What Does the FSB Want from Russian Academics?

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What the FSB Wants from Russian Education and Science
Either Professors and Students Defend the Autonomy of Scholarship, or the Only Thing Left Will Be the “Science” of Russia’s Security in a Global World
Konstantin Gaaze
Vedomosti
November 28, 2019

On the evening of November 27, the FSB’s Border Service barred the well-known French sociologist Carine Clément from entering Russia. She was stopped at passport control in Sheremtyevo Airport and later informed that, as a “threat” to “national security,” she had been banned from entering Russia for ten years. Clément was slated to chair a panel on social stratification and the subjectivation of social status at a conference marking the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of the late sociologist Vladimir Yadov.

It is pointless to attempt to interpret the travel ban on Clement in the light of her planned lecture on resemblances between the so-called Yellow Vests [Gilets jaunes] and the so-called Quilted Jackets [vatniki]. The trouble is not with parallels, but with the fact that the FSB, the supreme authority on the life of the mind in Russia, has long ago decided that castrating the Runet is not enough to set people’s brains straight. It is time to strike—and strike hard—at the bourgeoning social sciences and the humanities.

We often forget that FSB has not one sword at its disposal—the Russian federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor—but two swords: Roskomnadzor and Rosobrnadzor, the Russian federal education watchdog. When my own university, the so-called Shaninka, was stripped of its accreditation in the summer of 2018, the only rumor that explained the absurdity and inconsistencies of the inspection procedure and the accreditation commission’s final report was that Lieutenant General Alexei Sedov, head of the FSB’s constitutional security service, had personally made the decision not to extend our accreditation.

The legendary spook realized back then, apparently, that the real enemies were not professional opposition activists, but young men and women with books by Bourdieu and Arendt tucked under their arms. One day you read the structuralists, the next day you record a video and post it on YouTube, and the day after that you take to the streets to show you exist and are still capable of acting. Who needs scholarship that has such a dangerous effect on people’s minds?

Especially since there is a different kind of scholarship, which churns out piles of monographs dealing with Russia’s “special path,” the country’s security in a global world, and the degradation of the west’s “spiritual culture,” and which dominates the universities where students are marked down for reading primary sources: they have to read the textbooks written by their professors, not the works of “foreign agents.” Such universities hold an endless stream of events celebrating the founders of allegedly original schools of thought who, in fact, are plagiarists and fools who have not bothered to crack open a new book since 1991, if not since 1980. They organize online conferences where 18-year-old bachelors of sociology have to discuss such burning topics as whether women can serve in the police and in what capacity with students from Interior Ministry academies in neighboring regions.

What is at stake for the FSB in this case is not isolating Clément from her Russian audience, but ensuring the victory of one type of education and scholarly production over another—the victory of textbooks over primary sources, the victory of rote phrases over real knowledge, the victory of articles chockablock with references to the president’s annual state of the union address over articles that quote Foucault and Judith Butler.

This decision has been ripening for a long time, but it was hampered by other players in the bureaucracy, including major universities, officials, and Kremlin-backed pollsters, who understood that Russia’s current model of governance could not countenance the total ideologization of the social sciences. But all these nuances lost their significance after the protests in Moscow this past summer. The enemy must be defeated. So, beginning this autumn, the Kremlin and the capital’s universities have been hotly discussing whether there are too many students studying sociology and political science. Wouldn’t it be better to send them all to culinary school?

It is time we understood that it is not a matter of who reads the classics correctly and who doesn’t. It is a matter of the very opportunity to read—not in a closed reading group, but in an open lecture hall; not under a blanket, but at the university, in the company of students. We cannot hide behind the walls of our oases—the Higher School of Economics, RANEPA, the European University in St. Petersburg, and the Shaninka, among others. Either faculty and students will join together and defend scholarly autonomy, or, ten years from now there will be nothing left except the indigenous “science” of national security.  It is clear we could all emigrate. It is equally clear this would be a betrayal not only of future students but also of scholarship itself.

Konstantin Gaaze is a sociologist who lectures in the Fundamental Sociology program at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (the Shaninka).

Photo courtesy of Stern. Translated by the Russian Reader

Impotent

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And [Putin] just stands there and watches them destroy each other, and doesn’t interfere. Because then, on the one hand, he gets to maintain his position above the fray and watch all these ministries mutually weaken each other and become incapable of monopolizing power (which he’s afraid of). But on the other hand, he’s afraid even to give an order, because he senses that his orders have no weight anymore, that he can’t do anything. It’s a hideous situation, and as a result everyone turns into these trembling slaves who have no idea what will befall them, because there’s no one to appeal to, there’s no ordering principle to appeal to anymore. There’s no law, Putin is absolutely impotent, he can’t do anything.

I am sorry for writing what I am about to write, because I have a decent amount of admiration for the man who wrote the passage I have quoted, above, but if there is anything nuttier than thinking that Putin (or any other dictator) is absolutely powerful, it is thinking that Putin has no power at all.

The “impotency” heresy seems to be all the rage these days, because Putin was, allegedly, persuaded by his ex-finance minister and ex-Petersburg city hall colleague Alexei Kudrin to write not one but three official letters telling whoever has been hassling the European University in St. Petersburg to back off and leave it alone, and all three times these sinister forces, whom no one has yet properly identified, because no one believes Rosobrnadzor, the federal education watchdog, and the courts could arrange this sick, nine-ring circus on their own, willfully ignored Putin’s instructions.

The explanation, given by Fontanka.ru investigative reporter Irina Tumakova in the latest edition of Novaya Gazeta v Petersburge, that the mess kicked off due to four complaints filed with the prosecutor’s office against the university by non-entities who now cannot even remember why they filed the complaints and have lost all the paperwork, may be factually true, but unfortunately it will have the effect of reinforcing the “impotency” camp’s convictions.

In reality, there are as many ways to exercise power as there are ways to be impotent, and so it is easy to confuse the two, especially if you are naive enough to believe that when Vladimir Putin says or writes something, he always means what he says or writes.

Let’s suppose Putin really is not averse to handing over the two mansions on the corner of Gagarin Street and the Kutuzov Embankment to his arch-crony Gennady Timchenko or whomever else Tumakova mentions in her article, and, in the process, getting rid of the European University, towards which he, plausibly, only feels antipathy, since in the past it was involved in using European Union funds to study election monitoring, something Putin, who has stayed in power this long only by rigging elections on a massive scale, would hardly approve.

(Putin even publicly said as much at the time, in late 2007 or early 2008, and soon afterwards, fire inspectors showed up at the European University and shut it down for two months.  It was reopened after a loud, noisy, vigorous public campaign by its faculty, its students, and its numerous supporters in the local and international community. I took part in that campaign.)

More generally, the Putin regime has been engaged in a long-term, deliberate program of clamping down on any and all independent forces and entities in Russia, from small and medium businesses and NGOs of all stripes (even ones not mixed up in politics and without financial or other connections to foreign partners) to independent religious groups (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and independent educational institutions such as the European University. Hardly surprising for a regime chockablock with “former KGB officers” at all levels and led by another “former KGB officer,: it has increasingly come to regard everyone trying to operate beyond the Russian government’s overweaning oversight as extremely suspicious at best, “national traitors,” at worst.

Putin could make large numbers of people loathe him more than they already do by openly issuing a decree closing the European University and turning over its building and the neighboring building to his buddy Timchenko. Or he could play it smart and make clear through all the hundreds of channels he has at his disposal that he wants to shut down the university and hand over the building to Timchenko, all the while feigning to Kudrin and his liberal fans that he is worried enough about that fine little university to write the “back off” letters Kudrin asked him to write.

But the fix is already in, because Rosobrnadzor, the courts, Timchenko, and everyone else who needs to know, know that Putin’s letters of “support” for the university are meantto be roundly ignored. They know this because he has somehow indicated they should ignore them. How he did this exactly is immaterial and, ultimately, uninteresting.

So, in reality, this is yet another example of Putin’s exercising his rather considerable power, not evidence of his impotence. Of course, like any reasonably smart dictator or just plain leader, he wants to appear above the fray, but that does not mean he really is above the fray. He is right in the midst of it, whatever “it” is: making peace among the made men in his mafia empire, awarding them for their loyalty, slapping them on the wrists for their lapses, and adjudicating their conflicts between each other as they arise.

A real example of impotence are tenured and celebrated academics who persuade themselves, after being suckered by one of the oldest cons and mythologemes in Russian history (the powerless tsar surrounded by perfidious boyars), that since the allegedly powerful Putin is, in fact, impotent, they can be excused from empowering themselves and their students, and mobilizing them and the rather large community of people in Petersburg and around the world who are sympathetic to the European University to fight the power and get the university’s full rights as a research and teaching institution reinstated, while also forcing the powers that be to have the university’s grand old building restored to it and let it go ahead with renovating the building, as the university had carefully been preparing to do for several years.

That would be a real cause to rally round, but instead we have been treated, in turn, to long bouts of radio silence, various implausible conspiracy theories, and self-defeating disempowerment sessions, disguised as the worldly-wise acceptance of defeat and the lowly station of academics in Russian life.

But we have not seen the slightest hint of a coherent, militant public campaign to save the university, most of whose seemingly feeble supporters have the temerity to call it the “best in Russia.”

If it is really the best, it should be worth fighting tooth and nail for, no? Even and especially if you think the emperor has no clothes. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Ace Reporter Julia Ioffe Joins the Russian World

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It looks as if ace reporter Julia Ioffe has gone over to the Russian World.

It’s a strange thing when a journalist who, only six years ago, wrote an excellent article in Foreign Policy about how officials in Petersburg quickly set up and then rigged elections in two out-of-the-way municipal districts so outgoing Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s “upmotion” to the Federation Council and the post of its chair would appear “legal,” would suddenly sink to naïve, angry Russian boosterism and, kick all Americans in the face, to boot.

Okay, so a stadium somewhere in Russia added extra seating when FIFA demanded it. So what?

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Does Ioffe know about the debacle—involving extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the destruction of a federally listed architectural landmark; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects—that has plagued the Zenit Arena on Krestovsky Island in Petersburg, one of the main venues for this past summer’s Confederations Cup and next summer’s World Cup?

Told in full, it’s a mean, ugly story that would not “scare” Americans, but would hardly leave them with the impression Russia was well governed.

Ditto regarding the ongoing destruction of a tiny intellectual powerhouse, the European University of St. Petersburg, which the Kremlin, the Smolny (Petersburg city hall), the courts, and the state education watchdog, Rosobrnadzor, have decided to shut down for no ostensible reason.

Americans, if they are so inclined, can read these seemingly endless stories of Russian official malfeasance, thuggery, and gangsterism until they are blue in the face in publications running the gamut from the high-toned mags for which Ioffe writes to the crap blogs about Russia I’ve been editing for ten years.

I don’t think these hypothetical Americans would be “scared” after doing this extracurricular reading.

If anything, they would conclude (rightly) that Russia is a basket case and should not scare anybody but its own people, who have had to put up with this incompetent, larcenous tyranny 24/7, 365 days a year, year after year, for almost two decades.

The least anyone with a heart and, one would think, in Ioffe’s case, detailed knowledge of these circumstances, should do is avoid cheap whataboutism and extrapolating a media and political non-event (“the new Red scare”) onto an entire country of 325 million people.

I imagine most Americans could not really care less about Russia and the non-Red non-scare. They have things closer to home to worry about. Unlike Russians, ordinary Americans are definitely not obsessed with thinking about what Russians think about them.

But a good number of Russians, including Russian immigrants like Ioffe, are obsessed with thinking about what Americans think about them, and this is especially true among the intelligentsia and elites. (Trust me on this: I’ve been watching it at close range, fascinated but baffled, for almost twenty-five years.) Hence, I guess, Ioffe’s sudden, angry conversion to Russian Worldism. TRR

“A Great City Deserves a Great Library”: Petersburg Professors Defend the Publichka

Literary scholar Dmitry Kalugin picketing the entrance to the Russian National Library (“Publichka”), February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanova/Novaya Gazeta

Professors Stand Up for Librarians
Serafim Romanov
Novaya Gazeta Sankt-Peterburg
February 9, 2017

“Have you heard they want to merge the Russian National Library with the Lenin Library in Moscow?” Boris Kolonitsky, a senior researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History (Russian Academy of Sciences) asked passerby.

On February 9, a “professors’ picket” took place outside the Russian National Library’s main building on Ostrovsky Square. Lecturers from the European University, the Higher School of Economics, and other institutions rallied to preserve the so-called Publichka and defend its former head bibliographer Tatyana Shumilova [who was summarily dismissed from her post last week for speaking publicly about the negative consequences of the merger.]

Most bystanders heard about these developments for the first time. But after a short briefing, passersby agreed it would be wrong to merge one of the country’s most important academic and cultural institutions.

“It is not so much the library, St. Isaac’s or anything else that causes people to protest, as it is the fact that no one reckons with them,” Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Reseach, explained to Novaya Gazeta. “Why is everything being centralized? To make it was easier to control. The entire country is being formed up into a [power] vertical, and it is the same way in every field.”

“It matters that people from the outside, people who don’t work at the library but understand its value, speak out,” said journalist Daniil Kotsiubinsky, who organized the rally.

“The people who came here today are not random, but one of a kind. Petersburgers should listen to them.”

As the rally was drawing to a close, the overall enthusiasm was disturbed by a police officer.

“We’ve got a solo picket here,” the guardian of order reported on his cell phone, asking the picketers to show him their papers.

“It’s an A4-sized placard,” the policeman reported. “What does it say? ‘A great city deserves a great library.'”

Historian Boris Kolonitsky shows the group’s placard to a policeman. February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanov/Novaya Gazeta

Translated by the Russian Reader

A Thorn in Their Side

Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace on Gagarin Street, Petersburg
Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace on Gagarin Street, Petersburg, home of the European University

European University Faces Eviction for Plastic Windows
Maria Karpenko
Kommersant
January 24, 2017

The European University in St. Petersburg, one of the leading non-public educational institutions in Russia, may lose its building. Petersburg city hall has unilaterally terminated the lease agreement for the Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace, which has housed the university since 1995. The Smolny claims university management violated the conditions for using the historic building by making alterations and installing windows and air conditioners. Meanwhile, the university had been preparing to reconstruct the palace, investing 2.2 billion rubles in the project, 670 million rubles of which were to be spent on restoring the historic section of the building.

On December 27 of last year, the St. Petersburg City Committee for Property Relations (KIO) sent the European University notice it was unilaterally terminating the rental agreement. As a source at the committee told Kommersant, the European University hd not fulfilled its obligations to preserve the mansion of Count Kushelev-Bezborodko, built in the nineteenth century.

Officials discovered the violations last summer during an unscheduled inspection. (The Smolny could not explain yesterday why the inspection had been necessary.) As a source at the City Landmarks Use and Preservation Committee (KGIOP) informed Kommersant, university officials had made alterations to the premises and installed reinforced plastic windows and air conditioners without providing authorized documentation and obtaining permission for the repairs. The Dzerzhinsky District Court fined the European University 200,000 rubles in its capacity as user of a culture heritage site.

The Property Relations Committee then deemed it possible to terminate the lease agreement. The European University challenged the agreement’s termination in commercial court, arguing it was groundless. The court adopted interim measures, halting the university’s eviction from the premises until a decision has been made on the claim. The first hearing has been scheduled for March 15.

Meanwhile, the European University had planned in the near future to begin implementing an investment project for adapting the Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace to modern educational needs. The university estimates its cost at 2.2 to 2.4 billion rubles, 670 million rubles of which should go to restoring the historic section of the palace. The project has been in the works since 2013. Architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, designer of the Russian Cultural Center in Paris, won the competition to carry out the project. As European University Vice-Rector Vadim Volkov told Kommersant, the KGIOP had already partly authorized the reconstruction. (Our sources in the KGIOP confirmed that the methods for restoring the interiors of the palace that had artistic value had been approved.) Next week, the university had anticipated the KGIOP’s decision on the entire project.

“Given our intention to implement such an ambitious project, the KIO’s decision to evict us from the building on account of three windows, a plastic partition, and and extension that was erected under Brezhnev looks odd, at very least,” Mr. Volkov said.

The official statement on the university’s website stresses that none of  the violations uncovered during the inspection “put the cultural heritage of the palace at risk. They would be automatically corrected during the adjustment project as mentioned above.”

The statement goes on to say “[t]here is a degree of incommensurability between the claims of the Committee and the consequences entailed by the latter’s tough stance.”

Vice-Rector Volkov likewise noted that the clause giving the city the right to terminate the lease agreement if the university violated its landmark protection obligations had been added to the agreement only in April 2015 at the behest of the KIO.

“First, the KIO inserted these conditions in the agreement, and then showed up to check just this, certain they would be able to turn up violations of some kind,” Mr. Volkov suggested.

Maxim Reznik, chair of the education, culture and science committee in the city’s legislative assembly, believes the claims are politically motivated.

“Apparently, the presence of such a university, when all the rest have long ago been marching in step, keeps someone awake at night. In my view, the situation can be resolved in the university’s favor only if if the head of state [i.e., Vladimir Putin] or people close to him intervene,” the city MP told Kommersant.

In December of last year, Rosobrnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science) suspended the university’s license. The European University appealed to President Putin, who asked Vice-Premier Olga Golodets to get to the bottom of the matter. As Kommersant wrote, officials who attended a closed meeting concluded the claims were unsubstantial and spoke out in the university’s favor. Three days later, its educational license had been restored.

The university first encountered problems with oversight authorities in 2008, when it was closed for a month and a half [allegedly] for fire safety violations. Last summer, the Prosecutor General’s Office inspected the European University at the behest of Petersburg MP Vitaly Milonov. Prosecutors then gave the university two months to eliminate violations.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of saint-petersburg.com

Pavel Arseniev: Solidarity and Alienation among Russian Students

We remember, we preserve our faithfulness to the event.

Forty years like forty days.

 

Return to your classrooms:

They are fireproof.

No, a spark will not set them ablaze.

All measures have been taken,

More or less in earnest. Continue reading “Pavel Arseniev: Solidarity and Alienation among Russian Students”