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Regular version of the site

'Forget Reform, We Need to Examine the Life We Have'

The Head of the Department for Local Administration at the HSE Faculty of Public Administration, Simon Kordonsky, Candidate of Philosophy, is one of the most original researchers studying Russian society. Students and graduates of “Vyshka” have voted him onto the list of Outstanding Teacher at the HSE for the second year in a row.

Simon Kordonsky was born and educated in Siberia in the small town of Gorno-Altaisk. He has been a zoologist, physicist, lyric poet, sociologist and political scientist, journalist and analyst. One of the founders of the “theory of administrative markets”, he has introduced into academic discourse the concept of “fan matrices”.   

— If you compare your student days with nowadays, would you say that students have changed much since then?

— I don’t know much about student life these days so it’s hard for me to judge. My student days were hungry and harsh, they really were, and I wouldn’t wish any student nowadays to have to go through what I did. Another obvious difference is that my time was spent searching for knowledge, for books and ideas, trying to discover the names of researchers myself. Searching, finding and reading Freud or Berdyaev and other authors was extremely dangerous. Everything outside the canon was forbidden and you literally had to dig books out of the special stores from under the lock and key of LITO, the censor. Now access to knowledge and information is free. And maybe for that reason, it seems to me that students don’t value them so highly as we did. Actually there was far less “spam” of any kind and you could always filter it out instantly. I never read Brezhnev, for example...whereas now, in our post-modern era, some people are actually doing academic research into different kinds of spam.   

— The structure of Russian life that you describe in your work doesn’t have much to do with formal laws and regulations, party political programmes or traditional text books. When you teach students your ideas, do they have trouble following you? What’s their initial reaction? Are they surprised, confused, or have they maybe been thinking in the same way?

— Students fall into two groups. The first are a priori bored whatever you say because they already “know everything” and are just studying for a wallpaper degree. They can’t understand why you are loading them down, and regard our teaching as just another drag, that is as irrelevant to real life as all the other subjects. I understand and accept their position because what we are trying to teach them doesn’t make life any easier.

The second group are surprised at first and puzzled, how can you actually teach something like that? Then they get drawn in and start asking questions. Some of them go on expeditions where they learn to observe and describe what they have seen, and get a more concrete explanation of how life really works in their country. And this second group, depending on how they study, divides into two categories. There those who learnt to interpret the everyday in terms of the theory they discovered in class – they usually go on to work in the public sector, but don’t have any illusions about it. And a small group – learns to think in those terms and to ask their own questions and look for answers. We try to stay in touch with them... 

— Compared to Soviet times, do you think there has been a change in the way reality and the formal rules and laws don’t coincide? If yes, is it possible to assess, which has changed more, the formal structures or the way things really are?

— To give you a proper answer, I would need to describe Soviet formal structures and the realities of soviet life. The work on this has only just begun. The theory of administrative markets was the first and in many ways, naive attempt to describe those structures. I would also need to describe contemporary formal structures and contemporary life which we are studying right now with our students but so far only on the most simple, communalities, municipalities on the level of towns and villages.

We would say that much has changed in the formal structures and in the way of life, but the basic logic of a government that controls all the resources and distributes social justice as it sees fit remains in place from Soviet times.

— How would you formulate your job as a teacher?  

— I think that one of my main tasks is to make my students resistant to any kind of reform, be it progressive or fundamentalist. For hundreds of years, social reformers both Russian and foreign have tried again and again to introduce their highly theoretical and deeply progressive proposals to make things better for everyone and reform this and that. In my view, and as those hundreds of years have shown, those projects have never had a strong enough grasp of reality. Representatives of power base their assumptions and explanatory theories on the idea that in Russia, everything is bad. And that we need to reform the country rather than try to understand it. This approach is inherent in every social catastrophe and Russian rebellion. Things in Russia are neither good nor bad, Russia is living her life and that’s what we must study and try to understand.    

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