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"The Guardian", Education Guardian Weekly, September 10, 2002

Peasants' professor

Teodor Shanin survived Siberian exile as a child and went on to become an eminent British sociologist. Now he's a recipient of the OBE. He talks to Karen Gold

Not many university rectors can fire a Sten gun. Even fewer have lived through Siberian exile, endured starvation, raised a siege, defied a government, founded a discipline, and in retirement returned to serve the land of their boyhood persecution.

So if Teodor Shanin, 71, is the toughest-looking gong-holder at Buckingham Palace next month, when the Queen awards him the OBE for services to Russian tertiary education, it is because life has made him so. Otherwise the eminent sociologist and creator of the first Russian-British university would never have survived.

Despite his harsh childhood experiences under Stalin, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Shanin felt "an obligation", as one of the few British academics who spoke Russian, to help rebuild the country. His idea was to create a new Russian-British university to train and retrain Russian professionals and academics.

By 1992 he had raised money from the British Council, the Macarthur Foundation and the Hungarian financier George Soros, with the Russian government agreeing to pay 10% of the cost and provide a building. Neither materialised. After a series of broken promises, he called a meeting with the Russian education minister to cancel the project.

Eventually, in 1995, backed by the Russian Academy of National Economy, but not the Russian government, the new Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences opened. Today it runs MBAs and masters courses for Russian sociologists, lawyers, social workers, political scientists, and cultural and educational managers, taught predominantly by Russian academics trained in England, and validated by Manchester and Kingston Universities.

Shanin, who is now retired from Manchester and spends four weeks out of five in Moscow as the school's first rector, still has battles on his hands. The first year's promised Russian money did not arrive. This year, academy rents and facilities charges rocketed unexpectedly.

It sounds a typical story of corruption and chaos - the only story westerners tend to hear about Russia. Concerned about precisely that, Shanin has for some time been taking groups of lawyers, businesspeople and journalists to Russia to see the self-sacrifice and idealism - including that of his own staff - which never make the headlines. "For a year my staff worked on two-thirds salaries. Now we have another crisis and they have agreed to cut their salaries by 10%. To work with such people is an honour."

But nevertheless not combat-free. Though would the professor want it otherwise? "Moscow is a most peculiar environment: difficult interesting, exciting. When I come back to England, for my first few days there's an incredible relief. To be somewhere you don't have to fight like hell simply to survive, where people smile at you in the street.

"But after a week I often begin to feel under-used. I am ready for hard work. Not for a row. I don't look for rows. I am a gentle man. But I will not give way if I think I am right."

Until Teodor was 10, the Shanins had led a comfortable and secure life as wealthy, intellectual, Polish-speaking Jews in the Russian city of Vilnius. His mother was a university graduate; his father, who fought as a student alongside workers and peasants in the 1917 Revolution, ran the family galoshes factory.

Then, in 1941, Stalin's police arrived at the Shanin bourgeois front door. Teodor's father was to be imprisoned in Siberia. Teodor and his mother were to follow him into exile. Teodor's younger sister, a frail four-year-old, was left behind with their grandfather.

Weeks after the family's departure, the Nazis marched into Vilnius and murdered every Jew in the city. Teodor and his mother travelled first to Siberia and, a year later, by cattle train to Samarkand.

Samarkand's black marketeers almost immediately offered the newly arrived 11-year-old a "job" carrying loaves stolen from the state-owned bakery. Over the next two years he and his mother lived off his earnings until his father arrived: "It was impossible to do the bread any more. To me it was a game. But my father was afraid of doing something illegal. You can only do this when you are not afraid. Once you are afraid, your eyes will give you away."

Instead his parents sent him to school. He raced through the grades, matriculating a year early at 17 when his family left Eastern Europe for France. On their way they stopped in Vilnius, searching fruitlessly for his sister. Enraged by her loss, he was spoiling for a fight: "I was a violent Zionist. I wanted to get arms and go to Palestine. That was my reaction to what had happened to me."

By March 1948 he was there. He spent two months learning Hebrew, and then joined Palmah, the SAS equivalent of Israel's proto-army.

When the war ended he trained as a social worker and took a job in the poorest Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. His clients' conditions appalled him. He entered left-wing politics; took a part-time degree in sociology and economics and then made his way to Britain.

When Shanin arrived in 1963 at Birmingham University's Centre for Russian and East European Studies, he was homeless and jobless. Despite making angrily clear his lack of interest in the subject suggested by his supervisor, he began a PhD on the peasants' role in the Russian Revolution. It was the start of an academic career that would last almost 50 years, and an entirely new research field known as peasantology.

Peasants inhabit an economic structure entirely different from either capitalism or socialist state ownership, he came to argue. Their work, food and housing are dependent on what he calls the "informal economy" - the network of family, unofficial and even criminal activity.

Marxist and market economists had always dismissed such activity as marginal. He argued: "How can you call it marginal when half of mankind lives like this?"

His books included Peasants and Peasant Society and The Awkward Class. Colleagues, unsurprisingly, nicknamed him Awkward Teodor. He had a burst of cult status as a Sheffield University lecturer in the late 60s, when radical students and academics fell upon the argument that Vietnamese peasants, secure in their informal economy, would not want to be "liberated" by American capitalism.

In 1970 Shanin left Sheffield to become professor of sociology at Haifa University, which then had the most Arab students in Israel. Almost at once he was embroiled in a row. The university, on security service advice, had dismissed a Palestinian lecturer whose uncle was a political radical. Shanin and three colleagues protested in the senate: "We had a vicious argument. It's not like Britain where everybody is polite and nice even if they hate each other. It's Israel. So we shouted."

They also lost. He joined the political opposition and the Peace Now campaign. He had fought for Israeli independence under a promise that Arabs would be equal citizens in the new land. None of it had made any difference. His eyes are watery now as he remembers: "After three years I said I wouldn't live in a land like South Africa. I said I never took from this country anything. I always gave it. I am going."

He returned to England in 1973, together with his wife, Shulamit Ramon, professor of social work at Anglia Polytechnic University. After a brief spell in Oxford he was offered a chair of sociology at Manchester. He stayed there for 25 years, taking British nationality, travelling to research the informal economy, the Russian Revolution, the development of Africa, peasants across the world.

During the 1980s, on a visit to Russia, his Soviet "minders" warned him against meeting unapproved academics. They picked the wrong man for a fight. "I told them to get lost. I said, I am not your subject. I am a subject of the Queen of England." The Russians refused him a subsequent visa; he encouraged the British Council to retaliate by refusing visas to Russian academics. The stand-off lasted four years before the Russians caved in.

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