How “love what you do” went wrong in an ‘academic sweatshop’ in Siberia

LeftEast reprints Natalia Savelyeva’s article with the permission of OpenDemocracy-Russia.

We’re told that we should “do what we love” when it comes to our jobs. But what if loving what you do leads – slowly, imperceptibly – to abuse?

School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen | Source: Facebook

In social sciences, a lot of work is dedicated to why people become committed to organisations. The classics, like Erving Goffman or Lewis Coser, claim that organisations can separate an individual – partly or totally, socially and sometimes physically – from her everyday environment and provide her with a new life-world and identity. Other researchers, mostly from management studies, say that institutions build commitment through organisational philosophy, goals and principles.

These theories worked well until the second half of the twentieth century when a lot of workplaces experienced dramatic change: precarisation, proliferation of part-time jobs and short-term contracts. The rise of lean firms, short contracts and “creative jobs” went hand in hand with the “new spirit of capitalism” – an ideology which made these transformations meaningful and desirable, prioritising flexibility and self-realisation over social security and stability.

This is how we found ourselves in the world of “do what you love, love what you do and you will never have to work a day in your life”. A world inhabited by life trainers and coaches who help us to “be more effective”; by employees who work while on holiday and try to increase their “energy” with yoga, special diets, fasting, spiritual practices, sport and healthy lifestyles; and by visionaries like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk whose projects often fail, yet they still tend to win at the end of the day, proving to all their detratctors that what once seemed impossible or crazy can, one day, come true. The 1960s are over and this is their heritage: love is everywhere, love is at the core of everything. But what is love?

When we talk about the “love what you do” principle, we usually mean very different things. The very notion of love makes us imply a lot by it. Love means interest, and passion, and fascination. It distinguishes a “job you love” from an average one. Love means an ongoing desire to move forward and thus can provide our modern creative and precarious factories with an inexhaustible source of fuel: you do not stop whatever happens, you overcome obstacles, you try over and over again – until death do you apart.

When we think about “loving what you do”, we usually forget about the “bad sides” of love. What if we are committed to something not only because love is great, but because love is awful?

Yet when we think about “loving what you do”, we usually forget about the “bad sides” of love. What if we are committed to something not only because love is great, but because love is awful – that it also includes anxiety, doubting, pain, suffering, dependence, agony and hate? What if love and abuse go hand-in-hand in the private and public spheres – including our workplaces? What if gaslighting – which manifests itself in the introduction of numerous innovations, alterations and broken promises that make you constantly doubt your competence, judgement and sanity – became a necessary part of our professional relationships? What if modern organisations make us committed – make us stay, involved, invested – by abusing us?

I am asking myself these questions as I recover from a two-year-long abusive relationship with my job in a brand new research and teaching department set up in Siberia in 2017. Although this text is based on my own experience as a faculty member, hours of discussions with my colleagues and students lead me to believe that it represents not just my personal view, but a collective experience of people trapped by an abusive institution.

Prologue: to Siberia with love

Our story starts in Moscow in 2012, the same year Vladimir Putin was reelected for his third presidential term.

On the day of his official inauguration as president, Putin signed a number of regulations which went on to have a profound impact on Russia’s public healthcare, social and education sectors – the so-called “May Decrees”. In general, these decrees were aimed at improving Russian living standards by 2020: higher public sector wages, a more effective healthcare service, a higher birth rate, and so on. In order to increase salaries of state employees (first of all, school teachers, university staff, healthcare workers), staff numbers were reduced by firing, the workload of those who stayed was increased, and the volume of financial support from the state became dependent on meeting certain performance targets.

As part of fulfilling the decrees, Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science initiated the so-called “5-100” programme. Its main goal was to get at least five Russian universities into the top 100 best universities in the world, and it planned to do so by giving them more money and aligning them more closely with international standards of research and education. This goal was ambitious: in 2012, the highest placed Russian university in the World University Rankings was Moscow State University, at 276.

In 2015, the state university in Tyumen, a city in western Siberia, joined the programme with the idea of a “greenfield” research institution, i.e. a new research environment without any baggage or prior constraints. They planned to set up a new department – the School of Advanced Studies (SAS) – that would be radically different from everything that existed before. As a promotional video later proclaimed, this department would break with the principles inherent in existing university infrastructures and transform the whole university from within by spreading innovative practices and vision.

SAS Director in a promotional video about “greenfield” institutions | Source: Facebook

Quickly, news of this new multidisciplinary department in Siberia began to spread among Russia’s academic community. Everything looked almost perfect. Very generous salaries, especially for Russian academia. The proposed teaching load seemed lower than many other universities. Researchers from the best universities in the world were to move to Tyumen to teach and conduct ambitious research projects within multidisciplinary teams. And a former scholar with a PhD from UC Berkley-turned-professor of Skolkovo School of Management, Andrey Shcherbenok, was appointed as director.

Future faculty members were invited to participate in creating something new, ambitious and which seemed to fulfil an academic’s wildest fantasies. And all of this in the middle of Siberia, surrounded by luxury resorts and hot springs.

But inside the new Google-like building in the centre of Tyumen – complete with public spaces, glass work rooms and colourful walls – the dream of the School of Advanced Studies never came true.

Chaotic management

The first cohort of professors, I among them, arrived in Tyumen in August 2017, two weeks before the beginning of the academic year. Most of the newcomers were young researchers in their 30s or 40s, who had just received or were about to receive their PhDs, and were mostly from European or American universities. Everybody had received job offers the previous spring. Nobody saw their employment contracts in full before moving to Tyumen. “Some of you periodically ask me if everything is all right in terms of your contracts, etc,” the director, Andrey Shcherbenok, said via email in spring 2017. “Yes, it is all going as planned, but it is a long process since the SAS designs these contracts from scratch for the first time.”

Since the idea was that we are all partners in building a new institution together, we believed the promises. Because partners trust each other, right?

Our job offers stated that almost all of us would be employed for three years with the possibility of renewal. Salaries were fixed, with the possibility of increase after the first year. We were told that our main goal was to produce research results, so publications and conference presentations (“key performance indicators”) would not play a significant role when evaluating our work.

Yet when academic staff received their contracts, they were considerably more detailed and sometimes contradictory to our initial job offers: somebody had a 12-month contract instead of three years; only 20% of our salary was fixed; publications seemed to be necessary, and so on. We were told that our job offers were the main agreement between faculty members and SAS, and that the contracts were to fulfill some rigid university regulations. When contacted for this article, Andrey Shcherbenok stated that: “All SAS faculty are given an opportunity to study their contracts (in Russian and English) prior to signing them. They can refuse to sign if they do not like them.”

We accepted job offers in spring, we received contracts only after our arrival in August, and we signed them. Since the idea was that we are all partners in building a new institution together, we believed the promises. Because partners trust each other, right?

“We design everything from scratch” was the main mantra of the first, and then second year of life at SAS. Faculty members were immediately overwhelmed with an enormous amount of time-consuming tasks: teaching, making and remaking of educational programmes, scheduled and occasional meetings on evenings and weekends for discussing previous and new research projects, school strategy, hiring of new people for the multidisciplinary teams, principles of multidisciplinary research, etc. The idea of “256 hours maximum per year for teaching and the rest of time for research” immediately transformed into “256 hours per year of teaching, plus administrative work, plus membership in commissions, plus designing new electives, master programs and majors, plus redesigning of what we’ve already designed. Plus, plus, plus”.

The life of the school’s administrative staff – the young women who dealt with all the administrative work – was even worse. Once the professor whose English classes they attended told us that the only thing they were able to talk about (if they had time to come) was their work. And that they wept from exhaustion while talking about it.

Many students were constantly depressed and burned out, but it was never considered a problem by school administration. They believed that stress was the main ingredient of the organisational culture of an ambitious and fast-growing institution.

Instead, when students complained, they were told: “We are preparing you for real life”. And when faculty members tried to support students in their complaints, they were told: “This is what neoliberalism is, they should be prepared.” And it was true in the sense that life and SAS are incompatible with each other. If you are in SAS, there is no life; if there is life, there will be no SAS. So the only possible life in SAS is SAS, and SAS is real, and SAS is the whole world for you.

Source: social media

Social media posts by students about SAS (from left to right): “Studying at SAS be like”; “Fear, Stupidity, SAdnesS”; “At last I can get out of this meatgrinder called SAS”.

Overwork and organisational disorder, of course, can be considered temporary “side effects” of building a new institution. Not, though, in SAS. From the very beginning, the director reserved the right to influence any dimension of life in SAS, and those small and big interventions – unlooked-for meetings, alterations to the teaching or research process, new demands, etc. – made the SAS universe very fragmented.

Contradictory demands were baked into school design. One set of demands came from the university, which has its own educational and legal standards and has to report on the “efficient use” of 5-100 programme investments. Others stemmed from the ambitions of producing revolutionary knowledge, research and educational practices. Without thoughtful management, this combination creates disorder by itself. Paradoxically, it was faculty members who constantly tried (and are still trying) to introduce more order with planning and scheduling, while top management sabotaged it. (When contacted, SAS responded that “SAS sets a lot tasks to its faculty. Most cope with them just fine, but some do not. This said, the teaching load for SAS faculty is on the level of US research universities and three times lower than in regular Russian universities.”)

I claim that in SAS, organisational chaos constitutes a particular type of management, inherent both in objective conditions and top-management intentions. Its main goal is to reproduce a constant state of emergency and prevent an institution from stabilising. It manifests itself in an enormous amount of micro-interventions through implementation of small, unpredictable and constant changes, as well as violation of obligations and promises; through overload and multiplication of tasks; through inculcation of fear and emotional exhaustion.

This kind of chaotic management creates an unstable and unpredictable work environment, forcing those who work in it – whether staff or students – to become both flexible (“ready to change”) and submissive. This is a necessary ingredient of many contemporary institutions which have a similar sense of time and distribution of power.

The crisis never ends

In the school’s erratic emotional landscape, fear and overexcitement were the most visible peaks. Which speaks for itself, because fear is a feeling of the end and excitement – of the beginning. What else can crisis be if not a constant collapse of the beginning and the end, of initiation and cancellation?

Jokes about firing staff or expelling students were, and still are a strong part of SAS organisational culture. Both students and professors were often reminded that they are there because they were “chosen”: that they are lucky to have been picked up, and they were picked up because they are special, but maybe not, maybe they are unworthy and got into SAS by mistake, so they have to constantly prove the choice was the right one.

In response, Andrey Shcherbenok stated that SAS “does not allow students to ‘pass’ classes in which they did not do substantial work and requires them to do most of their academic work in English. These practices are unusual for Russian universities, which results in many students having to leave SAS (usually they transfer to other institutes of the University of Tyumen). We believe that these requirements are a strong side of SAS, so expelling students who are not prepared to meet them is not a joke, it is a reality.”

Back in 2017, several months after the first cohort of professors arrived, faculty members and administrators attended an outdoor event. While we rode together on a track through a snowy forest, the director said (with a calm voice and no visible intention to insult any of us): “I would fire all of you except [the colleague who was sat next to him] if I could. But who will teach then?” On several other occasions, he complained that he would like the firing procedure to be easier for him, because we were too protected by Russian law. At Shcherbenok’s welcome to students at the beginning of the second year, he told them that they were like a nightmare to him – only when he opened his eyes they were still there. “Before this module started I wanted to expel 80% of you,” he said, “but now I see that things are not that bad and only 50% should be expelled.”

Source: social media

Social media posts by SAS students (from left to right): “I don’t need to exercise because SAS burns all my calories, and all my hopes too”; “This is me looking at the second year of SAS through the pain and suffering of the first”; Excerpt: “In SAS it works out that either you work yourself to the bone and turn into a rotten rag which they try to squeeze everything out of, into a vegetable, into something that is not alive, but that just exists from deadline to deadline, or you just can’t keep up with the endless amount of work that is demanded from you, and you find yourself overboard. That’s it. And the question is, why? For what?”

The director himself described his management ideology as “anti-human”. His favourite metaphor for SAS was the 2011 film Moneyball, where a baseball team manager played by Brad Pitt uses a sabermetric approach to build a dream team from undervalued “loser” players, combining them and trading them according to some objective mathematical models. We were invited to watch the film during one of the first faculty meetings. The analogy with SAS was clear: Andrey Shcherbenok is an academic Brad Pitt who does not have enough money to buy “real stars”, but he can buy us, and if he manipulates us in the right way – by mixing us in a different ways, hiring new people and trading the old ones, creating a stressful environment to mobilise staff – he can finally get a winning team.

On many occasions, the school director repeated that people, and especially academics, are by nature lazy, rigid and tend to only follow their own personal interests. (When contacted by openDemocracy, Andrey Shcherbenok denied this, stating that he does “not believe that any professional category of people is ‘lazy’, etc. and I never made such meaningless generalizations”.) As he put in an email on SAS basic principles at the time, “a shift in core attitudes” and “readiness to constantly and rigorously transform yourself” were considered a cornerstone of the success of the school in general. Naturally, the director was the only one fully committed to the idea of SAS, only he knew what was best for its future, and he was the only one who wasn’t lazy, having already experienced personal transformation – which he actually confessed, telling us how his experience at the Skolkovo School of Management changed his views. “University is first and foremost the building,” he remarked on another occasion. “The population working and studying there is a fungible necessary to its functioning.”

The school’s fragmented temporality, filled with big and small deadlines, makes both fear of the end and excitement of the beginning part of everyday routine. Research teams start new projects, but they can be dismissed in seven months, and then they have to start everything anew, with new people and new topics. Students are encouraged to be ambitious, yet modules last only two months and they are filled with an enormous amount of courses, assignments and events which makes it almost impossible to reach any of their ambitious goals. A colleague once compared SAS management techniques with orgasm control: faculty members and students are always egged on to be creative and produce ideas, but they never have the opportunity to accomplish anything.

The thing is that even when you start hating your job – or your studies – you still can’t stop doing them. You want your dignity and self-respect back, and you can only get them back by fulfilling your obligations

This combination of fear and excitement affects one’s subjectivity in a very particular way. First, it makes you constantly emotionally involved with the institution: you always think about it, you have dreams about it, it is the only thing you talk about. Second, it makes you feel useless and weak. A student once told me that they have to produce so many texts in such a short time, without any chance of completing and transforming them into something they can be proud of, that they eventually lost not only their creativity, but even the desire to do anything. Whatever amount of work they did, they couldn’t feel proud of themselves.

I think many faculty members share similar feelings. “SAS is an academic sweatshop,” my colleagues used to say. The thing is that even when you start hating your job – or your studies – you still can’t stop doing them. You want your dignity and self-respect back, and you can only get them back by fulfilling your obligations – which are impossible to fulfill under current circumstances, yet you still try and try and try. You become interpellated through fear, anxiety, excitement, humiliation and suffering.

Broken promises

To a great extent, abuse is very much about time. Abuse needs an unstable environment, and the best way to produce it is to break the continuity between past and present, aspirations and the real state of things, past promises and current actions.

During the first hiring campaign, SAS was advertised as a unique opportunity to collaborate in building a new institution. The most important collaborative initiative in the first year was the Academic Council: a collective organ for discussing and deciding upon all research-related issues. It consisted of one representative from three research teams, the director and three other members of SAS administration. The council existed only for a few months, but this story elaborates basic ideas about research and power in SAS – as well as the first big break of a central institutional promise.

At SAS, each research team, consisting of scholars from different disciplines, was supposed to produce an annual report that reflects both the progress of individual members and their research project in general. Reports were to be evaluated by “anonymous reviewers” – specialists in their chosen fields. At the end of spring 2018, after all reports and anonymous reviews had been submitted, the Academic Council met to discuss the destiny of the school’s research teams for the first and last time. There was no particular plan for the meeting as well no stated procedures for proposing the agenda for discussion and decision making. It was unclear what power decisions made by the Council had. But if you are “allies” and “collaborators” pursuing the same goal, you can work it out, right?

When promises are broken, you find yourself in a world you did not plan to be in, that you were not going to accept, but here you are: someone who has betrayed herself

Several members of the school’s research teams received very critical reviews, but the director proposed introducing a penalty – a non-renewal of contract for the next academic year – against only one individual. Later we found out that this particular researcher had been advised to look for a new job a couple of months before the annual reports were even submitted. The decision not to renew her contract was made far in advance. The Council, by a majority of the votes, declined the director’s proposal. The following day he wrote an email to all faculty members where he mentioned how he was against this decision. She quit at her own request. Then the director proposed a 40% wage cut for the other researcher to “punish” him for not defending his PhD on time, and the Council again voted against. He said he would accept that decision only if the whole research team was disbanded, leaving us a choice of saving a person’s salary or the team. The Council, by the margin of one vote, voted for disbandment.

Apparently, nobody was happy with the decisions of the Academic Council and the way they were made. When faculty members voiced their criticism, the director used this response to disband the Council. This decision was made with the same appeal to the “common idea of SAS’ strategic development”. According to the director, Council members had failed to prove that they were able to pursue it.

While discussing the Council meeting, one of the administrators suggested using the “metaphor of an investment portfolio” to describe the situation:

“Research projects, BA and MA programs constitute this portfolio… Andrey [Shcherbenok] is a portfolio manager… Research projects are some kind of startups on non-existing (future) market… Even if a startup gets funds they still need to stay in touch with the investor representative to explain how it goes. The Academic Council doesn’t seem to have a place in this metaphor.”

Thus the failure of the Academic Council “may have been inevitable”, the director concluded.

This was just the beginning. At the start of the second year, it became clear that the fact that faculty members had accepted job offers which were different from the contracts they signed left considerable room for manipulation. On a fine October morning in 2018, we received an email from the director where he informed us that he had, following SAS research guidelines, decided to implement a 80% salary cut for one of the professors, who had no possibility of challenging it.

The clause he appealed to stated that “The failure of an academic staff member to comply with any of the clauses of the present guidelines may [emphasis added] be the basis for the suspension of monthly additional incentive payment”. But it was not specified who decides whether and why a “may” is transformed into an “is”. In his first email, the director mentioned that he suspended the payments because the faculty member had failed to acknowledge his institutional affiliation in a conference presentation. According to Andrey Shcherbenok, the “university administration had no option but to proceed according to the university-wide regulative documents that were in place at the time.” When it became clear that it was the organisers’ mistake, Shcherbenok explained at the time via email: “Someone may choose to exist on the margins of SAS, hate the director, minimise communication with administration and not to share our vision of the SAS strategy – but then it is especially important for this person not to break formal rules and regulations concerning research and teaching, at least not to violate them repeatedly.”

Rather than quality of research or teaching, it was this individual’s relationship with the director and his commitment to the vision of “SAS strategy” that were the real reasons for this effective termination. Since “the only official reason, which is sufficient for the UTMN [University of Tyumen] bureaucratic chain, is the affiliation issue”, the director appealed to the clause from the research guidelines.

At a meeting dedicated to discussing the case, which was preceded by numerous individual and collective emails of discontent, Shcherbenok, with his hands and his lips trembling, asked “Why you just don’t believe me?” Apparently, faculty members should simply have accepted his decision because he and only he knows what’s best for the school. “I will not change my decision concerning O. There is nothing personal here, just my notion of the interests of our institution,” he repeated in another email. The conflict lasted for the whole academic year: the rector was involved, a special commission was created, but the case was never solved. At the end of the year, the same clause was used to cut salaries of two more researchers.

When contacted about this case, Andrey Shcherbenok stated that SAS freed the faculty member in quesiton “from all teaching obligations so he could leave Tyumen and find additional employment elsewhere, while continuing to receive his base salary from SAS.” Further, he stated that “not a single faculty member experienced any administrative action based on this or any other similar clause of their job contracts. Some faculty did not have their bonus payments prolonged for the 2019-2020 academic year as a result of failing the external annual review of their research productivity in Summer 2019.”

A visionary

When promises are broken, you find yourself in a world you did not plan to be in, that you were not going to accept, but here you are: someone who has betrayed herself.

A one year contract instead of three, with a very real possibility of the director making any faculty member leave at any point by cutting 80% of her salary; constant reconfiguration of teams instead of consistent and long-lasting research projects; chaos and overload instead of stable work conditions; knowledge as an investment-portfolio-startup-for-the-future-market instead of academic research.

Naivety and belief in promises trick academics the same way the idea of romantic love deceives future victims of abuse: it makes them live in a gaslighted dream always waiting for a better future to arrive

However, I don’t think that these false promises resulted from an intentional lie. Marx was always right: we still have a sort of ideology that both sides, dominators and dominated, believe in, but which serves only those on top. This ideology presents a strange combination of the ideas of communality and competition, equal participation and authoritarianism. In the case of SAS, one of my colleagues described it as “Crypto-soviet collectivism and neoliberal start-up culture.”

The academic world makes this illusion even more real, because academics believe that only reason is important, that through discussion we can prove ourselves, that any contradiction can be at once revealed and released. Naivety and belief in promises trick academics the same way the idea of romantic love deceives future victims of abuse: it makes them live in a gaslighted dream always waiting for a better future to arrive, always delayed in their evaluation of the reality at hand.

Although both dominators and dominated believe in the same things like “common goals” or “shared projects” or “we are the team”, the thing is that there can’t be any real common goals without shared power. In the case of SAS, the precarity of faculty members and the centralised power situation that provides them with limited decision-making capacities leaves no room for commonality.

Instead, access to the “common idea of SAS” (and the power to exercise it) was monopolised by the director who became the only one who knows the truth – a perfect predator who constantly instigates instability and chaos. He is an “inspired individual”, a visionary, the main hero in the contemporary capitalist world of start-ups and lean firms, who gains his greatness and superiority from proximity to some transcendental source of knowledge. A visionary doesn’t take into consideration any rational or physical limitations. He believes in his supernatural power and treats others as marionettes who should follow any small move of his restless and prophetic thought. Ideology does not hide power and violence any more – it openly declares their presence and arbitrariness. Love what you do and obey – because that’s what love does: it makes you subservient to something authentic.

Source: Facebook

Tyumen State University will never become one of 100 best-rated universities of the world, and SAS will never be a “Siberian Princeton”. At least not in near future. This is why SAS, and institutions like it, need the idea of a radical break embodied in the “greenfield” metaphor. “Development is not the accumulation of intellectual competences you’ve already had,” as the director explained in one of his emails. You can’t reach the impossible by following a plan, with both feet on the ground: you have to produce constant breaks and disruption. Chaos is the only soil from which the impossible can spring.

In this world, suffering constitutes the only sign of success. Because how else can we evaluate our progress? There are no objective criteria because the goal itself is objectively unachievable. Like Weber’s protestant, a visionary needs a sign, and he finds it: it is suffering, and failure, and critique, and constant complaints. You don’t know if research projects initiated by your employees will bring any fruits, but if they suffer – it is a sign that they are doing something really great and almost unachievable. The more they suffer, the greater the project is. The more students are depressed, cry, panic, have emotional breakdowns, no sleep and no rest – the more they transform themselves. The impossible world can be achieved only by painful destruction, and suffering signals that everything is moving: the more pain you have, the more critical moves you make.

Abusive institutions

In some respects, SAS could be seen as a typical “Russian” institution: no respect for rules, no desire for rational organisation, and an authoritative man at the top of everything. Yet I think that SAS embodies many specific characteristics of modern organisations across the world.

If we look at startups or visionary enterprises such as WeWork or Tesla, we see that whatever they do, they all share certain properties. There is a leader, endowed with a lot of money and power, but deprived of empathy. This leader has a futuristic dream which he pursues at all costs. And there is an enormous and precarious labour market which this institution draws upon. SAS would never be able to hire people with prestigious degrees if the academic job market wasn’t oversaturated, with scholars of all ages ready to give institutions in Russia, Asia or the Middle East a shot. SAS would never treat them like it does if they were protected by their contracts and law.

There is an ideology out there that makes us love visionaries, want to be inspired by our work and seek personal transformation through it, and believe that employers and employees are “partners” who are pursuing the same goals. Then there is chaotic management that breaks temporal continuity, creating an unstable, elusive world which leaves us both disempowered and interpellated. Indeed, it is striking how the “third spirit of capitalism” and abusive relationships complement one another: both need insecurity, uncertainty and authenticity to flourish. The most important thing is that they both leave us almost no chance to resist.

This is how abusive institutions work: they make us doubt. At the end of the day, we are not really sure that things are that bad, or that important, or that it was not our fault

Abuse is hidden in many minor details, and that is why it is so difficult to reveal it. It is not one episode or a single crisis, it is many random episodes, a myriad of small crises, numerous violations. Once my colleague mentioned that “it’s very hard to write about what’s happened at SAS in a way that doesn’t make you sound like you’re blowing trivial things out of proportion and not taking responsibility for your own role in it.” Things are not that bad, especially in comparison, and they can be worse, right? Other people earn even less and work more, and at least at SAS you can do research, you can get paid, you can teach what you want. Advocates of the institution continue saying that you work in the most promising and innovative department ever.

The school’s promotional materials – well-made videos and eulogies published in the media – show beautiful pictures of a Google-like building, inspired students, brilliant researchers, and a wise and brave director. So maybe it is your fault that even here you can’t succeed and be happy with what you have? When you try to speak about violations publicly while still being inside the institution, you are bullied: “SAS is fragile, SAS is surrounded by enemies, you don’t want everybody to know that our researchers are not that good, do you? You don’t want the university to cut your salaries, do you?”, this was the essence of the message the director repeated multiple times in emails and faculty meetings. In private, threats become more concrete: one colleague reported to me that the director once threatened to publish his part of the annual report and its critical peer review if he complained about receiving an 80% salary cut. Finally, when you have already left, you just want to let it go. A toxic combination of a desire to forget, anger and powerlessness makes you stay away from everything related to SAS.

This is how abusive institutions work: they make us doubt. At the end of the day, we are not really sure that things are that bad, or that important, or that it was not our fault. We are not sure that it will not be worse if we try to do something. We don’t want to show everybody our weakness. We are no longer sure who we are and what we should stand for. The whole world became uncertain and all distinctions – blurred. “Everything is complicated,” they say. The only thing we can be completely sure about is that we will be under attack, and we will be blamed. Because our society tolerates abuse better than its victims.

Just like love, abuse also has its “good sides”: strong emotions make us feel alive. We believe that we exist when we feel something, and what exactly it is we feel is not so important. Even if, or when, it feels really awful and destructive we still want our lives to be filled with meaning. Both love and hate, pleasure and suffering, give us that impression of living. In the vague and fugitive world, with no big ideologies and foreseeable future, our emotions give us a one and only stable ground. And giving us this ground, they provide fuel for the emergence of abusive love machines, which many contemporary enterprises, public and private, are. So love what you do, hate what you love, and continue doing it.

The old ways of reacting to dissatisfaction with organisations – exit, voice and loyalty – are history. Now you can leave, ignore or transgress – but never fight. These are the three possible ways you can deal with abusive relationships and abusive institutions. Essayist Jonathan Crary uses the metaphor of the “world without shadows” to describe the homogenising force of late capitalism which does not tolerate any differentiation: sacred-profane, carnival-workday, nature-culture, machine-organism. It is difficult to fight in this world where everything changes constantly, but nothing really happens. But maybe attacking a shadow is a good place to start.

Editor’s note: When asked to respond about the description of the School of Advanced Studies as an abusive institution, SAS Director Andrey Shcherbenok wrote via email:

“SAS is a new institution, so some contradictions and fragmentation of policy is inevitable. I think you can imagine starting an institution with 7 BA and 1 MA programs where literally everything – from the format of the course syllabus to scheduling classes procedures (severely complicated by Russian state regulations that do not provide for liberal arts formats) – have to be designed from scratch with 100% newly hired faculty most of whom had little to no experience of academic employment beyond graduate school. Things are getting considerably smoother now as we improve the services, are able to hire more experienced faculty and develop organizational traditions. When you start new processes, it is often bumpy – but it does not mean that someone is abusing someone. I do not believe we would have had so many great people from around the world working with us if such a description of our workplace were accurate.”

Regarding the Academic Council, Andrey Shcherbenok commented that “In 2018 we made an experiment of letting the Academic Council make bonus-prolongation decisions based on the external annual reviews. The AC voted by a secret ballot to have all payments extended, which I did (although I, indeed, had a different opinion).” The Academic Council “was abolished after the new regulations designed by an external commission were approved in the Spring 2019. Right now, we have 5 faculty committees to do shared governance and every SAS faculty participates in one of them.”

Regarding student welfare at SAS, Andrey Shcherbenok responded that SAS “established free psychological counseling for students as early as 2018. In Fall 2019, we hired another, more experienced and expensive psychologist, to counsel our students – free of charge to them. This said, most SAS students do quite well psychologically – you are welcome to read and listen to their impressions of studying at SAS – for example, on Instagram and SAS website.” Several SAS students recently reported that the number of appointments for therapy had been reduced to one per month. When they complained to the administration, the answer they received was: “We are not a hospital”.