About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'
2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.
Maxim Bogachev first heard about HSE University during a 9th-grade class on economics, but ultimately decided to study at the Faculty of Applied Political Science. In this interview with Age-mates, he explained what a civil religion is, why Trump’s victory came as a surprise to U.S. sociologists, and what he’ll do over the winter holiday.
How did you end up at HSE University?
I first heard about HSE University while attending a school with the unusual name The Lyceum School of Managers. It was a 9th-grade economics class. The teacher spoke inspiringly on various aspects of economics with the expectation that we would all go on to study the subject in more depth in the 10th grade. She also mentioned HSE University as a ‘fantastic educational institution’.
My second encounter with HSE occurred later. I was living in a provincial town and our entire class attended a solemn event at…a cemetery, a war memorial. After the teacher finished addressing the class, I decided to wander around this historical cemetery—which, I learned later, dated back to the time of Catherine the Great—and happened upon an unremarkable gravestone that caught my interest.
It was a small plaque with the inscription: ‘To the soldiers who died in World War II’. It listed their dates of birth and death and their names in the Latin alphabet. And many of them had died in 1946. These turned out to be the graves of Hungarian prisoners of war. I decided to find out why they were there and the information I uncovered turned into a pretty good research paper. It contained a literary part with a description of the searches themselves, and a part dealing with the historical search. I sent my research to a national research competition, won, and came to Moscow for the awards ceremony.
We stayed for almost a week at the Intellectual boarding school and students from different universities were responsible for us. That was where I saw real HSE students for the first time, including Maria Segineva, who studied at the Faculty of Sociology at that time. The rigour of her views and her well-grounded knowledge showed that this was a good university and a good place to study. And, with the help of the multidisciplinary Academic Olympics for school students applying to HSE University—that is now called the Highest Standard—I was accepted to the Faculty of Applied Political Science where I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I did my postgraduate work in sociology. Back in my undergraduate years, I began writing about the unusual and challenging topic of the intersection of religion and politics in Russia, and this has remained a research interest ever since.
What are you doing now?
I teach in the School of Sociology of the FSS and specialise in sociological disciplines. I am also the academic supervisor of the political science master’s programme, so I am still interdisciplinary. I also teach a course called The Sacred and the Political that integrates religious studies, sociology, and political science in the context of Russia. It is terribly interesting, but also terribly challenging.
How did you become interested in that?
I was at a class where the discussion was about Stephen Fish’s work on the relationship between religion and politics in other countries (‘Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence’ [Oxford 2011]). When I asked the teacher the logical question of how matters stood in Russia on this issue, he said something like, ‘Who really knows? No one studies it here’. This got me interested and I took off from there, writing one term paper after another on the topic. All this eventually resulted in a PhD thesis on how Orthodox believers in Russia vote.
How do they vote?
The other day, at the School of Social Sciences for Gifted Applicants, I gave a lecture on religion and politics in Russia and used what I think is a good comparison. When a person with poor eyesight looks at something without glasses or contact lenses, he has a good overall idea of the thing and can see its general outlines. But once he puts on glasses or contacts, he understands that everything is much more complicated and that the object has many different elements that don’t all fit together—although initially, the blurry image seemed to be whole and consistent.
Today many people proceed from the secular hypothesis that the more religious a person is and the stronger his connection with the church, the more he should support our main political party. However, upon closer examination, it turns out that the connections are much more complex, more nuanced and slight. Different groups have different motivations, different rationales. When we shift our focus or make a more clear-eyed examination, the picture that we drew somewhat stereotypically or theoretically changes dramatically. And this discrepancy between what is expected, what is communicated, and what actually happens gives rise to an exploratory search, to that same feeling of curiosity that makes me explore and delve deeper. What’s more, this is not the simplest topic in Russia, or in the world as a whole.
How long has sociology been studied in Russia?
The sociology of the Russian Empire was great while it lasted. Many famous people were engaged in that work—Pitirim Sorokin, Maxim Kovalevsky and Nikolai Mikhailovsky. And in the Soviet Union, there was no demand for sociology until, in the 1960s, the country’s leadership—bombarded with exaggerated reports—completely ceased to understand how the people of the country were living. Sociology began to develop as a science along with the demand for sociological research.
Does that mean Soviet sociologists could tell the truth?
In principle, yes. It’s hard to say whether they could on all issues. But there was a demand and they fulfilled it. In this sense, it resembled the Chicago school of sociology that proceeded from the premise that we should solve social problems and provide administrations and municipalities with information with which to make high quality decisions for governance.
What about political science?
In the Soviet Union, in place of political science there was Marxism-Leninism, historical materialism, and political economy. Russian political science appeared in the ‘90s, when the departments of Marxism-Leninism were renamed overnight as departments of political science. Political science is a large and varied science, a predominantly English-speaking discipline, and historically it has primarily studied democratic institutions and democracy as a system. From what we see, in terms of the number of paid positions in sociology and political science, the demand for political scientists is greater—but these are talking heads, not researchers.
Looking at the history of the Faculty of Applied Political Science—that is now called the Department of Political Science—it was created in the late ‘90s specifically to train political strategists. Students were taught to use theories, concepts, and scientific tools to form a true picture, and then, using real patterns and facts, to achieve some kind of result. Well, we know what happened next and now the state system has no such demand. This is partly why I have largely moved from the political sphere to sociology, although the tools that I use are applicable to all social sciences.
What do you talk about in your course on The Sacred and the Political?
We talk about many things, including political (secular) religion connected with the issue of nation-building. Sometimes the state says that it is the highest value. And the people respond by saying, ‘Go and prove it’. And since it needs to legitimise itself, it begins to come up with various elements for this. The Russian Federation, as a political entity, relies heavily on elements of ritual and the trappings of instititionalised (traditional) religions, mixes it with the Soviet past and creates a civil religion—with the corresponding pantheon of saints, holidays, and accoutrements. For example, Russia recently introduced a new offical public holiday—the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity. This is actually the Day of Peter and Fevronia, the equivalent of February 14, and the day when everyone should get married. And the fact that, according to the teachings of the Church, you cannot marry on that day because it falls during the Fast, doesn’t matter to the state because it constructs its own ideas about what is sacred.
Political religion glorifies the state itself, in the name of which everyone else lives and exists. This is not necessarily good or bad—it’s just the way it is. This is happening not only in Russia. The Americans did the same thing much earlier than anyone else, although the first were actually the French, back in the era of the French Revolution.
How was it done in America?
The United States was formed as a multi-confessional community. The states simply would not have united otherwise, so there is no emphasis on a particular confession. We are an American nation, this is the highest value, a God-given path, ‘God save America’—it’s like this. And yes, there is the same civil religion with all the trappings and major holidays: Thanksgiving Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day.
Speaking of America, is there anything interesting about its sociology?
The case of Donald Trump, for example. All of sociology said that he wouldn’t win the election. And then, bam—he won, and by a comfortable margin. They began trying to figure it out. It turned out that people were ashamed to tell pollsters that they would vote for Trump. Imagine that a person is told, ‘Hi, I’m from CNN. Who are you going to vote for?’ He might even be a Trump supporter, but he knows that Trump is taboo and doesn’t want to be associated with him in the eyes of the interviewer, so he lies. But in the end, he votes for Trump.
What other obstacles does sociology face?
The main problem concerns mass surveys in quantitative sociology—the problem of non-responders. For example, VTsIOM says, ‘We have interviewed 1,600 people and it is a fully representative sample of the 140 million people in Russia. Therefore, we can extrapolate the findings to all Russians’.
Let’s say we go out and bug people on the street by asking them to fill out a questionnaire of 100 questions for us. Of those, 99 people will refuse and only 1 will agree. In this way, we find 1,600 people who agree. Question: who are these people? They have time, they’re willing, and they’re not afraid to answer. And we transfer the result obtained from the suvey of these people to the whole country? Is this right? No, of course not.
Is the function of sociology to simply document reality, or does it seek to do more?
There are different views on this. They are largely based not so much even on rational arguments as they are on beliefs: what is permissible, what isn’t, and why. Some say we should help improve the world. Others say no, we should just describe and explain it, but not seek to improve it. In my opinion, if you are guided not just by intuition, but by real research and data, you can make much more effective decisions. And it is sociologists who are able to do high-quality analytics.
Where can I read such works on the situation in Russia?
For example, there are the books put out by the private publishing house Common Place of the Khamovniki Foundation or the New Literary Review. There you find good, high-quality studies where a person drops everything and goes to live God-knows-where for three years—works at a factory, for example—then writes high-quality sociology. And it’s high-quality not only in terms of the methods, but also in terms of the the content. It describes how everything really is. This is great. (This refers to the book Failures and Breakdowns by Olga Pinchuk.)
Do you have any scientific articles that you recommend reading?
For those who are interested, I would recommend reading ‘Politics in the Church: Whom Do Orthodox Priests Campaign for?’ I’m working on the continuation of that now in which I explain why the priests campaign and why they are doing it less each year. As I mentioned, it is all very complicated. People can hold fundamentally different positions in terms of ideology, politics and world view, and yet be forced to interact with one another because they are all—both the municipal authorities and ordinary priests—part of the same system. In this context, they all have to survive, report to their superiors, and carry out the plan. In general, life forces them to do things against their will.
In addition, I’d like to say a word in support of the best social studies textbook in Russia—one that I helped produce. It was written for advanced students who want to know much more than is found in an ordinary social studies textbook. We wanted to show different points of view and how they apply to reality. Our series of textbooks for grades 6-9 was included in the federal list of textooks, and our series for grades 10-11 are used as a teaching aid. It is called the UMK Sorvin Series for Social Studies. I recommend that everyone at least look through it.
How would you describe the typical person from HSE?
This is someone who works hard, does his job well and is valued for it, who is an analyst, researcher, and expert all at the same time. He is honest, open, and transparent. He is ready for serious competition. For many years, HSE students have been known for their great work ethic. Having five academic terms per year (they used to have five!) and facing the real risk of expulsion if you fell behind forced people to work hard and become outstanding specialists. This was why employers loved HSE University and students criticised it—even though they all wanted to study there.
How could your job be improved?
I wish I had more time for research! Unfortunately, in modern academic life, the thing that should be your main area of activity becomes your hobby instead. Ask any HSE teacher what he or she does over the winter break and they’ll tell you that they’re writing up their research. Everyone’s waiting for the holidays to finally get their work done.