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#special issue: Knowledge in Action

The Street University: A Brief History

On February 8, 2008, the European University in Saint Petersburg (a graduate school) was closed for alleged violations of fire safety rules. Many university insiders and other observers, however, believed that more powerful political figures were behind this strange move. Aside from seeing the closure as part of a more general attack on “agents of western influence,” they pointed to fact that the university had come under pressure for a European Union-funded elections monitoring research program that was based at the university (whose leadership had earlier decided to shut it down). Whatever the case, the university’s professors, students, alumni, friends, and allies mounted a multi-pronged campaign to reopen the university. For their part, EU students organized a series of theatricalized public actions, including the laying of a memorial firehose at a monument to Mikhail Lomonosov, father of modern Russian scholarship, and a folk burlesque play. With their university still closed, their activism then took a natural turn: they decided to hold classes in the street.

The first Street University took place on Sunday, March 9, 2008, on Solyanoi Pereulok, a pedestrian street in central Petersburg. A crowd of nearly seventy listened to talks on student self-consciousness, student unions in the US, pre-Revolutionary student solidarity, Situationism and 1968, and how to dress when your university is closed and you find yourself out on the cold streets. The event brought together students, grad students and teachers from various Petersburg universities, community activists, artists, journalists, and just plain concerned citizens.

The second Street University took place on March 16. The SU’s newly minted auditors listened to talks on the perception of students in Russian society, activism as amoralism, and Badiou’s concept of the event.

On March 21, the European University was suddenly reopened. This happy ending to the conflict didm’t signal the end of the SU, however. Its organizers, lecturers, and auditors—a group that from the beginning included students, researchers, and activist not formally connected to the EU—decided that it should continue as an autonomous initiative. Reorganization in “peacetime” proved difficult. The SU’s various factions drafted proposals for a declaration (including the one printed in this newspaper) and negotiated in person and via e-mail. This process ended with an enervating but revealing “constituent assembly,” at the Petersburg offices of the Memorial Society, in early April.

The SU reopened its non-existent doors on April 13. Since then, it has held ten sessions, which have dealt with such issues as runaway urban development, activist interaction with the police, art and democracy, and censorship. On May 11, the SU carried out its first street action, “Religion Is Stomatology,” in support of the Russian State University for the Humanities. On June 1, the SU held its first evening session.

The SU continues its journey. The tuition is free. The term of study is unlimited.

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