Anatoly Torkunov: «What’s really important is how many students are blood donors»
Vladimir Legoyda
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Legoida: Can you tell us about yourself as you are today, something important? 

Torkunov: I come from the Russian intelligentsia. Not in the crude sense coined by Lenin, and not as an acid caricature spun by [Soviet satirical writers] Ilf and Petrov. I am part of the classic intelligentsia. I am fairly well-educated. I am a conscionable man, I feel other people’s emotions and I am willing to share. However, like the rest of intelligentsia, I have many faults – I am full of concerns and doubts about everything. 

When several professors came to see me with an idea of building a church at MGIMO, I thought, “At long last!”

I knew that we have a closely knitted orthodox community at our university. It was put together through consistent efforts of A;exei Salmin, whom I have known since my college days, and Alexei Shestopal, whom I have also known since my greener days. This idea was appealing to me, since there came about a spiritual void in the 1990s and it had to be dealt with somehow. It needed to be filled with faith, spiritual content. So building a church where the faculty and students could go side by side, listen to their choir was appealing. By the way, the choir does perform at our Alexander Nevsky church from time to time. When we arranged an audience with the Patriarch, it was a great pleasure to head our team in that meeting. We met more than understanding, but support. And the patriarch signed a decree [blessing the building of the church] just then, with us in attendance. 

I’ve been going to church since my young days.

I cannot say that I demonstrated perseverance, but the church was a very familiar place for me. No matter where I went, to other countries or not, I always visited an orthodox church, because that was an extension of my faith. We proceeded from a belief that there had been a church there or very close to our chosen seat already/ We wanted the new Alexander Nevsky church to succeed the original church functioning here before the 1917 revolution and destroyed, like many other churches. 

MGIMO, together with other schools of higher learning had it rough back in the 1990s.

Almost no funding was available. On the other hand, younger and older teachers received new job opportunities for a  more or less adequate remuneration that was way higher than what we could afford paying. And they started leaving for pastures greener, even foreign language teachers, because international ties sprouted and interpreters were much in need. Of course that was a very hard time to put the faculty together and keep it. 

Students were of great help to us. Even at that difficult time, our entrance competition was about the highest in the country, with 60-70% of high school graduates who applied had finished high school with honours, the gold medal, as it goes. Later, the Smart Boys’n’Girls TV show [a television contest to win admission to MGIMO] was set up. Those kids were very interested, incentivized, so it was gratifying to work with them. Of course every year is different from the other, but we managed to overcome many challenges because faculty members, our past graduates, were determined to save their alma mater, and we had very bright students. 

Like everybody else, we had to charge fees and offer paid for programs and courses. 

That was totally a forced measure. We received practically no public funding, whereas  the institute was already falling apart, and tiles were falling on the heads of students. Thank God, not one was injured…

I can confess that I received job offers from senior officials, and our ministry [of foreign affairs], and international organizations, international postings, cushioned seats… After giving them a careful thought, I declined, just because I would have been ashamed, if I had accepted. And I have no regrets now. But back then I had my doubts. I would live in Paris, would be sitting pretty, for example, in UNESCO…

Thank God, the university is very much alive, develops, ranks in the top ten in Russia and 5th or 6th in international rating lists. I believe that it’s a very decent, good result. 

I guess we’re special in that we, Russian intelligentsia and others, keep lamenting all the time that we’re better and those to come will be only w2orse than us. 

I’m not sure that this is true. Our students are no different from us in terms of their outlook for the world and our university. But they can structure their speech so well and they can speak so brightly! Of course, they look differently from students of old times. I also think that they have stamina. One thing that’s important for me is how many students give their blood to hospitals  every year. A special lab team can’t accept them all during the day – that’s how many.  I also keep an eye on their reactions when an accidents or emergencies occur. They certainly show sympathy and solidarity. That’s going from one generation to another. Good kids! 

I believe I’m getting increasingly fretful as time goes by.

The patience is there, no sweat. I may not have the emotional charge to explode in response to every little incident, to everything that’s not done right, or not done quickly enough.  Unfortunately, I can get antsy over nothing. I have to keep myself in check. As for patiently enduring pain or suffering… You know, as it goes – if you’re over 40, you wake up in the morning and nothing aches, it means you’re dead… So I believe a person develops resistance to external and internal impatience – get well now, get this done now, get this problem sorted out now! Although it would be a great thing, of course…

The closer historical events to living people, the more they’re distressed over their interpretation.

Especially if they see a bias or if the interpretation is different from their own view of the events. This view may not be 100% accurate, mind you. Fo instance, I used to talk a lot about the war with my father and mother. They loved war movies shot soon after it ended. They loved the sentimental storylines. They didn’t like battle scenes, probably because they had lived through them, and it was too hard for them to relive them. Especially to my father, who fought as a tank crewman. They watched the romantic films, reliving their young days again….

There are more distant developments that always contain a good measure of fiction. You should remember novels by Alexandre Dumas with Richelieu as a villain. Richelieu was a great political figure who virtually put the France as we know it together. In the novels by Dumas he is portrayed cruel and totally disgusting. Well, there are some topics that are always sore and painful for the national conscience.

History is always composed of myths and fiction by a large extent. This doesn’t only apply to Russia, which has few written sources of evidence compared to Europe. Myth is part of the national memory. This is where an artist has to be very careful, because there are some reference points in history which require utmost care and caution. Otherwise, they could inadvertently deal a blow at national conscience, not just historians. Then, this person would cease to be an artist altogether.

It’s good when law and self-conscience are at one, although this doesn’t always happen. 

When trial by jury was introduced in Russia, they often issued a verdict guided by their conscience, but it turned out that terrorists got away. This compelled them and their cronies to new terrorist attacks. All this ensued grave consequences for Russia. Maria Spiridonova, who spent years in tsarist prisons, a leftist socialist revolutionary leader who sat in the same government that Bolshevists for a short while, blamed Bolshevists for letting members of the greater royal family flee to either Crimea or Urals, and demanded harshest measures to be taken against them. The harshest measurres were eventually taken, and the royal family was shot dead in a brutal way. However, maria Spiridonova herself turned out in prison shortly after. She spent 20 years behind bars and was put before a firing squad in 1941. I mean to say that a person shouldn’t live by the evil inside him, although they may hold a lot of grudge.

Of course if a teacher shares knowledge in a sincere way, it will be soaked up by their students. But emotions also play a role.

Especially in small teams, yes. Take a language student group, it would be very small, and if tensions begin flying high, some students will take it the hard way.  I recall a student that in my year at school. He took an Oriental language, and he couldn’t stand his language teacher. The feeling was mutual, by the way. My pal went down with an ulcer, by the way. This incident taught me something.

Students are not always without blame either. They can be rude, they can even indulge in foul language. We recently expelled two, who used obscenities in campus, in public.  In fact, both had been admitted without entrance exams, having won national contests. 

Generally speaking, if a person doesn’t have love for kids, they should rather not teach but do something else. We once had to dismiss a teacher who was an excellent researcher. For the only reason he didn’t have a way with kids.

Legoida: Have you ever had to expel the kids of your friends?

Torkunov: Yes, I have. There was no other way. 

Legoida: Did your friends forgive you for this? 

Torkunov: Well, I readmitted them later. Several of them graduated with honors, or something like that. 

Post scriptum:

Legoida: What do you think about the idea to discontinue the practice of Unified State Exam at high schools and reinstate entrance competitions at universities? Where would you place a full stop in a phrase “Can’t bring it back”? 

Torkunov: «Can’t. Bring it back ». I believe that schools of higher learning should  reintroduce entrance exams for their major subject. It should be made most fair and transparent. Like the unified state exam, it may be conducted with CCTV. No one should have any doubts in that it’s fair play.