In memoriam Igor Kon: a personal view

Igor Kon, one of Russia’s leading intellectuals and one of the founding fathers of Soviet sociology, has died aged 82. He was a veritable polymath whose interests ranged from history to sexology, a branch of science he set up in Russia, often in the teeth of considerable harassment and opposition. Lyubov Borusyak worked with him during the last two and half years of his life and pays this personal tribute to his achievements.

Lyubov Borusyak
4 May 2011

Igor Semyonovich Kon, an outstanding person and one of the founders of Soviet sociology, is no longer with us. Sadly there are ever fewer of people like him, who are at the same time passionate scientists and profoundly interesting people.

Kon Portrait

Unlike many of his colleagues, Kon did not believe that there was a crisis in Russian sociology

When the idea for the polit.ru project Adult People was born, I had no doubt that the hero of the first interview would be Igor Kon. Who else? The series records in text and video conversations with outstanding figures in the fields of science, culture and public life, so it could only be him. His book “The Sociology of Personality” has stood on my bookshelf since I was a child. Igor Kon was always able to write very clearly about complicated subjects and I was fascinated by this book when I was 13. I’m not sure that any other sociological tome would have been able to enthrall a girl of that age, but this one did and I couldn’t put it down.

Igor Semyonovich readily agreed to a meeting for two reasons: he had recently celebrated his 80th birthday and his book with the poignant title “80 Years of Solitude” had been published to coincide with the sociological congress marking 50 years of Russian sociology. When I said to him that sociology was 50 years old and that he had been working in the discipline for the same amount of time, he corrected me, saying that he had become interested in sociology before that date.

Editors’ note: Igor Kon (1928-2011), who has died aged 82, was one of Russia’s leading intellectuals. In the 1960s he was one of the founders of the new Soviet sociology, a branch of science which had been virtually eradicated in the 1920s. He wrote more than 300 articles and books on a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, history, psychology, anthropology, ethnology and sexology.

Starting in the 1970s Igor Kon virtually single-handed created the science of sexology in Russia. For him it was an independent interdisciplinary science encompassing the humanities and social, as well as medical, branches of science. However, his “Introduction to Sexology”, which has gone through many editions, was only published in Russian in 1988. Igor Kon played a leading role in the social acceptance of homosexuality in Russia. On more than one occasion he suffered harassment at the hands of organisations and people who considered that his kind of scientific research had no place in Russia.

Gender studies occupied an important place in Igor Kon’s body of scientific work. These were motivated more by socio-psychological and cultural-anthropological interests, than the purely linguistic and include his study of the status of men in a changing world, the history of ideas on the subject of the formation of boys’ personality. His last monograph was devoted to the problem of the physical punishment of children.

Igor Kon was an Honorary Professor of Cornell University USA and a doctor honoris causa of the University of Surrey UK. He was also a regular specialist contributor and author on our partner web site www.polit.ru.

Our first meeting was on 8 December 2008 and after that we met annually. A discussion with Igor Kon started each new project year; on top of that we corresponded and he sent me everything he wrote. His output was considerable: he published on average one book a year. Titles include “Men in a changing world”, “The boy is father to the man”, “Strawberries on the birch tree: sexual culture in Russia”, and quite recently “To beat or not to beat” about domestic violence. I don’t know if it’s been published, because he sent it to me in manuscript, but we discussed it for the last time quite recently. Alas, that it should be the last time.

Igor Semyonovich was talking about his plans for the future, of which there were many.  Over the years he had almost exhausted his studies of ‘masculine themes’, but he was intending to carry on. There is a considerable amount of good quality feminist literature published in Russia, but much less is written about men, so Kon had the scientific lead in this field.

All the books he published in the last few years were a long time in preparation. They are seminal works in which he worked through thousands of sources, mainly foreign. I open the book “The boy is father to the man” to find that the bibliography alone extends to 54 pages and this is how he always worked. In one of our interviews he said without a trace of fishing for compliments (which was absolutely not part of his make up): “There are 700 pages in this book. In our 21st century only a graphomaniac would write a book of this length. Who'll be able to read it? ”

Of his book “80 years of solitude” he said “It's more of an intellectual biography than an academic work. I wasn't writing my autobiography, but the history of my work, which was very interesting to do, not least because I have written about many good people.” It really is the history of a scientist and there's not much about his own life. I didn't ask why he had given the book this title, because I didn't need to. Kon was a very solitary person and this subject came up in every one of our interviews. “Unfortunately that's just how it turned out. I have always been alone and that's unlikely to change in my ninth decade.”

Kon regarded the future of Russia in general and sociology in particular without much enthusiasm. Having said that, he was absolutely not given to emotional judgements, which had not been carefully considered and weighed up. He was not biased or easily carried away, nor did he see life in terms of black and white. Nothing of the kind. In his first interview he gave an insight into his approach to life: “I am no optimist, even the opposite. I always said I was a sceptic and now I've become a pessimist. But I am convinced that pessimism as a philosophy is politically incorrect.” I think that in his last years he became more and more “politically incorrect” and lonely.

Kon Book

Kon wrote widely on sexuality. In his
view, the sexual sexual liberation that
accompanied the collapse of the Soviet
regime has been transformed into
commercialized, trivialized sexuality

He developed his credo a long time ago and it didn't change. This was primarily true of his scientific sense of responsibility and motivation. “The people who created Soviet sociology were motivated.” If you are working on a book or lecturing to students you have to be fully prepared and to study all the available world literature and not to allow yourself any indulgences: “I may answer to no one, but I would be ashamed to give students something that is not quite up to date, when something new and interesting has appeared on the scene. I'm not teaching a general course and I am answerable for my subject. If you are a serious person, you're a professional. You have a sense of responsibility, so while you're teaching a course you have moral duties and an intellectual requirement to operate at the proper scientific level.”

Kon was not someone who chose one topic and studied it all his life. He often made abrupt changes to his interests, even the branch of science he was studying. He didn't consider himself a warrior, nor did he try to refashion the world with the help of science.  He wanted to work and he worked: “At one time, when it was not possible to do sociological research, I moved to the Institute of Ethnography. There I created a new area of study, the 'ethnography of childhood'.” He was very proud of this and pleased that he had created a new area of scientific research, even though he had done so because there was no other way forward. 

Explaining his ability to make sharp turns and find new interests (especially if it was politically difficult to carry on with the old interests), he said: “I am able, and this is probably a positive character trait, to become interested in almost anything. Experience has taught me that any subject can be interesting once you start examining it…and once you start and it is interesting, then it's very difficult to stop!”

Kon said that “the idea that a sociologist is someone who refashions society is absurd.  That's what Marx said about philosophers, but it's a scientist's job to explain, not to re-make, which they wouldn't be able to do anyway.”

The subject of science and his approach to scientific work was extremely important for Kon and he was always coming back to it.  “For me there has to be an intellectual problem. Doing something simply to help unfortunate human nature, to free someone or protect them…this is not for me. Although I am a lover of mankind. I have great respect for human rights campaigners and all kinds of warriors, but it's not my kind of work. I am under no illusion that I shall be able to change the world. But the other side of that coin is that I only embark on the study of an issue if I can see that it is of some significance. I have never carried out research into a given subject because there are no PhD dissertations on that topic or no books have been published. I do it because it's necessary and the problem has to be a genuine social issue, not just an intellectual one. The 'Glass Bead Game' is not for me – I don't have the right mindset.”

He may not have wanted to refashion the world and to have emphasised this frequently, but he was far from indifferent to the way in which his utterances were received. He wanted his “word” to be not only heard, but acted upon by society, particularly during his last years when he was writing about men. In every one of his last books on the subject he was demonstrating that men today are not what they were: that there's nothing superior about the controlling, aggressive man and that it's much better to be a man with understanding and concern for others, who can love and is not even afraid to cry. He was always so pleased when he received readers' reactions to this message – from fathers and teachers, rather than from other scientists. He didn't get many such reactions, but those he did receive gave Igor Semyonovich a degree of that optimism that he lacked.

He was always ready to engage in scientific and personal exchanges of opinion, as long as they were serious. He received many letters from students and postgraduates, young academics and he answered every one of them. But it upset him that these conversations were more often than not requests for reading lists, rather than serious, professional letters from colleagues. When asked for reading lists, he would enquire what kind of research project was intended and what the person was trying to find out. The correspondence would usually peter out at this point. He told me about a girl whose request had engendered very warm feelings in him: “It was an unusual case, because the question she asked me was one that could be answered. The majority of them want me to do their work for them. I answer those letters, but I ask them to set down what they actually want and that's usually the end of it.»

Kon Portrait 2

Igor Kon was a veritable polymath
whose interests ranged from
history to sexology

Unlike many of his colleagues Kon did not consider the situation in Russian sociology catastrophic. Not good and difficult – yes, but something is actually happening, there is some kind of movement, albeit very, very slow. His main message was that dreaming of the wonders of Russian sociology and then checking off the reality against this dream is the wrong way to go about it. Russian sociology is as it is and this is an objective situation. “So we've got what we've got – an overall picture of sociological mediocrity with individual granules of serious science drowning in it.” Given that situation, we have to do all we can to improve it.

He used to speak with great joy of colleagues whose work was of a genuinely high level.  Sometimes he described the level as “world quality». In particular he considered that the work of the demographers in A.G. Vishnevsky's group was a model of scientific endeavour and spoke of them with affection and pride. He regarded the work of the Levada Center leading specialists in a similar way: Lev Gudkov and Boris Dubin he considered worthy of the greatest respect, and the women sociologists of the European University in St Petersburg too. Good scientists, professional pieces of work. When he spoke of them, his expression and the timbre of his voice changed, evidence of his pleasure at his colleagues' work.

Igor Semyonovich's life was carefully structured: he got up at 5 or 6 in the morning and worked for 14 hours a day. This was his regular way of life and enabled him to produce such a considerable body of work. He wrote until 2pm, then he read background materials and got in touch with people he needed to contact; then he did his correspondence and at 10 he went to bed. If he went any later he suffered from terrible insomnia. He used to say that he would love to be able to go the theatre or somewhere else in the evening, but his body was so used to this regime that it wouldn't let him. He tried fighting it, but to no avail.

Any inessential i.e. not work-related events (such as our interviews) always took place in the afternoon, because work until 2pm was sacred for him. He even asked people to ring after 2pm, as he didn't want to be distracted. Recently he had not been feeling very well and said that his productivity had fallen off, which slowed up work on “To beat or not to beat.”

Kon said that “the idea that a sociologist is someone who refashions society is absurd.  That's what Marx said about philosophers, but it's a scientist's job to explain, not to re-make, which they wouldn't be able to do anyway.”

To conclude I should like to quote something very important that Kon said during our conversation: “The two biggest bestsellers on bringing up boys both recommend special techniques. They say that boys should be taught to cry. They don't need teaching that, but they shouldn't be taught that they mustn't cry either, because a boy who doesn't cry is a problem. He will grow up into an unfeeling man, unable to express his feelings or understand other people.” This is really the main idea of his last books: a man must be able to express his feelings and he must understand others. I think Igor Semyonovich understood others, even though he was a very private person.

That Igor Semyonovich Kon is no longer with us is a matter of huge regret, because he was a great man and I shall miss him terribly. I'm very glad I said to him some of the things that we don't always get round to saying to people who are important to us. I don't know what he thought about that, but it was very important for me. 

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