A hare raising story
A recent St Petersburg conference dedicated to hares has become the unlikely subject of a feud between the Russian Ministry of Culture and academic institutions.
In the past couple of years, the culture ministry, with Vladimir Medinsky at its helm, has been responsible for engineering huge reforms in Russia’s cultural institutions, including the replacement of many long-standing directors of theatres and museums, funding cuts, and reforms in education. In academic institutions this took the form of tightened control over all their functions, including staff reductions; these moves could be motivated by a combination of financial targets, censorship pressures or a desire for greater control. The ministry argued primarily that the reason for its increased involvement was the shocking realisation of how some academic institutions are squandering taxpayers’ money on pointless research, disconnected from reality and of no benefit to the population.
Vladimir Medinsky, Russia's Minister of Culture since May 2012
A figment of the minister's imagination
In order to illustrate his case clearly, the minister gave one example of these ridiculous academics, during an interview entitled We Won’t Pay for Hobbies, for the radio station Business FM on 12 July 2013: 'Here’s an actual research project, the purpose of which completely escapes me. It’s called The Philosophy of the Hare, and for the past five years people have been getting funding for it. What hares were they studying, what philosophy? It’s beyond my comprehension; and they’re asking for government funding for it!' Medinsky continued in the same vein, saying that academics were hiding behind these useless research topics so as to maintain the wastrel lifestyles they were leading in institutions unreformed since Soviet times, until, that is, the ministry brought them under scrutiny. Academics who receive state funding should serve the government by researching really useful topics such as the funding of culture in the West (his own suggestion), which would be far more beneficial; for the Russian Minister of Culture, the study of Mandelshtam’s poetry, or medieval British architecture, will not do either.
Academics hide behind useless research topics to maintain the wastrel lifestyles they lead in institutions unreformed since Soviet times.
The chosen scapegoat of 'hare philosophers' proved to be the most popular image in this crusade, and the ministry resorted to its use on further occasions while angling for public support in its campaign. On closer inspection, however, it emerged that, unfortunately, this research topic was in fact a figment of the minister’s imagination. The critiqued institutions consolidated their information and found that no such research study of hare philosophy existed, let alone was in receipt of state funding. The only possible lead for such a misconception was a poem entitled Transmutation of the Hare included as a preface to the 2012 reprint of a work on alchemy by the renowned philosopher Vadim Rabinovich. But it was not government funded.
As mad as a March hare
Woodcut image of a hare (заецъ) in the traditional Russian 'Lubok' styleThis unfair accusation gave academics the impetus to defend their position. Under the guidance of Andrey Kostin, a scholar of Russian literature from St Petersburg, a group of researchers decided to take the ministry up on its suggestion, founding the Philosophy of the Hare, and announcing a conference to demonstrate 'their disagreement with the fact that an official, even a high-ranking one, can make a personal judgment about which problems are worthy of study and which aren’t.' In the case of the hare, they argued that it is worthy of a conference as a valuable and entrenched cultural figure – in folk art, fables, children’s literature, popular songs, cookery, eroticism and political symbolism hares appear throughout all times and cultures.
The call for papers was greeted with unexpected enthusiasm, returning 120 applicants from as far and wide as New York, Ulan-Ude, Jerusalem and Arkhangelsk. The committee selected over 50 participants who took part in the three-day conference held between 19-21 June at the Pushkin House Institute of Russian Literature in St Petersburg. None of the participants received government funding for their attendance, and the conference costs were crowdfunded.
The academic papers covered a wide range of topics, from a variety of disciplines, and included the following, to name but a few:
- Hares from Apicius to Dumas: recipes, presentation, and culinary symbolism;
- On the symbolic meaning of 'three hares in a circle' on Jewish monuments in eastern Europe;
- A gift of game: hares in the context of homoeroticism (based on ancient vase paintings of the 6th-5th centuries BCE);
- Hare herbs in Slavic folk botany;
- The March Hare and the White Rabbit: the dichotomy between the natural and the artificial in Lewis Carroll's work of the 1860s, and in 19th century culture;
- Lepus albaruthenicus: stereotypes, folklore and discussions of the Belarusian rouble; and
- Beuys’ dead hare reflected in the mirror of institutional critique. USSR postage stamp commemorating the European Hare, 1960. CC Andrew Butko Killing, as the Russian saying goes, two hares with one shot, the result was twofold: the ministry’s mistake was amply demonstrated and a great interdisciplinary conference resulted from it. This is a case in point of proving that 'there is nothing so trivial, the study of which would not in the end lead to discovering a pattern or clarification of our history and ourselves' in the words of the conference organisers. Using the minister’s own example of what, in his view, was the most pointless subject of research imaginable.The hare is worthy of a conference as a valuable and entrenched cultural figure.
But the conference did not go unnoticed by the minister, who, on its second day published a letter (in Russian) addressed to the participants, congratulating them with a fine display of sarcastic humour: 'This event, which discusses a number of important aspects of the ontology and epistemology of lagomorphs such as: hares in the diet, the ‘rabbit’ vocabulary of world languages, lexemes indicating the hare and its parts, toponymyc references to ‘hare’ semantics, the iconography and iconology of the hare, hares in popular culture – will undoubtedly go down in the annals of Russian culture and science. I am sure that issues discussed at the symposium are particularly important and relevant for millions of ordinary taxpayers.'
But this irony might be misguided: as Andrey Kostin remarked (in his imaginary reply to the minister, posted on Facebook), the minister’s attention to this event is already a confirmation of its public resonance. Indeed, thanks to the minister, the event received ample media coverage from printed press, blogs and several TV channels – more than an average The author's great-grandmother - animalist sculptor Ariadna Arendthumanities conference might expect. But, Kostin continued to point out, this does not resolve the issue on which he and the ministry disagree, with regard to what counts as valuable research, and whether it can be quantified through its purported impact on 'millions of taxpayers.'
The utilitarian and state-controlled attitude to academic research, which the government is imposing on institutions is potentially damaging to the fate of Russian academia. Especially when control comes from bureaucrats who have only a superficial understanding of academic research. As one of the participants, Dina Magomedova, pointed out in an interview for TV Kultura, it depends on whether we consider research a subject or a method. Method when applied correctly to even the most minute subject, can reveal huge findings, but the most seemingly significant topics can return futile results when approached incorrectly.
The choice of the hare is no accident – animals in myths and fables are often a metaphor for something that cannot be spoken.
In terms of method, this conference has certainly had an invigorating effect, forcing academics to leave their disciplinary comfort zones and 'cross-pollinate.' But what of the humble hare? Was he just an accidental weapon? An excuse for the ministry’s accusation on the one hand, and the researcher’s retaliation on the other,? Perhaps the minister could have equally invoked the philosophy of mushrooms (a fascinating conference would have resulted, I’m sure). But maybe it is no accident that an animal was chosen. As many of the 'hare philosophers' will tell you, animals in myths and fables often stand either as metaphor for something that cannot be spoken or an evasion of the socio-political; my great-grandmother, Ariadna Arendt, was an animalist sculptor in the Soviet Union, precisely for this reason. What politicians brush off as irrelevant, is exactly where refuge might be sought for those wanting an escape; and the more totalitarian a society becomes, the more cause there might be to resort to this method. Much discussion at the conference focused on this symbolic and metaphorical role of animals, in our not-so-distant Soviet past and beyond, so perhaps it is not entirely accidental that we should see a return to this subject during the current political climate in contemporary Russia.
Photo of Vladimir Medinsky: CC Wikimedia
Photo of Ariadna Arendt provided by the author