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Vladimir Avtonomov

Academic Supervisor in the Faculty of Economic Sciences, Professor in the Faculty of Economic Sciences’ Department of Theoretical Economics, Tenured Professor, HSE Academic Council Member, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and editorial board member for the Higher School of Economics Economic Journal. Avtonomov has also published in the journals Issues in Economics, World Economy and International Relations, Social Sciences and the Contemporary World, the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, and the Journal of Business Ethics.

Vladimir Avtonomov:
‘HSE rapidly created a good reputation for itself because of its strong students…’


On starting out in research

From early on I believed that it is natural for a person to conduct research. This is probably thanks to my sister, who is 10 years my senior. Now a famous Russian philosopher, she became interested in research when she was a student at Lomonosov Moscow State University. I remember her writing an article with our uncle, Mikhail Gasparov, on translations of sonnets by William Shakespeare. It was interesting seeing this from the outside.

I studied in the economics faculty at Moscow State University. Not everything that was taught there helped create a favourable image of research – a lot of courses were frankly boring, dogmatic, and doctrinarian. But there were exceptions, flowers in the desert if you will. For example, V. Shkredov, who focused on Karl Marx, led a special seminar on capital. This was during my sophomore year. With our teacher, we had our first experience of scientific discovery, and it can be reduced to the idea that ‘simple commodity production’ is not a historical phenomenon, but a logical abstraction taken by Marx from capitalistic production. At the time, many in the political economics department argued with Shkredov about this, including the head of the department. The discussions saw the participation of Evald Ilyenkov and Wiktor Wasjulin, great philosophers and experts in Marxism. Open debates even took place, during which we would root for our teacher.

While working with Revold at IMEMO, I became even more convinced that true research is serious and not for fools…

During my third year, Revold Entov, who led our economics imperialism seminar, joined our team. This is what science is, we thought. Entov knew everything – history, the contemporary state of western economics, and much more, and he knew it all at a deeper level, not just at the textbook level. Since then, I’ve kept in touch with Revold; I spoke to him on the phone just yesterday morning. He has always remained my academic supervisor and friend. After the university, in 1977, I went on to work with him at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), which was affiliated with the USSR Academy of Sciences. I also wrote papers under his guidance. It seemed he treated academic research seriously, and this was inspiring. I studied in the extramural post-graduate programme. Revold took me on as a research intern with the institute. I remember how he would give us topics for our term papers. His method can be compared to throwing a kitten into water – you throw them and see if they will swim up or not. He would give out a topic (mine for example was on the temporary structure of interest rates), and you had to dissect the topic independently by reading the literature and formulating your viewpoint. There was no slack whatsoever from the very beginning; this is how everything worked. Now I understand how helpless I must have seemed.

We spent on average 10 years writing candidacy dissertations under Revold, which is a fine gentleman’s timeframe…

While working with Revold at IMEMO, I became even more convinced that true research is serious and not for fools. He would sometimes talk to us one-on-one and say that we had to aim to write something that would be published in the American Economic Review, which is America’s leading economics journal. We understood that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. But Maxim Boycko, an employee in our sector, ended up co-writing such an article with Robert Shiller, a future Nobel Prize Laureate.

On working at IMEMO

The bar was always really high. This probably demoralised many of us somewhat. We spent on average 10 years writing candidacy dissertations under Revold, which is a fine gentleman’s timeframe. I only defended my dissertation in 1986. That’s an unbiased assessment. IMEMO held a special place within the Academy of Sciences since it prepared reports for the ‘higher ups’ on the real state of western economics and politics without ideological frills and layers. Revold was, in my opinion, the smartest economist at our institute. He knew theory and mathematics better than anyone and dealt with problems in economic cycles and crises. He paved the way for an entire sector. He was also given carte blanche in staffing matters and could hire whomever he wanted. And he did – the most interesting and remarkable individuals. For example, he took Mark Urnov from the Institute of Domestic Trade, and he found Leonid Grigorev in Moscow State’s post-graduate school. There was also Natalia Makasheva, Andrei Poletayev, Sergei Nikolaenko, and others. They were all bright and very different.

The first discussion of my dissertation was a real blow for me. I had never encountered anything more difficult in my life. My work clearly wasn’t paying off, and I was just embarrassed showing it to anyone. Someone calmed me down, but I still thought that my life was over…

It was hard doing the defence in front of them. The first discussion of my dissertation was a real blow for me. I had never encountered anything more difficult in my life. My work clearly wasn’t paying off, and I was just embarrassed showing it to anyone. Someone calmed me down, but I still thought that my life was over. Then I gradually took a step back and understood that not everything was lost, and I defended my dissertation 10 years later. Our whole lives we had learned from Revold that you have to take a serious approach towards science and research, and the bar has to be raised as high as possible. To this day, when Revold says that he liked something that we wrote, this it the greatest compliment for us. When we wrote our dissertations under him, the highest praise was, ‘I’m not going to read you anymore.’ This meant that the work was great and could finally be defended.

Since IMEMO studied the real state of western economics, we had access to special security, so we were able to read banned literature. Unlike us, the Institute of Economics of the USSR Academy of Science and Moscow State University were strongholds of Soviet economic thought, of scholastic Marxism. They often accused us of revisionism and wrote denunciations to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Our work served as a cover for us – the government needed us, as it wanted to know about the state of the economy in western countries. For the time being, we were covered, but hostility from outside never went anywhere.

On the first phase at HSE

Many of our economists came to HSE from MGIMO: Revold Entov, Lev Lyubimov, Andrei Poletayev, Georgy Mirsky, others, and myself. Some of the best came from the Institute of Economics, such as Yaroslav Kuzminov and Vadim Radaev. HSE got a lot of talent from all over. Yaroslav has a great eye for gifted and interesting individuals. Wherever he found them he would always try to bring them to us, for which we are very grateful. I would say that I ended up at HSE partly thanks to the strong team that has formed here.

Yaroslav has a great eye for gifted and interesting individuals…

I initially worked part-time with Oleg Ananyin in the economic history department. Along with Natalia Makasheva, we created a course on the history of economic studies, and we are still proud of this. We split the material in two, with each teaching what he or she knows best. HSE still offers this course. Yaroslav asked me to work full-time on three occasions. I didn’t agree to higher managerial roles, but I gave in when he offered me the job of dean of the economics faculty. I decided to try it out and ended up working in this position for 11 years.

We quickly earned ourselves a reputation because we taught strong students. Moscow got rumour of this, and kids started coming to us. I even brought my own son to study at HSE. It became clear that compared with other universities, where there are a lot of individuals of the older generation, HSE has a lot of young people who have studied, travelled, and gained experience. Western professors started coming here to teach as well. We focused on being included in the global economic community – not creating our own bicycle, but mastering how everyone around the world rides a bicycle, so to speak. Of course our driving impulse was to create a higher education establishment that would enable a graduate to enter into and compete on the international academic community.

On the community of Russian economists

When I participate in conferences around Russia, it’s clear how much more informed our economists are of what goes on in the world. The majority of people do, however, have a weaker idea of this. The Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences now conducts research under the leadership of Alexander Rubinstein. Fuad Aleskerov and I participate in this and are HSE’s representatives. We try to assess our economics community and economics journals. Data is analysed on large groups of students who participate in three events: the HSE April Conference, the congresses of the New Economic Association, and Moscow State University’s Moscow Economics Forum. It turns out that these three groups are very different from one another. HSE is better integrated with the West, the Moscow Economic Forum is made up of dedicated originals, and the New Economic Associate is in the middle and unites everyone. In other words, HSE is on the western flank of our community and consolidated Russian and foreign economics. This is how it has been since the school was founded.

The community is very segmented. Aside from the abovementioned three groups, there are also experts who work for the government. These are unique individuals with their own character and viewpoint in life. The majority of economists are of course university instructors. Overall this is the most conservative part of society, though certain advances are taking place among them lately. Russia is gradually integrating into the global economics community, and in a certain way, this reminds me of China.

The Russian Academy of Sciences is not experiencing the best of times, and a career there is no longer coveted the way it was in my time…

In China there is a huge university with an economics faculty that focuses largely on Mao Zedong, Marxism-Leninism, and the like. A smaller institute accompanies this faculty that researches more applied issues, and a Chinese man from America with a good education is the head of it. Other employees included Chinese researchers from America, and the students who go there have an excellent knowledge of English. Institutes like this receive government support and sponsorship, which cannot be said of our own research centres. The only exception is HSE and probably the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration as well. In China it is common practice to invest in education. At any provincial university in China there is a campus constructed by some Hong Kong businessman, and it has a contemporary centre that studies economic development without looking back at Marxism-Leninism.

On basic research in Russia and at HSE

In Russia, there is a demand for applied and expert research, but there is practically no demand for basic research or new instructors with a lot of good experience. The Russian Academy of Sciences is not experiencing the best of times, and a career there is no longer coveted the way it was in my time. Few people go to the academy’s institutes now; they are poorly financed and ineptly controlled by new managing organisations. In addition, they are plagued with bureaucracy, which interferes with their work. So if you want to conduct basic research, your options are either go to the West or go to HSE. We are trying to branch out. We go to all of the international conferences and sometimes publish in western journals and collective monographs.

If you want to conduct basic research, your options are either go to the West or go to HSE…

I'm going to talk about what I know best. In the fields of history and the methodology of economic sciences, the strongest group of Russian researchers now work at HSE. I wouldn’t call this group a school – it is made up of instructors and students. Oleg Ananyin, Natalia Makasheva, Georgy Gloveli, Petr Klyukin, Denis Melnik and I are all colleagues and friends. We are also serious about our work. What does this mean? Very often the Russian authors of textbooks on the history of the economic sciences only know their field on the textbook level. Because of this, the same exact knowledge flows from one book into the next. In designing our courses, we always turn to the western originals, which helps us integrate into the international context. We also always send a large delegation from HSE to the European Society for the History of Economic Thought conference. This year, my fourth-year student Elizaveta Burina is presenting at the conference in Antwerp. We understand that it is difficult to captivate modern students with research, particularly research on the history of science, but each year one or two people come to us. We try to keep this fire burning; we teach, write, hold international conferences, and invite people from different countries.

On humanities in economics

I have a special course in the Faculty of Economics called ‘The Human Model in the Economic Sciences.’ I have focused on this topic for a very long time, starting back when I was working on my dissertation. Two books and several articles have been published already. I teach the course using my own works, including some of my newest. This approach often yields results; when students see that they are given material from just a few days ago, or a new article or manuscript that is being prepared now, they really appreciate this and develop a bigger interest in research.

Students shouldn’t be like machines that can only work with the models they read about in their textbooks…

At one point, 190 students out of 300 signed up for my specialised course. I enjoyed this. The course is very important because it offers students the humanities side of the economic sciences. Students shouldn’t be like machines that can only work with the models they read about in their textbooks. You have to think about the assumptions that are in these models and when they can and cannot be applied. The rector supports us in this. Students are evaluated based on essays. I one time assigned a student the task of writing about a model of someone who takes my course. She conducted a survey, assessed student evaluations of different disciplines, and reached a very interesting conclusion – many who take my course wrote their theses on mathematics and mathematical models in economics, which is why they didn’t have a humanities-focused view of the world, and this brought them to me. This course is clearly not a waste because I’m able to get students interested in expanding their view of economics.

If you’re unable to conduct research by yourself, ask students to help…

For example, when telling students about the Austrian School of Economics, I start by discussing the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century. We also discuss the rule of Franz Joseph and what Vienna looked like at that time. Because of this, they have a better understanding of how this school came about, why it looked at the world the way it did, and what problems it tried to solve. In the Soviet Union it was acceptable to talk about western economists only in terms of their mistakes. But after all, every field and every great economist tried to solve his or her own task, and very often they would do this in whatever way was acceptable at the time and use whatever knowledge existed then. If we bring this up more often, then success will never take us by surprise.

On the link between teaching and research

When I left my role as dean, I gained the freedom to teach and conduct research. When you’re telling sleeping students about a problem you cannot solve in an article, they wake up because they are interested in hearing the lecturer talk about their real problems. Students’ questions very often help you finish your research. I recently gave four lectures to undergraduate students of the joint programme between HSE and the New Economic School, where the majority of students are Olympiad winners – the brightest minds in our faculty. After each lecture, the students ask questions that I have never even thought about before. If you’re unable to conduct research by yourself, ask students to help.

I now try to give students topics that I myself have not touched before. You don’t have time for everything, after all. People really are different. For me, as an example, it’s really important to talk with students and engage with them. I simply have to teach in this regard. It’s critical that you talk with students about what you’ve found and thought of. Discuss your opinions; I believe it’s very useful to students when an instructor shares his or her own research experiences.

On research interests

My interests took form in the early 1980s when I worked at IMEMO. I have to admit that I was undergoing an internal crisis at the time. We were working on econometrics and building a forecasting model of the American economy. The work was interesting, but something was missing. Research seemed too impersonal to me. I thought about the words that we had gotten used to using: the cyclical behaviour of investments. But investments really don’t have behaviour, I thought – the people who make these investments do.

Few know this, but I have translations of Swedish epigrams from the 17th century that were printed in the Library of World Literature series…

At the time, Anatoly Kandel, who now works at Columbia University, gave me the book Psychological Economics, written by University of Michigan psychologist George Katona in 1975. Mr Katona created a centre at the University of Michigan for conducting economic surveys. The book opened up a new world for me. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had thought about a person’s role in economic processes. Katona is who sparked my interest in the human factor of economics, as well as unpredictable behaviour and irrationality. Then I found articles on the model of the human in economic sciences – homo economicus. I thought that each economist imagines human nature in his or her own way and that without this viewpoint, there is no science. I started looking for how these viewpoints were formed in history. Throughout this search process, I wrote two books: Man in the Mirror of Economic Theory (1993) and The Model of Man in Economic Science (1998). This was my first large and independent step in science, and it was thanks to this that I was elected a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In Russia I was one of the first to study this topic and the first to develop it in a fairly deeper way. Then from this interest in a human behavior model came my interest in the history of the economic sciences.

If I’m going to be useful to society in some way, then it is thanks to the fact that I introduced it to the treasures of western economic thought…

In 2013, I became interested in the problem of abstraction as it concerns people. The economic sciences, a social science, rely on abstractions. On the one hand, abstractions are necessary since the object of research is too complex, but on the other, they only give you a one-sided view of things. There are adequate and inadequate abstractions as far as a specific problem is concerned, and there are different types of problems. In 2013, my article ‘Abstraction is the Mother of Order?’ was published in Issues in Economics.

Another area of my research focuses on translating and publishing western academic literature. I have focused a lot on the classics, my ‘baby’ being Joseph Schumpeter. I’ve always liked this work and have translated and edited all of Schumpeter’s work, including the massive History of Economic Analysis (1954). In the past I’ve translated poetry as well. Few know this, but I have translations of Swedish epigrams from the 17th century that were printed in the Library of World Literature series titled ‘European Poetry of the 17th Century.’ When I was a student I did this just because I liked it. I have always found it fascinating to be able to get across the meaning of an original text adequately and summarise it well in Russia. If I’m going to be useful to society in some way, then it is thanks to the fact that I introduced it to the treasures of western economic thought.

On working with western colleagues

I’ve gone to the European Association of Economic Thought conference every year since the 1990s. This is a very broad forum that is visited by people from Europe, Japan, America, and South America. There, I learn as much as I can from professors who don’t just stay still and are constantly proposing something new. We don’t have any institutional relationships with western academic schools. For a long time I’ve wanted to become closer to and work with the centre created by University of Helsinki professor Uskali Maki. In English it’s called the Centre of Excellence. It’s really one of a kind in Europe. Uskali took on young employees from countries all over the world: the United States, Japan, Poland, and France.

Research is an interesting thing, but many understand this only after working at a bank for several years…

HSE does not have such a school – there’s just no demand. Additionally, you need a teacher for a school. I grew from the school of Revold Entov when he started at IMEMO with us. A lot of mentors are now more than 60 years old, so starting without strong support from younger colleagues won’t likely end up working out, and there’s just not enough of the younger generation. I send those who stay to work with us to Paris, for example, or somewhere else because it’s best to do research in the West. Our government’s hands definitely don’t extend that far. HSE might be able to get there, but a lot of energy would be required, energy that just doesn’t exist now. A lot of the people who come to us and write theses end up staying in research. Research is an interesting thing, but many understand this only after working at a bank for several years.

On turning students onto research

There have also been cases where a few students who want to try their hand at research have not gotten enough attention from us. This really worried us in the faculty, and together with Mark Levin we thought up the ‘research flow.’ At the end or in the middle of students’ freshman year we look at certain criteria to select people who are interested in doing research. We offer them special courses and tasks and also try to turn their focus towards independent research. It’s difficult to carry out an experiment, but there is some interest in this – around a fourth show interest. This is the same approach we took with the joint undergraduate programme between HSE and the New Economic School, where student work is encouraged in the broadest of research areas, including the natural sciences and humanities. And of course there are academic research seminars.

In order to study the history of science, you need to know languages, at least be able to read them. Many choose Russian economic history because they have trouble with foreign languages. One of my students, however, somehow learned how to decipher the Gothic language in order to read Schmoller’s textbook for a research project. This book is only available in this form. An ability and propensity towards foreign languages really help in our line of work.

On the Faculty of Economic Sciences

When I came to the faculty, it had already developed a high reputation, but at the time we were only beginning our journey. Now we have become leaders – not just the best, but also the biggest. Quantity is very difficult to combine with quality. You have to teach a lot of undergraduate and graduate students. Many instructors don’t have the energy to conduct research, as the teaching load gets in the way. For example, when I was the dean I was unable to conduct serious research because the administrative red tape took up all my free time. For 10 or 11 years I’d write and publish things, relying exclusively on old work. There are of course people who are able to combine research, teaching, and their administrative responsibilities, however. Vadim Radaev is one example, and I admire him for this. He is so in the know on what’s going on, but is incredible at closing himself off for two days a week to conduct research.

HSE and the Faculty of Economics are both growing at an incredible pace. It is proving impossible for us to reach a state of equilibrium – it’s like a bicycle that keeps on going without falling over. There were extensive developments, really major developments, but we still lagged behind international research standards. We did manage to catch up as far as education is concerned – international master’s programmes immediately take our undergraduate alumni. But we don’t yet have a strong master’s programme here. You need instructors for that. Our period of extensive development has most likely passed, and we now need to keep moving at the same pace towards even more ambitious goals. It’s difficult to do this alongside academy studies, but it’s necessary.

The faculty has also changed considerably in terms of its hiring. I spoke about a low interest in research, but there aren’t a lot of people who teach either. The market for high-quality instruction is very narrow, and it’s made up of HSE, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and Moscow State University. That’s why our alumni who want to teach after graduating stay here at HSE and teach some of the most difficult courses. Plus we started hiring instructors from the international market. Each year one or two people make it through the selection process. In this way, we have created an international team of researchers, instructors, and students – a team capable of solving the most ambitious tasks.

Research at HSE: For School and for Life

If you look forward to seeing HSE’s development through the eyes of its first ever professors, and finding out how it turned into a leading Russian university from a modest institution, we would be glad to share this information on this website. Read, watch and have fun!

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