Tenured Professor, Doctor of Sciences in Historical Sciences and Archaeology, Professor in the Faculty of Humanities’ School of History, Director of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, Member of the HSE Academic Council, and Professor at the University of Warsaw. Irina Savelieva is also a member of the editorial board for the journals Dialog so Vremenem, Novaya i Noveyshaya Istoriya, and Sotsiologicheskoye Obozreniye. She is the author of nine monographs and the editor and compiler of six collective monographs. In addition, Irina Saveliev’s work has been featured in Dialog so Vremenem, Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye, Voprosy Obrazovaniya, Logos, Labor History, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, and Rozprawy z Dziejów Oświaty.
'My desire to do something big brought me to HSE'
On Deciding to Work in Academia
I think my path to academia was predetermined. My parents were both historians – university people with a large circle of friends who worked in both the humanities and the natural sciences. But I wasn’t surrounded by just academics. For example, my grandmother, who played a very big role in my life, worked at the bank in a fairly high position. I believe she was a department chief at the Bank of Latvia. She also had a lot of acquaintances that I’d met, though I never even considered working at a bank. As far as I can say, none of my peers or classmates decided to start a career in finance, economics, or banking either. Few people from my generation wanted to be academics, with many choosing a career in engineering or medicine, but certainly no one strived to go into the financial world.
I got a taste for academic work my first year at the university
My senior year of high school, I remember choosing between biology and history. I picked the latter because I wanted to go to Lomonosov Moscow State University, but my father, who was the vice rector at the University of Latvia, said that if I chose biology I could start at the University of Latvia, which had a very strong biology faculty. My parents, of course, were not keen on letting me go to Moscow, but they never stood in my way. I chose history, got into the history faculty, and did well there. I think I got a taste for academic work my first year at the university.
On Starting out in Research
For me, my research work really began with a seminar led by Professor Nikolai Sivachev on the history of American labour law. During our meetings we read various sources and worked with serious American ideas, concepts, and theories. It was more like research than academic study. It was a real school – practically everyone who took the seminar continued applying Nikolai Sivachev’s concepts and ideas. Later, when we were all writing our PhD dissertations, we continued developing the themes of Sivachev’s seminar, though he wasn’t everyone’s academic supervisor. The existence of this school was evident within the Soviet historical sciences for fifteen years or so.
Over the course of my academic career, I worked at a number of different places: in the Academy of Sciences at the Institute of International Labor Movement (IILM) and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), as well as at the Higher School of Economics. I studied at Moscow State University and then left to spend my first 20 years or so actively participating in different academic events. I served on dissertation defence committees, presented at seminars and conferences, and was part of the National Council on American Studies. Studying at Moscow State University was very important in my path towards becoming an academic. The IILM was more important for me while at the Academy of Sciences, but I wouldn’t say that I was part of a certain academic school while at the institute.
The IILM was a very specific academic locus. At the time, I didn’t fully understand or value its working climate
Unlike the university, where I distinctly recognised the existence of a scientific school, IILM was a very specific academic locus. At the time, I didn’t fully understand or value its working climate. There was a lot of freedom there, and we had famous historians, philosophers, philologists, and even religious scholars. The latter did not official exist in the USSR, but IILM nonetheless had people like Dmitry Furman or Samary Velikovsky, who specialised in the philosophy and sociology of religion. IILM was oftentimes a place for informal intellectual discussion. At the institute, I would always hear various interesting people talk about Dostoyevsky, Chaadayev, the philosophy of culture, neo-Marxism, or conversely, classical Marxism as Karl Marx himself saw it. Karl Kantor had some very interesting thoughts on classical Marxism.
My work at IILM involved becoming acquainted with American and British historiography, in particular the history of labour culture and the social history of the working class. My research largely relied on the discoveries of American historians, or in the words of Thomas Kuhn, my work flowed in the stream of ‘normal science.’ I was proud of this at the time, and I’m still proud. They started requiring us to report on our work in foreign publications. Together with Nikolai Sivachev, we published a large article in an American journal in 1976, which was a real rarity for a Soviet historian at the time. Only a handful of people had been published abroad.
On the THESIS Almanac and Translation Project
A particularly important decision was to publish the THESIS almanac in 1993-1994 – not only because it allowed Andrey Poletayev, other publishing colleagues, and myself to study a lot of western articles written over the last 20 years, but also because this was my first close group of professional acquaintances. This circle included Vladimir Avtonomov, Alexander Filippov, Yury Kimelev, Natalya Polyakova, and many other scholars who flourished at the time. THESIS was the first platform where we held our own discussions. Thanks to this project, we were able to expand our knowledge in the humanities in a unique way.
When THESIS was published, the foundation was laid for everything we did after, starting with what we wrote and ending with who we were friends with and whose opinion we focused on
The idea of an almanac came about in 1991 thanks to questions like, ‘how do we survive,’ ‘how do we earn money,’ and ‘how do we use this strange new creative freedom?’ After thinking about this, Andrey Poletayev and I decided to take on Teodor Shanin’s previous proposal of creating a journal on sociology and economics. Since I was one of the journal’s founders, it naturally included history as a third component. If you split my academic career in half and look at not so much institutional criteria as knowledge-based, cognitive, or productive criteria, then THESIS was of course the start of the second half. When THESIS was published, the foundation was laid for everything we did after, starting with what we wrote and ending with who we were friends with and whose opinion we focused on.
In addition, the Translation Project wouldn’t exist without THESIS. This project includes over 400 translators who translate fundamental works of western literature on the humanities into Russian. It is financed by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations with the participation of the Central European University in Budapest. Translation Project began with the very people who worked on the Almanac with us, but since our translations covered not only economics, sociology, and history, but nearly 30 areas in the humanities and social sciences, the team grew considerably. We were in contact with over a hundred scholars as well. These new colleagues were the ones who read our drafts, gave us guidance, and we always consulted with them on various issues because we had written multidisciplinary books and of course needed a lot of expert advice. We had people to turn to – there was always the perfect specialist in Moscow for each case, and these experts were able to offer professional assistance no matter the issue.
Like I said, I underestimated the atmosphere at IILM. I found life there lazy and idle, and in 1986 I moved to a different unit of the Academy of Sciences, IMEMO, to the newly created division on the ‘Analysis of Bourgeois Concepts’ to join my classmate Kamaludin Gadzhiev. I remember how proud we were that it wasn’t called the division for ‘Bourgeois Theory Criticism,’ but a division for analysis. Given the language considered acceptable in the Soviet era, this was a huge achievement. I started writing my dissertation at IMEMO on alternative concepts for societal development, for example, programmes for the green movement and other movements founded on anti-empiricist and anti-consumer positions. When I started focusing on political concepts, I became very disappointed in reading political science literature, which was new for me. It seemed mechanistic, shallow, and very formalised – something with an excessive inclination towards calculations and classifications.
In life we often see that sooner or later everything has to end and that everything just leads to that, but we nonetheless live as if nothing ends, and when the predictable finale finally occurs, we are still not ready for it
We often talk about the importance of certain ordinary and institutional moments in the interpretation of scientific history and in the biographies of specific scholars. I was able to survive these moments. In 2002, the Translation Project fell through. This was sudden, but predictable. My colleagues and I were still stuck between the need to earn money or create new knowledge. In life we often see that sooner or later everything has to end and that everything just leads to that, but we nonetheless live as if nothing ends, and when the predictable finale finally occurs, we are still not ready for it. When our work on publishing translations of fundamental works in the humanities and social sciences came to an end, we quickly had to think of what to do next.
On the Decision to Join HSE
I had several options, but they weren’t at all interesting and included participating in the projects of independent sociological centres and institutes. Another option was to return to working at the Academy of Sciences (I remained on staff at IMEMO and was able to transfer to the Institute of World History), but at the time the academy was really a dead organisation for me. By the way, HSE did not seem to be an ideal place for me, plus I had never worked at a university. I wanted to when I was younger, but this desire went away.
When we started working at the new Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, there were very few of us – just eight people and everyone knew each other. There wasn’t any teaching or mounds of paperwork then. I even thought that I was out of my league
It was also difficult making a decision because at the time Andrey Poletayev and I wrote a lot – literally day after day of writing, and it was difficult to imagine a different pace of life. In total, we wrote together seven very different books on history and the sociology of knowledge on the past. My desire to do something big brought me to HSE. After the almanac and translation programme, I missed organised academic work. When we started working at the new Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, there were very few of us – just eight people and everyone knew each other. There wasn’t any teaching or mounds of paperwork then. I even thought that I was out of my league. Our institute was small, but as they say, ‘small is beautiful.’
We wanted to create an interesting work environment and to encircle ourselves with a large community of Moscow humanities scholars – the kind by whom we were surrounded during Translation Project. There, the translations united us, and at HSE we wanted to create an academic platform that would be well known in Moscow and that would serve the entire academic community. From the very beginning, a lot of bright Moscow humanities scholars came to our seminars. I feel bad for those who missed our meetings over the first three or four years. I found each meeting to be an incredible intellectual experience; everything that happened there was so intelligent and deep.
The first phase of the institute’s life ended in 2007 when practically all of our senior colleagues started leaving to work on their own projects. Alexey Rutkevich founded the faculty of philosophy, while Alexander Filippov created the Centre for Fundamental Sociology. These colleagues were true friends of mine. It was sad to realise that your friends were gradually losing interest in the institute and that you didn’t have the resources to support them. Andrey Poletayev and I had many long conversations about this.
Thanks to the surprising mobilisation and rallying of all employees, we not only survived, but we started growing rapidly
Everything changed in 2009 when Alexander Dmitriev and Elena Vishlenkova joined our team. By that time, Andrey (Poletayev) and I were tired of carrying all of the weight at the institute. Alexander and Elena were not only ready to take on new responsibilities, but they came with a background in topics that were critical for IGITI – the history of universities and the history of human sciences. I believe that these are the two main fields of our work (I don’t want to offend any of our other fantastic and highly valued colleagues who are incredible authorities in their field both in Russia and abroad).
Andrey passed away in 2010, and I really didn’t know what would come of the institute. Thanks to the surprising mobilisation and rallying of all employees, we not only survived, but we started growing rapidly. The system of bonuses and benefits that HSE started for all research staff allowed us to hire new, well known scholars and talented young experts. The HSE Faculty of History (now the School of History) opened in 2010, and the next year we started our master’s programme in Comparative History of Knowledge, thanks to which IGITI got unusually young. The number of younger colleagues would sometimes reach 20, and many of them came from HSE’s hiring reserve. They became part of the university and proved themselves as future scholars.
For me, IGITI unquestionably consists of academic schools. Our centres are these schools. I think that this is also how they are perceived in the West. Do you know what unites all IGITI centres? Firstly, a deep and pronounced interest in theory, and secondly, an ability to work on disciplinary frontiers. As for the Centre for University Research, whose staff focus on the cultural history of universities, it is hard to imagine a more multidisciplinary and related field of research. Or take, for example, the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture – every two or three years they change the focus of their research, sometimes choosing completely exotic topics, all while maintaining their own old interests or doing away with them entirely.
Our partners change as well. The old ones, of course, don’t go anywhere, but new researchers, centres, and research groups arise in both Russia and abroad. It’s easy and enjoyable working with them thanks to our surprising ability to understand one another, not just on a human level, but on an academic one as well. In other words, we are able to understand the work of colleagues who are chronologically, thematically, or disciplinarily far from one another.
I started teaching very late, in 2005. Before that, I had done workshops and short lecture series at the Russian State University for the Humanities. I’d done some things at IMEMO in the 1990s as well, but that doesn’t count. In my twenty or thirty something years, I’d always been extremely enthusiastic towards teaching. I thought that the best work was at a university, not the Academy of Sciences, but since the only university I had considered was Moscow State, nothing ended up working out.
For research tasks you need time that isn’t restricted by administrative or teaching responsibilities
I will be honest, I only started teaching because the bonuses they introduced at HSE for publications are given only if the staff member devotes at least a fourth of their time to teaching. So I took on a class in the Faculty of Philosophy that focused on problems in historical knowledge. A fourth of one’s professional work hours is not a lot at all. I still spent two days a week teaching because the day before lectures, I would prepare and then I wouldn’t do anything else on the day of the lecture. I told myself at the time, ‘How wonderful that I didn’t start teaching sooner! I wouldn’t have done anything else if I had started at the beginning of my life.’
Now I love teaching even more – not teaching students, but more specifically transferring knowledge and skills to them. To this day I believe that for research tasks you need time that isn’t restricted by administrative or teaching responsibilities. Of course, you can write under any conditions though, especially if you are a good writer. We are all professionals and it’s not hard for us to create texts. But we have less and less time to devote to real thinking, and I don’t think it’s very productive to think of something hastily.
On Research Interests
Today, my interests are connected with what IGITI, and more specifically the Centre for the History of Ideas and Sociology of Knowledge, which I am a part of, is currently doing. One of my research interests is the history and sociology of science, as well as the history of ideas. There are a lot of opportunities in this area. That might include research on ideas in new scientific fields or perhaps approaches towards the bio-industry or scientific biographics.
In all of my work, I show that the period of postmodernism in historiography has ended, paving the way for something new to emerge
Another topic in my research is the impact of linguistic turn on the transformation of the historical sciences over the last 10-15 years. In all of my work, I show that the period of postmodernism in historiography has ended, paving the way for something new to emerge. I try to look at what these changes consist of in each sub-discipline of the historical sciences. I’m most interested in how historians use theories in related disciplines and how professional quality standards change in historical research.
The third area is public history and, more broadly, public science. This is a popular field right now. It’s easy to get published and be invited to conferences, but I don’t have a very deep interest in the subject. This might be because the research focus here is rather simple, whereas I have always been drawn to problems that require a substantial amount of intellectual effort.
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!