BASTA! Special Issue: Towards a History of the Conflict in the MSU Sociology Department

This is the eighth in a series of translations of the articles in BASTA!, a special Russian-only issue of Chto Delat that addresses such pressing issues as the fight against racism and facism, the new Russian labor movement, the resistance to runaway “development” in Petersburg, the prospects for student self-governance and revolt, the potential for critical practice amongst sociologists and contemporary artists, the attack on The European University in St. Petersburg, and Alain Badiou’s aborted visit to Moscow.

The entire issue may be downloaded as a .pdf file here. Selected texts may be accessed here.



NB. The conflict at the Moscow State University sociology department, described below, continues. On March 11, three OD Group activists—Sveta Erpyleva, Katya Tarnovskaya, and Olya Bushneva—were expelled for “amoral conduct.” You can read about this latest disturbing turn of events here (in Russian).

Towards a History of the Conflict in the Moscow State University Sociology Department

Oleg Zhuravlyov & Danail Kondov


The knowledge generated by the social sciences cannot avoid being critical knowledge. First and foremost, this is because only the impenetrability of scholarly discourse to the strictures of common sense—that is, political strictures—can underwrite an objective description of the world. What makes this impenetrability possible? How can we avoid the substitution of political doxa for scientific rationality? What is needed are particular social conditions for the production of scholarly knowledge about society—an institution autonomous from the political conjuncture and the pressures of the market.

The OD Group, which united students from the sociology department at Moscow State University interested in improving the quality of their education with civil rights and political activists who criticized the department’s authoritarian regime, made manifest the “family resemblance” between its two factions. What the demands for “academic freedom,” the protection of the social rights of students (and teachers), the creation of an independent professional union, and the improvement of the quality of education have in common is that they move the educational institution in the direction of greater autonomy.

We were decidedly unhappy with the way sociology was taught in the sociology department at MSU. A permanent sociology research seminar led by Alexander Bikbov and Stanislav Gavrilenko became our alternative source of education. We compared the high intellectual level of the seminar (which soon was transformed into the NORI research group) with the impoverished state of scholarship (or rather, its near-total absence) in our department. We also compared the critical power of reflexive sociology with the stupid reproduction of political clichés in our department’s lectures and seminars, where the need for developing a national ideology, abolishing the moratorium on capital punishment, and introducing a one-party system were affirmed in the name of science. However, until the time came none of us had thought seriously about an organized public protest against the poor quality of our education. How did it happen that we joined the protest group?

Engaged in critical theory and research practice, we came to see the indissoluble links between the knowledge students received in the sociology department and the social conditions of its production. Ours was an educational institution where the selection of students and teachers, the work of the department’s programs, and the opening of new research branches was subordinated to the logic of financial profit, while the ultra-rightist rhetoric of the dean, permeating the department’s lectures and publications and reinforced by MSU’s academic standing, became the ideological foundation for the authoritarian order erected in the department. Our realization that the low level of our education could not be improved through a simple reform of the curriculum or other administrative procedures, and our belief in the necessity of a radical transformation of the institutional conditions under which sociological knowledge was produced, enabled us to join forces with political (the Forward Socialist Movement) and civil-rights (the Groza (“Storm”) Civil Rights Movement and the Youth Civil Rights Movement (YCRM)) activists for whom the authoritarian management practices and the commercialization of education in our department had become a target of critique and political action.

While providing certain advantages, this alliance inevitably generated tensions between its various constituents. These were the result of the heterogeneous conditions under which each of the groups acted on its own. Each group was able to contribute to the OD its own specific resources and skills, which made it possible to turn the student protest into a media event and move the situation from a standstill. The civil rights activists initiated the demand to open an affordable dining hall in the department (in place of the existing cafe with its restaurant-level prices), and the dean’s overreaction (summoning the police) turned what should have been a marginal incident (handing out leaflets at the entrance to the department) into a news event. This was the point at which we joined the group, thus turning it, in the final analysis, into an educational initiative. We made the improvement of our education the principal demand and succeeded in garnering the mass support of Russian and foreign sociologists, thus granting the initiative legitimacy in the eyes of the university’s rector and the society at large. At this stage, activists from Forward and other leftist organizations joined the initiative; they participated in and helped organize a series of actions. In the short-term perspective of a reactive opposition to the administration’s actions, the heterogeneity of the participating groups proved to be productive. It supplied us with such varied resources as the skills the activists had in organizing street actions and generating media coverage, contacts with journalists, and connections with the academic community (both in Russia and abroad), and these enabled us to initiate a series of actions that were administrative in nature (for example, the creation of a special commission in the Public Chamber). However, as soon as the question of the OD Group’s long-term perspectives was raised, this heterogeneity revealed its drawbacks.

Fundamental contradictions in our views on the initiative’s meaning, tasks, and tactics were apparent from the very beginning, but they revealed themselves in full measure only over time. A number of similarities and differences among the OD Group’s three collective actors were revealed in our permanent discussion about the means of mobilization and the choice of allies, about how to form various kinds of partnerships and agreements. The decisive similarity among the various factions in the OD was the fact that we all occupied a subaltern position (in political or academic space), and thus one of the central demands of each faction was student self-government. All participants saw the OD as an initiative designed to fight the administrative authorities for the right to engage in scholarship, have a voice in educational policy, and advocate the rights of students with the administration. However, the specific nature of each faction’s activities predetermined the basic contradictions within the OD Group over questions of organization and mobilization.

Practically from the very beginning, our initiative split into two factions—the “academic” wing, represented by us students, and the “activist” wing, which united political antagonists—leftist and liberal activists. We argued that educational demands should be our group’s central plank and we worked on making contacts with the academic community. Meanwhile, the professional activists insisted on widening the list of demands and enlarging our circle of allies.

In the opinion of the Forward members, the success of our initiative would be underwritten by solidarity and, correspondingly, by the mobilization of the largest possible number of students. They saw the problems of the MSU sociology department as a particular instance of the overall problems in Russian higher education:

“It is hard to fight Dean Dobrenkov precisely because he isn’t a monstrous exception, but an exaggerated version of the rule. […] The sociology department’s problems aren’t exclusive to it. The OD can appeal to students […] of other departments and universities for support. Solidarity is anything but abstract altruism. It is based on common cause.”

The leftist activists proposed that we come out with a positive educational program for all departments and universities:

“The OD must propose a program of positive transformations. While it would be developed for the situation in the sociology department, it could be adapted to other departments and universities. The OD has to announce clearly that the sociology department group is only part of a new inter-university movement that will struggle for the reconstruction of the educational system in the Russian Federation on the basis of the principles we are proposing.”

As opposed to us, the Forward activists, who were also scholars (including at MSU), did not view educational problems in the context of the social inequality and power relations within the university itself (or within the academic community). Whereas, from our point of view, the poor quality of our education, as well as the impossibility of mobilizing “all students” (which become obvious quite quickly), were, first and foremost, bound up with the organization of professional and university life—for example, with the division of labor at the university.

As at many other universities, there are “strong” and “weak” departments at MSU. The strong departments win the university prestige and a good reputation in the international and Russian academic communities, while the weak departments earn the university money. The sociology department is one of the weakest departments, and sociology occupies one of the lowest rungs in the academic hierarchy. In Russia, sociology and sociological education (only more so) are to, a great extent, fictions. It is no wonder that a sense of superiority to social scientists is firmly inscribed in the educational trajectory of physics, mathematics, and chemistry students, who already in their first years know that “sociology” is either a pseudo-science or not a science at all. They are convinced of this on the job insofar as they are required to take a general course taught, as a rule, by sociologists from MSU. The majority of students would find it unthinkable to support an intellectual protest in the sociology department because by definition there is no intellectual life in the sociology department, nor could there be.

Support for our initiative for political reasons—out of a sense of solidarity—is also unlikely: a protest against the low quality of education involves acting against the university administration. However, it is precisely the administration—through its indifference and mercantilist attitude to such departments as the sociology department—that supports the system of inequality. It provides the mathematicians and biologists with the opportunity to do science and occupy a privileged position within the university. Of course, we also couldn’t count on the support of our colleagues in the social sciences, including most of our classmates: departments like ours recruit students who have no stake in education. The sociology department is a peculiar sort of factory for selling bad textbooks (which are nevertheless sanctified by the good name of MSU) and equally bad diplomas. It is a place where the students, forced to read these textbooks as they wait for their university diplomas, are a source of profit. In these conditions of inequality, it is precisely the improvement of the quality of education in the department and a change in the predicament the profession finds itself in that could increase the chances for student solidarity.

The demarcation between us and the political activists was bound up with a particular paradox: as opposed to western countries (remember the phrase, “The personal is the political”?), politicization in Russia most often works on the side of the opponents of a protest initiative. Political accusations—of “extremism,” of “trying out orange revolution tactics in the department”—were practically the only arguments made in response to our complaints about the department’s incompetent administration. By inscribing the initiative into the already-existing balance of forces, by defining it as one side in the political struggle, politicization makes the immediate goal of the protestors—reform of the department—virtually unachievable. By describing itself in terms of political preferences (the “patriotic Russian academic elite”—as opposed to “liberal fundamentalists”), the department administration translates the conflict into a register where resolution depends on a shift in the balance of power between big-time political players. This shift’s rhythm is considerably slower than the life of the educational institution and practically has nothing to do with the efforts of activists. Meanwhile, political self-identification—especially for the left wing of the OD—was a natural move because they occupy an organic niche in the space of politics.

Despite the fact that our own political preferences were similar to those of the leftists, at the end of the day it was easier for us to find a common language with the liberal civil rights activists. Why?

The answer is, perhaps, to be found in the specifics of civil rights and political activism. The civil rights activists who launched our initiative operate according to the logic of the individual political project, in which it is precisely they (in their own names) who end up being the instruments for accumulating the political capital of fame and recognition. When presented with a “global” project of this sort—“destroying authoritarianism brick by brick”—YCRM (in which nearly all the civil rights activists who joined the OD were participants) serves a coordinating—rather than a command-and-control—function. (One can get a good sense of this from how the activists present themselves: they usually describe the projects they have initiated.) This is a networked structure, which by design is opposed to the classical political party. Civil rights activists generally underscore their negative attitude to politics in its classical sense as the struggle for (state) power: “I’m personally opposed to the OD participating in street actions with other forces, whether they’re liberal, leftist, anarchist or pro-Kremlin.”

In turn, the leftist political activists from Forward work for the organization as a whole. This organization is a proto-party designed for a hypothetical revolutionary situation in the future. In other words, the “production cycle” of such political enterprises is not identical: the time frame in which the civil rights activists operate is much shorter than the time frame of Forward’s revolutionary project. In the latter’s terms, all events and initiatives are strictly inscribed in the long-term perspective of the “class struggle.” For the civil rights activists, on the other hand, short-term goals take priority. This was why, in the final analysis, they proved to be much more suitable partners for us than our more ideologically acceptable leftist comrades. Because for us, just as for the Forwardists, the OD Group is a long-term project of struggle. Except that we are struggling for the professionalization of sociology in Russia.

As bearers of surplus professional competence vis-à-vis our department, we struggle for the recognition of the legitimacy of our position in the academic sphere. In essence, the demand for the improvement of the quality of education (and, more broadly, the professionalization of the discipline) is likewise a means to force others to recognize the value of our own competence, to increase the value of our own capital and investments. Demanding greater professionalism from teachers means demanding the recognition of those who possess greater professional competence (in our case, as scholars). The demand to create conditions for academic work in the department—for example, to open research labs—is an attempt to find our own place in the institution, which, despite the fact that it is formally recognized as “academic,” in reality is not. However, from the viewpoint of political schemes of perception and evaluation, these professional strategies are read as “uninterested” and, simultaneously, as being of no interest.

In the end, the civil rights activists proved to be more receptive to the means of mobilizing allies and organizing the group that we proposed. More particularly, they were more receptive to our proposal to look for other student initiatives in which the struggle against the educational institution’s administrative regime was inseparable from professional activity. Such initiatives—which do not make demands in the name of all students and which are not inscribed into a single political or trade union organization—might be capable of organizing a networked solidarity structure. One such protest group—For Humane Education, organized by students in the MSU biology department—recently carried out a solidarity action with us. It is possible that it is this form of cooperation that will form the basis for an independent student movement.



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2 responses to “BASTA! Special Issue: Towards a History of the Conflict in the MSU Sociology Department

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Jason Whitmen

  2. Pingback: Make Family Tree » BASTA! Special Issue: Towards a History of the Conflict in the MSU …

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