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Experts and Expert Institutions: History of Research (Self)evaluation at the Russian Universities of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Priority areas of development: humanitarian

The project is aimed to reconstruct the process of academic expertise (its actors, places, and practices) at Russian and Soviet universities. Theoretical frame of the project is determined by the specific character of historical sources and the range of research problems. It was formulated from such concepts as interactionism and event theory, the theory of disciplinary institutionalism and socially adapted version of neo-institutionalism, as well as the history of professions. The research cases we chose are determined by the current situation in historiography, more precisely, by gaps and discussions, we revealed there.

The empirical base of the project includes the archival material from Moscow, Kazan, Vilnius and St. Petersburg Universities (Central State Archive of Moscow, Lithuanian State Historical Archive, the Library of Vilnius Universities, National Archive of the Tatarstan Republic, Central State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg), the Ministry of Public Education, the Medical Council of the Ministry of the Interior, and the Chancellery of the Doctor for Civil Issues (Russian State Historical Archive). Using this material, we reconstructed the succession of university expert institutions, revealed the staff and functions of the liсensing authorities and the forms of evaluating medical dissertations; the composition of committees and councils for awarding academic degrees and personnel commissions at Russian universities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some documents are used in historiography first time, viz. documents on the issuing the 'Pamat' journal, reviews written in the period of developing the Soviet state and the struggle against bourgeois science, interviews with the professors of post-Soviet universities.

The research allows making a set of meaningful conclusions. The cases chosen led us to understanding of the logic of how the university (self-)evaluation was organized and, accordingly, how expert institutions were founded. It helped reveal how scientific expertise was shaping academic culture, as well as professional ethos and reputations of faculties. Also, the conditions was identified under which professional elites in Russia agreed to cooperate with the government and political parties.

Diachronically, the development of scientific expertise in Russia points to a particular tendency. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the government of the Russian Empire delivered local academic communities the right of self-evaluation and suggested them to work out special criteria. This decision contradicted the logic of reforms intended to separate the functions of state institutions, formalize the process of state administration, and exclude collegiality in decision-making. In this respect, Russian state officials considered university self-evaluation an atavism, which was necessary only when Russian universities were at the start of their development.

Chaotic transformations in the administration of clinics in the first third of the nineteenth century also allowed us to see interactions between the government and expert institutions. First, the cabinet of Alexander I prohibited foreign medics from evaluating Russian medicine, but since Russian state officials did not have enough skills for the same job, the government did not benefit from that. It had to expand state councils with the representatives of professional elites, viz. professors and clinic administrators. With the growth of Russian medical chairs during the nineteenth century, the alliance between medics and state bureaucracy was becoming stronger.

In the time of Nicholas I, reformists wanted to unify the requirements for education and science. They did not trust professorial councils and transmitted the right to award academic degrees to the Ministry of Public Education. This measure extended the timeline of approving degrees and stressed the atmosphere at universities. Ministry officials proved themselves incompetent to read and understand long dissertations. That is why there was St. Petersburg University that was chosen to be the government expert center. The state bureaucracy should only work out and oversee evaluation criteria. When manipulating with them, the Ministry, in fact, implemented its personnel policy at universities simplifying the criteria for loyal professors and complicating them for undesirable ones.

Within the nineteenth century, the number of dissertations was increasing, and soon it paralyzed St. Petersburg University. Its professors were deluged with new papers. First, they complained of overtime but then they refused to do this job at all. The Ministry had to transmit the evaluation of dissertations to regional universities, which were strongly against this measure and tried to persuade the Ministry that they were state institutions and unable to review qualification papers. The Ministry responded that it was its right to re-delegate administrative functions to whoever it wants.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the government reserved its right to censor academic texts, but still universities should evaluate their innovativeness and correspondence with professional conventions. But after the social role of the expertise and political situation had changed, professors started to evaluate not only the work of their colleagues but also the directives from the Ministry. So, they checked the quality of how the government administrated science and education.

Professors sought to receive academic autonomy. But when the state did not oversee the process of scientific expertise, academics decided to use it in their interests to destroy the reputations of their opponents. This fact can be easily proven by reviews and letters wrote by the victims of such campaigns.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 the evaluation of historical books, lectures and papers were entirely controlled by the state. The Bolsheviks wanted to represent their uprising as a result of a historical pattern. Lev Trotsky and Mikhail Pokrovsky appropriated the right to evaluate historical texts and destroyed history at school and universities. In the 1930s the situation changed again. Stalin discredited Trotsky and Pokrovsky representing them not only as political opponents but also as mediocre experts. He brought history back to schools and universities, restored academic degrees and implemented a multilevel system of scientific evaluation. He put this system under control and used it as an instrument of terror.

After Stalin’s cult of personality had been denounced, academic expertise in social sciences and humanities was put under dual control – the Bolshevik party and university councils. In the late Soviet Union, the path of building an academic career did not coincide with one of building an academic reputation. Not only did university officials become experts but also the leaders of new scientific directions, who considered their work an important social mission.

The study of academic expertise showed us that every time the most significant issue in its history was appropriating the right of making decisions. An actor who did so could change the rules and manipulate them in his interests. University councils, ministries, political parties, and unofficial academic communities were among such actors. Changes in distributing power within expert institutions made possible unusual balances between academic careers and reputations.

The results of the project are published in English in three papers in scholarly journals indexed in ‘Scopus’ and ‘Web of Science.’ Two monographs and eleven papers are published in Russian, including three from the ‘Scopus’ and ‘Web of Science’ journals and four in the journals from the VAK list. Also, the results of the project are presented in English in two working papers issued in ‘Humanities’ series. 31 reports were made at international and Russian conferences, as well as at the seminars of the Center for University Studies. 


Ильина К. А., Галиуллина Р. Х. Университет vs Министерство народного просвещения: академическая экспертиза и цензура диссертаций в середине XIX века // Вестник Нижегородского университета им. Н.И. Лобачевского. 2016. № 4. C. 15-24. 
Morozov O. Wilhelm von Humboldt and Berlin University: a New Look at the Origin of the Humboldt Myth / Basic Research Programme. Series HUM "Humanities". 2016. No. 134. 
Mogilner M. Racial Psychiatry and the Russian Imperial Dilemma of the “Savage Within” // East Central Europe. 2016. Vol. 43. P. 99-133. doi
Парсамов В. С. Историко-культурологические идеи С.Л. Франка // Вестник РГГУ. Серия: История. Филология. Культурология. Востоковедение. 2016. № 7 (16). C. 68-88. 
Свешников А. В. Самоэкспертиза советского университета эпохи позднего социализма // Неприкосновенный запас. Дебаты о политике и культуре. 2016. 
Сысоева Е. О. О выборе центра наместнического округа А.Н. Бахметева // Вестник Нижегородского университета им. Н.И. Лобачевского. Серия: История. 2016. № 6. C. 77-84. 
Ильина К. А. Практика рецензирования диссертаций по истории и филологии в университетах Российской империи первой половины XIX века, in: Диссертация по истории в контексте российской научной культуры XIX – середины XX вв.: опыт и перспективы изучения. Челябинск : Энциклопедия, 2016. С. 36-49. 
Баженов О. А., Гатина З. С. Формирование исторической памяти о российских университетах 1990-х годов: свидетельства и их интерпретация // Новое прошлое. 2017. 
Свешников А. В., Клюев А. И. Новое издание воспоминаний Николая Петровича Анциферова // Диалог со временем. 2017. 
Исторический сборник "Память". Исследования и материалы.. Москва : Новое литературное обозрение, 2017. 
Berezina E. From God-daubers to Soviet Artists: Practices of Self-Sovietization among Former Icon Painters in the 1930s / Basic Research Programme. Series HUM "Humanities". 2016.