“He knew what truth and justice were – and not with himself in mind”

17 February 2020
Vice Rector of SFI, Dmitry Gasak, speaks of Teodor Shanin

Today, in Moscow, Teodor Shanin passed away. In Russia, he was known primarily as a sociologist who studied Russian peasantry, and as the founder, head, and in his final years President of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences.

We, at our Institute, became acquainted with Teodor in 2008 at the Conference Education in the 21st Century: Strategies and Priorities. At that conference, he spoke of the Bologna system of higher education and its proper understanding, according to which it is helpful in enabling students to think and act independently, both professionally and in life in general. He was immediately attractive for his common sense, the scope of his thinking, the sharpness of his analysis, and the integral persuasiveness of everything he said. It was clear that his words were based not only upon solid knowledge, but also upon personal experience of that knowledge and its trustworthiness. And, of course, his personal charm simply made one want to listen to him. As it turned out, our conference invitation amazed him, too: why would people from an Orthodox Christian institute want to listen to him, an atheist?

After that, Teodor was often our guest; not only the Institute, but also our Transfiguration Brotherhood, had the pleasure of his acquaintance. I think that our movement was interesting to him not only as a sociologist and researcher, but also as a human being. He was personally acquainted with a number of us, and greatly respected Fr. Georgy. He always said, however, that our friendly relations were an unusual and remarkable manifestation: Saint Philaret’s Institute is an Orthodox Institute, and the Brotherhood is a Christian movement, while Teodor always considered himself to be an atheist. As is well known, he made his choice between religion and science when still a child. Yet with our Institute and Brotherhood he felt surrounded by people of like mind. It goes without saying, that his fellowship was also an amazing and greatly-valued gift for us.

Clearly, we did not have the habit of speaking with him about God’s existence. But he was extremely interested and touched by interactions between people. I think this is why the Brotherhood caught his interest – as a very particular type of fellowship between people, manifesting itself in modern Russia. I would suppose that the attention and friendship between him and us is related to his strong ethical and moral intuition. He knew what truth and justice were – and not with himself in mind. At some point I even asked where this intuition of his came from. It was this same intuition that sometimes helped him to take difficult and even radical decisions in life. One such example is his decision to leave Israel, because of that state’s official prevailing policy of non-reconciliation with the Arabs. It is well known that he fought for the restoration of Israel, yet later took the decision to leave. Another such decision was coming to Russia to help this country raise its standard of education and integrate within the broader field of European education. And his moral intuition opened the door, for him, to fellowship with people from the most diverse walks of life. He was responsible in his interactions with others, and a good friend. In explaining his atheism he once said that he didn’t feel the necessity to lay his own responsibility upon anyone else, including God. This thought is close to our way of understanding things, too.

We are thankful to Teodor for his friendship, and for his interest in various aspects of the activities of our Institute and Brotherhood – so unexpected from someone who doesn’t identify as a believer. He was a convincing personality, and one of those who urged us to open a department of social work at SFI. At one of our meetings on ul. Pokrovka he said, “if I were a believer, I would say that God himself wills you to do social work.” We know that at one point he actually closed the social work programme at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences because no work could be found for his graduates, yet obviously, he continued to think about this field and search for opportunities. It seems that one such opportunity he found in us. He helped a great deal and regularly participated in our expert panel for the research and development of our social work programme.

And we would be remiss not to mention Teodor’s relationship to Russia itself. This was not a sentimental relationship, though Teodor was a person of great sensitivity. It was a relationship of responsibility – of particular value today, in the aftermath of the havoc and destruction wreaked upon our country during the 20th c. And he remained true to this relationship of responsibility even when he and his school experienced serious difficulties. He told us, for instance, how he branded western colleagues who when doing research in Russia thought only about getting their own piece of the pie and not about the people who live here or how life will be for them in the future. He understood that there is much to guard in Russia, and much to build upon – he was responsible in regard to the future of our nation. For this reason, his life and work here are not a remnant of 1990s optimism, but an authentic witness for today and tomorrow – not only for our country, I think, but for the whole world.

Let us cherish the memory of Teodor!

Dmitry Gasak, Translated by:  Georgia Williams

Teodor Shanin was born on the 30th of October 1930 in Vilna (modern Vilnius), which was at that time part of Poland. After Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940, his father was arrested and he and his mother were sent to Siberia. In 1948, Teodor left for Palestine and participated as a volunteer in the Arab-Israeli War. He graduated from the Jerusalem College of Social Work and then from the Faculty of Sociology and Economics at the University of Jerusalem. In 1965, he defended his doctoral dissertation in Sociology in Great Britain.

Teodor made a major contribution to the study of peasantry, historical sociology and epistemology, as well as to the development of new forms of scholarly education in Russia. In 1990, he was named Professor at the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. In 1995, he founded the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “He worked until his last day, and we are unmeasurably grateful for all Teodor’s years of work, for his wisdom and bravery, freedom and boldness,” write his university colleagues.

He worked and taught at Sheffield, Birmingham, Oxford, and Manchester Universities, and was Doctor Emeritus of Law at Toronto University. In 2002 he was honoured with an OBE (Order of the British Empire), and in 2003 awarded the medal of an Honoured Worker of Higher Education in the Russian Federation.

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