Ukrainian University from Within: Anthropological Notes

September 2013
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Endless and eternal entryways

This is my university; I’ve been working here for more than ten years now.

Here I am, a lecturer here, a “departmental bottom-feeder,” but with the freedom, more or less, to come and go, not a standard eight-hour work day, and that’s certainly a perk.

Here he is, a man in camouflage, sitting in a chair he’s turned backwards, with his army-boot-clad legs spread wide on either side of the chair back.  He’s flaunting his crotch, and on his face there’s a sleepy indifference.

We’re in the entryway of the university, a serious one, with a revolving door (but not with guards, I notice).  Nearby there’s a glass booth with a little window, and if a guard is sitting in it, he can stop the revolving door.  I’ve seen them use it several times.  Then again, it’s cramped in the booth, possibly stuffy, so the guards are most often outside, smoking and talking on their phones, or standing/sitting/lounging next to the revolving door.

What, didn’t you know that at Ukrainian universities you can’t go in without a pass?  Even if it’s not a single, compact structure on the city’s main square but something more like a campus, it’s still all well fenced in with a few entryways.  And if you have to bring something like a stroller onto “the territory,” you can’t use just any entryway, only one particular one, and to get to it you’ve got to march a kilometer and a half around the property.

Anyway, where did I leave off?  I go in through the entryway of my university, and he’s sitting, almost sleeping.  I had already practically passed him, and suddenly behind me there’s a roar:

- Show it!

- Sorry? – I turn around.

- Show your pass!  Am I not making myself clear?

- Hello, - I say. – Are you talking to me?

- Who else?  Your pass, what’s not clear here?

- Why are you speaking to me so rudely? – I ask, flabbergasted.  Unfortunately, my usual “intelligent” replies always turn out feeble and unhelpful.  I can never manage to come up with a fitting answer to shakedowns like this.

- What are you on about?  There’s no way I offended you! – the guy bristles, not shifting position, still flaunting his crotch.

What can you do?  He’s not going to look at my ID, obediently shown from a dozen meters away.  He’s not about to get up or sit up straight, he won’t even open his eyes.  But he needs me to stop, obey, and dig my ID out of my bag, because that’s the way things are done.

And then there was the time when I idiotically rode my bike to the university.  And not even on my own, but with a friend – we were both on bikes.  What a wonder that was – as if we were riding not bicycles, but elephants!  All the security guys huddled around to see this miracle.  But we wanted to go in, onto the “territory” – and all hell broke loose.

- Where are you going with those bikes?  It’s not allowed!

- But I work at this university, so why can’t I bring my bike in?

And suddenly: a surprising and bewitching answer.  This was really and truly not what we expected.

- What, didn’t you know that the deputy rector for buildings and maintenance can’t stand bikes?  If he sees you, he’ll go crazy!

I’ve read that there are all sorts of different phobias in the world.  This was the first time I’d ever heard of cyclophobia.  And how bizarre that the personal illness of one of the bosses has such a strong influence over the general policies of an educational institution!  Usually people try to hide things like this, but here everyone knows, all the way down to the security guards.  In the end we weren’t allowed to lock our bikes up inside the entryway, so we just had to leave them outside the university grounds: go ahead and do what you like out there, we were told.

But somehow that deputy rector got over his phobia or something, because just a few months after this incident, the first bike parking showed up on the “territory,” with five spots.  It was made out of metal poles, by people who apparently had only seen a bicycle from a distance or in the movies – it was extremely awkward to use.  But at least now you can bring bikes onto campus, and there’s a place to leave them, and this crooked parking area is gradually filling up.  Phobias are being treated – this is good, hopeful news.

Sign a form in Ivan Ivanovych’s office

When I’m sent to sign some document or sort something out with a particular official, it always goes like this:

- Sign it in Fedir Matviyovych’s office.

- And where’s that?

- What, you don’t know Fedir Matviyovych?  His office is on the second floor, to the right of the stairs.

- I understand.  But what position does he hold, what’s written on his office door?

- Hmm…it’s something like the analytic division.  I don’t remember exactly; these names change so quickly!  But Fedir Matviyovych has been there for a hundred years, everyone knows him.

I’m never sent to the deputy rector for scholarly work or to the dean of the graduate school – only to Petrenko or to Borysiuk.  Sometimes they say to “Ivan Ivanovych or Petro Nykyforovych.” The difference is a minor one, you see, because they’re always talking about a person, not a position.  And I’m starting to understand that this is how my university is set up: the signs on the office doors change more often than the people in the office.  Positions are subordinate to individuals, who have their own particularities, and over time these particularities become well known and need to be taken into account.

There is a sort of internal ethos that develops, known to “our own” and the “initiated,” invisible from the outside.  You have to be inside the system to finally learn these rules and figure out how to use them to your own benefit.  For example, everyone knows that this particular deputy rector will never sign a form if the text isn’t written in 14-point Times New Roman, 1.5 spaced, full-justified, with a centered title.

In this office they like Raffaello candies, in that one they like cognac.  This deputy rector is sympathetic to our department, but his colleague in the neighboring office isn’t.  This bookkeeper is mean, but the other one is nice, so it’s better to wait until the first one leaves, and then you’ll end up with the second one.  This office is almost always closed, and so if you happen to need something from them, you either have to sit in front of the door or keep calling them over and over.  You’ve probably already guessed that there’s no reception schedule posted on the door.  And so on, and so on, endlessly. And when I get to my own department’s office and say: “I was at the academic secretary’s office,” everyone knows to offer me a chair and some valerian.

This system outrages and saddens me endlessly; it pushes me away coldly and mercilessly, like a foreign body.  And when I try to figure out for the hundredth time who exactly this Ivan Ivanovych is, and where I can find him, the department registrar shakes her head and says sadly:

- There you go.  And still you’re amazed that they never promote you.  It’s obvious why…

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka