Pavel Arseniev: As you remember, when we were drafting the Street University (SU) Declaration we emphasized two broad goals: the creation of a self-governance network within existing institutions of higher learning and the development of an alternative space for the production and distribution of critical knowledge, which would collaborate in one way or another with this network. To put it crudely, the SU sets itself the task of bringing up issues that are taboo in the traditional academic milieu, thus subjecting university programs themselves to revision. But the SU began to evolve in its own arbitrary direction, which didn’t quite coincide with its declared aims. On the one hand, there were a series of successful attempts at the production of counter-institutional knowledgeour weekly Sunday classes and actions; on the other, we havent managed to create a network of student councils. Certain SU participants invited new people, but even such an unusual event as a street debate didn’t always have a surefire impact on students. This is where we run up against the very circumstance that compelled us to create the SU, which is described in our declaration: the depoliticization and demoralization of students. Given this fact how we can talk about self-governance cells within the universities themselves?
My thesis, however, is that instead of or even despite the task of creating a network of student unions (work that is as necessary as it is routine) the SU took on a completely unexpected form exemplified by direct actions. They havent been numerous enough to allow us to speak of a series, but the perspectives they revealed were interesting.
Alexander Skidan: The first wave of theatrical protest actions [in defense of the closed European University], the Declaration, and the conversations about the SU gave me the sense that the students themselves understood the necessity of
creating self-governing cells, bodies for self-governance. I thought that the European Universitys struggle with the fire inspectors [and the more powerful authorities who backed them] would serve to detonate the politicization of the students in this direction, which I see as the strategically most important one. But the first constituent assembly proved that I had been mistaken: there was not only no unity among the students participating in the SU, but even a relative uniformity of motives and aspirations was missing. This is sad because the moment of solidaritywhen students from other, fortunate universities supported EU students seemed to me to be the long-awaited start of an awakening.
Artemy Magun: I would also say that a broad-based mobilization didmt taken place. But among the participants are people who, while theyre of course students, are simultaneously and perhaps primarily members of such social fields as the Petersburg intelligentsia, the artistic bohemia, and so on. Thus, what happened was rather a mobilization of these circles
insofar as we dont have a broad grassroots movement.
PA: I would insist on the fact that, however narrow the SUs mobilization was, it was a student mobilization. And we didmt know the other students before the SU arose.
AM: So lets define this social group. What happened was a mobilization of a narrow circle of active young people, some of whom are inclined to activism of an artistic nature, some of whom are marginal characters.
PA: In fact I noticed something else. The kids who weret invited but who found out about the SU themselves and have been active participants are as a rule first-year students from the provinces. These students, who came here to study, have a sense that their own existence is flexible, whereas the local upperclassmen are integrated into the consensusmost often, this is the commercial consensusand as a rule they’re not faced by questions of identity. Theyre faced by questions of entertainment, the latest new gadget, etc. Their need for finding something newwhich is still impossible to totally stifle in twenty somethings is limited to a strictly consumerist framework and kitschy leisure time practices.
AS: To summarize, we could say that for most participants the SU was a space of conviviality, for realizing their need to communicate, rather than an instrument for effecting certain changes within their own universities. This posture unites both European University students, who all gradually vanished, and the young people who sprang up later. The heterodoxy of the
experience of struggle vis-à-vis their everyday lives as students was definitely attractive in a formal sensemeeting and giving talks on the street, this festival of disobediencewhereas the content undergirding this form, which we attempted to crystallize, proved to be unacceptable for many. And this, I’m afraid, threatens to become the rule. The element of superficial attractiveness, which is neither good nor bad in itself, has to be instrumentalized somehow. It has to be directed toward the solution of concrete problems.
PA: Yes, I should also remind you that when prudent liberal voices questioned why we had to hold our lovely meetings on the street (its always more comfy inside, you can drink tea and nibble crackers; and the dean doesn’t get the jitters) and we were accused of street formalism, that we didn’t sufficiently appreciate the content of the meetings (conversation and talks), I replied that we shouldn’t confuse the content with the form, but make it the function of the SU to create autonomous cells for self-governance.
AM: But the creation of student unions is a large-scale social undertaking, and Im not sure that the SU is up to it. To make this happen we would need to bind the SU more closely to the actual educational process in the universities. Its curious that what motivated the withdrawal of many students was, it would seem, the leftist-activist ideological tendency they detected
(whether rightly or not) in many of the SUs organizers and auditors. That means that for many active and bold people issues like unionization, which would seem to be purely practical, are bound up with a certain ideological content. After all, theyre taught that trade unions are a brake on economic development or, at best, that they’re a form of tedious bureaucratic collectivism.
PA: I have a hypothesis that the SUs unexpectedly emergent activist function might serve to catalyze student activism by demonstrating the very possibility of deciding to act or, at very least, reacting to concrete problems, be they stipends, expulsions, evictions, etc. I imagine that in the future the interests of students wouldt be limited to these problems, that sooner or later the question of defining the curriculum would arise. This motif, which emerged in the work of the OD Group [at the Moscow State University sociology department]defining the contours of the educational process and actively involving students in research from the first year onshould be adopted by the SU. Many of my friends have a clear sense that theyre being taught the wrong things or, in any case, theyre not learning what theyd like to learn or what the name of their university promised. Even art schools with the most artsy-sounding department names teach office management.
AM: Is this a realistic agenda under the current conditions of micromanagement? Isnt it rather a daydream and a symptom of nostalgiafor 1968, of course that has simultaneously generated a more than original practice form negotiating the city, which is invaluable from the viewpoint of cultural history? Even given the fact that the SUs themes and actions are constructed around a leftist nucleus, and this policy is effected in a quite decisive way. So decisive, in fact, that many are scared away from such a wonderful undertaking as debates between young people on the street.
AS: Its not even a matter of demonic liberalism, but of a monstrous allergy to any thematization of protest, solidarity actions, social change, not to mention neo-Marxism. Moreover, it was news to me that it washt the seventies generation of civil rights activists crudely speaking, the Soviet intelligentsiathat suffers from this allergic reaction, but the younger generation. Peoples minds are dominated by this inertial mistrust of everything connected with the Soviet experience of collectivity, with the ideologization of groups and movements. If we take a more or less objective view of things, well notice that all the talks and actions that happened at the SU were so mild that the Situationists would simply have laughed at us, but our liberals see us as ultra-leftist radicals. This is a structural problem: 95% of our educated class consists of folks who mentally reject any leftist thematization or rhetoric.
PA: But does this mean that, given these structural conditions, we should adopt a more moderate stance in order to give the educated majority the chance to somehow relate to us? Or, rather, should we take our bearings from those figures of history and speech before whom we wouldt be ashamed, as you put it? I see the SU more as a subject that acts not only in the interests of the stud entry, but more generally responds to all the most relevant social and local problems.
AS: Here I also see a two-edged sword, the danger of another extreme. Protest energy doesnt return to the universities in order to create independent student councils, but is instead directed into the streets for the sake of topical political happenings. Which is terrific in itself, but it fundamentally re-orients the SU away from problematizing institutionalized academic space and towards rapid-fire actions, which in the long term don’t appear as promising and large-scale as a really effective independent student union. We collide head on with the impossibility of creating the latter and that is why were sent spinning toward the former option. One doesnt exclude the other, as it were, but strategically speaking it is important to slowly (albeit not so flashily) seek solidarity in academic space, with the end in mind of shaking it up and reinventing it, of educating a generation of students who would begin to change something themselves.
PA: Perhaps, then, its worth giving hard thought to creating several sub functions for the SU, which in
any case are emerging: activism, education, and unionization.
AS: This really is long-term work of an educational nature: introducing into the student milieu the texts, practices, and disciplines that tell us about institutional critique, about alternative traditions of knowledge production, about methods
of resistance. On the other hand, this education has to be coupled with the understanding that the academic milieu is hegemonized by a particular ideology that produces a deficit of alternative knowledge. It is within this composition that something will crystallize that comes from the students themselves and isnt limited to pinpoint gestures of protest.
PA: It seems to me, however, that, given the current state of demobilization, direct actions can create a field of attraction, a field that demonstrates the very possibility of collectivity and protest. This energy can then be converted into cells of self-governance and self-education, although right now this sounds completely utopian.
AS: In the long range, however, a self-governance network will also be more effective by virtue of its relative invulnerability. Whereas with direct actions there is the danger that one or two people will be arrested, everyone will get scared, and the whole thing will come to an end, a networked educational-activist structure, if it is generated, can survive a larger number of superficial blows. Speaking hypothetically, if someone leaves Petersburg, graduates, gets expelled or loses interest (anything could happen), the structure still exists all the same. That is, the battalion should’t notice the loss of one fighter.
Therefore, it is might make sense right now to emphasize the more conservative quiet form of seminars since they are better able to absorb the shocks during the current period of reaction. These seminars would give students the chance to meet and engage single-mindedly in self-education, all the while leading them to the realization that another kind of knowledge is possible, consolidation is possible, other forms of impacting the educational process are possible. We need to engage in a kind of subversive enlightenment, while holding fast to the strategic perspective of collective action, because the contradictions will in any case only become more intense with time.
Pavel Arseniev is a poet and an SU participant.
Artemy Magun is a philosopher and a lecturer at the European University.
Alexander Skidan is a poet, essayist and Andrei Bely Prize laureate