focus on creating natural sciences departments that has begun in recent years is an effort to improve the publication rankings, among other things.

In other words, purely administrative tasks related to the globalization of the university were solved. And the effect of this is always ambivalent. For example, there was a time when all faculties were told to increase the number of foreign professors, which is good in principle. But when a department starts getting punished for having only two foreign professors, it starts taking whoever it can — just to be in a rut. In this situation, you can get some good professors and a high KPI — and win twice. Or you can invite unnecessary, because no one wants to go to your unit: you have poor academic networks, you do not have the international network, you have the wrong opportunities. But the KPI will still be high. IGITI benefited from this reform because we managed to create a strong academic network by the time we attracted foreigners. We recruited very interesting professors and postdocs. They, by the way, helped us tremendously in the last year. I did not even expect such support. And if we had not been able to find them, we would have taken someone formally affiliated with a Western university, and he would have been just ballast… So with the administration… The administration solved the problems that were put before it, and solved them in their own talented way…

T-i: This all looks very strange now. On the one hand, in the years to which you refer, the current invasion and the ideological groundwork for it were already being prepared. On the other hand, on the contrary, Western professors were invited to Vyshka, publications in Western journals were encouraged… And nobody felt strange bifurcation of the situation… People worked and were happy that they were allowed to do what they wanted. But that ended: they began to lay off employees, the Free University was formed. When did you and the employees of IGITI feel that the situation was changing? What — for you — began to happen?

IS: When the first group of employees was laid off in 2020, it was already clear to me that the liberal intent of Vyshka had come to grip with the need for the university leadership to play by the new rules. And they demonstrated this. Although they tried to hide it, by firing people through indirect means, by restructuring departments, and by referring to the failure of employees to meet publication activity requirements. But it was clear to everybody.

You know, for the last year we’ve all been thinking a lot about how we’ve been living. There was — we all understood that — some very different life going on next to us that led to what it led to. We really existed in a very closed environment. Existence in that environment was comfortable, and if any smells came through, they were somewhere out there, under our feet. And our heads, they floated higher. And even when these smells had already reached, as a matter of fact, our noses, well, masks were put on. Here, of course, the covid also contributed a lot.

We at IGITI felt the new anti-liberal policy two years ago. We began to have conflicts with the administration, which I would not even call ideological, they were, rather, systemic. It became clear that we could not survive in our previous form. And this year, practically everyone left IGITI. I have a list – it almost sounds like a verb: who left for where. Almost all of the employees found themselves, albeit temporarily, but a position in their specialty in a good place. That is how I became convinced that the main thing is not the number of publications, but recognition in academic networks, the reputation of a scientist. And if one day the KPI of a department will be measured by the number of employees who left and settled down, then IGITI will definitely be among the first.

Metaphorically speaking, Boris Stepanov, the current director of IGITI, and I stayed on the captain’s bridge until the very last. And everybody, in general, had already jumped off the ship and the ship was well prepared to evacuate people — we found both watercrafts and lifeboats. Rome, Basel, Lucerne, Tübingen, Freiburg, Bonn, Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, Vilnius – there are universities or institutes where our former employees are now working.

T-i: IGITI was one of the places where the language of the new post-Soviet science was created. To what extent do you think we managed to overcome the backwardness (I say this word for want of a better one, given all its inaccuracy) of our humanities knowledge during this time? Has there been this lag? Has this time allowed us to create something new and valuable here in Russia?

IS: There are many different questions. Of course, since the 1990s, domestic science has been internationalized, which, incidentally, means joining the world. The agents of internationalization were institutions (state agencies, universities, centers, foundations) and people. What I was talking about: The «5-100» program, the encouragement of publications in foreign journals, the recruitment of foreign professors and foreign students to universities are all manifestations of the policy of internationalization of science. How this project was implemented and how successful it was is another matter.

If I take your last sentence as a starting point, I do not believe in principle that there is a certain national science which creates its own self-sufficient product. I once did a monograph on this subject with my Polish colleagues(2). It seems to me that the dilemma is whether you belong to world science, that is, whether you work the way this discipline works, whether routine or at a high level, or whether you belong to the creation of some knowledge that the world does not really understand, how it is produced, by what criteria it is recognized and why. Sometimes they also say that there is Westernized and traditional science — I don’t really agree with that either. Because under Westernized today they mean global science, and traditional… Well, what is traditional science? There are simple childish epithets behind it: good science and bad science. If we talk about the discipline of history, good science is by world standards, and bad science is some kind of mossy, autochthonous science, which grew up in the Soviet autarchy and somehow continues to exist, having lost its Marxist framework. This division is justified, but it says little.

In the 2000s, Levada-Center organized a section at the conference «Russia’s Ways» devoted to the question of whether or not we’ve reached the realm of normal science during those 15 years. And all the sociologists who spoke there said that everything is useless, everything is pointless. So much effort to train sociologists, so many translations, so many internships, so many acquaintances, but no sociology comparable to the West, no names, no sociological breakthroughs — nothing.

I, speaking, said that this was not the case in historical science. There was then clearly a cohort of people in history who either switched over very quickly because they knew what historical science in the world looked like and how it was done, or were already in the 1990s educated by an older generation of professors, trips to conferences, internships, summer schools. There were such groups in Kazan, Yaroslavl, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Tomsk, Saratov, Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, and other universities-that is, it was not just a Moscow and St. Petersburg environment. While I was talking about this, resentment was building up in the audience, as if I was a polish-maker trying to pass off wishful thinking as reality. Finally, someone (I think it was Lev Gudkov) asked, «Can you name some history books that support what you say?» And I instantly named ten. Just without thinking. I do not know whether they believed me, that these books really are absolutely world-class. It is true that the situation in historical science is somewhat different, it seems to me, than, for example, in sociology, as I can understand it from the words of my colleagues.

T-i: What allowed this situation to be different? How do our historians adhere to Western normal science?

IS: I just want to first clarify that what I just said about adequate Russian historians does not mean that there are no others in Russia. There are a lot of them, there are more of them. But if we compare our good historians with their foreign colleagues in various subdisciplines, ours are not inferior. By the way, I would like to point out that the School of Historical Sciences at Vyshka had a unique composition of historical scholars.

By the way, the big question for me is: what is normal science in Russia? I mean the science of the humanities. After all when we speak about normal science in the world, we mean that it is science which is made not only by coryphaei, pioneers, gurus, but by every person belonging to the profession who knows the rules of knowledge production, is aware of what happens in his subdiscipline, knows something about theory and does his, so to speak, humble work, creates new knowledge. And along with normal science, which corresponds to the rules recognized in the world, we have «abnormal» (Mikhail Sokolov called it «aboriginal») science, which is done according to some other rules. These rules can be learned, I guess, if you start doing it. Some of the criteria of this «science» we can easily name. And some, less obvious ones, require research. But few people want to spend their lives studying deviance.

T-i: But if we look now at the language that the new ideology operates with, its purveyor is obviously what we don’t want to talk about, what we are not interested in picking up, what we don’t want to read, what we didn’t want to study. In the historical disciplines, this is especially evident. Is that what you think this effect is?

IS: I agree with that, but I can also admit that I would never put my time and my analytical skills into reading and studying a knowingly scientifically untenable science. In this «other science,» the degree of slumber is very high, and it is a large community that has been reproducing itself for generations. This situation is very difficult to change. But I do know this for a fact: even in those university enclaves of historians about whom I am now speaking pejoratively, they read books by Boris Kolonitsky and listen to lectures by Igor Danilevsky. Our books, our views, and our principles have reached a certain number of «native» historians. So, on the one hand, colleagues can appreciate good work and know whom to listen to and what to use in their studies, but on the other hand, they are satisfied with the strange quality of their own work and broadcast some hybrid knowledge.

T-i: Can you characterize this knowledge? Is it Soviet, is it chauvinistic, is it mythological-what is it?

IS: It’s complicated. It doesn’t have to be chauvinistic, for example. It can be mythological and scientific at the same time. Its general characteristic is the lack of correspondence to contemporary scientific standards, the ignorance of world historiography. There is also little that is Soviet. By definition, Soviet historiography should be Marxist, which I almost never see. But it is hard for me to judge. I guess this also goes to the point that we have isolated ourselves from so many things, that we have withdrawn from them and have not given ourselves the trouble to know this. That is, we knew that it existed, but we didn’t want to figure it out.

T-i: And if we return to «normal» science — can the situation after February 24, all this talk about the kenselling of Russian culture, that now it should be studied from another installation, with other goals, affect fundamental science?

IS: You know, I really don’t like ideology. I feel it very much everywhere. And I feel it in Western academia too, I think, no less than I do in our academia. I see how there is a redistribution of resources in favor of feminist or postcolonial research, how there is, it seems to me, a negative selection of colleagues engaged in these fields. Which, of course, affects science. But it’s not a total impact. It’s a limited influence, and everyone can decide for themselves. You want to go into those fields and collect the extra perks that are there, you go there. You don’t want to do it or work with those methodologies, you won’t do it. There’s no compulsion, but rather a kind of accessibility if you’re not very resistant. Or if you’re ideologically charged, by the way. This is me speaking now as an ideologically neutral person. There are a lot of people who are ideologically charged, and they go there because it coincides with their idea of the good.

T-i: Can science, particularly Russian Studies, be free of situational bias?

IS: It seems wrong to me to speak of Russian Studies as a single direction in this sense. Every single scholar involved in this field may or may not be free. Because there is no total coercion in any sense. But since we choose (you say correctly) taking into account a lot of factors — what is popular, what is in demand, what we want to achieve, where we want to work, what community we want to join, where we want to publish, and so on – since we take all this into account, then engagement can take place.

T-i: And how do you decide for yourself the question of responsibility for what is going on — professional, human…?

IS: You know, I was asking myself that a year ago, when it all began. I think I shouldn’t have distanced myself so much from what was happening outside my life and my community. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but still, I should have seen the world outside my cabin. In terms of personal responsibility, I was responsible for the people who worked for me. And for 20 years and for the last year, I did the best I could for them. I am still responsible for them, although the institute called IGITI named after A.V.Poletaev no longer exists for me.


Notes of Irina Savelieva
(1) The 5-100 program. The state program to support the largest universities. Launched by the Ministry of Education and Science of Russia by the decree of May 7, 2012. The aim of the project is to increase the prestige of Russian higher education and to bring at least five universities from among the project participants into the top 100 universities according to the three most respected world rankings: Quacquarelli Symonds, Times Higher Education или Academic Ranking of World Universities
(2) National Humanities in the World Context: Experience of Russia and Poland / Ed. Ed. by Jerzy Akser, Irina Savelieva. MOSCOW: ID GU-HSE, 2010. 368 с.