The following article was originally published (in Russian) on the website of the Forward Socialist Movement. The translator has slightly altered the original text to reflect certain developments that have taken place since the text was written.
The (New) Street University, which was founded this year in Petersburg, is one of today’s most interesting and encouraging phenomena in the educational sphere. We asked Pavel Arseniev, one of the participants of the initiative, to tell us about it.
Despite the fact that the current state of education in Russia has provoked bewilderment among many people, until recently students have not organized to defend their rights. The situation at the Moscow State sociology department and the widely covered protest actions by the OD Group have apparently led to nothing, although the protestors took their case to the Public Chamber, where a special commission of experts affirmed the justice of their accusations. Afterwards, it once again became clear that it was both necessary to struggle and that it was impossible to change the situation from top down. The closing of the European University also provoked the ire of students from other universities. The fire inspectors managed to arouse Petersburg’s student population, which until then had mostly been silent and totally amorphous. After hitting the streets with parodic protest actions like the laying of a firehose at the foot of the Lomonosov monument or the folk burlesque play about the closing of “European Aniversity,” the students finally arrived at their natural vocation—education, which, given the fact that the university was closed, also necessarily took to the streets and became a genuinely collective enterprise.
Consolidated by a series of interventions in public space, the students at last recognized collective education as their natural right—a right that had not only been left unexplicated for a long time, but also was no longer experienced on the practical level. The break with the tradition of the common cause also enabled the disappearance of another basic trait of the student community—an oppositional stance. In a conjuncture that favors the individual project over the collective project, the knowledge received at university was not subject to suspicion. In fact, the current disciplinary autonomy of knowledge is a poor defense against the whims of the market. Education risks becoming a mere industry for the reproduction of cadres loyal to the capitalist system of production. In the best-case scenario, these cadres will become specialists in spheres that are limited by writ of compulsion. On the other hands, students themselves, although they perhaps dimly experienced a certain discontent with the subjects on offer or the quality of the education they received, didn’t present their most serious grievance—about the character (not even the level) of the reproduced knowledge—until recently.
Thus the Street University came into being. It has ceased to be associated with the European University since the latter was reopened [on March 21] and because of the ambiguity that arose when city authorities warned EU officials that, if the students didn’t cease their street activities, the city would exit the EU’s board of founders, alter its rental agreement, and began to suffocate the EU economically. The EU would lose its building and, thus, its license. Not wishing to put their alma mater at risk, EU students thought hard about the wisdom of continuing the Street University in its previous form and about recoding it as less offensive institution. Other participants were less inclined to tone down their protest actions. This led to an institutional crisis that was provisionally resolved only during a (re)founding conference that produced a compromise version of the Declaration of the (New) Street University. The declaration states that the (New) Street University aims not only to create an effective network for the production and distribution of critical knowledge, but also to revive student self-governance in already-existing institutions of higher learning.
Thus, at present the (New) Street University is a counterinstitutional community that determines the composition of each subsequent session on the basis of direct democracy. Anyone who is present at these sessions can propose a theme and the form in which it will be presented; he or she also has the right to support or reject other proposals via majority voting. The forms of presentation are varied—from theoretical lectures to art actions. The themes continue to reveal the interest of participants in student self-organization, grasroots activism, and the history of civil resistance and contemporary leftist theory. The university’s name refers to the only site where this kind of knowledge can be produced. Aside from other concerns, classes on the street are meant to put back the “public” into a public space that is shrinking at a precipitous rate, to clearly rearticulate the slogan “Reclaim the Streets.” The (New) Street University has attracted notice from activist and social organizations. It intends to cooperate with them in future in order to build ties between the academic community and protest movements and initiatives. Thus, for its April 13 session, members of the OD Group made the trip from Moscow to join their Petersburg comrades in the SU’s now-traditional home, Salt Alley.
In a word, the Street University is open for enrollment. As its admissions office informs us, tuition is free and all classes are open to the public. The term of study is unlimited.