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Regular version of the site

‘I Bet on the Window to Europe’

Sergey Kadochnikov on the explosive power of the Urals, encounters with rogue economics, and his life's work

© Stepan Likhachev

Sergey Kadochnikov has worked as the director of HSE University’s campus in St. Petersburg since 2013. During his tenure, HSE – St. Petersburg has achieved impressive success and become a leading university in many respects. On the occasion of his birthday (on January 9, he turned 55) Sergey Kadochnikov told HSE University Life about his childhood in the Urals, his studies in Germany, and his most ambitious projects in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg.

‘He would awake to find the door blocked by tons of food’

I was born in the Urals. My hometown is located in the countryside in a very beautiful place. It smells of forest, boasts a high river bank, and is dotted by forest lakes. And it has a very interesting population.

Many of the people who live there are descendants of exiles – exiles from tsarist times, the Soviet collectivization, and the GULAG. People came there of their own free will in search of a better life or fertile lands. During the Stolypin agrarian reforms (which introduced the right to individual landownership in 1906 — ed.), whole villages traveled there from central Russia. Near my native village there was the nearly transplanted Belarusian village of Gerasimovka: the pioneer hero (or perhaps he’s no longer a hero, I don’t know) Pavlik Morozov lived there, and the villages there were built by people from different parts of the Volga region. My paternal ancestors came from the Vyatka province.

As a result, there was a colorful tapestry or melting pot of very different cultures and people who settled there. The combination of different cultures in itself created an additional bubbling effect. There was no established structure or assigned hierarchy; everyone’s place in the sun there is determined not by history but by the individuals themselves. Plus, the people there had something in common — genetically speaking, they were all seekers of change. They were dynamic and not rooted in old ways.

It was, in its own way, a very honest place. My family was very much a part of this environment.

Once, we tried to leave. My older sister got married to a man from Kuban, and we followed her there. In the Urals, my father was the chief agronomist of a state farm, and then the chairman of the collective farm, and after moving to Kuban, he also tried to start working in agricultural ‘top management’ as it is called now. Economic life in Kuban was half-market, half-Soviet, and very much of a roguish stripe. Everyone had a private farm, everyone stole a little, or gave and took bribes.

My father did not take bribes. At night, people would bring some kinds of boxes to our yard in order to forcibly drag him into that way of life. He would awake to find that the door had been blocked by tons of food. He tried to get to the bottom of it and find out who was bringing the boxes, but it turned out to be a collective endeavor; literally everyone was involved in it.

We lived there for a year and a half and then returned. However, I also fell in love with Kuban. The region also became a part of me. It’s the kind of place where, when you come visit, the whole village drops what they’re doing and comes over to your house to see you. I go there every year to see my sister, and I also go to the Urals. I can't live without these trips.

‘That’s how I became a city person’

My family had four kids including myself — I have one older brother and two sisters — but for some reason my parents decided that only I should experience city life. Just so that one of us did something different. In this regard, even as a preschooler, I was sent to the city, to Pervouralsk. I attended a boarding school and stayed with my aunt on the weekends. During these weekends, my aunt introduced me to city life. She took me to the bookstore, took me on walks around the city, and took me out skiing. Pervouralsk was a figure skating centre, and we went to performances of local and non-local celebrities. There is nothing of this in village life: no one skis to unwind; they use skis to get around and get somewhere they need to go. And taking time to ‘get some fresh air’ is also not a thing in the country. This is how I became a city person.

After our departure from Kuban, we all lived together with our parents, in a more urban town near Pervouralsk. The heart of the town was a factory, which had been moved there from Leningrad during the war. It had been transported along with the workers who worked for it, and a lot of Leningraders remained in the town. The teachers of my school were also Leningraders. As I interacted with these wonderful people, the first threads that would connect me to the city where I live now began to take form. This crystal image took shape in my mind then.

After school, however, I was eager to go to Moscow. Despite my gold medal, I did not get into the Moscow State University programme in political economy—I received a low mark on my essay. I returned to Pervouralsk, and since before that I had done quite a bit of skiing, I decided to get more involved in sports. I decided that I would work at a factory, train in a team, and then go to an agricultural institute in Sverdlovsk, because there is also a good team there. But at one point my history teacher came to my mother for milk (my mother, although she was the secretary of the party organization of the state farm, milked a cow and generally ran the village farm), and she told her that a department of political economy was opening at the Ural State University (which is now part of Ural Federal University — ed.). And so I ended up in Yekaterinburg.

‘Could I really be like them?’

When people come to Yekaterinburg for the first time — whether it be from Moscow, New York, or somewhere else — the first thing they notice is that there is something about it that makes it feel like a capital city. The city seems to aspire to be more than it is. There is also the explosive power of the Urals there – a power I felt since my childhood – plus there is the city’s chic architecture, particularly from the constructivist period. I had been there as a kid and loved it, but I was completely stunned when I arrived for the first time at Ural State University. I found myself in a classic building with incredible chandeliers and columns. And the faces of the people of the admissions committee! They were so unlike anything of my world that my only thought was: ‘My God, could I really be like them?’ I had two days to prepare, I passed everything with the highest marks, was accepted, and began a new life.

Paris, 2000 (from personal archive)
Paris, 2000 (from personal archive)

I lived in a dorm, and for some reason I was put on a floor with a bunch of physics students. I remember that they were all from distant places and always hungry. I often went home to see my parents, and whatever I brought back with me — a goose, a duck — it was all immediately devoured. I worked as a janitor, worked in construction brigades, studied, and played sports. At that time, they were drafting young men who were enrolled in universities, so I also served two years in the army. I returned in 1986, when perestroika had already begun. New forms of student activity began to appear, and we participated in the formatting of curricula. I joined the first Academic Council, which invited students to get involved. In the process, I realized that the only career I saw for myself was one in academia. And although this choice was, as it seemed then, associated with a lack of welfare, I did not care.

‘I encountered economic science for the first time’

In 1992, I received a grant for an internship and went to study in Germany. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen, and under agreements between Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev, quite a lot of young teachers from Russia went to study at various German universities. I ended up in the city of Konstanz in the south of Germany. There’s a famous resort there, and there is a very good university there, created in the 1960s on the wave of European student activity. The university was located in a new building complex, for which it received some prestigious architectural awards, on the outskirts of the city in a green area. It was very comfortable there, but I didn't care about all this, because I was in fact encountering economic science for the first time, and it was very challenging for me. I was coming from a Soviet educational background, and I hadn’t heard of macroeconomics or econometrics or microeconomics. I didn’t have the kind of basic knowledge that these days students get in secondary school. I got into a Master’s programme, and during my studies completed an internship at a serious audit company. There I confirmed for myself again that business was not my cup of tea. Inspired by everything I had learned, I wanted to teach theory and to return more quickly to my university.

Upon my return, however, I worked at a private university for some time. I even had something to do with its creation, and became its vice rector by the early 2000s. This university steadily grew, and it eventually became the second largest private university in Yekaterinburg.

But all this time I taught and built an academic career at Ural State University, and in 2003, I was invited to serve as the Dean of the Faculty of Economics there.

‘And everyone was surprised we managed to get such stars’

This was really the first project that was like a baby to me. And over the course of it, I began collaborating with HSE. For my faculty, HSE was, of course, the most important and desirable partner in terms of the quality of the scholars, discourse, and so on. But I confess that the underlying motivation for ​​this collaboration was also to prevent HSE from establishing a campus in Yekaterinburg. Since it would be a very strong competitor, I preferred to make it a partner.

Photo by Alexey Blagodaryashchev

I collaborated through specific people. We were very familiar with Andrei Yakovlev, we started a series of April conferences, and I managed to bring Moscow-based stars and foreign scholars to the Urals. Yaroslav Kuzminov visited several times. Everyone was surprised we managed to get such stars. But it often happens that people in Moscow cannot gather in the right circle, there is no time, there is no format, and we gathered these people there. They would spend several days there, and they really liked it. In 2008, we created a double degree programme with HSE. This was the first time that such a programme was created between Russian universities; it seemed incredible. One of the joint projects between HSE and the New Economic School is the National Prize in Applied Economics, and this was also connecting activity for the community. And we were quite prominent, although we remained a very small faculty. There was a year after Unified State Exam (USE) ratings started being released when we placed second in the country for student cohorts with the highest USE scores.

I was terribly proud of my faculty. Probably, if not for the merger, I would not have been willing to leave it. But our university was merged with another. A large Ural university received federal university status – Ural State Technical University – and it absorbed other universities. In a sense, the classical university was the victim. Rector Viktor Koksharov immediately invited me to lead the Higher School of Economics and Management. It was the largest institute at Ural Federal University with more than 5,000 students, and it was the only institute that united faculties of two universities. The other institutes  that were created either united former faculties of Ural State Technical University or former faculties of the classical university—these were attempts to preserve the culture of the parent universities. But following such a model was not possible for me since both universities had economics and management programmes, so it would be strange to have to competing structures in the same discipline at the same university. Thus, I went to work on the merger, and my faculty was five times smaller than the faculty with which we merged under my leadership. It was not easy, there was an obvious field for conflicts, and, frankly, for several more years it was necessary to deal with conflicts, not development. It could be done, but it was probably not the most interesting thing that I could be doing. By that point I had already been invited to join HSE several times, and when I received another offer, I knew I couldn’t turn it down.

‘I feel like it’s a part of me’

Seven and a half years ago I moved to St. Petersburg. By this time, the city was already familiar to me, and I was already connected to it in a lot of ways — I defended my doctoral dissertation here, and I had many scholarly contacts here. The main thing I was focused on when I moved there was my work — the project that I had to do.

It was a super interesting challenge for me. Very difficult and very interesting. You see, the St. Petersburg campus at that time was quite mediocre in a range of performance indicators: it lagged behind its Moscow counterpart in all respects by four or more times. It was a very small HSE campus: in terms of student enrolment, it was equivalent to a single medium-sized faculty at the Moscow campus, and it had a very limited range of areas of study. The Moscow campus at the time ranked fourth in the country in terms of student quality (now it ranks higher), while the St. Petersburg campus ranked 22nd. The campus had only 25 foreigners, and they were all from former Soviet states, of course. In short, it was a foreign body for HSE, and to have a foreign body like this in St. Petersburg was a huge reputational burden for the University.

And, of course, I did not expect that everything here would turn out to be so slow, and even a little... sleepy. Akin to the natural landscape—swampy. When I first started, I could not believe it – not matter what the campus undertook, the approach was always, ‘Let’s ask Moscow for the money.’ And that was it. Why? What for? I’d say, ‘Let’s figure it out. Let’s generate the funds ourselves!’ But the response I received was always the same: ‘No, what are you talking about? That’s impossible. We’re small. We aren’t Moscow. We’re just a low-flying, slow-moving enterprise here.’ Back in Yekaterinburg things moved high and fast, while here everything went at a snail’s pace. It was unbelievable!

Interaction with the Moscow leadership was also far from always easy. I remember there was one meeting in the summer of 2014, about a year after my transfer to HSE – St. Petersburg. By that time, I had already gotten a few people excited — ‘Look at the prospects, think about what we can do, we can stand alongside Moscow! You don’t need to tell me that it is impossible for us, that we are small — we are not small! We’re big!’ I somehow overcame resistance, somehow motivated people, sometimes told beautiful fairy tales, and people gradually began to think, ‘Is it really possible?’

And so our colleagues from Moscow came. We presented a strategy. And we were told, ‘No, that’s not right, that’s not doable, you should have gotten approval, you can’t do that.’ I then quite sharply said, no, let’s set high goals for ourselves. Otherwise we’ll never take off; we’ll just continue crawling. Scold us when we don’t fulfill our goals, but not when we have just started setting them.

And my idea was this: we shouldn’t be the ‘little sister’ of the Moscow campus. Rather, we should be a natural part of the university that the whole university can be proud of. But at the same time, we had to somehow reduce the risks of direct competition with Moscow and other campuses. How? We decided to use, again, the historical advantages of St. Petersburg. If this is a window to Europe, a window to the world, then our stake should be on internationalization. And for interdisciplinarity, in accordance with the spirit of the times. The rector consistently supported us in these ideas.

Now the St. Petersburg campus, of course, is different. We have improved in all respects, more than threefold in terms of number of faculties, programmes, and most importantly, in their quality. For example, now we have the best philology programme in Russia according to the USE rating. We have outpaced other divisions of the University in the quality of publications of economists according to the RePEc rating. And our stake on internationalization has paid off: more than a quarter of our programmes are English-taught, our flagship programmes have prestigious international accreditations, we participate in international educational consortia, and double degree programmes. To name a few, we have double degree programmes with University College London, Free University of Berlin, and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

The main thing for me now is that we have become a full-grown, organic part of the University in terms of basic characteristics and in terms of outlook on life. With our own face. This is what resulted. And I feel like it’s a part of me. I’m very proud of it, to be sure.

Author: Ekaterina Drankina, January 11, 2021