Russia: A Terrible Thing to Waste

terrible thing to wasteST. PETERSBURG, Russia | It was an amicable-seeming offer that the academic felt was impossible to resist. So the rector of a state-funded technical university in St. Petersburg, who also holds a senior position on the city’s council of rectors, agreed to join the pro-Kremlin United Russia.

No threats were made, but the scholar knew that denying such an offer would get him blacklisted immediately. It was all very informal. A group of senior members of the local branch of the party approached him, suggesting that it was perhaps unwise for an academic manager of his rank to distance himself from the party endorsed by the president.

“He is a professional, he has a team, and he is trusted by the team,” one of the rector’s colleagues said in his defense, sounding both frustrated and apologetic. “The most important thing at the moment is that the school provides the students with a good degree, and if the price to pay for that is the head holding a party ticket, well, he decided he can live with it.”

This story about Russia’s most powerful party recruiting a new member would appear unremarkable under other circumstances, but it helps to reveal the pattern of politics interfering on various levels in the country’s education system.

For starters, being a rector in modern Russia has become a political post in the Soviet tradition, when the country’s ideological gurus kept the education process under strict control.

Lyudmila Verbitskaya, who had been rector of St. Petersburg State University for 15 years until she stepped down this month to become the university’s first honorary president, has campaigned vigorously for a third term for President Vladimir Putin.

She also served as a “steamer” in the regional list of United Russia during elections to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly in March 2007. In Russian political jargon, a steamer is a prominent person who agrees to appear on a party list and be used to draw voters to the polls for the duration of the election, like a railway engine drawing carriages and then retiring to the sidings.

Verbitskaya’s previous initiatives included a proposal to close the popular but defunct political puppet show Kukly on the nationwide NTV channel for “creating a distorted and insulting image of President Putin.”

Class is Canceled

But, of course, there is much more to this issue than the position of rector becoming a politically charged post.

Two major educational organizations funded by foreign sponsorship and grants have come under fire from the Russian authorities in recent months on what critics see as far-fetched technicalities with an ulterior motive.

Lectures at the European University in St. Petersburg have been suspended after the city’s fire inspectors found 52 violations early this year. The district court twice ruled against granting the university permission to hold classes while correcting the violations. Most suspicious is the fact that although the fire inspectors’ complaints were directed against the building that houses the university, the court’s ruling affected the teaching process itself.

The judgment orders a “temporary suspension of activities,” which makes it impossible for the university’s management to rent out other premises until the argument over the historic premises has been resolved.

The phrasing used in the verdict carries a strong whiff of political pressure.

Liberal politicians and human rights advocates have referred to what they see as a possible connection between the closure and a recent conflict over an educational project that involved independent monitoring of elections in Russia and informing the Russian people about the electoral process.

The project, funded with a 673,000-euro grant from the European Union, had drawn criticism from a United Russia member of the State Duma, who called for an inquiry into the university’s activities and for the project to be closed.

On 30 January, the university’s Scientific Council voted to shut down the project on the grounds that “part of the activities involved in the project does not correspond to the school’s license.”

Worryingly, the university’s rector, Nikolai Vakhtin, declined to be more specific when confronted with requests from reporters to give a more detailed explanation behind the decision.

One False Move

“For friends – everything; for enemies – the law.” This formula, devised by the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, provides a key to understanding Russia’s current strategy for applying legislation. In other words, justice in Russia is highly selective.

Private companies in Russia long ago learned to read the warning signs that they have somehow displeased the authorities.

For instance, receiving a visit from both the fire inspectors and the tax police in the space of a month gives a clear hint to a company that it is on a dangerous collision course with the authorities. If a health and safety team then arrives, the company’s bosses know they are in deep trouble – and not because of their suspect company accounts, faulty firefighting equipment, or dirty kitchen.

Some of the fire “violations” at the university would take several years to correct. Because it is in a historic building protected by the state, any changes to either its exterior or interior would require lengthy coordination with a number of state organizations. For example, the university was asked to remove a narrow 19th-century spiral staircase. To do that, the school’s management would need the approval of City Hall’s Committee for the Preservation and Protection of Historical Monuments – which of course may never be granted.

The university’s management found itself at a loss over such complaints because the staircase has always been there and did not present a problem on any previous annual fire inspection.

Over the course of the last two months, the European University has been subjected to two other inspections investigating the legitimacy of its registration and operations, and even the content of its courses.

Unlike the British Council, which, after a direct confrontation with the Russian authorities, was forced to close down its branches in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, the management of the European University has tried to use the same weapon that had been used against it.

After two lost cases, it became clear to its managers that neither logic nor perseverance in correcting the listed violations was working. So Vakhtin made a careful but powerful political statement. He pointed out that the university was founded by the late St. Petersburg mayor, lawyer Anatoly Sobchak – the man who brought to politics and is revered by both Putin and his protege candidate in the forthcoming 2 March elections, Dmitry Medvedev.

Vakhtin took matters further by stressing that the campaign against the university clashed dramatically with Medvedev’s praise of the university as an innovator – the European University was the first academic institution in the country to implement an endowment scheme for its funding – as well as the politician’s relentless calls to cut down on red tape in education.

The Science and Higher Education Commission of the St. Petersburg government has since suspended the university’s license. No clarifications or comments have yet been made.

In the wake of the closures of the British Council and the European University, Viktor Sadovnichy, rector of the prestigious state-run Moscow State University and another prominent “steamer” of the United Russia party, gave a revealing interview to the political weekly Itogi in which he expressed frustration over the many private universities and academies in Russia that emerged in the 1990s as a result of liberalized legislation.

“I have the feeling that education remains some kind of an experimental polygon. … In the Soviet Union there were 600 universities, but now there are 3,345 non-state ones alone,” Sadovnichy complained. “We are still reaping the consequences of the policies of the 1990s when three people could gather in the kitchen and declare that they had founded a university.”

Indeed, there were fewer universities in the USSR, and the state had a firm, unrelenting grip over all the schools that existed. In the Soviet Union it was unthinkable for a high school graduate to get a place at a university – no matter how brilliant his or her grades – without being a member of the Komsomol.

Similarly, being excluded from the Komsomol could have meant immediate expulsion from university and certainly would have put an end to any serious career, be it in international relations, Russian literature, organic chemistry, or theoretical physics.

Unlike many academics at state universities, professors from the European University don’t participate in political activities. The school is not a remotely dissident organization. Its mission is to produce not only qualified professionals in social and humanitarian sciences, the school’s core areas, but also responsible citizens capable of critical thinking.

That was the goal of the electoral project that the school was forced to shut down. But the Russian authorities seek to impose strict control over people’s minds rather than nurture independent thinking.

Put simply, the state wants to regain its grip and incorporate the education system into its vertical of power. Perhaps the rector of the European University will soon be invited to join United Russia.


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