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Remembering Tatyana Zaslavskaya

September 9 2013, the HSE and the Liberal Mission Foundation held a roundtable discussion ‘Economics and Sociology: Lessons of Interaction’ in memory of Tatyana Zaslavskaya.

Zaslavskaya’s contribution to the study of social and economic problems in the USSR and then in Russia has been huge. Thanks to her efforts as President of the Soviet Sociological Association, sociology was recognised as a science in it’s own right.

Tatyana Ivanovna died on August 23. Fellow academics gathered at on her what would have been her 86th birthday to talk about her work and some of the remarkable moments of her life.

Zaslavskya was a Soviet and then Russian sociologist, economist and political scientist whose talents dawned in the 1960s - 1990s. She set up the Novosibirsk School of Economics and Sociology to focus study on the social structure of society. At the roundtable Vadim Radaev, First Vice-Rector and Head of the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology talked about the role of the Novosibirsk School in establishing Russian Economic Sociology and its trademark thorough and scrupulous methodology and empirical research. HSE’s Academic Advisor, Yevgeny Yasin pointed out the extraordinarily correct approach Zaslavskaya took to drawing conclusions and the high quality of her research work. 

It was a thirst for knowledge that brought Tatyana Zaslavskaya to sociology. She felt cramped in the narrow confines imposed on political economists by the Soviet system. In her memoirs she wrote, 'Political economists formulated laws, none of which were realised. Science needed to find a way to reveal the truth.' Vadim Radaev experienced the same feeling, he said when he, 'went into Sociology because of Zaslavskaya’s work in the Novosibirsk school'.   

Yevgeny Yasin remembered Zaslavskaya’s famous lecture at a conference in 1983 which came to be known as the Novosibirsk manifesto. In ‘On improving socialist industrial relations and economic sociology’, she showed that industrial relations were out of date, that centralised planning was inefficient and how political economics was irrelevant to the times.  Zaslavskaya was forbidden to publish the report, but people who attended the conference made copies of it, some wrote it out by hand and passed it on to their colleagues. Soon the KGB confiscated all copies of the report and even Zaslavskaya’s preparatory notes. But a couple of copies made their way out to the West where they were recognised as the first swallows bringing news of ‘spring’ in the USSR.

She showed that industrial relations were out of date, that centralised planning was inefficient and how political economics was irrelevant to the times.

As a student at the Economics faculty at Moscow State University, Tatyana Zaslavskaya become interested in agriculture. She went on field trips led by Grigory Kotov, and later, talked about how shaken she was by the poverty and injustice she saw dominating life in the Russian countryside and the huge gap between the city and villages. As Alexander Nikulin, Director of the Centre for Agrarian Research at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, put it in his report ‘Zaslavskaya the agrarian; in search of alternatives for the Russian countryside’,  she was always concerned about the problems of social justice, and particularly of fair wages for agricultural labour. Zaslavskaya devised a typology of Russia’s rural regions, studied the particulars of the territorial development of soviet villages and tried to solve problems of the human factor in the national economy.    

In the 1950s she was asked by Krushchev to make a comparative study of Soviet and US agricultural productivity. The results showed the USSR produced four and a half times less than the USA. The KGB took possession of Zaslavskaya’s report and it has been ‘lost’ ever since. When the restrictions on freedom of movement for collective farm workers were relaxed in the 1960s, Zaslavskaya made a comprehensive study of the problems of migration from the countryside into the cities. In her later years, the same question worried her, ‘what will sustain Russia when each year our villages are shrinking and life in the countryside is dying out?’ 

In the latter period of her life, Zaslavskaya worked in Moscow collecting information on public opinion. She organised and became the first director of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre and was president of the Soviet Association of Sociologists. (SSA). Tatyana Zaslavskaya always prefered to be involved in research work. In her memoirs she wrote, ‘My transfer to the Interdisciplinary academic centre for social sciences (Intercenter) allowed me to study fundamental problems like the transformation of Russian social structures and social mechanisms for transforming Russian society’. Ludmilla Hohulina, Deputy director of the Levada Centre, who worked with Tatyana Ivanovna all these years, reminded us once again of the her major contribution to establishing the study of sociology in Russia. Zaslavskaya’s call to sociologists, ‘Don’t ever be a passive onlooker, don’t just count statistics, you are here so roll up your sleeves and get involved!’ is characteristic of her qualities - she never stood on the sidelines but always took part, trying to change society for the better.

Anastasia Chumak, HSE News portal

Photo by Nikita Benzoruk

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