An exchange of peasantries

March 20, 1998

Why do British scientists succeed in Europe? We look at careers, funding and the expatriate life. Teodor Shanin is founder of research into peasantry and rector of the Moscow School of Social Sciences. So why does Richard III figure large in his life? Nick Holdsworth reports.

A large portrait of King Richard III hangs in a prominent position in Teodor Shanin's office at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. It is there, Shanin says, to remind him that his reputation among Russian sociologists and academics may yet end up like that of the ill-fated English king.

"Richard was one of the strongest and most acute English kings, a man whose reputation was ruined later by that fellow Shakespeare. I'm a great admirer of this much-maligned man," he says, without irony.

Shanin, whose heavily accented English betrays his Lithuanian birth, is rector of MSSES, a graduate school set up with Soros, MacArthy and Russian Academy of National Economy backing three years ago to promote integration in social science practice between east and west.

As former head of sociology at Manchester University, the 67-year-old professor is on long-term secondment to enable him to establish MSSES firmly and concentrate on his research studies into the Russian peasantry, a field of which he was a founder in the West more than 30 years ago.

The 1970 publication of the first of his eight books, The Awkward Class, a comparative study based on his Birmingham University PhD studies into Russian, South American and Asian peasantry, was an instant sensation, launching his academic career at a time when the war in Vietnam and the struggles of emerging Third World nations had thrown the spotlight on to the global importance of agricultural societies. "It practically made me a professor overnight," quips Shanin, a tall, energetic man with a shaved head.

Soon sociological faculties throughout British, American and European universities were focusing attention on the critical role peasant classes played in 20th-century socioeconomic and political world developments.

Shanin's pioneering work developed alongside that of American-based Austrian professor Eric Wolf and the Polish professor Bogdan Galeski.

Shanin's fame in academic circles and the detente that was softening cold war attitudes in the East gave him access to Russian sources, although publication of his analysis of 20th-century Soviet history as that of a Third World nation in Russia: As a Developing Society caused a scandal in Moscow, with nationalists and Communists pouring opprobrium on his name.

But Shanin, who speaks fluent Russian, maintained his links with academia in Moscow, and when glasnost paved the way for more open relations he was invited to establish MSSES.

The process was not simple: an agreement between the western backers, the Soros Foundation and the British Council and the Russian ministries of education signed in the late 1980s collapsed when the Russians failed to come up with promised accommodation, buildings and budget contributions and only much later, after Shanin had headed the Soros Transformation of the Humanities Project and set up a collaborative sociological research body, Intercentre, did Abel Agabegian, rector of the Academy of National Economy, revive the idea.

Today MSSES is based at the academy and raises about a quarter of its annual $1 million budget itself. More than 100 graduate students study there under 20 academic staff. Shanin's ongoing studies into Russian peasantry is supported by a dedicated band of research assistants who work with him in more than 30 villages throughout Russia.

Recent studies have concentrated on the family structures, politics and economic relations in villages and how the "real" economics and politics of these communities work in today's fractured and chaotic Russia.

Shanin reports few problems gaining access to traditionally conservative and isolated communities - quite the opposite, in fact. "Peasants tell us that they have waited 50 years to tell their story. For the first 30 years they were too scared and for the next 20 years nobody was interested in listening. We find they come out with floods of words."

Devising a new methodology, one that takes accounts of today's conditions and is not hampered by capitalist orthodoxy or conservative Soviet ideology, is a key challenge. Shanin's next study is into what he calls"expolar economics" - the economy that exists between and to one side of the poles of free-market and socialist economics. The expolar economy is one in which most of Russia's rural people function.

"Our guiding philosophy is never to endanger our subjects: better to lose good information than lose good people," he says.

Shanin spends "four out of five weeks" in Russia and says that only rarely do the frustrations of living and working here drive him to the point of taking the next flight out. Unlike his Russian colleagues, he is always comforted by the fact that he can go home to the "restful beauty" of England.

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