Guest post by a Russian academic.
Prominent Russian educator and liberal Viktor Vakhstein recently defended liberal arts education in Russia after the authorities started auditing his programme at RANEPA. Vakhshtein sarcastically imagines the response of the ‘old guard’ of Soviet education:
“To a person formed by Soviet education, this form of education seems wild. How does the student know what he needs? Where is the educational component? Half of the courses are in English – are you preparing political emigrants? Too many different disciplines – is it a factory of dropouts? Where will they work then? Graduates of the Academy of the Prosecutor General’s Office are very worried about the fate of Liberal Arts graduates: they read the titles of courses and see crowds of future dissidents who are deprived of “systematic education”, “patriotic education” and not ready for “labor activity for the good of the Motherland.”
But he insists that he prepared his students to face this conservative establishment. He exemplifies how this preparation will manifest itself, by imagining a conversation between the “police state” and his students:
“Let’s say a man armed with a government manual comes to talk to my students about patriotism. They print out the slides of his presentation, put the text of the current law “On Education” side by side and arrange a two-hour discussion in the form of a court session: does this conversation violate only paragraph 3 of Article 48 of this law or a few more paragraphs. He tells them about “protecting the state interests of the Russian Federation.” They divide into groups and conduct a fascinating historical investigation: how the idea of ”state interest” is connected with the philosophy of Machiavelli, the intrigues of Cardinal Richelieu and the activities of international tribunals. He resents the position of the “fifth column”. They politely remind him that the idea of the fifth column (according to one of the four versions) was invented by the failed dictator Emilio Mola shortly before his death in a suspicious plane crash. I sincerely feel sorry for this person.”
First of all, anyone who had a normal conversation in their lives, would see this more as an example of inability to communicate than a display of critical thinking. All the hypothetical students do in the example, is change – or ignore – the framing, the context and the point made by this imaginary “policeman” interlocutor. When a communicator – like that hypothetical policeman in Vakhstein’s clever tale – has absolutely openly set the frame of the present moment, justice, morality and political interest, then it is stupid to throw back at him some clever formal definitions from Webster’s dictionary, or quoting dead white Western men, or giving answers like “I know the law” or “history says otherwise”.
So, firstly, one should note that intellectually and psychologically, only narcissists and idiots ignore the pragmatics of conversation. Secondly, pragmatically and contextually, anyone who lived in Russia outside of protective bubbles of elite universities, and especially in the last couple of years, knows that quoting laws back at the police is useless at best. The same goes for quoting excerpts from the historical experiences of some countries, which – both the countries and the experiences – will be seen by the policeman as completely irrelevant.
Apart from stupid, it is criminal because the conservative parents of these uni kids will read it and understand it in only one way: “why was Vakhstein allowed, for so many years, to teach our kids to be that stupid? Putin must be right. The fifth column is real”. And the policeman who Vakhstein “pities”, will not himself pity for a moment. He will get what he came for – the confirmation that the students are “brainwashed” and their education is, at best, irrelevant. And his rage will fall on those students – while the Vakhsteins of the world will be accepted as martyrs by Western academia.
This “commentary” by Vakhshtein shows how the intellectually brilliant, pro-western, liberal intelligentsia continues to be complicit in making it all possible for Putin – because of their empty intellectual arrogance and genuine contempt for the “lower”, the older, the “uneducated” and conservative “masses”, for their grudges and traumas and opinions; how instead of working for better communication within Russian society, these intellectuals did everything to increase fear, bragging how they teach this arrogance and communicative, contextual daftness to kids; and how this very contempt was made possible by spatial and social elevation, which in turn was made possible by high salaries that Putin paid these intellectuals when, until recently, “our cosmopolitan academia” was the preferred discourse on the state agenda.
Who else will pay for this narcissistic arrogance? Well, this will be the people who actually worked all these years to give voice all parts of Russian society, including the conservative and the less educated, in hope to build communication and compromise.
[ed. We see a glimmer of reflection and understanding of the need for wider social communication in this interesting piece by Jeanne Kormina https://culanth.org/fieldsights/very-dark-anthropology-aphasia-presentiment-of-a-civil-war-and-anthropology-at-home:
the consistent political apathy of Russian anthropology has suddenly been revealed, making many of us unprepared for the new political reality that has forced us to redefine our positionality in the field. I do not mean to say that local anthropologists had not been interested in political activity before, but those who did such work preferred to study the pleasant and sympathetic people of their own social circle who engaged in protest actions in the big cities. A sort of class-based squeamishness, the roots of which one can find in the good old contrast between the educated intelligentsia and the “deep folk,” made the study of political apathy and political nonparticipation uninteresting and unpleasant ]
The Three Body Problem in Russian Academia
Considering the possibly international readership of this blog, we need to observe that Russian academia can be imagined as consisting of three parts. There is the most numerous body of people who have few means, either intellectually and/or by their social background and /or moral identity, or simply financially – too overburdened with over a thousand of hours of teaching a year to read all those (usually, Western old white male) scholars Vakhstein was lucky to read and to promote to his students as the names they should throw at an upcoming policeman. These are the people mocked by the Moscow “public intellectuals” with high salaries and cult followings – like Vakhstein.
But there is also a very thin layer of people who actually tried to build bridges of understanding between the actually-existing majority in Russian society and the “West”. Unlike Vakhstein’s, my example will not be imaginary, but merely anonymous. I have an acquaintance who is a head of lab, and who won this position, against the overbearing conservative establishment in his department, exclusively because Putin’s rhetoric until very recently was cosmopolitan. The government demanded publications in western journals, and he is one rare scholar who actually had the desire and the means to both understand the “deeper” conservative Russia, and to learn the Western academic discourse. Recently, the requirement to publish in western journals was officially withdrawn, because of – quite real – barriers and prejudices in Western academia. His conservative rivals are now gloating and revelling in their restored position, while he is told to sign the pro-war letter, or to lose the lab.
The lab which he spent 10 years building, introducing entirely new sub-fields, scraping the bottoms of his budgets to invite western lecturers, hand-picking smart graduate students who were eager to read both the latest French philosopher, and their colleague from Saratov; and to research Russians living beyond the Moscow ring round, to give these Russians voice, to clarify their conditions and opinions – and to “translate” it all for Western academia. Now, he says that his only priority is to keep the lab and to continue to give meagre scholarships for his students, while also being a shoulder on which these students cry (literally, not figuratively) because people in uniforms come to their meeting saying explicitly that if any one of them will as much as pip against the “special operation”, they will lose their position immediately.
I should add that my friend may be not such a smooth speaker as Vakhstein, but unlike Vakhstein, he can actually discern the context of communication, culture and power that is set by your counterpart. He knows how to listen, not just speak and “retort”. But while Vakhsteins of the world undoubtedly end up in some Western university as martyr, this head of lab just lost an opportunity for which he and his students worked very hard, to win a governmental grant to just that: research actual things in Russian society and “make it understandable” for the west. Why? Because the government made the grant conditional on being overseen by a scholar with a star-like reputation. And the head of the lab chose a Western scholar who gladly agreed. This was in January. In February, the university in which that Western scholar works, demanded that he severed the tie with Russia. He regretfully withdrew his sponsorship of the grant – nothing personal, but he had to obey, he explained. Again, the conservative establishment in that institution rejoiced. They never had Western connections, and now all the grants are theirs.