15 02 08

The Closure of the European University or Firing on your Own Headquarters

Chto Delat

On 8 February, following an order by the state fire inspector and a decision by the Dzerzhinsky court, all educational activity in St. Petersburg’s European University was shut down for ninety days.  On 18 February, the courts confirmed this decision.  The university is closed, no classes are being held.  The university board has taken an extremely cautious position, avoiding any political interpretation of what has occurred, although it did hold a press conference on 19 February, in which it accused unknown forces hostile to the candidacy of Medvedev for president of trying to create a scandal before the elections.

The background of these events is as follows.  In 2007 the university received a grant from the European Union for monitoring the upcoming elections and educating observers.  Not long afterwards, one of the deputies of the State Duma raised a question about the university’s right to do this under its license.  Later, S. Yastrzhembsky and Russian President, V. Putin referred to the university as an example of meddling by the EU in internal Russian affairs and suggested symmetrical measures (a Russian organization monitoring elections in Europe).  After some time, the leaders of the project and the university were summoned by the prosecutor’s office, which was apparently considering the option of opening a criminal case.  This option did not turn out to be viable, so they decided to take a different course of action.

Commissions from the Federal Registration Service, the Academic Committee of the Government of St. Petersburg, and the fire inspector visited the university.  Despite the fact that the university board had canceled the elections monitoring project in January 2008, one of these commissions—the fire inspector—decided to close down the university.  It presented a list of fifty-two fire safety code violations.  The university subsequently made all the repairs that could be done quickly, but to no avail.  On 18 February the courts upheld the decision until all remaining repairs were made.  However, the remaining violations can only be addressed slowly and at a high cost; indeed sometimes the necessary repairs cannot be done at all (due to the historical status of the building).  It is worth noting that a year ago, a routine fire inspection did not find the university guilty of any code violations.  In many St. Petersburg educational institutions, the fire safety conditions are as bad or worse than those in the European University.

Thus, we are dealing with a “raid”, typical of Russia in the 2000s, which in this case has come down from the very top of the “vertical” or “verticals” of power.  The only thing new here is that the target is an educational institution, moreover, an institution that is oriented on international academic life and which, from the moment of its creation, has adopted a Western educational model (academic graduate programs, a credits system, the American grading system, interactive teaching, an emphasis on written work, and so on).

So, it is quite plain that the closure of the university is part of a trend which has developed over the past year in Russian politics, struggling in various ways against Western influence: the closure of the British Council, the conflict with European election observers, the accusation that human rights activists and other liberals “scrounge like jackals outside foreign embassies”, and so on.  Of course, the regime cannot allow itself to be truly isolated from the West, and there are two reasons why.  First, it depends on the West as a consumer of its oil and gas, as a reliable place to deposit Russian funds, as an investor, and as a comfortable place to have a luxurious holiday.  Second, the regime is still engaged in the ongoing process of the country’s electoral “modernization”, retrofitting it with neoliberal, technocratic methods of government (city-managers instead of mayors, task-based management, financial discipline, etc).

This is why the European University thought it was safe.  As an institution that for the most part practiced highly professional, objectivist social science with a liberal orientation, the university saw itself as part of a certain system of expert technocrats necessary to the neoliberal power structure—both Western and Russian.  In most cases, this is the kind of social science that abandons the study of class antagonisms in favor of analyzing individual strategies, whose predominant heuristic apparatus is “rational” (i.e. adaptive) economic calculation, and for whom democratic politics means competition among elites.

The objectivism of such research not only makes it possible to make short term prognoses, but, importantly, it also means inscribing the Russian situation into a global context, and thus normalizing it, whether intended or not.  However, because of its objectivism and its focus on local situations, the European University did not often generate new critical theories of the world historical whole.  The reason for this lies in objective conditions—first of all, in the neocolonial logic of Western academic funds and journals, which commission studies of countries from the periphery and semi-periphery by scholars from that same periphery and semi-periphery; and, secondly, in the general logic of Western social science institutions, which demand strict, empirico-objectivist research criteria.  This means, on the one hand, that unfounded, purely ideological materials are excluded from the mass of academic projects, but, on the other hand, it also means that social reality becomes fragmented and reified.

Of course, like any serious intellectual community, the European University does not take an entirely conformist position but is a place where, along with expert analysis, there is also critical discussion and theoretical generalization.  But these come only as a kind of free, supplemental potentiality that reflects the unrealized ambitions of the participating scholars, and even of the institution as a whole, to escape the limits of its niche in the international academic community and within the state, and to make an attempt at grasping the whole, that is, achieving hegemony.  In this way, in the case of the European University, we are dealing with the classic case of a semi-autonomous intellectual institution, a staff headquarters of the cosmopolitan intelligentsia.

And so, the authoritarian, neoliberal regime, frightened by the ideological influence of its mighty neighbor, has fired a cannon shot into this staff headquarters.  In perspective, this means that the autonomy of intellectuals will be destroyed, and academic educational institutions will be placed under the ideological control of the state.  But the irony is that, in the first place, the current government does not even have a serious, that is, a universalist ideology (its nationalism can be reduced to finding only the  good in itself and the bad in others), and, in the second place, in state institutions of higher learning, because of the absence of any Western organizational structures, there reigns a terrible decline in both the level of discipline and scholarship.  One can see evidence of this if only in the story of the Moscow State University sociology department, where the authorities have resolutely refused to replace a dean who was exposed for plagiarism (!).

In other words, what we are talking about is not the forcing of an ideology on intellectuals.  We are talking about the destruction of educational institutions and the rejection of social reflection as such.  After all, positivist objectivism does provide firm knowledge of society, even if it is somewhat shallow.  But sociology that uses statistics called in from the Kremlin or teaches about the Orthodox spirituality of the Russian people is not capable of offering any knowledge about society.  Institutions where students pay bribes to be accepted, to pass exams, and where teachers steal other people’s textbooks cannot transmit any ideology, but they are capable of nurturing a cynical, corrupt individual, well-suited for work in the state apparatus.

For the first time in the history of modern Russia, say, since the time of Nicholas I, the government has completely rejected support from the intelligentsia and is replacing it with a semi-educated bureaucracy and culture industry trash.  They have decided that they can do without social reflection and the development of high culture as long as the businessmen are keeping corporate culture in step, and the PR men are doing the same for mass culture.  Anything left over can always be bought with the oil surplus.  It’s interesting that for all the anti-Western orientation of these kinds of measures, they are quite similar to current tendencies in many Western countries, where the autonomy of education is being destroyed, naturally not through such barbaric methods as here, but through the technocratic reformatting of the universities, reorienting them towards independent earnings, obligatory positivist-objectivist methodologies and so on.  In other words, in our context, the autonomy of the social sciences is being destroyed through the closure of the European University, while in the West it is being destroyed through the transformation of traditional universities into institutions like the European University (only without its autonomous position with regard to its sponsors).  It’s like a mirror working by “phase displacement”.

It’s obvious that the technocratic orientation in the human and social sciences will be fatal.  It will inevitably lead to increased social anomie, to the collapse of institutes, and to the emergence of sharp social conflicts for whatever reason available (ethnic, economic, etc).  We don’t need the European University to predict that.

Now onto the current situation.  Despite its elitist, technocratic tendencies, the European University, as an enclave that was not entirely controlled either by the Russian state or by the West, formed an autonomous zone for Petersburg and for all of Russia.  There were legends about the university; Pelevin referred to it as a “fashionable” place for young people.  Conferences, presentations, and seminars took place here that brought together the most progressive, nonconformist, and creatively minded people from the intelligentsia, from among students, and from other social sectors.

On the one hand, the university made it possible for intellectuals with an international academic career to live in Russia (albeit with a salary five times lower than in the West), and it inspired the entire academic and student community to pursue such careers.  On the other hand, it was also an extremely important source of social mobility for less advantaged students from the provinces.  In other words, this strike has come both against the intellectual elite, which patriotically accepted its meager lot, as well as against poor children from the provinces who set high goals for themselves.  The state, in effect, has organized a lockout against the unwanted.

So, it is strike against the intelligentsia and the students of the country, a strike that serves as a signal for others to submit.  A wider wave of Gleichschaltung will follow, bringing all academic and educational institutions in step.  This is why the “What is to be done?” group is calling on all of its readers to protest and put up civil resistance against these measures.  We may not have much power now, but our power will grow in proportion to the authorities’ increasing madness and stupidity.