Viktor Gorbatov: “Civil Society Emerges Where There is a Culture of Discussion”

Former Senior Lecturer at the Higher School of Economics talks about the reasons why opposition-minded instructors were recently fired from the university. He also offers his views on the power of solidarity and long-overdue reforms in Russia’s system of higher education.

ReForum: The Higher School of Economics (HSE) recently laid off instructors who are vocal about their political views. What do you think led to this decision?

Gorbatov: Officially, the layoffs were connected with a reorganization of the university. This summer we saw that take place with three academic departments, including the law, business, and humanities departments. It also included the School of Cultural Studies, School of Philology, and School of Philosophy. The old schools are being disbanded in order to create new, unified schools. Around 80% of staff and faculty from these divisions received letters about their dismissal starting in September. Another 20% have an annual contract which expires on September 1st. Some of the instructors were later offered teaching positions, but I myself wasn’t so lucky. I was offered positions with lower qualifications – such as dormitory administrator – so that I wouldn’t have to write a letter of resignation. It was a kind of two-step process.

It’s impossible to prove that any of this was done for political reasons. But my colleagues hinted at the fact that the university administration was unhappy about me signing open letters, about the fact that I actively express my political views on Facebook. And it’s easy to find formal reasons for ending a work contract. In my case, the problem turned out to be a lack of academic qualifications and an insufficient number of publications.

ReForum: How many instructors lost their jobs in September?

Gorbatov: I only have numbers from the School of Philosophy, where, of approximately 70 instructors, about 15 people lost their jobs. That includes Ilya Guryanov, who is vice-president of the union, University Solidarity, Tatyana Levina, who worked with a research project, Anti-University, and Kirill Martynov, a political journalist.

ReForum: You’ve mentioned before that there is a list of “untrustworthy instructors” at HSE. Does that kind of list actually exist?

Gorbatov: No one has seen anything in writing, but on multiple occasions, people have been told that the administration is unhappy with them and other faculty members. The list of these employees overlaps with the list of those who announced their dismissal.

ReForum: There’s the impression that HSE is trying to distance itself as much as possible from opposition-minded instructors and those who openly talk about their political views.

Gorbatov: Politically active instructors have been leaving HSE for the past few years. At some point, we started getting heat for the same thing which once won us praise. I remember HSE as a very liberal university. Freethinking and initiative-taking were always encouraged. There was Elena Panfilova’s Laboratory for Anti-Corruption Policy, and she also headed Transparency International in Russia at that time. But in 2018 Panfilova was forced to leave. Political scientist, Alexander Kynev, and opposition politician, Yulia Galiamina, also left.

Likewise, students were affected. The student journal, Doxa, for example, was deprived of its university funding in December 2019.

ReForum: At the time, HSE chancellor, Yaroslav Kuzminov, together with Panfilova, created the Laboratory for Anti-Corruption Policy. What do you think the reason is for the chancellor’s change of heart? Is he being pressured?

Gorbatov: I think everything is more complicated than it would seem. It’s clear that the university administration is under pressure. HSE is a top-ranking, federally-funded university. There are certain demands and expectations here. But decisions in the university aren’t being made by one person. It’s better to look at what’s going on as something which is systemic, taking into account the internal logic behind the university’s development.

Today, HSE isn’t the young, free university that it once was. It’s a mature organization that is starting to bureaucratize.

At this stage, values are often lost or formalized and diluted. The views that everyone used to share are now found within a code of ethics, a cold set of rules which can easily be turned inside out. For instance, one of the official reasons the university administration gave when expressing its displeasure with certain faculty members was: “You’re too atomized in your research.” Whereas, in reality, there is a living community of researchers who exchange ideas both in formal and informal settings, who are in contact with fellow academics from abroad. Amidst all of this, we don’t even have a full list of instructors who are leaving the university in September. We only know about those who have publicly talked about their departure. In an internal email at the university, someone suggested the idea of publicly naming those who were forced to depart with the university as a way of showing solidarity. But that idea was met with serious resistance from above. In my opinion, that’s a vivid example of the kind of atomization mentioned earlier. Each person sits around, waiting to find out whether or not he’ll be fired. Meanwhile, hushed conversations about why someone was fired are taking place in the hallways.

ReForum: Do you think that the university administration is worried about instructors getting together to protest the layoffs?

Gorbatov: The vast majority of instructors are very loyal, and even I can’t describe myself as the rebellious type.

I don’t think there is a concern about protests, rather, about people seeing themselves as a united force, as a united community.

A colorful example of that was the union University Solidarity, which, in a very ugly and even shameful way, was banned from being involved in the inner-workings of HSE. In its place, another union was set up with a puppet leader who blurted out at a meeting in the chancellor’s office that the university isn’t a place for human rights activities. Whereas the very idea of a union is to protect the rights of the community.

ReForum: But the feeling of solidarity, as well as uniting around the idea of justice, may later result in protest.

Gorbatov: Our academic community is rather quiet and unradical. We’ll only start to protest in response to some kind of terribly egregious injustice. In that sense, the only people who would be afraid of us getting together in protest would be those who are contemplating something extremely disgraceful.

ReForum: What do you think civil society needs in order to develop?

Gorbatov: I think that civil society emerges where there is a culture of discussion, where people are allowed to get together and discuss important questions, the kind of questions which concern people. Not just questions about Honduras or the United States. Simple questions are also important, such as a home owner’s association deciding to improve the local neighborhood. There is a great concept known as “deliberative democracy,” when people are used to discussing common issues, when people think it important to develop common solutions. Based on my knowledge and experience, I think that that’s the ideal kind of civil society. It’s debates, open discussions, the necessity to back up your words and ideas, not just command and obey.