Sociology Universities

Mikhail Sokolov: «The prism through which people now look at Russia is war»

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Sociologist of Science Mikhail Sokolov projects for the T-invariant. What kind of historical experiment is being conducted on scientists left behind in Russia, and why a scandal will erupt when GPT-chat starts re-checking textbooks in Russian, we discuss in an interview from the series “Making Sense” with representatives of the humanities and social sciences.

T-invariant: What has the war changed in the field of Russian science, in the field of Russian-language science, and in the field of Russian-language science, as seen through the eyes of a sociologist?

If we are talking about science in Russian, it is clear that it will shrink. Russia inherited a rich legacy from the Soviet Union in the form of Russian-language academic space. It has been slowly melting away over the years, not least under the influence of global academic rankings, which the ministries of education in post-Soviet countries were guided by. Where a lot was read and written in Russian, the ministries pressured the universities and the universities pressured their staff to publish in English. But the process of refusal of Russian was slow: those who studied in the Soviet universities got used to its use as the language of science, Russian remained the language of everyday communication in many places, plus the influence of the Russian mass culture and many other factors. Academic literature was translated into Russian much more often than into any other post-Soviet languages, simply because the size of the audience and, accordingly, the market was larger, and so academics continued to read in Russian. And this also slowed down the process of abandoning Russian. Now, however, this iceberg has begun to melt much faster.

In other words, scientific articles in Russian will now be written mostly by scientists with Russian passports who are in Russia (it is unlikely that there will be many scientists with non-Russian passports in Russia in the next few years, though). Even scientists with Russian passports who find themselves outside the country will have to switch to other languages, especially English. All of these people need jobs. To get a job, you need articles in well-known journals, and these are usually English-language publications. English-language publications are the most convertible currency in the academic world. Consequently, a lot of people in the coming years will have this goal of publishing in English in order to find work abroad, including in Europe or China.

T-i: How do you think this migration will affect the state of science in Russia itself?

MS: People who have left have a strong temptation to say, “Well, what science without us? Here, we have left – everything will die there.” But while psychologically it is very comfortable to think this way, caution is required.
The fate of science in Russia will depend not on how attractive this sphere will remain in some absolute calculation, but on how attractive it will be in the new context in comparison with other spheres of employment. To what did Soviet science owe its successes? To the fact that, for many talented young people, all other available employment was even less comfortable. In modern societies, if you grew up, you had to go to work. And for many Soviet people, science was the least disgusting way to make a living. Because it had its own hierarchy, some kind of Hamburg account that was largely independent of, I don’t know, the ability to ingratiate and pretend to be politically loyal. The Communist Party was forced to come to terms with the fact that the politically unconscious Landau was the chief Soviet physicist. To join this hierarchy in an ideologized and closed society like the USSR was very attractive. It was an opportunity to read the same literature that is read now by colleagues behind the Iron Curtain, it was an opportunity to feel like a citizen of the world, to think about some universal problems, not those problems that were put forward by the 25th or some other fateful Congress of the CPSU. That is why in the Soviet period so many people from those who perceived the Soviet ideology not too enthusiastically sought to get into science.

Now this history has every chance of repeating itself. Let us take the figure of one million people who left in connection with the war, and compare it with the number of consistent liberals that mass polls in previous decades give us. In various polls – when polls were still working, for better or worse – there were usually about 10-12% of people who voiced liberal views, were for rapprochement with the West and against the vertical of power. , put this number in his usual elegant terms of 15%. But 12% is more than 12 million if we take only adults. If we assume that a million people left, then the total number of consistent liberals is one-tenth of the total. Add to this the fact that not all of those who left were liberals: some simply did not want to be drafted, plus the million included minors. So, in fact, the percentage of those who left is greater. All of these people live in Russia, and their children will go to university and have to work. Of course, the number one choice for them now is IT, but there are people with an incorrigibly humanitarian mindset (like me), or for some other reason not suitable for IT. Many of them are likely to go into science. Of course, right now the vigilant agencies that expose spy scientists are actively working to ensure that science, especially technical and defense-related science, does not seem to be such an attractive field for young people (rarely do you see people who shoot themselves in the foot with such passion as defenders of Russian military-technical secrets). But there are various escapist fields, as far removed as possible from the defense industry, in which espionage is still difficult to suspect. Sumerian language, for example, or the physics of black holes. And so they may experience a significant influx of those who want to do them. Plus there will be those who, for one reason or another, are disadvantaged in other areas and can realize their ambitions only where the Hamburg account is more significant.

Again, the same thing happened in Soviet science, where people like Boris Abramovich Berezovsky, for example, ended up for the same reasons. If you remember, there was a scandal about his expulsion from the Academy of Sciences. He was elected to the Academy when he became an oligarch, and when he fell into disfavor, they wanted to expel him, but they did not. In defense of the Academy, I should say that he came to business and politics from science, dealt with mathematical economics, the picky bride problem. He defended his doctorate back in 1983. If he had kept at it, there is a good chance that he would have become a corresponding member or maybe even an academician. Because – well, what else could an ambitious young man in the Soviet Union do, especially with his surname? It was then that new opportunities opened up for him, just when the Academy realized that it would like to get more people into its ranks, who had become the new masters of life…

T-i:Why is it different now? Here, for example, we read the science news: “Mikhail Kovalchuk, president of the Kurchatov Institute, awarded Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Chechnya, a Kurchatov medal for ‘outstanding contribution to the development’ of the Institute. Why do you think the modern authorities in Russia no longer need a new Landau or a new Kurchatov?

MS: Modern science is both a field of intellectual production with its competition, its hierarchy, and the like, and a large bureaucratic corporation. It takes the same managerial talents to run this corporation as it takes to run, say, a dairy plant. The Soviet system of scientific management was oriented toward an ideal in which these talents would be combined in one person. Therefore, the director of the institute had to be the greatest scientist in it. Examples when great scientists were good managers did occur, but even more often there were situations when good scientists wasted time not coping with administration, or good administrators had to pretend to be scientists by imposing themselves as co-authors to junior colleagues or simply forcing them to write articles for themselves.

For many decades the composition of the Academy of Sciences has represented a kind of compromise: either truly outstanding scientists, or administrators capable of steering the affairs of their institute and the entire Academy, or – in the third category – patrons, political figures whose patronage the Academy needed. Ramzan Akhmatovich falls into this category, but this story didn’t start with him at all. Take, for example, Khabarovsk Governor Viktor Ishayev, who graduated from the Institute of Water Transport by correspondence in the 1970s, but who found himself interested in economic science in the mid-1990s, and within 10 years he had worked his way up from PhD to academician without leaving the administration of his region. Bourdieu wrote of these groups as the intellectual and academic poles of the field of science. The heroes of the episode you quoted represent precisely the academic pole, on which science flows smoothly into the state apparatus; in Russia it may look more odious than elsewhere – because the state apparatus is – but the figure of a major academic manager, whose scientific achievements are questionable, but the ability to beat money out of other politicians is undeniable – is a kind of global universal.

T-i:We were just talking about science more. Can we extrapolate this to the humanities? It is more dependent on ideology and its associated control. Hence the repression. Quite a lot of the scientists who have left Russia are from the humanities and, accordingly, the humanities that have been promoting modern methodologies and theories integrated into world science, that have been reading all this in foreign languages, and, in fact, have been translating and transmitting new ideas to Russia… And now they are outside of Russia. Don’t you think this situation is disastrous precisely for this field of knowledge, for research in Russian literature, historical disciplines, social sciences?

MS: I’ll probably say something that sounds deliberately provocative, but rather no, I don’t think we’re dealing with a disaster in this sense. At least, a disaster for anyone other than these departed scientists themselves. My colleagues and I have been surveying populations of Russian sociologists, economists, political scientists, and historians in recent years. And one of the universals we observed in each of these examples was that the disciplines each time split into two large political camps, isolated in a social sense. Communication and information exchange took place within the cluster, and members of one cluster did not really know what was going on in the neighboring one (least of all, this division into camps can be seen in historians). These two camps were formed around identification with world or national science: a preference for Russian or English language communication, a belief that it is important or not important for Russian scientists to develop a national tradition, that the relevant discipline should take into account the interests of the country and state, that Western theories are not suitable for explaining what is happening in Russia, etc. You could call them isolationists and assimilationists. It will hardly come as a surprise to anyone that isolationists are usually political statesmen and assimilationists are liberals.

Now, the scientists you speak of who have left are assimilationists. Even before the recent exodus, there were fewer than more or less consistent isolationists, depending on the discipline, a quarter to a third of the working scientists in each field. Of that quarter or third, I’d say about half have left in the time since February 24. More often the young and in the earlier phases of their careers than the mature ones in the later phases. Total, between one-eighth and one-sixth of the scientists actively publishing in the field.

Does this have any tragic consequences for anyone other than those who left? I would say that, rather, no. The mission of the assimilationist part of Russian science was, first, like any science, to produce new ideas and, second, to carry out the transfer of ideas produced and published in other languages, engaged in public education. Both missions have failed. I will not say anything about public education, except that 10, 12 or 15% of liberals remained 12 or 15%, and in a critical situation they could do nothing. Their number certainly has not grown. You could, of course, say that if it weren’t for the work of maintaining the environment: not liberal educational institutions, not lecture halls, and not other sci-fi pop, there would be even less, 5%. But frankly, there is nothing to support this hypothesis. In general, where political views in Russia come from is one of the great mysteries of Russian history. Presumably, they are strongly tied to family memory. One way or another, the liberal and illiberal political environments create their own information bubbles into which little penetrates from the outside. And the ideas imported by the assimilationists remained the domain of the same 12%.

What I will say more about is that the assimilationist social sciences have been woefully ineffective in producing new ideas for the non-Russian-speaking world. Take, for example, the publications of Russian sociologists. My colleagues at the Center for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education at the European University recently counted publications in English published after 1991 authored or co-authored by Russian scholars that made it into Web of Science, a more exclusive citation index. It turned out that there are about a hundred and forty of them – 144, to be exact. That’s for 30 years! And the first 20 years account for less than a third – 47. And they were written mostly in collaboration with Western scientists. Basically, these are the publications for which Russian scientists collected field data. An interview with Victor Vakhstein in T-invariant absolutely describes this model of work. And then rapid growth begins at a time when Western foundations have already closed and kicked out, and publication pressure has begun: the Higher School of Economics, and behind it other universities, pay substantial money to those who publish in English and threaten to fire everyone else. But on a global scale, this is just a negligible, very small flow. All those 140 articles published in 30 years is the scale of one major department in the United States in one year. There seem to be a lot of people who identify with world science, who read in English, only they are absolutely not published in it. And they are invisible to the outside world.

T-i:How can this be explained?

MS: My explanation relies on the structural holes. A structural hole is located between two dense sections of a network in which all agents are more or less connected so that they can freely exchange information and resources. The exchange between these sections separated by the hole, however, does not take place or only takes place thanks to the brokers, who are in a unique position because they have contacts on both sides of the hole and, because of this, can benefit greatly, for example, by manipulating both sides to their advantage. The plot is repeatedly played out in culture. Take, say, “For a Fistful of Dollars” with Clint Eastwood. In our case, the structural hole is created by the language barrier. On one side there are those who do not read or speak Russian, though they would in principle like to learn something about snowy Russia. And on the other side there are those who do not read in foreign languages.

Brokers read on both. And for these brokers, the structural hole opens up incredible opportunities. It is possible to bring some Russian data there, and, most importantly, it is possible to retranslate what is produced there into one’s native language. As a result, a peculiar figure of a scientist appears who reads scientific texts in a foreign language, although he almost never writes in it, but writes in Russian, although he does not always read special literature in it.

All these people who imported English-language science did not need to invent anything at all in order to be considered major scientists, except to translate reviews, sometimes accurately, sometimes adding something of themselves. And Western foundations willingly gave money for you to educate Russia and prepare students, joined to the global science, which did not increase the desire to publish in English. A separate story will one day be told about how Russian-speaking audiences learned, for example, about American sociology. People who engaged in retranslation could complete pages from themselves to a favorite author, or they could pass off pages from a favorite author as their own.

When the GPT chats get to the point of cross-checking various textbooks written by major assimilationist figures in Russian against those in English, there will be a scandal. If it ever comes to that. In milder forms, such a model of operation is quite legitimate, as long as it does not acquire pathological proportions.

T-i:And what underlies such legitimacy?

MS: All sciences produce news. News includes, but is not limited to, traditionally understood discoveries. The concept of news is broader than the concept of discovery. Historically, the metaphor of discovery comes from geography, and then it makes its way into the natural sciences. Then it penetrates the humanities, for which it is even more conventional, or at any rate, we are dealing with some other kind of discovery, not a global discovery for all mankind, but a local discovery for members of some community or environment. The natural sciences discover uninhabited islands that no human being has ever set foot on. The humanities discover an already inhabited America. “Discovery” here was a discovery only for Europeans. Or, one might say, for those who lived in America, Columbus, to their great regret, discovered Europe. And these kinds of local discoveries, in general, are more like the situation of the humanities. Anthropologists do not discover anything new about the culture they describe. They only bring news from the village they study to another, their own, village, discovering one culture for another culture. The big question is whether the social sciences can discover a desert island. But they can discover for some people what others have known for a long time. This, too, is the use of the structural hole, and in this respect all the humanities are about brokering.

But the structural hole that the language barrier creates has, in a sense, a completely pathological effect. One could say that this structural hole functions as a resource curse. Through it we can endlessly pump information from world science to local science, like oil, without producing anything new at all. And the information that comes back is often of very low quality. Production turns out to be backward and low-tech.

T-i:How exactly does this happen?

MS: Here, for example. How does the choice of area of specialization in the country at the academic periphery go? There’s already someone there who specializes in gender. Someone who specializes in social stratification. Someone who specializes in the social studies of medicine. And I’m a young scholar who’s wondering what I should do. I think: there are specialists in this, in this, in this, but no one deals with migration. I’m going to be a major specialist in the sociology of migration. My students, if I have any, say to themselves: this one has already done migration, let’s do sociology of science. And so each of us closes our own little structural hole. We basically have nothing to talk about, because I am the chief sociologist of migration, they are the chief sociologists of science. We can be very fond of each other and drink at conferences, but there is no way I can check if they are telling the truth at these conferences. And they cannot check if I am telling the truth. Western colleagues also do not know: do I even tell anything about migration in Russia that is similar to reality, or am I making it all up.

Any form of collegial quality control is very much diminished when the density of the environment decreases. The success of English-language sociology will largely be due to the fact that it is a very dense environment. There are many people working in every particular field there. Everyone knows that articles will be sent to reviewers who know the literature in that particular area and will wring your neck if, God forbid, you miss something. And if everyone is responsible for his or her own area, quality control of the research is virtually eliminated. That is why methodological standards, for example, do not grow. That is, all the worst – from sloppiness to outright fraud is not stopped in any way. Hands are completely untied.

Another source of technological backwardness is more innocent, but it also prevents the emergence of any international visibility. We say to ourselves: well, yes, of course, a similar study has already been conducted twenty times in other countries, but we want to enlighten the Russian public, for whom the reference to other countries is irrelevant, and no one has done such a thing in Russia. And yes, it’s produced better in the original: on larger and better samples, with better methods – but in Russia and the way we did it, no one has done it, so anyway, we’re making a step forward. And, as a result, we do a study that has no chance of being published in English. Its best possible result: a theory that has already been tested twenty times works in Russia. By the standards of global sociology, this is not considered a discovery, especially if we tested it using less sophisticated methods, although it might well be local news.

These are typical peripheral problems. I suspect that in Russia they may not even be the most acute, because, after all, the academy is quite large. But the trouble is that in addition to the main level, where we cross the language barrier between English and Russian, there are many, many sub-levels, where we, for example, cross the barrier between Moscow and the Tambov region. Tambov region or any other region should also have its own chief sociologist of migration. And this chief sociologist of migration serves as the main source of knowledge for colleagues in Tambov about what they say in Moscow about what they say in Chicago, and is responsible for producing knowledge about the Tambov region for a local audience. Such a cascade in which structural holes are reproduced at every level.

To summarize, in general, exposure to world science is undoubtedly a good thing. But it can also be a source of backwardness for peripheral disciplinary communities if they are small in size and heterogeneous in terms of access to information (there are books in Moscow that are not available in Tambov). Local novelty can completely replace global novelty for them, and production remains low-tech. And much of the empirical work produced by internationalized Russian scientists was such reproduction, lacking any particular global novelty. The irony is that they could sincerely feel that they were doing the most important thing that could be done in their peripheral situation: enlightening, introducing the light of knowledge – and also giving the fastest reputational output. Again, all of these are not Russian peculiarities. With minor adjustments, we can find a similar situation in many different countries. And in many places, the most significant result of the assimilationists’ work for world science has been that some of the most talented of their students have not followed their path, but have emigrated to the sociological metropolis.

T-i:Are our own, Russian-speaking scientific products significant and produced within Russia possible? There was such a discussion in Shaninka about “samodumov”: here, there are real scientists, who translate generally meaningful global knowledge, and there are samodumov, who sit in provincial universities and discover something of their own… What is the real role of these “samodums” in the development of science?

MS: I’ve always, you know, sympathized with self-doubters. Secretly. Many times in the history of science there is a similar story about how someone made a great discovery because he was in relative isolation and didn’t know that most scientists had reached consensus and that the idea he was trying to develop had already been dismissed as obsolete, absurd, and unsupported by data. Knorozov’s decisive steps in the deciphering of Maya hieroglyphs were, it is believed, due to the fact that he did not know about the work of Thompson, who proved that Maya writing does not have a phonetic component. Then it turned out that it was there. Knorozov was behind the Iron Curtain, the authority did not press on him, so he went his own way. And the way was right, although most of the world-renowned scientists in this field at the time thought otherwise. How typical is this story? It seems that Russian scientists unwittingly became participants in a natural experiment, the purpose of which is to find out.

Indeed, if the assimilationists are badly defeated, the battlefield is left to the isolationists. We shall see, accordingly, what they can do, left to themselves and even with some support from the authorities. Some of them, anyway. There is a good chance, however, that this experiment will not go very far, at least not if the theory called sociological neo-institutionalism is to be believed.

T-i:What is the essence of this theory?

MS: This is a theory that tries to argue with one of the main thinking habits of social scientists since the 19th century. Sociologists and not only sociologists have thought and continue to think of societies as entities that evolve under the influence of internal factors.

For example, there is the class struggle. If we take the classical Marxist scheme, its character is determined by the development of the productive forces. There are advanced societies, which have already passed to the capitalist stage of development, where the bourgeoisie and the proletariat struggle. And there are backward societies in which feudalism or even primitive communalism prevail. All these societies develop as separate isolated organisms, passing through the same stages of growth. Already Marx was well aware that empirically this theory is not quite adequate: how old a person next to us is will have no effect on our biological age, but the development of neighboring countries clearly affects the speed and direction of our country’s development. Wallerstein tried to make Marxists think of societies not as isolated monads. But the habit and not only for Marxists – remains. We look by default for the main reasons that something in Russia is developing so-and-so within Russia itself.

Now let’s admit to ourselves that the main force guiding the development of society is not some internal factors, cultural or economic, but imitation. Why are we doing things this way in our country? Because other countries have already done it and done it this way. It is always easier and safer to imitate or imitate than to invent ourselves. The institutional model saves us cognitive effort, it gives our actions legitimacy – we can say that we are copying best practices. Take, for example, the classic example parsed by the father of neo-institutionalism, John Meyer, who began as a sociologist of education. Theoretically, education systems can be organized in any way at all, in every country or even in every region in its own way. Why are they organized quite similarly everywhere, from terminology (there are professors everywhere who lecture students) to some basic things like subject sets and the academic year calendar?

Because humanity has tried every way to organize an educational system, and this one was the best? No. No one has ever tried the vast majority of ways in which an educational system can be organized. It has simply been copied. From this point of view, the most important force in institutional development is imitation, borrowing a legitimate model. Because it allows us to act without asking too many questions or suffering from having to answer too many questions. Of course, if imitation were the only force, countries would be completely identical, and they are different. But if we compare the scale of the similarities with the scale of the differences, we find that there are many more similarities than there could be.

And from this pressure (Meyer calls it “world society”) Russia has not escaped in any way, not even by messing up relations with much of the world. There will be no unique educational system beyond the renaming of the bachelor’s and specialist’s degree to the basic level of higher education. There won’t be its own textbook of economics, history, sociology, whatever there won’t be any of that. First of all, to invent a science from scratch, one that enough people besides the inventor himself can be made to believe in, is a highly non-trivial task. Secondly, someone in the relevant ministry must take responsibility for making sure that this science is taught. Both are practically impossible.

T-i:So there is no catastrophe here either? But something will change, won’t it?

MS: Let us imagine that we want to grow our own, not tainted by the “bad” global samples imported from the West, or, in other words, indigenic economics. And we entrust this task to a certain influential economist, G., who is known for his criticism of American economics. And what will he do? Let’s keep in mind that economic science has to answer a certain number of practical questions which are answered by goddamn economics like what the interest rate should be and must lean lean thinly on the results of empirical research. Besides, we need a significant number of other Russian economists to understand it, in addition to economist G. himself, otherwise it is not clear who will teach it to the students. Finally, and most difficult of all, it is desirable that the other indigeneous scholars recognize G. Isolationists do not, of course, represent a single school. There are many theories that are indigeneous in one way or another, united except in the fact that many of them share conservative political implication, and if G. receives such a tempting offer, many would think that they should have been in his place.

Economist G. can hardly be reproached for failing to meet this challenge. Most likely, he will get out of the situation by taking a standard textbook on macroeconomics a paraphrase of the retelling of Western textbooks and adding one chapter to it. It is clear what this chapter will be about: it will be about G.’s views on economic policy, seen through the prism of geopolitical conflict, and his answers to questions like how Russia should act in a situation of potential war with an economically more developed enemy, on whom it is much more dependent than this enemy on it. The answer, of course, is to have an economy that is protected from any shocks from the outside, to strive for autarchy, in general, to build an economic “fortress Russia. This chapter will stand last and be presented as the pinnacle of economic thought. Beyond that, the content will remain the same text from a Western macroeconomics textbook.

The same would apply to, say, a history textbook. You could add something reliable about Ukraine, add a reminder that Russia never attacked anyone, and leave the rest as it was. It is unlikely that some eccentric like Academician Fomenko will get into it. Will there be some kind of indigeneous theory of the neolithic revolution? Will there be any specific Russian approaches to the Carolingian monarchy? To European feudalism? I think not.

The second obstacle that stands in the way of the development of indigeneous social science is the pathological distrust of Russian officials responsible for science toward Russian scientists, including the most well-meaning ones. Perhaps even the most well-meaning ones in the first place, because it was these state-thinking scientists who organized the “turnkey” defenses of older officials. Actually, this distrust was the reason for the triumphal march of Scopus a few years earlier: even very anti-Western officials were sure that only foreign journals selected articles based on their quality, not on connections with authors. Actually, all science bureaucrats have a constant fear that they will become victims of either scammers or madmen who will sell them a perpetual motion machine or living water, and officials will be under suspicion that they agreed to this for a kickback. Under such conditions, the appearance of Academician G. with some overly original theory can become a headache for them; the official feels an almost reflexive need to shift responsibility to someone else. Western experts are no longer available, but there are, say, Chinese ones. And since Chinese scientists are very strongly oriented toward the English language, it will not be possible to persuade them to recognize special Russian science. So the pressure of world society will penetrate from this side.

We can roughly imagine what the alliance of officials with isolationists will bring about if we take a look at the recently revealed concept of the module “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood,” which is supposed to teach students to love their motherland starting September 1 this year. In some places, the concept seems like a collage of curricula from a variety of school and university disciplines. Gumilev’s concept, probably the most important contender for the role of indigeneous theory, occupies a prominent place, but Gumilev paradoxically neighbors the theory of organizational fields of McAdam and Fligstein, the logotherapy of Viktor Frankl and the social construction of reality of Berger and Lukman. As the cherry on the cake in the list of required readings, Comparative Political Science by G. V. Golosov. I only wonder if the authors of the course concept themselves would come to confess to being “third parties” if the Ministry of Justice declared Professor G. Golosov an enemy of the human race? All kidding aside, the concept reflects both the call of indigeneity and the constant desire to be recognized and to keep up with the latest trends; in this sense, isolationists are never as consistent in their isolationism as assimilationists can be in their rejection of everything national.

T-i:Your predictive examples of indigeneous science look innocent. And in reality we see that they are used to try to send director Yevgeniya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk to prison. Isn’t the destructological expertise on which the main accusation against them is based a far more frightening story in the development of science than the vulgarization of the Carolingian monarchy approach?

MS: Well, it’s fair to say that criminal cases in Russia have involved many strange examinations, most of which have nothing to do with indigeneous science. As in the sensational case a few years ago, when the interpretations of a 10-year-old girl’s projective tests, not confirmed by either laboratory tests or her testimony, became, in fact, the main evidence in a pedophilia case against her father (psychologists, as far as I know, consider this an outrageous abuse of the methodology). But yes, it is true that since there are more anti-liberals among isolationists, it is more likely that they are more likely to appear at their respective trials and testify while trying to popularize their teachings, as in the case of the notorious “destructology”.

T-i:But indigeneous science did not emerge by order from above after February 24. This phenomenon has long existed in all areas of humanitarian knowledge in Russia. And this knowledge is quite legitimate, such research, which cannot even be translated into any foreign language, because it is not clear what to translate, is defended in dissertation councils and so on and so forth… On the other hand, there is (or should we already say “existed?”) the science of the European University, science of Shaninka, science of the Higher School of Economics, science of the NES and a whole range of other institutions in Russia. And it is different.
Doesn’t it turn out that there is a cultural inequality: science, which produces an indigeneous product that is not very clear, is quite massive and relatively easy to get into. And the science that does not produce such a product, but produces quite something convertible, it is quite difficult to get into. Or there could have been some other strategy, I guess, that had to do with openness, with education and so on, right?

MS: I think the first part of this question is a perfect statement of the assimilationist credo: if science is not convertible, then by definition it is illegitimate. In all seriousness, I don’t know the answer to what went wrong. All of the institutions listed taught most students for free. Could it be that they had a high cultural census that kept kids from less-educated families out? In an old study, we tried to test the extent to which parents’ academic success affects belonging to an assimilationist or isolationist camp, and found that there seems to be a connection (children from academic families are more likely to be assimilationists), but a rather weak one and mediated by political sympathies (children from academic families are more likely to be political liberals and liberals more likely to be assimilationists). Is the difference in the complexity of their work responsible for the fact that some preferred to read economist G. and some preferred to read economists from the NES? Maybe, though there is no unambiguous confirmation of it. I myself did not find economist G. an easy read.

Enlightenment seems to have taken place. Take the huge number of popularization initiatives in which, I think, all the key figures of the assimilationist camp participated. Books and articles were available to all but the most copyright-sensitive. The problem was not that anyone was excluded, but that someone was not burning to be included. We seem to be getting back to the question of how Russia is divided into political camps with almost impenetrable boundaries. In the case of the social sciences, the humanities, there is not the rigid practical criterion that presumably exists in the natural sciences, where you can say that if we speak one scientific language and you speak another, our language is better because our covid vaccine works and, sorry, those rat-tail rubs that you recommend against it don’t really work. But when we’re talking about social science, the advantages of one language over another often lie in the realm of aesthetics or morality, and it can be different from one political camp to another. However, as the questionable successes of covid vaccination campaigns in Russia (as well as in the United States, Ukraine, and many other countries) have shown, even seemingly obvious practical utility, backed by the authority of science, can be of little help in the post-truth era.

T-i:With science in Russian everything is more or less clear. But what about science on Russian material?

MS: It is widely discussed in sociology and related specialties that materials from some countries are strongly equalto materials from others. There’s an excellent article by Monica Krause on this subject, which says that America is a kind of model object, a benchmark of modern society, and all the other countries are somewhere in a series of concentric circles with the US in the center. The benchmark is not because it is right, not because it is good, but because it serves as a natural point of reference. And the farther we depart from it, the farther we sink into a world of strange exoticism. This is very clear if we look at names of articles in international English-language journals. An article on American material will be called simply “Inequality in Access to Higher Education,” without specifying that it is “in America. And if someone from Russia publishes an article in English on the same subject, the title will necessarily state that it is about Russia. Because everything studied in the United States is considered applicable to other modern countries until proven otherwise, and everything that applies to Russia or to Tunisia, Indonesia, or Uruguay is, on the contrary, inapplicable until proven otherwise. Krause makes several suggestions as to why this is so. Part of America’s position has to do with its role as a precedent. American sociology is the biggest, there are so many people involved in it, these people have written so many papers, so many textbooks, and they have done it first in so many fields. So we read American books on empirical sociology as exemplary works, and everyone who has studied sociology has studied from American textbooks in one way or another, and they have taken the idea of what modern society is all about. Thanks to the textbooks and thanks to popular culture we know even more about America than we do about Russia; moreover, we know that scholars from other countries also studied from these textbooks and also know how America works, and know that we know it. So the U.S. becomes a natural point of reference for all of us. This is one of the mechanisms by which materials from different countries are scientifically unequal.

Another mechanism: thanks to America’s influence, there is a notion, or at least there have been for many decades, that over time all countries will become like it. In this sense, the study of the strange exotic is not a particularly grateful occupation, because it is a transient phenomenon anyway. Studying it is akin to the work of anthropologists, who try to record for cultural history languages before they are swept away by the wave of modernization and globalization. But sociologists, economists, political scientists, and others are alien to such an interest.

This does not mean that countries on the periphery are not in the center of interest, but this interest is usually very narrowly focused and based on some not always reflexive notions of what is important in a country, or in what respect that country is ideally typical. Five times as much has been written, I think, about the Russian Revolution and the Civil War as about the Revolution and the Mexican War, even though they took place at roughly the same time, with a comparable number of victims. But there is a feeling that the Mexican Revolution was some kind of an internal Latin American affair. But the Russian Revolution had an impact on the entire twentieth century. No historian, of course, would say that one should not study the Mexican Revolution because it is unimportant. But historians, too, respond in one way or another to public interest and their own human interest. Say, the mass of Western historians who began to study the Russian twentieth century were leftists who wanted to figure out what went wrong with socialism. It is unlikely that many outside of Mexico had this kind of personal interest in the revolution there.

Similarly, social scientists react to what tourism experts call the “country brand,” albeit in a very peculiar way. Italy is pizza and the mafia; social scientists, in their professional capacity, have little to say about pizza, but the mafia is for us. You want to study organized crime, go to Italy, because it is as much a benchmark in that respect as the U.S. is in other qualities. Stereotypes like that can change. Stereotypes about what is important in Russia have changed several times in the last 30 years. Thirty years ago, most would-be assimilationists working in Russia studied civil society because it seemed that Russia, like the rest of Eastern Europe, was a story about civil society overthrowing a totalitarian regime. Then came the disappointment and the emergence of corruption and kleptocracy: you want to study undignified rule, welcome to Russia. And now this has been relegated to the back burner, because now the world-printing in social science journals in English, at any rate-thinks that the most important thing about Russia is the war with Ukraine. The war has certainly pushed Russia beyond the outermost perimeter of the map of normality, very far from the countries whose names are not put in the headlines. The war also determined quite unequivocally what is worth studying in Russia. Now the most important prism through which one looks at Russia is the war. If you want to understand how some people can unexpectedly start a universal catastrophe, while others do nothing to prevent it, welcome to Moscow. Of course, these events are perceived as important not only in and of themselves, but as a kind of parabola or synecdoche for so many other events, past and future. In the light of this central relevance, any object of study related to Russia is reinterpreted. For example, classical Russian literature in this context becomes important to a global English-speaking audience primarily because it may have nurtured imperial sentiments, and the study of Russian science in connection with an assessment of what kind of resource the Russian military industry has.

Here we should add that these notions of relevance not only indicate what should be studied in each country, but also what is inappropriate to study in it. This is particularly evident in the case of sociology, which – in its current state, anyway tends to study social problems from the perspective of victims victims of social injustice, discrimination or inequality. But is it possible to study the problems of victims who are themselves criminals, perhaps committing far worse crimes than those they themselves suffer from? Let us conduct a thought experiment. Imagine the story of a strong woman trying to make a career in a toxic male environment. She is sexually harassed. She is constantly being pushed around, letting men get ahead of her, even though she loves her job and does it better than they do. The natural reaction for most sociologists today would be to fervently sympathize with her. But imagine being told that this woman is someone like Ilse Koch. And she is trying to make a career in a concentration camp. There were quite a few women serving in Nazi camps, generally speaking, but not one of them became a commandant. That is to say, the glass ceiling there was still what it was. But would we sympathize with Ilse Koch? Or, given the career she chose, will we think that she deserved all her misfortunes, and that she deserved it, and should we choose to study the case of some more sympathetic victims? I think many sociologists unconsciously feel that this would be a more appropriate decision.

T-i:What does this say about the prospects for our science?

MS: It seems to me that I have already predicted a lot of things. Let me conclude by saying what I hope this interview will look like if someone sees it 50 years from now. I would like it to be perceived as another historical document, which I adore Memoirs of Avdotya Panaeva, or rather, one episode from them. In which Nekrasov and Panaev in the Sovremennik’s editorial office receive a manuscript from a young aspiring author, terribly pleased. Turgenev comes to them and says, “Well, what kind of literature is there in Russia anyway? While we’re fighting our stale censors who won’t let us write, world literature has gone centuries ahead. Nothing good will ever be printed in your magazine! I’ll sell my men and go to Paris! They won’t read me anyway, but at least I’ll see some normal life. Nekrasov and Panaev sit, sobbing, shedding tears over the manuscript of a budding, but already doomed to obscurity author. The author’s name is Leo Tolstoy.

Turgenev seems to be saying all the right things, and there’s no harm in it. We could also add that in Europe they consider Russia an exotic country, which is interesting as an illustrative example of oriental despotism, and they hardly expect aesthetic enlightenment from it. But in the end, none of this turned out to be true. So those who would like to preserve the Russian language for scholarly communication are left, figuratively speaking, to publish the journal Sovremennik and wait for a young capable author named Tolstoy or someone else with their manuscript.

T-i:It appears that we have prospects. And, like, even quite recognizable?

MS: Yes, there is a sense of complete repetition, as if I have entered a book on the history of Russian culture. It is necessary to remember Nekrasov and Panayev and their sadness and certainty that they will definitely have neither life nor literature. One must be prepared to analyze what is happening. Social science is like an exorcism. They are based on the belief that if you call a demon by its real name, it will disappear. So we have to figure out what that name is. What else can we do?


Read the interview series “It Makes Sense” on our website: Eugenia Vezhlyan talks with representatives of the humanities and social sciences.

Irina Savelieva: “You should have seen the world beyond your hut”.

Oleg Lekmanov: “What saves us is the hopelessness of our situation…”.

Victor Vakhshtayn: “In Russia, the measure of a scientist’s influence is the measure of his guilt”.


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