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.