Student and Scholar at St. Petersburg

It was easier for Sorokin to decide to go to St. Petersburg than it was forhim to get there. The cheapest fare by steamer to Vologda and from there bytrain to St. Petersburg was approximately sixteen rubles; Sorokin had but one.He increased his funds to some ten rubles by painting two peasant homes,which paid for third-class accommodations on the steamer. But in Vologda helearned that the train fare to St. Petersburg was eight rubles, five more than hepossessed. He therefore decided to buy a ticket to a point not far from Vologdaand to travel the rest of the way as a stowaway--the "rabbit" class, as it wasthen called in Russia. He was soon discovered, however, but fortunately by akind and understanding conductor. Sorokin explained that he was travelling tothe capital to pursue his education; the conductor, an older man endowed withthe Russian respect for things of the spirit, allowed the young man to continueon the trip on condition that he would earn his fare by cleaning cars andlavatories and also assisting the engine-stoker. With the help of this Praxis,Sorokin was sped on in his search for theory; when he reached St. Petersburghe had an unexpended balance of fifty kopecks in his pocket.

Having managed to be hired by an upward-mobile employee of the centralelectric station as a tutor for his two boys (in exchange for room and meagerboard), Sorokin set out to gain admission to the University. This was by nomeans easy. Since he had been expelled from his seminary and had never evenattended gymnasium, there was only one way to gain admittance. He wouldhave to pass a stiff "examination of maturity" for all eight grades of gym-nasium and some additional materials required of "externs"--those who hadnot graduated from gymnasium. Largely ignorant of Latin and Greek, Frenchand German, as well as mathematics, Sorokin could pass the examination onlyby attending one of the night schools that offered such training. When helearned that one of the teachers at a well-known night school was the first manfrom Komi to become a professor at the university, Sorokin presented himselfat the professor's apartment and told the latter's astonished wife that he hadjust arrived from the Komi people and would like to see the Komi professor.K. F. Jakov, the man in question, not only arranged for Sorokin's free admis-sion to night school, but opened up his own house to him, introduced him tosome of the leading intellectuals, and thus paved his entree to several philo-sophical, literary, and artistic circles in the university. The Komi professor alsoplayed a major role in the personal life of his student, for it was at one ofJakov's receptions that Sorokin met his future wife.

Through Jakov's recommendations, Sorokin soon obtained additionaltutorial work that enabled him to earn a small wage while attending threesemesters of night school. This school, as was the case with so many through-out Russia, was a hotbed of revolutionary ideas; Sorokin learned much in thegive-and-take discussions among his like-minded peers--probably more thanhe did in the formal course of instruction.

After two years of study and extensive exposure to St. Petersburg's culturalofferings and intellectual stimulations, Sorokin returned to Veliki Ustyug, hisfather's hometown, to prepare for the final examination. The reason for thismove was not so much to return to his roots (as current conceit has it); rather,he could live more cheaply with his uncle and aunt than was possible in thecapital. In May 1909 he passed the examination with the grade of "excellent" inall subjects.

Back in St Petersburg, Sorokin first enrolled in the newly opened Psycho-Neurological Institute. A number of factors influenced his choice. First, theinstitute program was less rigid than that of the university; second, the university offered no instruction in sociology whereas two renowned sociologists,M. M. Kovalevsky and E. de Roberts, taught at the institute; finally, the in-stitute's student body was largely of peasant and lower-class origin, who weremore open to revolutionary ideas than students at the university. During hisfirst year at the institute Sorokin attracted the attention of several of his instruc-tors and was considered one of the top students. However, since university, butnot institute students were exempt from serving in the military, he had to leavethe institute and enroll at the university in order to escape the draft. Butthroughout the next few years his ties to the institute remained so strong thathe became secretary and assistant to his teacher M. M. Kovalevsky, and, in hisfirst year of graduate work, he was appointed a lecturer in sociology at theinstitute.

Despite the fact that the university did not officially recognize sociology asa field for matriculation, the subject was taught in courses listed under law oreconomics, criminology or history. As most of these courses were given in thefaculty of law and economics, Sorokin chose that department as his field ofspecialization and was exposed to the guidance of such internationally knownscholars as M. I. Tugan-Baranovsky in economics and M. I. Rostovtzeff in theclassics. Sorokin proved himself to be a brilliant student and managed, even asan undergraduate, to publish a number of studies in sociological, anthropologi-cal, and philosophical journals. His first substantial volume, the previously men-tioned Crime and Punishment, Service and Reward, was published in hisjunior year.

Though it seemed evident even in his early years at the university that hewas destined for a brilliant academic career and soon would be accepted in thevarious circles of St. Petersburg's intelligentsia, Sorokin did not let his intel-lectual life interfere with his revolutionary activities. Indeed, his academiccareer was temporarily interrupted when the police raided his home to arresthim, but he happened to be away at the time. To escape the further attentionof the police, Sorokin procured a false passport and the uniform of a studentofficer of the Military Medical Academy; he then went to the Riviera as a malenurse and companion to a fellow revolutionary who suffered from tuberculosis.These unusual circumstances allowed the young provincial from the northernforests to get his first glimpse of European upper-class culture. He even gambledat the Monte Carlo casino and won a few hundred francs. It may have beenwith those francs that he bought a copy of the recently published Soziologie byone Georg Simmel. After a few weeks, the student "disorders" at the universityhad abated, and the police relaxed its vigilance so that Sorokin could return tothe capital and resume his studies.

Having escaped police arrest in 1911, Sorokin was not so lucky in 1913. Hehad written a pamphlet about the crimes and the misrule of the Romanovdynasty as a counterpoint to the tercentenary celebrations of that dynasty'sreign. Thereupon he was betrayed by an agent provocateur and was arrested.The young revolutionary was placed in a relatively comfortable cell, had accessto a good prison library, and simply continued his work. He also read a numberof lighter volumes, among them Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. "It didnot occur to me then," he later wrote in his autobiography, "that sometime inthe future I would be living on the banks of this river [in Minneapolis]." Butthat time was not yet. Having no proof that Sorokin had in fact written theincriminating pamphlet and being hard pressed by many of Sorokin's profes-sors, the police soon released him so that he could again devote himself to hisformal education.

In 1914 Sorokin graduated with a first-class diploma from the universityand was immediately offered the position of a "person left at the university toprepare for a professorship." He gladly accepted the offer, especially since afairly good stipend went with it. For the first time he was able to live in astyle to which most of his peers had long been accustomed. The stipend wasgranted for a four-year period to allow him to prepare for the magister (master)degree and a position as a Privatdozent (lecturer). Since sociology was still notan approved discipline, Sorokin chose criminology and penology as his majorsubject and constitutional law as his minor.

The master's degree was much more highly regarded in Russia than in theUnited States. In fact, most academicians held only such a degree; but a veryfew outstanding professors wrote distinguished dissertations that earned them aPh.D. The oral examination for the magister degree took three full days, afourth day being devoted to a substantial essay on a topic assigned by the bodyof examiners. It usually took at least four years to prepare for this examinationbut after only two, Sorokin passed in late 1916. He was now entitled to becomea Pritvatdozent at the university; in order to receive the degree of "magister ofcriminal law," however, he still had to submit a dissertation and to defend itin a rigorous dispute with all the official opponents appointed by the univer-sity, as well as with unofficial faculty opponents and public challengers. Sorokinhad planned to submit his volume on Crime and Punishment, Service andReward as his dissertation, and his professors had agreed tentatively to schedulethe defense for some day in March of 1917. But the Revolution prevented this.After March 1917 all university life practically ceased for several years. Sorokinhad to wait until April 1922 to defend two volumes of his System of Sociologyas a dissertation for the degree of doctor of sociology.

From Coser, 1977:480-483.


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