— Who created the Smolny Beyond Borders project?
– It was organized by former teachers of the Faculty of Liberal Arts. All of them left Russia in connection with the beginning of the war. I left almost two years ago. So far, this is a relatively small project and there are only five people in it, including me. But those who left and, perhaps, will leave, are much more.
We started with three monthly courses and several public lectures. They will run from November to mid-December. These are the courses “Military upheavals and economic development” by Vsevolod Ostapenko, “War and the collapse of the language” by Natalia Fedorova, “Science and war” by Andrey Rodin and several public lectures by Ilya Kalinin.
— Are these courses with lectures and seminars, like in universities?
“These are liberal arts courses, which involve active interaction between the teacher and students. There will be limited group sizes, up to 25 people. And these are courses that cannot be offered at Smolny. Here there is the realization of a certain freedom of teachers to do what they see fit. We are worried about colleagues and students at the faculty in St. Petersburg, because there is virtually no freedom to say what you really think about what is happening.
— Will students receive some kind of document confirming that they have studied with you?
– This is not what they call credit bearing courses, for which credits are given for a diploma. Students will receive a certificate from the program.
— How many applications did you receive?
“The process has just begun. I can’t give exact numbers yet. But I am sure that we will gather the right audience. In terms of load, these are small courses. For a huge audience, we have no opportunity to work. This is just the first step. I hope that next semester there will be more courses and they will already be full-fledged semester courses.
— How do you select students? Is the program available to everyone or only to Smolny students?
– It is not only for students of the Smolny. It is clear that the students of Smolny, and above all those who left, are the target audience, but it can be wider. Any student who finds himself in a difficult situation in the sense of continuing education and who is not alien to the ideas of liberal arts and who is interested in the stated topics can participate.
Whether our project will be institutionalized, I can’t answer yet. I hope we will be able to attract guys from Ukraine, Belarus and other countries, although it is clear what difficulties there are now. It seems to me that Smolny is that rare associated with Russia, but in fact an international brand that may not be perceived negatively in the world. This is its potential merit.
— Will the courses be paid for students?
– All courses are free.
— Who is funding Smolny Beyond Borders?
— The project is funded primarily by the Gagarin Trust, or the Gagarin Foundation, which for many years previously supported the Faculty of Liberal Arts.
— Have you asked St Petersburg University for permission to use the name Smolny, which is associated with the faculty? And was there any reaction of the current administration of the faculty to the new project?
– The name does not belong to the university, especially since it is different – Smolny Beyond Borders. There has been no reaction so far.
— Will you somehow support teachers dismissed from Smolny, such as Denis Skopin?
— For legal reasons, we cannot support those who are in Russia. In the event that they are abroad, yes, the project is aimed at supporting such teachers. We will look for funds and resources for this. There is hope for the consolidation of the Smolny alumni community.
The situation that happened to Denis Skopin is egregious. On the Smolny Beyond Borders website, we commented.
— What do you know about the current state of Smolny?
– Initially, in 1999, the faculty was created as a university-wide project. We had lecturers from about half of the faculties of the university. The project was unprecedented in scope. It was still under Lyudmila Verbitskaya. New programs were created taking into account the principles of the liberal arts. Now this potential is being consistently destroyed.
The university had a chance to create a new university college, like the college of Harvard or Yale. It would be a college emerging gradually, from the bottom up. Programs arose in cooperation with other faculties, within the framework of horizontal links.
The current leadership understands only top-down work, centralization, and the whole sad story with a single campus testifies to this. I feel sorry for our students.
For the liberal arts model, the volume of chosen courses and freedom of choice are important. With the introduction of the new program, this freedom will gradually disappear – I wrote about this in comments to the longread of Novaya Gazeta. Europe” on our website.
There has never been an ideological diktat in Smolny before. We have people with opposing views. Now the situation has changed dramatically. Due to the radicalization of the political situation and the war, many people can no longer stay in Smolny.
— In your opinion, will Smolny be able to be reborn abroad, including by merging with your project?
“I can’t look that far. Such an institution cannot simply be taken and moved anywhere, especially since it is part of the university. But I hope that the period in which the Smolny is located will not last so long, and he [колледж] be reborn into a new life.
— Why do you think the teachers who continue to work at Smolny do not leave?
Everyone has their own personal situation. People relate to all this in different ways, although, I think, for the majority, what is happening with the faculty is a tragedy. Why don’t they leave? Not everyone has the opportunity.
Those who are currently participating in Smolny Beyond Borders still have jobs and contracts. Andrey Rodin teaches at the University of Lorraine in Nancy, Natalya Fedorova is a visiting researcher at Paris VIII University, Vsevolod Ostapenko will teach at Durham University in England from the next semester, Ilya Kalinin is a visiting researcher at Princeton. Everyone’s situation is different, but each of them was able to move and get these contracts. So not everyone.
— What do you think are the prospects for Russian higher education in general?
These prospects are not bright. A turn to the East is declared, but provincialization is a real threat. If you look at the documents of the same St Petersburg University about which partners he communicates with and what agreements he concludes, then this becomes obvious. The university, like almost all universities, is completely subordinate to the current political course and does not have any independence. And it is clear that the corresponding attitude towards Russian universities is being formed abroad.
— What will help get out of this situation?
— I hope that projects like ours can help in the future. Although I understand that we have a very modest and small project. As for the strategy, internationalization and generational change could help.
The fact is that in Russia for many years there have been problems with hiring people with international experience, PhD graduates from world-famous universities. There were already few people like the same Denis Skopin with a French degree, and only in a few leading universities, and over time it became even less. Now this road is completely closed. This situation should be changed in the future. When all this crap and darkness is over, internationalization and attraction of young researchers with international experience is what should be done.
Cover photo: Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences/Vk https://vk.com/smolny_home