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Building Traditions: The Problem of Continuity and Discontinuity in the History of the Russian University


The goal of this research project is to identify the ways a university's present and past are constructed through the use of traditions and their symbolic potential.

The project draws on printed and handwritten texts that have placed on record the desire for traditions as well as their presence or loss. These texts are taken from ministry and university archives, scientific journals, financial documents, anniversary issues, and collections of lawyers’ speeches. Together, these sources represent the universities in Coimbra, Lisbon, Paris, Moscow, Kazan, and Tübingen, and encompass six centuries of university history, from the fourteenth century to the present.

Our research methods are based on the concept of ‘invented traditions’, formulated by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. This concept is supported by Michel Foucault’s approach in The Archeology of Knowledge and Jürgen Osterhammel’s instructions on studying longue durée history. As a result, we obtained a functional theoretical framework that allows us to reveal the latent intentions of those who organize university archives and milestone celebrations as well as memoirists and historians.

After carrying out the research, we were able to draw the following coclusions:

The newest theories of a ‘convenient’ past and the methods of social constructivism allow us to broaden the perception of the university as a cultural phenomenon.

One practical result is that documents from Russian, French, German, and Portuguese archives, illustrating different forms of European university traditions, were brought into the academic discourse. Moreover, project participants created a unique archive of professorial identity—a collection of interviews given by professors and academics from Russian metropolitan and provincial high schools. This will be used as a starting point for the further exploration of university traditions in late and post-Soviet Russia.

An examination of the university texts that come from different historical periods reveals common sense matrixes in the thoughts of academics about their own past: ‘myth of origins’, ‘faith in the upcoming Golden Age’, and ‘ironical’. The first deals with the intention to make the past of the alma mater as long as possible. The second—with the university’s innovative potential. And, finally, the third—with the poetization of caesurae and strangeness.

The deconstruction of historical narratives on the universities’ past reveals several ways of combining separate events into one story: 1. mythologization, which allows historical evidence to serve as illustrations of the main action; 2. synchronization with other levels of historiography—state or national; 3. establishing continuity by forming a chain of academic biographies or a succession of recollections.

For the first time the term ‘university tradition’ was analyzed using an historical approach, and data was collected for its thesaurus. The word ‘tradition’ comes from religious discourse. It was adopted by the scientific community in the period of Enlightenment, when a professorship involved a wide range of ministerial functions, and the university created its own sacred identity using the concept of a ‘sanctuary of sciences’. Over recent years, it has become very ideological and warrants scrutiny.

A frontal analysis of the archives of two Russian universities (Moscow and Kazan) showed us the successive interconnection between historiographical tradition and archival policy, ie the succession between discourses, hidden in document repositories, and those transmitted by scholars. Moreover, as the research demonstrates, the building of contemporary university traditions is directly related to state policy in the sphere of higher education and, primarily, its financing.

All of these conclusions are presented in three English-language articles and one preprint issued in the series Humanities, in one German article, one collective monograph, three forthcoming Russian articles, and four articles that have already been published. The problem stated in the research was discussed during University Traditions: A Resource or a Burden?, an international conference organized at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, as well as in special issues of New Literary Observer and History of Education and Children’s Literature. On the basis of the research findings, three new courses were created: The History of Academic Communities, Introduction to the History and Practice of University Culture, and The Universities of Russia and Europe. The primary results may be used by state officials and university administrations as they consider historical and cultural phenomena while developing higher education policy.


Višlenkova E. Der Krieg von 1812 im Spiegel der visuellen Kultur // Historische Mitteilungen . 2012. Vol. 25. P. 126-139. 
Вишленкова Е. А. «Метки на память»: сатирические образы войны 1812 года, in: История и историческая память. Саратов : Северо-Кавказский федеральный университет, 2012. С. 150-164. 
Вишленкова Е. А., Дмитриев А. Н. Прагматика традиции, или актуальное прошлое для российских университетов, in: Сословие русских профессоров. Создатели статусов и смыслов. Москва : Издательский дом НИУ ВШЭ, 2013. С. 61-95. 
Вишленкова Е. А., Савельева И. М. Университетские сообщества как объект и субъект описания, in: Сословие русских профессоров. Создатели статусов и смыслов. Москва : Издательский дом НИУ ВШЭ, 2013. С. 5-20. 
Pavel O. Who founded Paris University. A History of the 16-th Century lawsuit // History of Education & Children’s Literature. 2013. Vol. IX. No. 1. 
Вишленкова Е. А. Университетский XIX век в России: дискурсивная история, in: Изобретение века. Проблемы и модели времени в России и Европе XIX столетия. Москва : Новое литературное обозрение, 2013. С. 285-316. 
Vishlenkova E. A. University Tradition: a Resource or Burden? // History of Education & Children’s Literature. 2014. Vol. IX. No. 1. P. 177-182. 
Гатина З. С. Университетские медики и народные целители: проблема взаимодействия (Россия, первая половина XIX века) // Научные ведомости Белгородского государственного университета. Серия: История. Политология. Экономика. Информатика. 2014. Т. 8 (179). № 30. C. 82-88. 
Rusanov A. Continuity of University History: a Case-Study of Portuguese Studium Generale (1288-1377) // History of Education & Children’s Literature. 2014. Vol. IX. No. 1. 
Uvarov P. Y. Who founded Paris University. A History of the 16-th Century lawsuit // History of Education & Children’s Literature. 2014. Vol. IX. No. 1. P. 227-250. 
Rusanov A. The continuity of university history: a case-study of portuguese studium generale (1288–1377) / Basic Research Programme. Series HUM "Humanities". 2013. No. WP BRP 38/HUM/2013. 
Морозов О. В. Историческое прошлое Тюбингенского университета в юбилейном контексте 1927 года / Высшая школа экономики. Series WP6 "Гуманитарные исследования". 2013. No. WP6/2013/06.