Artemy Magun: Higher Education in Post-Soviet Russia and the Global Crisis of the University

Artemy Magun: Higher Education in Post-Soviet Russia and the Global Crisis of the University
Artemy Magun, European University, St. Petersburg

The essential paradox to all education consists of a tension between the autonomous moment of thought that inevitably makes learning authoritarian and non-democratic and the moment of dialogue with the free thought of a student who demands that the university be an open and ultra-democratic space. This tension has always existed but is particularly relevant today as democratization and commercialization threaten the autonomy of universities, as the political and economic ideology of our world (calculative liberalism and discipline) remains a theoretical product, an example of what Lacan called the “academic discourse”. [1] In what follows, I will show how, in contemporary Russia, this tension produces a situation that is both critical and symptomatic.

A global crisis of the university

Current global trends in the sphere of higher education are characterized, as we know, by the dismantling of the “German” system of specialized education that mainly consisted of professors offering monologue courses. In reality, this system was already inadequate in the 1950-60s when higher education became a mass institution and, moreover, when these “masses” no longer wanted to be “instructed” in an authoritarian manner. Universities became factories, increasingly “postindustrial”. The student movement was no doubt progressive in its demands for democratization and opening of education to new ideas. However, it also created a tension within the core of the institution: by definition, education cannot be completely “democratic” for it requires the autonomy and freedom of teachers who must guide students through a critique of their preexisting opinions.

Today, following the democratic revolution of universities, there is a new revolution in Europe: the commercial revolution. Universities are required to meet the demands and questionings of society, which are expressed, for example, in the economic sphere. This, again, is not completely false. Ideas of social or practical relevance are more likely to thrive. Yet the danger is, of course, that the idea may become too dependent on other “demands” and “interests”. The university must keep its right to ask questions and not only to give answers. [2] This can only be possible if the university is not enclosed in a “ghetto” but remains a public institution where scholars participate in social practices themselves and where, ideally, they divide their time between “real” practice and teaching.

The “Bologna process” has had important consequences for the reform of higher education in Europe. There has been nothing like it over the course of the last 50 years. The main task of this “process” was to introduce the Anglo-American model with its system of “credits” and to standardize courses in two levels: “bachelor” and “master”. In itself, this reform could be useful and provide, for example, greater mobility for students from different countries in Europe. However, in the last few years we have seen how this reform involved unstated measures that “spontaneously” corresponded to the neoliberal politics of several European governments. The Bologna process allows governments to reintroduce fees for education, at least at its higher level (MA), which not only lead to increased inequalities but also transform the social function and content of education. Students who plunge into debt in order to finance their education will seek a program that will later allow them to get a well-paid job and pay off their debt. The formalization and standardization of courses has increased administrative control over the teaching body, making the latter more fragile and vulnerable. The “bachelor” level aims explicitly at providing basic general education (not specialized). In reality, with the exception of technological research, more specialized college education is of little use for the contemporary labor market, which requires general communication and organizational skills. The process of Bologna thus follows these lines, even though it does not explicitly deal with the radical transformation of the content of education or the reduction of funding for universities.

It is thus not surprising that this “process” has lead to protests, especially on behalf of the teaching body and of students themselves. Perceived within the framework of “neoliberal” reforms aiming to privatize the social sector, this process simultaneously introduces standardized commercial formalities in all spheres of society. Nevertheless, the need to reform education institutions in Europe is obvious: in France, for example, universities have been underfinanced for decades, remain relatively closed to young professors and often continue to apply the old model of “unilateral” lectures given by professors to students. The risk is that the reform may not only lead to transforming the system, but also and especially to destroy the intellectual character of French education and its exceptionally high effectiveness in the reproduction of knowledge. It would be even worse if the university were to loose the public role it plays in French society.

Although the Bologna process is global (countries outside of the EU such as Russia are also included and it brings the European system closer to its North-American homologue), this does not imply that its effects, including the specific content of the changes it brings about, are everywhere the same. In the United States, for example, a system that is similar to that of “Bologna” has been in place for a long time, yet universities (at least the “top” ones) are usually able to keep their autonomy and the informality of their teaching (even if an applied and pragmatic approach to science is profoundly characteristic of American culture). Nevertheless, in the last few years, the American university has also undergone a neoliberal transformation: fewer professors are reaching tenure and academic work is becoming more precarious and less autonomous. An example of the direct consequences of these changes can be found in the recent conflict (December 2008) at the New School of Social Research in New York where professors and students lead a public protest against the commercialization of the school by their president. [3] In this sense, this is not a case of the Americanization of Europe, but rather a global crisis of the university.

Higher education in Russia

This is the context necessary for a discussion of higher education in Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, higher education was radically transformed through an extreme neoliberal reform. As a vanguard of neoliberalism (I will explain this later), Russia remains a symptom of what neoliberals could and would like to achieve elsewhere, if only they were not limited by social inertia and the resistance put forth by civil society. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that neoliberalism in Russia is the same as in Europe or North America. In those countries, “neoliberalism” exists within a system of forces that are located somewhere between old conservatism and social democracy and while it may, in part, represent their synthesis, it also cancels them out. In Russia, neoliberalism exists only to the extent to which it is fused with the institutions of the post-soviet state that have kept their structure, institutional culture and a large part of their staff. Thus, in contrast to Europe and the United States, neoliberalism in Russia is rarely recognized or criticized as such: the opposition perceives the regime as corrupt and authoritarian and the liberal-democratic opposition often combines the language of neoliberalism (denouncing economic inefficiency or the lack of transparency) with slogans of “liberal” democracy (e.g. the “Other Russia”).

Indeed, the neoliberal reforms that took place in the 1990s and 2000s were not fully carried out. Instead, they created an odd society where neoliberalism was a form that allowed (post)soviet institutions to continue to exist—on condition that they reorient themselves towards making business. Social security remained well protected by law but this did not prevent its destruction in practice. The extreme precariousness of work (a large mass of workers did not have a permanent contract, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants) coexists with a rather solid system of social security that is imposed by the state. Due to this system, employers prefer to avoid it, often through informal means.

Moreover, the collapse of communist ideology created a climate of anomie where corruption or at least tax avoidance was not generally perceived as reprehensible. For example, beginning in the 1990s, health is both public and private but doctors are not well paid by the state. Thus, they tend to use their positions and the infrastructure of their clinics to offer profitable services to those in need and with the means to pay for them, although not always in an official manner.

Universities went through a similar process. Education remained free for those who passed the entrance examination but several deans established a system of bribes that parents must pay to enroll students. Furthermore, other official means of seeking revenues were developed including increasing the number of students who pay fees (for those who did not pass the entrance examination) and renting university buildings to firms.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of students has increased from approximately 3 to 6 million, which represents more than half of the population aged between 17 and 22. The number of educational institutions has also doubled since 1990, mainly due to the emergence of private institutions. [4] Meanwhile, professors employed by the state received miniscule salaries during the 1990s—in average, around 100 dollars per month. If one was not corrupt, then one had to teach several courses in several institutions. However, a position at the State University that was not well paid might still give a professor access to teaching less prestigious but better paid courses. Even today, the salary of a lecturer at the State University is insufficient and most people rely on taking on 2 or 3 positions.

The changing hierarchy among disciplines

Change in the content of what is taught in higher education varies across institutions and disciplines. In the Soviet Union, natural sciences were the most highly developed worldwide. In the 1990s, specialists in these disciplines (math, physics) massively fled the country. The collapse of the Russian economy destroyed the demand for scientists and these disciplines lost their prestige. The humanities taught in the Soviet Union were strongly ideological and their status was inferior to that of the natural sciences. However, there was a strong philology tradition of authors that were known in the West such as the “Tartu-Moscou” school of semiotics (Yu. Lotman, M. Gasparov, among others). In the 1990s, the members of this school also fled the country.

With regards to the social sciences, their situation in the USSR was the saddest of all: a dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninism dominated philosophy, the political sciences did not exist and sociology did not have its own department. Psychology was the exception as it had its own faculty within universities and developed a true school of Marxist psychology (ideologically close to the trend officially referred to as socialist “humanities”). Despite their rather mediocre level, the study of “ideological” disciplines was an important part of a bureaucratic career in the USSR.

Most of the western classics of social thought of the 20th Century were forbidden. Numerous intellectuals, who were critical of the regime and had no access to what was being produced and discussed at a global level, abandoned Marxism and turned to either classic liberalism or national conservatism. The mandatory teaching of marxism nevertheless contributed to the general intellectual culture of soviet officials who were given special perks if they seriously studied Hegel and Marx.

The humanities and social sciences nevertheless became the most popular and prestigious disciplines in the 1990s. This change was partially brought about due to the role sociology played in the perestroika by calling attention to protests and public opinion. This shift was also linked to the “boom” of previously forbidden writings from the 20th Century that suddenly became accessible. Yet this transformation was mainly tied to the changing structure of the economy. The Russian industry suffered greatly throughout the neoliberal reforms: the reorientation towards a service economy or “immaterial work” was inevitable and was bizarrely simultaneous to the crash of the economy.

There was no work in the factory (and when there was, salaries were not really paid) and the money that circulated in the economy was invested in consumption and services that were unheard of before such as psychotherapy. The commercialization of products of mass consumption was new to Russia and developed a demand for studies in marketing and advertising, which relied on sociological methods. Finally, democratic elections at all levels with no parties or stable voters relied heavily on their public relations specialists who were referred to as “political technicians” in Russian. Towards the end of the 1990s, with the gradual recovery of the economy, there was a rise in the number of “firms” and positions for managers (often with an unspecified degree).

Thus, many students thought their choice of discipline would have little influence over their future career. Students chose social sciences and humanities because they were relatively easy. All of the above changed the hierarchy of disciplines of the soviet era and made social sciences and humanities popular and prestigious—even profitable for corrupt officials. The most popular disciplines then (and now) are law and economy.

The reform changed the content of degrees in sociology, political sciences, psychology and philosophy. The massive import of western theories and the abandonment (often demonization) of Marxism lead to a spectacular ideological disorientation as well as the destruction of the existing Soviet schools. Yet the teaching staff was practically the same since the state did not dare reduce the number of professors and researchers. The state kept all teaching staff, including orthodox Marxist-Leninists who in several cases became orthodox liberals and then orthodox nationalists.

Thus, the opening-up to the West produced an import and not an export of social knowledge. Contrary to natural sciences and even humanities, few Russian scholars in the social sciences are well-known in the West—with the exception of area specialists or Russian specialists working on Russia and living “in the field”. [5] Language barriers, the selectiveness of translations and above all, the lack of understanding of current debates in the West as well as the lack of interest from the West (with its “market” closed to competing texts and individuals) have made it difficult to have a productive dialogue between Russian traditions and American and European ones. As a result, the Russian academia is becoming increasingly closed; nationalism is becoming more and more popular among social sciences professors, while rare and exotic debates lead to the emergence of “new” endemic disciplines. Indeed, we have seen the emergence of “synergism” (a theoretical framework that is very popular in the Russian social sciences and that explains the functioning of society through the laws of cybernetics), “imagology” (the theory of “political technology”), “socionics”; “acmeology”, etc. That said, the autonomy given to the content of thought has allowed serious and original thinkers to benefit from the “luxury” that their young colleagues in Western countries often lack—the luxury to make progress at ones own pace without the pressure of competitors or “peer reviewers” who carry out disciplinary “censorship”.

Teaching methods have also changed. Although the structure of study programs has largely remained the same, the general social atmosphere, low salaries and even lower scholarships have created a new culture: students do not feel forced to attend class and instructors have no motivation to evaluate them rigorously. Under the Soviet and post-Soviet system, if a student received a “2” (a failing grade), the student had the right to take the exam again. This involved extra work for the instructor who also felt guilty since he knew he could ruin the life of an individual by giving him a bad grade. The number of low grades and especially failing ones has greatly diminished since the reforms.

The symptomatic case of the “OD-group” protests

What then was the result of these transformations? A very particular symbiosis emerged from the combination of a commercial logic and the logic of a self-sufficient institution. In a recent article, Mikhail Sokolov notes:

Higher education offers its clients a set of services that paradoxically exclude each other. On one side, it offers (or pretends to) a skill that is necessary for a career. On the other, it guarantees a moratorium, a period during which the youth can seek adventures, partners, and/or work that is not linked to the discipline they study. These two goods contradict each other: the higher the skill, the less the time for everything else. [In Russia], in all departments of Sociology, most students pay for this moratorium and not the skill and the institution, following the economic logic, must orient itself to the needs of the majority. [6]  

Sokolov’s article was written on the occasion of a student movement that emerged in 2007 against the administration of the Sociological Faculty in the State University of Moscow (MGU), more specifically, against its dean M. Dobrenkov. A group of students, the “OD-group” (20 to 30 out of the 2000 students in the faculty), engaged in public resistance in the spring of 2007. The immediate pretext was the student cafeteria where prices were as high as those of a good restaurant. However, students were mainly concerned with the quality of their education, as well as their lack of participation in research. The administration did not agree to the students’ demands. The dean called the police when the group organized a public protest and expelled most of the members of the group. During the scandal that followed, a commission of the Russian Social Chamber evaluated its teaching quite negatively and found several cases of plagiarism in a manual of sociology written by Dobrenkov. Despite all of this, the dean has kept his position and the students of the OD group had to continue their studies elsewhere.

The case of the Sociology Faculty at MGU is an extreme case. The dean’s personal convictions can be characterized as of extreme-right: he launched a campaign for the reinstitution of the death penalty and the prohibition of abortion. He also created a new discipline within his faculty called “orthodox sociology”. This is nevertheless a case that is symptomatic of what is happening more generally in the country. Sokolov, in the previously cited article, considers it symptomatic and elaborates a rather pessimistic diagnosis of the state of affairs of higher education in Russia and student mobilization based on a series of interviews carried out in different Russian universities.

One could first object that the situation in other institutions is different, especially if we do not limit ourselves to the faculties of social sciences of state universities. What is common and widespread is the priority given to administrative and commercial tasks over teaching and research. This means that an effective control over knowledge and intellectual skills is missing among students and professors. As everywhere in the Russian State, it is the inertia of the status quo, clientelism and commercial effectiveness that determine hiring policies. Yet Sokolov forgets that the university is not a commercial institution by its essence and even the reforms of the 1990s have not succeeded in transforming it to that extent. One does not usually choose a career in philosophy or sociology to make money or accumulate prestige. Furthermore, students are spontaneously interested in the subjects they study even if their interest is moderate. It is also true that the faculties of social sciences have several lecturers and researchers who are quite dedicated and sometimes even brilliant. They make the most of this state of relative anarchy and carry out their research without much trouble from the administration and without a constant pressure to publish. Given the widespread anarchy that dominates almost everything, a lot depends on the personality of the dean or the chair (the basic subdivision of Russian faculties).

Neoliberal reforms: the cure is worse than the disease

This leads us to another objection. We can tell from Sokolov’s choice of words that he relies on an economic approach to all social relations. This method implicitly draws from neoliberalism: it rests on the belief that the creation of formal and anonymous institutions (such as peer-reviewed journals) and researchers’ “rational choice” will make them good sociologists, political scientists or philosophers. [7] There is a Russian intellectual “party” (found on the website polit.ru) that is currently fighting for a radical reform of education in the Russian social sciences following the Anglo-American model. The government has already accepted some of their propositions. For example, for the last few years, the same written exam has been implemented to all high school students in order to determine their admission to the university. This measure aims to avoid corruption and it may be efficient. However, major universities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) have succeeded in resisting this measure on the grounds that this abstract and impersonal exam cannot allow them to determine a student’s talent in a specific area, especially if it is not taught in high school.

From my point of view, this institutional economics analysis and the technocratic measures mentioned above are only formal. These authors are not taking into account that corruption and plagiarism among university instructors does not only stem from “rational choice” but also from the extreme state of anomie these instructors find themselves in. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ideological and ethical crisis that followed have transformed them into solitary and desperate individuals who focus only on their survival and do not believe in the possibility of an intellectual debate (although they may be strict in their convictions which has nothing to do with critical thinking).

The neoliberal technocratic reform that has already taken off in Russia with the Bologna process will not achieve radical change. In the best scenario, it will contribute to spread an annoying “normal science” where formal criteria will be respected at the cost of critical thinking. The few who will be able to publish in western journals will receive tenure and a disproportionately high salary, while other positions will decrease in number and pay. This will create a competitive spirit that will not always benefit research or intellectual institutions. Access to positions will be more difficult for young researchers. In the worst scenario, which is the most likely to occur, rules will be adapted to each situation. The rules established by peer-reviews will be followed, but the mandatory references will derive from “orthodox sociology”. The administration’s control over teaching will lead to bureaucratic authoritarianism over instructors. In the end, all will depend on the intellectual motivation and solidarity of researchers.

It is important to note that neoliberal measures aiming to avoid corruption can have consequences that are as harmful as or even worse than corruption: the formalization and standardization of intellectual life. In reality, these kinds of measures are based on the same principles as corruption: intellectuals’ anomic and cynical selfishness. Thus, it is not surprising that the formal technocratic measures that have been implemented have been unable to solve the problem of corruption, not to mention their inadequacy in taking on the task of mobilizing universities and society as a whole towards critical thinking.

The case of the European University of Saint-Petersburg

There was another case of student mobilization, this time around the closing of the European University of Saint-Petersburg. This is a special institution, one of the four new higher education institutions that were created in Russia in the 1990s with the support of American foundations that aimed at reproducing the institutional model of American universities. The European University offers postgraduate programs (M.A. and Ph.D.) as a replica of American graduate schools where students take a series of courses before writing their dissertations. The university is not part of the state and is not authorized to give out any official MA or PhD diploma. Nevertheless, students are attracted to the high quality of teaching and its relations with Western universities that may grant researchers access to an international network. The university was able to attract numerous Russian scholars with foreign diplomas. Scholars are mostly interested in studying different aspects of Russian society (e.g. the Russian mafia in the 1990s, the electoral process, the role of women in Russian society, the concept of the republic applied to the Russian case, etc.). In the beginning, the university could offer its employees a significant salary that was above average in Russia. However, in the 2000s, the Russian economy expanded, the cost of living increased and this financial difference was no longer significant; for many scholars, this became one workplace among others.

On February 8, 2008, firemen shut down the university for “security reasons” linked to irregularities in the building and all teaching was banned. It was quite obvious for anyone following Russian politics that the shutting down of the university was political. In 2007, the university opened a center for electoral studies financed by the European Union. High officials took notice of this institution created on the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections; President Putin and his assistant S. Yastrzhembsky made reference to the university in their speeches. Following a series of informal exchanges, the board of the university closed the “electoral” subdivision but by then, it was already too late: the university was closed by Russian authorities using the common method of relying on administrative law for political aims. The regime was visibly seeking to avoid a Western intervention in the electoral process as shown by the cases of Serbia or Ukraine. A series of public protests followed involving three main actions: informal negotiations with elites, open letters (one was signed by the members of the Russian Academy of Sciences) and, last but not least, public protests disguised as a series of “performances” organized by students. Students created a “University of the Streets” where they offered short conferences every week mainly focused on the history of student movements. Authorities finally agreed to their demands, maybe due to the political character of the university or perhaps out of fear of further student mobilization. On March 21, 2008 the university was reopened.

Three aspects of this history are symptomatic. First, authorities focused on an institution that has not been politically radical: most of its members defend objectivist positions in relation to society and their actions go no further than liberal criticism against any regime in power, which is representative of intelligentsia in general. The danger seemed to come from the West via its “foundations” although the university is currently seeking its funding from Russia. Those in charge of the secret police in Russia do not understand how Western foundations operate. They wanted to know what these foundations wanted in exchange for their financial support and were suspicious when told there was no real control over what knowledge was being produced. We know foundations have little interest in the content of academic work and are mostly interested in the general topic and the opinions of experts. Thus, the university was able to keep its freedom juggling its existence between two masters and avoiding complete submissiveness to capital’s demands on one side and the submission to the government on the other. It is thus interesting and paradoxical to see how an essentially neoliberal institution (a private university) could become one of the rare sites in Russia where free, innovative and internationally respected research is carried out.

What we can learn from this particular case of the European University is quite complex. The university’s position in the periphery might offer a perspective that encompasses a full vision of the global situation. Nevertheless, there are still strong limitations in attempting to create a synthesis between Russian and Western traditions or in making generalizations due to the fact that Russian intellectuals are only welcome in the West as Russian specialists. As a consequence of this demand and the popularity of positivist ideology (linked to neoliberalism), most of the research that is carried out at the European University is objectivist, i.e. centered around the study of effective causes and the analysis of external relations. Thus, the questions that are raised are more about tactics and less about strategy.

Second, student mobilization from the beginning was strongly linked to supporting a profession. There were slogans and public conferences but once the university was reopened, students “reentered the audience” and refused to continue their political activity. The other young activists that supported the movement continued to hold regular sessions at the “University of the Streets” [8] but the students from the European University stopped going. Reopening the university was thus effective in demobilizing students in protest. Thus, the situation is quite different from the OD-group: not only did this group loose its battle, many of its members became politically active in a sustained manner, developing an interest in sociology that is less objectivist and more activist in nature.

Third, the European University that struggled to survive its political crisis is currently plunged into a financial one. International foundations can no longer support the university to the same degree as they did before and the university is seeking support from Russian firms. This reorientation calls for an internal reform that is parallel to the most radical projects of neoliberal reform in Europe. The university’s restructuring proposition will make it more dependent on the market. One of its important measures is the introduction of the position of “endowed professor”, a professor who is personally funded by a foundation. The salary for this professor, according to the plan, will be three times greater than an ordinary member of the faculty and candidates will essentially be chosen on the basis of their publications and international citations (in peer-reviewed Anglophone journals). This reform may create a motivation towards excellence, but it will destroy a spirit of collective work and the democratic environment of the university. Such a reform echoes the neoliberal politics of constructing post-communist cities: instead of developing an urban project as whole, we build an enormous and solitary skyscraper. Thus, the live tensions between bureaucratic barbarism and objectivist technocracy tend to be resolved in the direction of neoliberalism.

What reform for the (Russian) university?

From these examples, we can draw a general idea of the current situation of higher education in Russia. To conclude, I would like to go back to my first statement. It is too simple to seek to describe a global political and economic situation through a model such as “neoliberal reform” or “postfordism and immaterial work”. These trends exist globally but they are constantly confronting different forces and often produce contradictory effects. In Russia, the emergence of the service economy and numerous firms in the 1990s coincided with the destruction of industry, the impoverishment of most of the population and a general increase of anarchy and anomie in society. In the 2000s, growth in certain sectors of the economy (natural resources, commerce, construction) brought wealth to the state and allowed it to raise living standards. Nevertheless, this reconstruction was partial and unilateral. Neoliberal policies in the tax system and general management coexisted with monopoly, corporatism and corruption that seeped through all the economy as well as with conservatism in the social sectors (including social security, medicine and education).

In the educational sphere, neoliberal measures such as the strict formalization of management, the introduction of standardized admission examinations for universities, the investment in the technological base of education are supposed to accomplish a reform in the system, yet through reinforcing the power of the administration without looking into the content or framework of education, they actually reproduce the status quo. The service economy does not demand high quality education; its demand for social sciences and humanities actually contributes to stagger them and continues to isolate the Russian university from the rest of the world. The quality of the educational offer is unequal across universities, and even when professors are well prepared, this does not guarantee that the quality of the education they offer will be as high as it could be, due to a lack of motivation and inadequate means of evaluating knowledge transmission.

In such a context, the only solution for the state (considering for a moment that bureaucrats are well-intentioned) would be to create new international institutions and to invite professional scholars and “organic” intellectuals (critical individuals who are embedded in practice) of an international reputation (or at least national) who are able to raise questions of general interest to society and to rethink certain types of social and material practices. We would have to give them funding and the freedom to manage these “teams” that could welcome and fund scholars from abroad, edit bilingual journals, etc.

Even if the opening of universities to the logics of the market may be harmful to the production of knowledge, some opening towards society is necessary. The reproduction of ivory towers is a mistake. The integration of universities with other social institutions can only take place through a temporary exchange of officials between universities (professors should be sent to industries, firms, etc.) and these institutions (where “organic” intellectuals should be forced to spend at least one semester in a university to systematize their thinking and exchange ideas with intellectual professionals). The media should of course be part of this system. Furthermore, large industries and corporations should develop small autonomous “universities”—as several firms in the West have done, although they are often too focused on applied research to consider public discussion.

Thus, this is a call for the abandonment of isolating narcissism and of a commercial approach to education. Anarchic “democratism” or the auto-education of students (echoing the “spirit of 1968”) is no longer an option, even if a certain democratization of the mode of operation of universities is absolutely necessary. The main task of the reform is to fight anomie and to rebuild the spirit of free thought and of collective work. This is only possible if we combine autonomy with the public opening of universities.

If education in Russia continues to be subordinate to the logics of bureaucracy and commerce, it will continue to deteriorate and lead to a deepening of the current solidarity crisis, the loss of creative spirit and the widespread of repressive violence as the only means to “hold” society together. It goes without saying that Russia is a global socio-political laboratory where current trends and dangers are more visible than elsewhere, giving every scholar the time and place to start to think globally.

We are located in the semi-periphery with no direct access to global power, with a certain distance from it. We can thus develop, from this position, close knowledge of the frontiers of “globalization” that draw multiple divisions between the North and the South as well as within them. A universal point of view emerges between the masters of the world and its frontiers and learning to see globally from this perspective could become the basis for teaching in our universities.

Translation from French by Ana Villarreal

[1] See Jacques Lacan, Séminaire 17, L’envers de la psychanalyse (P. : Seuil, 1991).

[2] This, we know, is Heidegger’s argument in his “Nazi” discourse of 1933 (Martin Heidegger, L’auto-affirmation de l’Université allemande, Paris : TER, 1982). Heidegger is right with regards to the autonomy and power of questioning, but he ignores the dialectic between theory and practice: the theoretical and contemplative position of the university limits the power of thought. Through enclosing herself, it becomes “ideological” in Marx and Engel’s original sense. Thought can only be a laboratory, training for practice.

[3] http://www.newschoolinexile.com/

[4] For a good analysis of education in Russia (a little outdated but still valid) see: Anna Smolentseva, « Challenges to the Russian Academic Profession», in Higher Education, # 45, 2003 : pp. 391-424.

[5] Alexei Penzin uses the “postcolonial” framework to write the following: “when we invite Russian scholars to colloquia in Europe or the United States, we often ask them to tell us their local histories as we are interested in anything that is uncommon or abnormal. Postcolonial theorists describe this position as “subaltern”, i.e. a subordinate and objectified position where individuals have a very limited repertoire of private enunciations on universalism.” A. Penzin, « Zateriannyi mir, ili o dekolonizatsii rossiiskikh obstchestvennykh nauk », Ab Imperio, #3, 2008, pp. 341-348.

[6] Mikhail Sokolov, “Reformiruem li sozfak MGU? Instituzionalnye bariery na puti studencheskoy revoliuzii,” http://www.polit.ru/analytics/2007/05/25/socfak.html , visited 14.12.08

[7] For a similar argument, see a recent conference by Mikhail Sokolov, Akademicheskie diszipliny kak politicheskie systemy: predislovie k sravnitelnomu analizu”, Malye Bannye Chteniya, Saint-Petersbourg, 31.10.2008.

[8] For further reference on this point see www.streetuniver.narod.ru.

Universities in Crisis, 07/06/10