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A problem-solving Don Quixote Teodor Shanin, who modernized Russia’s higher education system for the humanities, dies at 89

Source: Meduza
Alexander Utkin for Meduza

On February 4, the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences (MSSES), more commonly known as “Shaninka,” announced the passing of its founder, sociologist Teodor Shanin. Irina Kravtsova asked Anatoly Kasprzhak, who succeeded Shanin as MSSES rector, how his mentor changed higher education in the humanities in Russia.

Anatoly Kasprzhak

Shaninka’s rector from 2007 to 2011, now a professor at the Higher School of Economics Education Institute

Since Alexander Arkhangelsky has already published the [memoir] Disagreeable Teodor, it’s hard to think of anything to add. Teodor spent his childhood in Poland. Then, he lived through the repressions involved in the rearrangement of Europe’s borders following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and ended up in repressed Soviet Russia. He later returned to Poland before going to defend Israel, literally, with a gun in his hands. Then, he was educated in France and England and became a professor in Britain’s best universities. Then, he returned to Russia to resurrect social science and humanities education. In that sense, [the nickname] “Indefatigable Teodor” reflects this individual’s essence and his efforts very well. There’s a phrase that’s been attributed to just about everybody you an imagine — “Be realistic: Demand the impossible.” That was absolutely Teodor’s motto in life.

For all of his birthdays, he was usually given either a statue of Don Quixote or a statuette of himself dressed as Don Quixote. And yes, he was like that. He solved problems that were absolutely impossible to solve. His secret was that he believed religiously that if his work was right — the thing he was asking money for, finding facilities for, opening a new educational institution for — then he would overcome all obstacles. Because like a small child, he believed that people could not fail to understand the truth of the ideas he brought to them. On one hand, he was an extremely driven person, somebody who understood extremely well where things had to move. On the other hand, he was extremely naïve. You could often find Teodor crying or coming to tears because he’d seen some obvious injustice. And those weren’t an old man’s tears. I got to know him when he was probably about 60-something, and even then, that would happen to him. He was an extremely driven, self-sufficient person with an incredibly tender-hearted personality more characteristic of children than adults.

Teodor came to Russia as one of the leaders of the now rather unhallowed Soros foundations, which, at the time, supported innovative schools and published books. He was one of the people who persuaded Soros that apart from ballet, military weaponry, and rockets, there was something else of value to be found in Russia: education. And if we want to preserve Russia as a part of the civilized world, then you have to help people who are carrying the weight of scholarship and education but are marginalized. He provided a life for those people.

I also think it wasn’t easy to persuade George Soros that such colossal amounts of money should be invested in supporting teachers and scholars in Russia, publishing their books, and founding the Cultural Initiative Foundation (now the Open Society Foundations). But that was one of the right things to do that Teodor believed in and made everyone else believe in, too.

The creation of the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences, which people call Shaninka now, was also an unbelievable event for Russia. Imagine that in the early 1990s, some strange foreigner with an accent comes into the Education Ministry and says that we have to create a humanistic university in Russia. Says that, you know, you’ve got excellent STEM education, but you’re not doing things right in the humanities. You have to understand that in the early 1990s in Russia, humanities universities were former Komsomol schools that had been controlled by the Party. They just changed their names, but in essence, they were exactly the same. You can easily say that was when Teodor invented the humanistic university in Russia.

While today, for us, libraries with access to the stacks, elective courses, and office hours are business as usual — something that wouldn’t surprise a contemporary student — back then, it was a Western example that Teodor used to create Russia’s best universities. For example, the Higher School of Economics, as we see it now, was also influenced tremendously by the little boutique that is Shaninka, which showed that you could create an elite higher education institution for the humanities in Russia.

Even something as elementary as the fact that the person teaching a student shouldn’t be grading their work is still a novel discovery in education for many leading universities. But that’s exactly what creates a sense of servility among students toward their teachers. At Shaninka, Teodor introduced [a different grading approach] way back in the mid-1990s. It was revolutionary for the consciousness of teachers and faculty. It changed their views on the essence of education.

Teodor didn’t transfer that model directly, but he showed that you could unite those Western models with the best practices Russian pedagogues had to offer. It would have been so easy to copy Harvard or Oxford’s model and import it into Russia, but Shanin understood very well that that would never work. He was able to integrate the best traditions of the Russian and Western education systems. He wasn’t a dogmatic Westernizer; he took only the best aspects of it and combined them with the best there was in Russian education. In that sense, Teodor’s students, who are now working in centers of higher education all over the country, have seen that his work was right, and they’re continuing that work.

Transcription by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Hilah Kohen