A short bio on the website of the Faculty of Law says, “Prof. Nikolay Kropachev, Doctor of Sciences in Law, Dean of the Faculty of Law, Rector of SPbU, Head of the Department of Criminal Law, Chair of the Academic Council of the Faculty of Law.” His biography is found in all possible sections – Faculty, Alumni, Department of Criminal Law, Academic Council, Administration. What is behind his biography? How do his colleagues see him?

On the eve of Rector’s 50th anniversary, we asked Prof. Vadim Prokhorov from the Department of Criminal Law of the Faculty of Law and SPbU Honorary Professor to tell us about the birthday celebrant.

— When did a student named Nikolay Kropachev first come to your attention?

— Not a difficult question, when he was in his second year.  As an Associate Professor, I held classes in General Criminal Law to a group of students. Nikolay was very different from the others. I could see that he had regularly read for the classes and could skillfully communicate his point of view… You know, there are students who tend to stay in the background – they are present but unwilling to speak their mind. Nikolay was never like this – always engaged in the work, a fluent speaker ready to add to a discussion.

As a third-year student, he joined my class again. That time I conducted seminars in the Special Part of Criminal Law. For two years we worked hand in hand. He gave a very good impression of a thoughtful and reflective student, one of the best.

In the third year the course was over. The fourth-year students could follow a different, quite an interesting course – Major Issues in Criminal Law. It was an elective course so any enthusiastic student from any department could sign up. The course attracted many students and Nikolay Kropachev was there again. We focused on complex controversial issues that would always generate an intense discussion.

What is responsibility? This was the issue that concerned us most. As a starting point we tried to define what constitutes grounds of criminal responsibility. Was that guilt, body of the crime or the mere fact that the crime took place? In legal studies this issue is still a matter of debate. We regarded criminal responsibility as one of the aspects of social responsibility. To behave responsibly is to follow one’s social role and moral duty, which makes a positive aspect of social responsibility. The negative aspect arises when the duty is not met, or, more than that, when social behaviour goes against social norms. This is where enforcement comes in. This is how the norms, the norms of criminal law in particular, work. Responsibility is the fulfillment of duty either by your own free will or by compulsion… The issue we focused on sparked a lot of interest and required creative solutions. In fact, ideas given by Nikolay resonated with my vision.

— Then it was his thesis and you became his research advisor...

— Yes, I did. Naturally enough, the topic of his thesis was a follow-up to our discussions. After the successful defense, which matched our high expectations, he was encouraged to undertake postgraduate studies at the Department of Criminal Law. Again, this seemed to be the most natural choice with Nikolay’s theoretical mindset, eloquence and discussion skills. Another research advisor, Prof. Nikolay Belyaev, was appointed to supervise his doctoral thesis, but we did not lose touch.

— Mr Kropachev considers you and Academician Yuri Tolstoy his teachers…

— Well, I must admit, it is very flattering to hear that. Indeed, I somewhat contributed to his progress as an individual, a scientist and an administrator. After all, this is not what really matters here – it is not accidental that I have been telling you about our past discussions in some detail. He has been really concerned with justice and responsibility from an early age – this thought process shaped his ideology, his vision. It was then, in his late teens, that the moral foundation of Nikolay Kropachev as an administrator was laid. It all started with the basic concepts of duty and justice. For all the years I have known him, he has never been disloyal. He is a firm believer in the rule of law as the only path to justice.

At times, he shows considerable toughness in his unrelenting pursuit of justice, which some people will not like. But to be good to everyone and to be fair – are two completely different things. Goodness has no measure, whereas justice juxtaposes the duty and the reality to give a verdict, which is not always favorable. In fact, he is equally uncompromising when it comes to himself.

— You guided him throughout his progress not only as a student or a post-graduate student, but also as a leader. In 1993 you were appointed Dean of the Faculty of Law. 

— Yes, I was, and I offered Nikolay to take up as my First Deputy. By then, he already was an Associate Professor. Those were tough times for the Faculty and we tried to sort it out together. Flooded basement, crumbling ceilings, one-third of the windows broken – it was miserable and cold. Even getting enough chairs was a problem and students would drag them from one room to another. Despite we were few, the decision was taken – to make the Faculty the way we want it to be. It was clear that we were not managers, we were facilitators. The initiative required substantial investment.  How could we raise the funds? Then we found a way to make money. Prof. Anatoly Sobchak, the then Mayor of St. Petersburg, had an idea to equip the deputies of the Leningrad City Council with knowledge of law. We started to provide services in professional retraining and this is how the Special Faculty of Law appeared. Today, our alumni hold leadership positions and are proud to have received a legal education from the SPbU Faculty of Law.

Nikolay Kropachev was appointed to run the Special Faculty of Law. The Faculty was growing, the students were willing to self-finance their studies. As it was agreed earlier, salaries made only a small part of our income. Most of the money was spent to maintain the building: drying the basement, repairing the roof and renovating the rooms. Kropachev, unlike me, is very good at handling such projects. He was the driving force behind the revival of the Faculty.

We went together to the US to see how universities work there. We saw how well-equipped their libraries are and how important they are to overseas universities. Once back home, we set to reorganizing outdated Faculty libraries. Editions in foreign languages were rotting and most books were not available. The work of the library reduced itself to loaning and returning of textbooks. This is what it used to be like. These days, the Library of the Faculty of Law is one of the best in Europe. I believe that Kropachev along with other faculty members truly deserve the Presidential Award in Education, which they received for the creation of new  technologies in teaching through extensive use of information and computer facilities offered by libraries.

We were a friendly and dedicated team. Before that, colleagues would have a day or two off during the week, now no one ever missed a day of work. There was no room for dissension, opinions were expressed openly. Despite the strict hierarchy, everyone was on friendly terms.

— When public finding dropped dramatically, paid education helped the University to survive. Back in the 1990s several other faculties followed in the footsteps of the Faculty of Law.

— His appointment as Rector is a proof that his leadership was acknowledged by other Deans. This attitude took some time to evolve. At first, our efforts to improve our financial standing created misunderstanding – some thought we were too hungry for money. At the same time people could see that the University also benefited from what we did: we had several University buildings repaired, including the SPbU Publishing House. Gradually, perplexity gave way to public sanction. Other faculties, following in the footsteps of the Faculty of Law, also launched paid education.

Now, the University is fighting painful symptoms of complacency. We have been using the slogan “We are the first. We are the best” for too long. Much is still to be done and it is time to get back to the natural pace of work as if working were as natural as breathing. Let others say that we are the best.

Rector’s consistent policy to enhance the role of faculties seems logical. The University is a complex body. Trying to manage it single-handed is a utopia even if the manager is a genius. Rector exercises control over the University as a whole, especially when it comes to finance, and faculties are given a reasonable degree of independence. This approach opens up creative development opportunities for faculties. When Deans have freedom and act independently, it speeds up work and boosts productivity.

— I am sorry for being direct: what do you appreciate about his personality the most?

—  He is exceptionally hard-working and I have already said that. He is good at setting goals and sticking to them. He has good people skills – he is tactful and attentive, a very good listener. He will never offend anyone even if their demands cannot be fulfilled. This is why I find him very likeable both as a person and a manager.

Sometimes people will ask a Dean or Rector for a favour. It is not always possible to satisfy all people’s wishes, though everyone hopes for understanding. He can listen to anyone and walk in their shoes – it is a rare talent that any administrator needs and only few possess. In his case it is a natural quality worthy of appreciation.

He has reverence for older generations, the spirit of concern for veterans. People are getting older, it can’t be avoided, yet, he has never made any senior faculty member redundant. Some workload is delegated to younger colleagues and senior faculty work as consultants. The Dean is trying to protect them. This is Rector’s clear-cut stance and a good lesson to the young. With all the talk about crisis and unemployment, the staff can feel confident about the future.

I know his strengths and positive traits, but I do not tend to idealise him. We often fail to find a common ground, for example, he is against the Bologna Process and I am for it.

— How conscious Nikolay Kropachev is in building his career?

— Obviously, it is hardly possible to march up the career ladder without a clear goal. I would say he is very ambitious and this is what makes us different. Well, to each his own, firstly. Secondly, he is not building his career for its own sake. He loves what he does. In the beginning, he did what he had to do at the Faculty level, then it was no longer challenging and he went on to further his career. It has nothing to do with careerism – a propensity to pursue power and prestige – it is about the search for inner harmony. Someone feels he needs to write another novel, someone is a skillful plumber, an expert in his craft. Administrative work also deserves respect and recognition. And what I see is not a man exercising power, but a man committed to his work.

Interview by Evgeny Golubev
Photo by Sergey Ushakov