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Regular version of the site

‘I’m a Lone Wolf Who Paradoxically Always Works in a Team’

The life principles of Vadim Radaev

© Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Vadim Radaev has been HSE Vice Rector and First Vice Rector for over 20 years. On his 60th birthday (March 29), he spoke with HSE University Life about how a university administrator can find time for research, his cooperation with Teodor Shanin, ‘the best girl of the course’, and how to become a sociologist without a degree in sociology.

My early life got off to a less than ordinary start. I was born in Moscow but very soon ended up in Tomsk, where I lived the first two years of my life. In Moscow, after being released from the maternity hospital, my mum brought me to her father’s (my granddad’s) place. It was a room in a communal (shared) flat. Since my mum wasn’t officially registered at the room, the neighbours ratted her out. The police turned up and kicked my mum with her newly born infant (me) out onto the street. This was how I first travelled by plane to Siberia, where my father had been working since he graduated from Moscow State University. Naturally, I don’t remember anything of the time, but this experience allows me to call myself a Siberian.

As was customary for a good boy from a well-educated family, I graduated from three schools at once: a regular school (in all aspects, nothing unusual or specialized about it), a musical school, and a sports school (cross-country skiing). I never walked — I always had to run not to be late. Somehow, I was always on time.

After school, I applied to the Faculty of Economics of Moscow State University. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind about what to study. Both my parents were economists. Many of their friends who would come over to visit were well-known economists. But most importantly, this was a choice ‘by contradiction’: I was not particularly inspired by anything I had learned at school. Economics seemed like something new and unknown to me, so the decision was made.

As a school medalist, I had to take only one exam in mathematics, which I passed easily. I found myself in a group of high achieving students, where we always inspired each other to study hard. We were all very smart and different. Later, the best of the girls of the group became my wife. So I can say that my studies were not in vain after all.

Although my playing two musical instruments is now history, I’ve never given up sports. Apart from skiing, I was also on the university running team (still using my feet to compete for the university, but without skies on them), and I played football, basketball, and badminton. Later on, I took up tennis and mountain skiing—one usually develops bourgeois habits over the years. Given my current working schedule, sports is not just a pleasant pastime for me—it does help me not to lose my marbles.

‘I realized that there existed a thing called sociology'

Up until the 1980s, life appeared more than predictable. You just had to choose the path and you went down it. I successfully defended my dissertation. However, I soon grew tired of the ‘good old’ political economy because it was too abstract and out-of-touch with the life I saw around me. I wanted to have some sense of reality, but there were no suitable tools available—economists had to rely on very limited statistics and some data were often contradictory. Suddenly, I realized that there existed a thing called sociology, оf which I had only a vague idea as something unclear and reprimanding. It appeared that sociologists could receive interesting data from real people they called respondents. I got interested in that new field and devoted myself to studying it: I immersed myself in a sea of books and read day and night everything I could find on sociology, from classical to contemporary writers, from theories to empirical research. I could soon pretend to be a sociologist. This was how I changed my profession right before I turned thirty. I defended my doctoral dissertation in two academic areas—economics and sociology.

Today I’m considered a mature sociologist and my papers are often quoted, but I never learned the basics of this academic area. I have attended only one systematic course. I did not do it officially, and the course was not in fact about sociology. Those were lectures about SPSS Statistics that Alexander Kryshtanovsky, a future Dean of the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences, agreed to give to a group of his five friends including me. This is all I can say about my ‘sociological education’. 

I also participated in the three-month Sociology School held at the University of Kent in the summer of 1990 under the direction of Teodor Shanin and I visited a number of other universities in Great Britain. This helped me gain deeper insight into sociology. After the Summer School, Teodor suggested that we establish a British university in Moscow, the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences, which now has a second name ‘Shaninka’. It took us a lot of time and effort before we launched it. I am the only founder who managed to live to the day when the school was finally opened. 

‘I could do whatever I wanted’

I attended some one- or two-month courses at many overseas universities. This helped me both expand my knowledge and realize that despite the offers I received from time to time, I’d rather stay in Russia. Many people of my age decided otherwise and left the country. The world was not that global back then, and I soon lost touch with them.

The reforms opened doors for various temptations, and everyone seemed to lose interest in research—there was lack of money, the professional environment was disrupted, some people decided to go into business instead. After a bit of agonizing, I decided to stay in academic research. At the beginning of the 1990s, I set up my first research laboratory. We honed our sociological skills and we worked on some concrete empirical projects, which we ourselves devised. The situation changed for the better before long—both in terms of money and in terms of our professional occupation. I am glad I made the right choice.

Why didn’t I give up research then? I cannot offer any reasonable explanation. I realized that research was for those who could not imagine their lives without it. Scholars do not think about whether it is the right or the wrong time to work in this area, whether or not they will get paid, or whether or not they have enough time for these activities. They just do it because they have a special drive. It is hard to explain what it is. You can always feel whether a person has it or not. People with a drive play their own game.

I soon began promoting an area of studies that was new to our dear Fatherland — economic sociology. Hardly anybody knew what it was about, so I could do whatever I wanted. This is exactly what I did for the next 30 years.

At first, I worked for the Institute of Economics (of the Russian Academy of Sciences), where I was the youngest Head of Sector and then the youngest Head of Department. That job was what I called to myself ‘zero level’. I neither had any particular responsibilities nor any particular opportunities. I had to achieve everything by my own efforts. Fortunately, there were all those foundations offering grant programmes. In my opinion, the competition was weak. I received a grant almost every time I applied for one. Unlike most of my colleagues, I had nothing to complain about, which seemed to annoy others a bit.

Unfortunately, the Institute lost its creative atmosphere as time went by. More and more high achieving young researchers were leaving to go elsewhere. When I received an invitation from the rector of the Higher School of Economics, where I had been giving lectures since 1994, I moved there with three of my younger colleagues. 

‘Now I can talk to people who understand me’

When I was appointed HSE Vice Rector, I received a lot of condolences assuring me that from now on I was done with research. Yes, it was not an easy step for an academic person like me, who was used to almost unlimited freedom. Yes, I have devoted most of my working hours to administrative duties for over 20 years. But I’ve also had some time for research, teaching, admission campaigns, human resource issues, publishing, libraries, and even information technology (although the latter frightens me a little), to name but a few.

I can still find time for research. My academic activity has long become my professional hobby, which doesn’t prevent me from working in this area assiduously. Of course, I cannot spend as much time on research as I’d like. It takes me longer to do things now, but I try to complete everything I begin. This is one of my principles. And I hardly ever regret things. HSE is a vibrant and large-scale project, and I never regret the time I’ve spent on it. There is a large number of enthusiastic people with the drive I mentioned before, whom you can trust with an important assignment and know they will do it well and independently, without asking anybody for help. I’m sure many would share my attitude. 

In 2000, with very little time and scant resources, I put together the first issue of Economic Sociology, which has now been published for over 20 years. Currently, my colleagues, to whom my appreciation is heartfelt indeed, do most of work. Originally, it was one of the first online journals, which was quite unusual. Today, the online format is something ordinary.

In 2006, I set up a Laboratory of Economic and Social Studies. Most of its employees are my former and current students. Now I can talk to people who understand me. This is a perquisite I value a lot. I wish I had more time to interact with these people.

'...And I keep it up’

My first books about sociology were published as textbooks because this was the only chance of securing financing. Then these constraints disappeared as well. Ten years ago, I was sure that I would never write again. As it turned out later, I was wrong. I got carried away at some point, and a book about the millennial generation appeared. I dedicated it to my son (he belongs to this generation). I hope he doesn’t mind. 

In the days when I had enough time and energy, I translated works by world known economic sociologists to shape the discipline in Russia in an adequate professional Russian language. People called me a ‘pro-Western writer’ because of this. I do not want to argue with them.

I have been teaching all these years, without missing a single module. I believe teaching is important, and I’ve always seen it as a valuable contribution to my main activities. To be fair, I should say that I only teach courses I wrote myself and I think that this is more interesting than teaching standard programmes.

Apart from purely academic activities, my colleagues and I have been conducting practical research for over 20 year. Our main clients are big companies. Money is not the key driver behind our work. We do this to stay in touch with reality. I never have to look for offers, as I’ve always got a lot of them. We do not feel ashamed that we work for money, and we publish the results of our research if the client has no objections.

When people ask me whether it is possible to combine academic research, business activities, and university administration, I answer reasonably that it is not possible at all. And I keep it up.

Do I have time for all these things? Of course not. I’ve never had enough time. But my personal experience tells me that there is no use in waiting for the ‘right’ time because it will never be the right time. You need to act here and now.

I’ve gotten through the pandemic without any theatrics and, so far, I haven’t lost my sense of smell. I allowed myself to write a new book. It’s a pity that the project is now complete.

I’m a lone wolf, but, paradoxically, I’m always working in a team. Working with good people is both pleasant and beneficial. As for others – I try to avoid doing business with them.

Photos by Daniil Prokofyev

March 29, 2021