Last week, the European University in Saint Petersburg was shut down, ostensibly for violating fire codes. Chto Delat member and Petersburg-based philosopher Artemy Magun explains in an open letter posted to platform chtodelat.
Many of you have been asking me of what’s going on with the European University at Saint-Petersburg.
I have decided to write to all of you in English, and explain the present situation.
As you know, the University is under an attack analogous to the one launched by Lukashenko in 2004 against the European Humanities University in Minsk. The “fire guards” closed the building for three months – a scheme typical of the “raids” of property capture in post-Soviet Russia. In our case, this raid comes after months of legal claims against the University, because of a project of the electoral monitoring that was paid by the European Union, and run by our University.
This move is a part of an anti-Western offensive of the Putin administration (along with the closing of the British Council).
Our current rulers are convinced that all the Western support is self-interested, and all Western-paid people are agents of Western influence. However, they do not put an end to collaboration with the West in business and technology. They know this would be suicidal for their capitalist oligarchy.
However, they are ready to put an end to collaboration in social science and culture, working towards the further marginalization and destruction of the intelligentsia, the further national isolation of the state-run academia (where the quoting of international literature and international publishing is by now minimal), and the imposition of a nationalist (though American style) mass culture, at the expense of all other cultural forms. This is a policy entirely new for Russia historically, and if it succeeds, it will have disastrous results for the future of its people.
Today (18.02), a Petersburg court upheld the decision of the fire inspectors and confirmed that the university remains closed, until we fix most of the “fire” problems (to fix some of them is just technically impossible).
This means that we are opening a public campaign in support of the university. Any support is most welcome, particularly the one that would confirm the academic stature of the university, its role in representing the Russian scholarship abroad, etc.
In truth, the University is indeed an agent of Western influence, and it is true that the Western influence in Russia is far from being always disinterested, but:
- Russia needs some Western influence if it wants to successfully compete with Western countries in economy, culture, and influence.
- The character of support of the Western charity funds for an educational institution is not direct influence; in fact, it creates an academic autonomy larger than in any institution in a home country (USA or Russia).
- As such an enclave, the University is a unique space of intellectual creativity which freely combines Western and Russian perspectives.
This much said, I think the situation shows that an uncritical liberal, or even neo-liberal, stance of many of my colleagues (who think that social science is “objective”, who practice a normalizing social research of the everyday life, and who mainly orient the university to business which is, in their view, the main modernizing agent of Russia) proves inadequate. If even such politically conformist, albeit liberal, universities as the EU are ultimately closed, social and human scientists should take a more firm political, democratic stance, elaborate a critical theory that would aim at both the Western and the Russian socio-political systems, and help educate politically active subjects, capable of solidarity.
We know that in countries like France, and other European countries, universities come under pressure, too – for other reasons (the need to earn money) but with the same effect of losing the academic autonomy and replacing universalistic thought by ideology.
Against this, we should not only defend the existing institutions, but think how to create new, better ones.
I’ll keep you posted.
My very best wishes,