At the end of March, during the period of the current unfavourable epidemiological situation, St Petersburg University became the first university in Russia to switch to the distance mode of candidate and doctoral dissertation defences. Not only the defences, but also the submission of documents take place online now. Vyacheslav Suyazov, a graduate of St Petersburg University and a lecturer at the University Department of Theory and History of State and Law, spoke about why he had chosen to defend his dissertation online.

Vyacheslav, you have decided to defend your dissertation at St Petersburg University in the distance mode. Why?

I completed a bachelor's programme, a master's programme, and a postgraduate programme at St Petersburg University. The next step for me was to be awarded a candidate of science degree in law. My work had already been completed, I received the latest edits and was ready to submit an application for the convening of a dissertation council and defence. The pandemic could have become a serious obstacle; but at St Petersburg University the online defence opportunity was introduced right after the announcement of measures to counteract the spread of coronavirus. Since the procedure had been adjusted, the other applicants and I were given a chance to continue our movement towards the defence without waiting for the restrictive measures to be cancelled.

Do you think it will be easier to defend your dissertation online?

The defence process can be entirely home-based. And, as you know, the walls at home are your friends, your comfort and your helping hands. In any case, the online mode makes it possible to conduct the defences of applicants residing outside St Petersburg. For them, the opportunity to defend their dissertations at one of the best schools of law in Russia, and to be conferred the degree of a candidate of science in law, is relevant not only during a pandemic.

What steps do you need to take to defend your dissertation at St Petersburg University?

On 1 September 2016, St Petersburg University was granted the right to create its own dissertation councils and award its own academic degrees.

If the work has already been prepared, you need to contact the staff of the University Department for the Support of the Dissertation Councils and submit an application addressed to the Rector. Together with the application, a set of documents is submitted. It includes: a printed text of the dissertation (in two languages, Russian and English); a list of publications; a review by your research supervisor; a questionnaire of the applicant; a diploma; and information about the exams that the candidate has taken.

Does it take much time according to your experience?

It did not require much time and effort to prepare and submit the whole set of documents. For that, I would like to thank the staff of the Department for the Support of the Dissertation Councils and personally Aleksandr Gnetov, Academic Secretary of St Petersburg University.

Do you already know who will be included into the dissertation council on your dissertation?

The council is in the process of formation right now. At our University, they are created for each particular defence. All potential members of the dissertation council must be experts in the subject area covered by the dissertation. In addition, at least one of the council members must represent a foreign educational organisation, and one more member must be an employee of another Russian university.

I know that in governmental documents a dissertation defence is considered a public action. To convene a dissertation council hiding from everyone, and to confer a degree on you will be a direct violation. How will it work in the distance mode?

You know, it seems to me this format is even more public. During the defence, there is a live broadcast on the University’s website in two languages. All members of the dissertation council, the applicant, and the academic supervisor are present and visible on the screen, and recording is in progress.

Will there be questions from the audience?

Each external participant of this broadcast can ask any question regarding the scientific content of the dissertation using the special e-mail address indicated on the University website. The e-mail will be addressed to the chairperson of the dissertation council. Also, as far as I know, if there are experts willing to participate in my defence, they may pre-register using the same e-mail address. After proceeding to the so-called virtual meeting room of the dissertation council, they will be given the floor to speak. All of that will be seen during the live broadcast.

Was your identity verified when you were applying for defence online?

In the usual mode, I would have my passport examined when submitting documents. Of course, a personal meeting is out of the question now, so I was not only entered into the defence register, but also remotely video-recorded holding my passport open. I know such a procedure has been adopted in the banking system. In the process of the defence itself, my research supervisor will be recorded on video together with me. First, he will introduce me to the staff of St Petersburg University, and then to the members of the dissertation council, so there will be no doubt about my identity.

Could you please tell us a little about your research. What is your work devoted to?

The topic is related to professorial disciplinary courts at the universities of the Russian Empire in pre-revolutionary times. I got interested in university-related legal subjects during my bachelor's studies. I wrote a term paper on the procedure for awarding degrees in the Russian Empire in accordance with the 1863 General University Charter. By the way, at that time universities awarded their own academic degrees. It was an important element of their autonomy. After that, I decided to devote my diploma project to the professorial disciplinary court of the Imperial St Petersburg University. That project eventually turned into a dissertation. In addition, this subject is unexplored in the scientific literature. I found most of the information in the archives. It is extremely interesting to work with such material, since it is not possible to rely on the opinions of other researchers. All of your conclusions will be unique in the scientific community. Many issues of modern educational law are related to holding students liable for disciplinary action. Taking into account the past experience will only help in resolving these issues.

What are your plans for the post-defence period?

I have been lecturing at the University for several years already, and I am going to continue this work along with my research work. Only my status will change – I will be a candidate of science.