Dmitri Shalin's Comments on the History of Russian Sociology Project

March 15-18, 2006

Greetings, Boris:

Following our last exchange, I looked up the interviews I had taped in the Spring of 1990 at Boston, and then later the same year in Leningrad and Moscow. Additional interviews were taped in 1992 and 1993, while conversations with Kon went on for six years. My collection turned out to be more extensive than I thought – about 50 cassettes, at least 40 of which are with social scientists and kindred folks. Many of those I interviewed are familiar to you: Golofast, Saganenko, Firsov, Kon, Keselman, Andrei Alekseev, Starovoitova, Gruhsin and his wife, Victor and Alla Sheinis, Bashkov, Kostiushev, Magun, Dondurei, E. Zdravomyslova, Etkind, Gozman, Paniotto, Levinson, Ionova, Naishul, Remennik, Katkov, Galia Rumiantseva. My respondents also include intellectuals like Chudakova, Seliunin, Khanin, M. Gurevich, plus a few others you probably do not know (some names are unfamiliar to me: Samsonov, Efros, Iziumov?). I knew I had taped more interviews, including one with Levada who visited Harvard during my sabbatical year there, but I couldn’t locate these tapes at the moment. A conversation I recorded with Zdravomyslov at the 1990 International Congress of Sociology in Madrid turned up as a blank tape (something went wrong with the recording).

As I listen to my tapes, I see that mine were not so much interviews as conversations or dialogues, sometimes featuring spirited polemics. The discussion revolved around the theme of Russian intelligentsia, survival in the politically vicious times, the meaning of morality under the Soviet regime, the limits of reasonable compromise, the attitude toward perestroika, and the settling of old accounts. I planned to use these tapes in my work on the Russian intelligentsia but did not make headways with the project besides writing a couple of articles, none of which tapped my audio archives. It would be good to make the tapes public at some point, perhaps place them in the CDC web audio archives section, although transcribing the tapes and transferring them onto the digital media would be a daunting task.

I have reread the seven interviews you sent me and see clearly now that I misunderstood the process. Apparently, you did not tape any interviews, all exchanges went through the email. One possible exception is Firsov (you talk about “conversations” between the two of you), but since you don’t indicate otherwise, I assume you followed the same electronic Q & A format. The issues of selection and editorial discretion I raised with you do not pose the same problems when you work with the written answers furnished at your request. Still, some redaction inevitably takes place, and you indicate that much in your foreword (e.g., less than 50% of the materials you received via email from Keselman made the final cut). Much of the redaction was necessitated by space constraints and meant to eliminate redundancies, though certain editorial decisions were substantive (e.g., you cut some of the criticism Yadov leveled against Parygin when you felt it crossed the line, grew too personal). Given my interest in pragmatist hermeneutics and biocriticism, it would be interesting to see the actual email exchanges and compare the language of the original with the verbiage that showed up in print. A routine editing may reveal a noteworthy pattern, especially if we consider the larger universe of email correspondence between you and your respondents from which you extracted the relevant materials.

Thus, it took you six months to conduct interviews with Keselman, during which you carried out a routine correspondence with Leonid. The Keselman-Mogilevsky confrontation probably surfaced during this time frame. Neither author mentions this sordid affair in the interviews, yet it was, arguably, an important exchange that could, and I hope some day will, become a case study. Its significance extends well beyond the heated polemics between strong egos. We can learn from this confrontation a good deal about post-Soviet sociology: the relationship between research and marketing, the tension between competing polling outlets, the stakes that political powers have in data gathering, and the potential for the paying customer’s corrupting influence on sociological analysis. There are sound reasons for excluding this episode from the present scrutiny, but this omission points to a methodological problem I tried to communicate to you in my earlier note, a problem commonly found in qualitative research and central to historical reconstruction.

Consider the contribution that Protasenko and her colleague made to your history of Soviet sociology project with their article about the Golofast affair. The piece features party documents narrated by the authors who took part in the meeting where Valery Golofast had faced a censure. We learn how, in the early 1980’s, several sociologists banded together to block a harsh rebuke that communist party hacks sought to impose on Golofast for an ideological infraction, managing in the end to fend off strogii vygovor s zaneseniem and replace it with a milder censure. Tania Protasenko, who narrates the story, comes across as a key player who spearheaded the action to mitigate the disaster. Yet, the same Protasenko played a different part at a meeting when I was expelled from the Komsomol. As Galina Rumiantseva reminded me in her 1990 interview – I’ve just listened to the tape – Protasenko played a role of pervogo uchenika in this 1975 affair. She condemned me as an “enemy” whom the department “nursed at its bosom” and who was now ready to “betray his homeland.” Tania was not the only person who rose up to condemn me at that meeting. Alesha Alekseev denounced me with some vigor, as did Shkaratan and a few others. One man whose name I no longer recall and whom I knew at the LGU told me that if he and I were to meet on a battlefield, he would not hesitate to shoot me. It was ironic, for this very man was about to be kicked out of Komsomol for his stance on the 1968 Czechoslovakia invasion when I stood up to defend him, making a speech that might have spared him the expulsion.

I don’t mean to pick a bone with my colleagues. They had little choice but to impeach my decision to emigrate in order to protect their careers, although some did so with a lot more dignity than others (I helped a few friends come up with acceptable wording a few days before the meeting in case they were called upon to testify). The point I want to make is that the sampling of past events is likely to present a biased picture of the universe under review when we procure edited accounts that suit our present purposes. Cross-validation is called for when we judge the past by a few examples or anecdotes strategically chosen by self-serving memories.

Gilinsky’s interview is a case in point. He cuts a sympathetic figure (I don’t think I met the man) who speaks forthrightly and sports a self-critical attitude. His writing is also marked by a rhetorical flare uncommon among sociologists. Apparently, Gilinsky was a politically well-connected man: “Несколько лет был членом Президиума Ленинградской областной коллегии адвокатов, неоднократно привлекался Минюстом РСФСР в качестве ревизора, имел «допуск» к ведению дел, подследственных КГБ, и вел соответствующие дела: об измене родине, об антисоветской пропаганде и агитации” (p. 9). After this admission, is it too much to expect that Gilinsky would give us an account of his dealings with the KGB, unjustly accused people he saw carted off to prison, the role he played in the travesty of justice known as the Soviet legal system? Instead, he alludes to a couple of cases where his legal expertise saved one person from a death penalty and another one from an imprisonment, inviting unwary readers to believe that these two episodes were representative of his legal practice (I am talking about the general thrust of Gelinsky’s legal work, not the pecuniary transactions associated with these two cases).

I see a similar problem with Mogilevsky’s recollections. He reminds us that “в те годы (как, впрочем, и сейчас) в абсолютном большинстве случаев суд шел на поводу у следствия и государственного обвинения, судьба подозреваемого часто решалась на административном уровне, а не на уровне работы следователя.” But then, we are lead to believe that Mogilevsky refused to go along with his superiors and battled the system every step of the way. Not much specifics are offered to back up this impression, and a far larger universe of his deeds that must have dovetailed with the Soviet ways remained unexamined. Says Mogilevsky, “Как и большинство книг того времени, моя монография была рассчитана на читателя, умеющего читать между строк. Не обошлась она и без ритуальных заклинаний, с которыми мне сильно помог редактор, – без этого вряд ли она бы увидела свет” (p. 9). That is about the extent of his willingness to acknowledge the moral compromises of those years, a hard price we all had to pay for advancing through the system.

Firsov’s case is particularly interesting to me. Here is a bright man who early on threw his lot with the Communist Party, quickly advanced through the ranks, reached the level of apparatchik, and in the process managed to do a lot of good for a lot of people. Indeed, many owe him a personal debt of gratitude, myself included (Igor Kon once asked Firsov to help me when an apartment in a coop building where I was about to move in had been suddenly reassigned to someone with better connections). Yet, if we are to follow his written account, we are apt to overlook the complexity, the darker underbelly of the life situation in which Boris Maximovich found himself. We learn a good deal about the reprimands Firsov received from the party higher-ups for his independent stance and almost nothing about the praise he received for his stellar party work. As a result, it is sometimes hard to understand why he would be kicked upstairs after yet another run-in with the system. As a party boss in the Khrushchev era, Firsov aided controversial artists, but did he dare to take issue with Khrushchev’s vicious attack on abstract art? “После съезда многократно, не менее 30 раз выступал с докладами об этом событии на партийных собраниях, разъясняя новую Программу КПСС и причины перезахоронения тела Сталина у Кремлевской стене,” writes Firsov (p. 5). The allusion to the de-Stalinization campaign is strategic; it communicates the hope that the Thaw gave to many and encouraged some to join the party. But I would have liked to hear about Boris pitching his audiences the absurd promise the 22nd Congress of CPSU made to the Soviet citizens (“the current generation of Soviet citizens will live under communism”). I empathize with Firsov as a human being and respect his willingness to expend his social capital on other people. If only we had more party bosses like him in those dark ages! Still, I urge you to look up the book by Alena Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours. Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange, Cambridge, 1998. This study (I reviewed it for Contemporary Sociology), shows how “good deeds” performed by well-connected people and blatmeisters cemented relationships in the economy of scarcity, augmented one’s capital in a politically closed system, and helped the lucky ones to stay afloat.

Your interviews cover key phases and junctions in a person’s life – childhood, family background, schooling, early encounters with Marxism, growing political awareness, college years, professional choices, scholarly interests, the research trajectory, career patterns, run-ins with the system, the political disillusionment, the attitude toward perestroika, contributions to the discipline, and generational differences. These are key elements of a bildungsroman the interviewees are invited to write. The rules of the genre require the respondent to look at one’s life and identify its turning points. Adjusted to the peculiar trajectory of our society, this meant assessing the Soviet past, identifying the moment when one fell out with the regime, pinpointing the continuity and discontinuity in one’s Soviet and post-Soviet selves. I found instructive the manner in which different authors solved this narrative task. The common theme here is the emphasis on the recalcitrance that respondents showed early on in their lives.

Several times Smirnova refers to herself as “belaia vorona” (pp. 8, 11), someone who could never fit in with the Soviet ways, and passes in silence her fine skills as a political survivor. Similarly, Keselman identifies himself as “gorodskoi sumshshedshii,” someone ready “все подвергать сомнению” (p. 8), a born trouble maker. Gilinsky’s difference shines through in his early encounter with Niezsche (“Девиантное, анархистское, ницшеанское, отрицающее всегда бродило во мне”), his attunement to “’дьявольскому’, мефистофельскому, сидящему во мне” (p. 14). Firsov shares his credentials as a rabble rouser (“за коллективные и индивидуальные художества мне в старших классах дважды снижали оценки по поведению и один раз исключали из школы” p. 1) and supplies memorable examples of his outrageous conduct (“я с энтузиазмом руководил похищением классного журнала и погружением его в вечность глубин реки Карповки в присутствии всего класса” p . 1). Mogilevsky accentuates his independence (“строптивость характера отталкивала начальство” p . 8) and the fine ear for propaganda that helped him spot the official lies (“то, что говорилось и писалось, в большинстве случаев не совпадало с тем, что сам наблюдал и чувствовал, возникало ощущение фальши, обмана, всеобщей лжи” p. 1).

I don’t mean to suggest that such self-revelations are somehow inauthentic. They ring true to me. More than that, I am inclined to think that the agentic versatility and emotional ambivalence these scholars have shown correlate with intellectual curiosity and creativity. At the same time, these tropes follow the rules of the genre. In particular, they are meant to counterbalance ample evidence that these intellectuals knew how to work the system, that they traveled widely in official circles and did what it takes to augment their political capital. These were Komsomol activists, in many cases young communist leaders, who marched under the communist banners, recited requisite pledges, voted for inane resolutions, took part in the ritual degradation ceremonies, and for the most part kept to themselves the doubts they had about the system.

I know this is what I did in my Soviet years. We had to be that way – how else would you enroll in a Soviet university and enter an ideologically sensitive field like sociology or economics? It is the question of balance and perspective, of grappling with the past without reducing its complexity. The reverse accounting we find in many of these interviews tends to distort the picture, as it highlights one’s maverick status while downplaying one’s solid ideological credentials. The effect could be jarring at times. Describing his military service, Keselman recalls his sergeant “который буквально засыпал меня нарядами вне очереди, количество которых явно превышало общую совокупность аналогичных наказаний, полученных всеми остальными новобранцами нашего взвода” (p. 8). The next thing we learn is that Keselman is promoted to a Komsomol leadership post in his garrison. More shenanigans follow, after which Leonid is elevated to an even more ideologically demanding post.

Yadov is one respondent who forgoes this rhetorical gambit. He doesn’t paint himself as a budding dissident waiting to come out of the ideological closet and declare himself an opponent of the system. He is upfront with us about his early communist beliefs (“помер Вождь и Учитель . . . я его искренне оплакивал,” “Я тогда был совершенным хунвейбином,” p. 3), and he declines to renounce his Marxist beliefs of the yesteryear. Marxism is a sound theoretical paradigm, he insists, and predicts its imminent comeback. Gilinsky is another person who acknowledges his communist juvenilia, but unlike Yadov, he reports his early disillusionment with Soviet ideology, low opinion about Marxism, and deep regrets about the fact that he joined the communist party. The rest of the group did not seem to have much use for Marxism, except for the fact that this was the official doctrine at the time and sociologists had to frame their work in Marxist terms. (Come to think of it, the early enthusiasm about Marxism or lack thereof might be a generational phenomenon – Yadov and Gilinksy are 10-15 years older than the rest of the group).

Now about your interview, Boris, where you traded the role of an interviewer for that of a respondent. You come across in your answers as a fair-minded person slow to criticize anybody and preoccupied with scholarly matters. There is much valuable information about your family background, vivid descriptions of people who influenced you during your formative years, the evolution of your scholarly interests, and major career moves. But you have little to say about your political leanings or experiences with ideological institutions, except when you point out that your career as a Komsomol activist was cut short after you had been apprehended playing cards (p. 4). Were you expelled from the Young Communist League? You make clear the oppressive tenor of the time, the fact that the party had little use for the data you gathered (p. 13), that there was “жесткая цензура на публикацию материалов” (p. 14), and that you and your colleagues faced charges that “под зонтиком областного комитета КПСС [мы] протаскиваем буржуазные гэллаповские методы” (p. 14). But there is no word about whether you were ever asked to join the communist party, and if so, why you chose to stay away. Nor do you dwell on your attitude toward Marxism – an issue that figures prominently in your interviews with other respondents. The only person you single out for criticism in your interview is I. Sigov (“Он был партийным функционером и фактически не понимал ни назначения, ни логики академической науки, не задумывался о том, что успехи в деятельности института могли быть лишь следствием высокой квалификации и самостоятельности его сотрудников.” P. 14).

One thing that is puzzling to me in your interview is the scant attention given to your decision to emigrate. By any measure, this is a major turning point in a person’s life, yet you barely touch upon the reasons behind this precipitous move. Curiously, your interlocutor did not even ask you what prompted you to set sail for the U.S.A. The question posed to you was “Как отнеслись ваши друзья, коллеги к тому, что вы решили уехать в США?” Answering this query, you offer a clue as to the circumstances surrounding your decision: “Окружавшие меня и мою жену люди знали, что мы собирались к сыну, и эта причина рассматривалась как естественная” (p. 24). It is hard to believe this is the whole story, however. I sure wish you shared thoughts about your decision to leave Russia, your attitude toward the political climate at the time, your take on the professional situation in the post-Gorbachev era, the mixed feelings you must have had about the prospect of giving up your profession. Such issues go to the heart of your historical project, I believe.

I found most riveting the part of your interview where you recount your leaving the homeland and coming to America. This is, no doubt, because you and I share the immigrant experience. Emigration is an ultimate divorce, I found out soon enough, in that you part not only with the people you have loved but also with your language, your culture, your friends, your backyard. . . . I viscerally sense what you have gone through when you describe the rush of the final days before departure, farewells to friends, dealings with the U.S. bureaucrats, retooling in the new land, difficulties with health insurance, the struggle to secure an income, your three-year stint as a security guard in San Francisco, and then your coming back to Russia and working your way into the profession. And yet, so much in your experience remains behind the frame, so many pivotal events are barely alluded to, leaving the reader wonder about the rest of your story:

“Вспоминать первые годы — дело очень трудное: множество событий, но не это главное затруднение. Память многое запирает, не дает возвращаться к тому времени” (p. 25); “Потом обозначились какие-то просветы в моей жизни, и в середине апреля 2000 года я оставил эту работу” (p. 28); “Наташа, вы лучше меня знаете, что публикации в России и заработок – вещи несовместимые” (p. 41); “Я сам финансирую свою работу” (p. 33); “Если совсем искренне, то судьба дала мне шанс что-то сделать, что-то изучить и поделиться найденным с другими. . . . возраст, смерть близких мне людей обостряют это чувство . . . жизнь ограничена” (p. 41). “В силу многих обстоятельств, прежде всего — семейных, я загнал мысль о возвращении так глубоко в подсознание, что она фактически не посещает меня. Я смог построить вокруг себя относительно сбалансированный мир, найти решение многих проблем, с которыми каждодневно встречается человек. Эти решения далеко не оптимальны, но все же этот мир я уже знаю, он позволяет мне профессионально работать. Я — российский социолог, живущий в Америке” (p. 42).

The memory does its work according to the rules of the genre and the needs of the present, bringing to the fore some episodes and glossing over the developments too private to invoke. It is up to readers to use their imagination, connect the dots from the nuggets of information scattered throughout the interview, just as it is up to the respondents to reconstruct their lives according to their multiple agendas. You are admirably upfront regarding your approach to interviewing: “Я помогаю моим респондентам писать автопортреты. Пишут они, но я – «ставлю свет», многое предлагаю, задаю вопросы, задаю структуру текста. . . . Я заинтересован получить ту информацию, которая важна для истории социологии, для раскрытия образа. Акцент – на том, что человек сделал, и на том, как, почему ему удалось это сделать. Мне нужны не просто описания, но рефлексии по поводу прожитого и сделанного” (pp. 40-41).

Coming back to the methodological issues inherent in in-depth interviews, I wish to point out that unlike memoirs where the writer is free to accentuate/ignore particular facets of one’s existence, the interview process confronts the respondents with the questions of someone else’s choosing. This process gives the interviewer a chance to move the conversation in a certain direction, clarify vague responses, even challenge the interviewee when the situation warrants. You have used your right as an interviewer sparingly, letting the respondent put his or her best foot forward (“Я хочу, чтобы мои герои подали себя с лучшей стороны” p. 40). To be sure, this is your choice; the procedure you have followed reflects your sensibilities as a mild, nonconfrontational human being, and as long as you are upfront about your preferences, you have every right to go about the business according to your agenda. The difficulty, as I see it, begins when you cease to be a participant observer sympathetically querying your friends and colleagues and become a historian whose judgment of the past may differ from particular accounts you have collected. You do so already in your introductory remarks, supplementary materials, occasional corrections with the dates, and credit reallocation (e.g., it was Zdravomyslov rather than Beliaev who had translated the book by Good and Hutton, but then, is this really a confirmed fact?). A lot more will have to be done along these lines as you shift gears and don a historian’s hat.

To give you one example, Yadov cites 1952 as a date when he was expelled from the party (p. 2). He goes on to tell a story of how this disgrace robbed him of a chance to go to the graduate school, how after graduating from LGU he took a factory job, and then submitted an application to become the party member again. “Пока дело шло по инстанциям, помер Вождь и Учитель,” writes Yadon (p. 3), after which he was reinstated in the party. But that is odd, for Stalin died in 1953, when Yadov was a third year student; by the time he graduated from university, took up a job as a laborer, and made his second bid for the party membership, Stalin was dead for several years. Not that this anachronistic recollection changes the thrust of his argument, but it highlights the work you as an editor will have to do to impart the historical rigor to personal recollections. In several places I was left wondering about the chronology and wished more info were available (e.g., when did Cherkasov die and Sigov take over as director of SEP, how and when was Andreev fired from his job, what charges Firsov faced when he earned strogocha?, etc.).

You will face an even bigger challenge assembling the individual contributions into a volume and passing judgment on the period in question. This is when selective, and in some cases, self-serving, memories have to be confronted. There is a potential bias in choosing one episode over another (e.g., when Smirnova tells us about her successful doktorskaia defense and omits to mention her earlier unsuccessful attempt to submit her dissertation, when Yadov squares off with Elmeev and does not bring up the Antipova affair that shook the IKSI, when respondents recount episodes confirming their principled actions and gloss over less admirable deeds). That reminds me of Heidegger recalling the help he offered to his Jewish students during WWII and passing in silence letters he secretly penned renouncing his Jewish colleagues to the Nazi authorities, or Gadamar touting his decision not to join the Nazi party but conveniently forgetting the shameful talk he gave to the imprisoned French officers about the superiority of the German Volkish Romanticism over the rationalist French Enlightenment (you will find this episode in a paper I recently emailed to you). Sampling by anecdotes and validating through examples endemic to free-wheeling interviews present a serious problem, especially when the interviewer is reluctant to challenge the respondent with counter-examples and play the devil’s advocate. Just as it opens certain hermeneutical horizons, each episode closes other interpretive vistas. We depend on the respondent’s – or someone else’s – willingness to supply alternative examples to offset the possible bias, yet even when such examples are furnished, we cannot be sure how representative the stories are, how they are related to the entire universe of one’s life performances.

This issue is central to my pragmatist hermeneutics project and quantum affect dynamics theory which focus attention on a systematic misalignment between our discursive tokens, emotional offerings, and behavioral performances, a misalignment that goes to the heart of human condition and embodies our ontological being. The ETM survey based on these ideas more or less dispenses with the traditional notion of “personality” – not because this notion is wrong or unproductive but because it underplays the stochastic nature of human agency. For a personality theorist, there is a personal core or a set of traits (attitudes, dispositions, values, etc.) that manifest themselves across situations and that remain relatively stable over time. Any behavioral episode that does not fit the personality pattern is treated as a slip, an anomaly, or an exception that only confirms the rule. For the quantum affect dynamics, deviation is the norm and consistency is an emergent phenomenon that reflects situational pressures as much as our hypothetical dispositions.

This is how the New York Times describes George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees baseball team: “As always, there are at least two distinct sides to him: brash bully and charitable gentleman. . . . He is a loyal friend who turns distrustful. He’s the calm and the storm. Kindness turns to cruelty. He is just as apt to tear apart as blow up.” Such a personality pattern poses a problem for personality theorists, who are likely to see this as a volatile, if not pathological, personality type. But for the quantum affect dynamics and the ETM survey based on it, this uncertainty is the norm. The Emotion Template Matrix Analysis finds such indeterminacy to be normal reflection of conflicting social pressures. ETMA treats human beings as nonclassically propertied objects akin to particles of micro physics: when we don’t look at a particle, it is everywhere at once, it is a bundle of probabilities that require a measurement event to materialize as a particle with a definite mass, position, momentum, and such like properties. In a similar fashion, our affect continuously and subconsciously scans the world for saliency; it generates conflicting feelings, it is pulled in different directions at once, and it takes a special occasion (e.g., a survey question) for a human agent to adopt an identifiable attitude. Predictable though such an attitude might be, it is only a matter of probability that a person will show this or that affective stance or self in any given situation. What I am after, in other words, is patterns of uncertainty and structures of indeterminacy, and the history of Soviet society gives us ample room for studying the schizophrenic dimension of human agency.

Well, enough already. Sorry unleashing on you all this stuff. If it perks your interest, you can find more about my musings on the subject in the emotion section of the CDC web site:, or check a couple of my recent articles posted on the ASA web site: Or else, you can take the ETM survey that is available on the internet and check your own e-profile:

Meanwhile, I want to thank you for sharing with me your interviews. Your history of Soviet sociology project is valuable indeed, and I hope you will keep expanding it.

With warm wishes,


* International Biography and History of Russian Sociology Projects feature interviews and autobiographical materials collected from scholars who participated in the intellectual movements spurred by the Nikita Khrushchev's liberalization campaign. The materials are posted as they become available, in the language of the original, with the translations planned for the future. Dr. Boris Doktorov ( and Dmitri Shalin ( are editing the projects.