Who’s left to fight for Russian academia?

While Russia’s authorities are obsessed with the imaginary threat of “foreign agents”, a real danger is growing from within — there’s nobody left to halt the collapse of the country’s education system. RU

Ирина Писаренко
29 November 2017
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11th of November: a rally by St Petersburg students in support of education and culture. Source: Vkontakte.Russian federal media ignored a recent rally by St Petersburg students in support of education and culture, organised by those studying at a number of the city’s universities. Information about the event was spread mostly through social media. The media’s silence is understandable; experts consider protest activity to be on the rise — covering it means letting the public know where and how they can air their grievances. And that in turn could present more new problems for the Kremlin in the run up to Presidential elections in March 2018.

You couldn’t call it a large-scale rally: just around 500 people expressing their disapproval at the closure of the European University at St Petersburg, the merger of some cultural and educational facilities, the construction of housing estates close to the Pulkovo Observatory, and hit-and-run seizures of academic institutions. This agenda doesn’t mean much in the current political climate, and such protests can’t compare to a Russian Orthodox Church procession, organised to sanctify the memory of some long gone and martyred fellow-countrymen. It’s easier to weep over the past than fight for our life today — or less risky, at any rate.

It’s easier to weep over the past than fight for our life today — or less risky, at any rate

But what is striking is that it is the youngest, most vulnerable and “resourceless” part of the population that is fighting to preserve cultural and educational values (and the European University, the observatory and other educational facilities can be regarded as such). Meanwhile, those structures that should, and could fly to the defence of culture and education pretend that nothing is happening.

Parliamentary Deputies are silent on the subject. “Educational conflicts” are breaking out all over the country, but the State Duma is too busy labelling the international media “foreign agents” to hold an emergency meeting about the “murder” of the European University. It’s as though the collapse of Russia’s education system, which already looks like a humanitarian disaster area, presents no threat to the country’s national security.

The academic world — the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Education, the Public Council of the ministry of education and Science — is also silent. You’d have thought that these bodies (containing the country’s best minds!) would be first to express their expert opinion, work out a development strategy for this or that academic cluster and persuade the government to move in accordance with people’s interests. Thousands of academic conferences and hundreds of thousands of academic forums take place every year. Why do none of them discuss the reasons for students and staff members holding such protest rallies?

Interestingly, any people with no connection to this world are concerned about the future of education. As someone who was a university teacher for many years, I am often asked why our education system, thanks to which our country became the first to send a person into space, is today unravelling before our eyes.

Who allowed this process of devaluation of our cultural values to begin? And why, after Russia’s great leap forward in education after the 1917 revolution, did it gradually decline after Perestroika and the collapse of the USSR in 1991? Perhaps the difference between the two revolutions was that 100 years ago, those who came to power were better educated than the majority of Russians at the time. The new revolutionary government put enormous efforts into educating workers and peasants. The value of education was unquestioned: it was feted as a national idea and lay at the heart of the new regime.

Why, after Russia’s great leap forward in education after the 1917 revolution, did it gradually decline after Perestroika?

At the end of the 1990s, humanitarian ideas were, basically, alien to the people who came to power. These people wanted to build a “new Russia” according to their own criminal standards, trampling on both law and culture and governed by pragmatic, rather than social, ambitions. They had no qualms about taking a building away from a children’s rehabilitation centre, or merging thousands of university bodies whose members’ lives had been dedicated to scientific development. These people can’t tell astronomy from astrology — for them, the education system is just a source of extra profit. And the public purse is becoming too small to provide for the ever-increasing horde of parliamentary deputies, since it is administrators, and not those who produce anything, that have first call on it.

In civilised countries, millionaires’ ethics presuppose a certain amount of philanthropy — significant donations for social ends. And despite the periodic emergence of people trying to support education (such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Federation for Internet Education, Dmitry Zimin’s “Dynasty Foundation” and the Vladimir Potanin Foundation), most Russian millionaires are only proud of the amount of wealth they have acquired. Their wives and children post videos of their luxury holidays or unpunished criminal behaviour on social media, flaunting the wealth they have amassed at the expense of the 15 million of their fellow citizens who live below the poverty line.

And why is this the case? It’s because these people are badly educated.

An educated person differs from an uneducated one in three ways: they recognise the value of education and culture; they respect not only their own, but others’ interests, and they bear some social responsibility for the development of their country (and their “little Russia” — their yard, their city, their university). So let’s imagine what we will find if we begin to judge our country’s education by these criteria.


Rallies in defense of the European University are held repeatedly. Source: YouTube / Polit.ru. Some rights reserved.We could, for example, assess the quality of consciousness-raising work in a university by the number of students who took part in the demonstration in defence of education and science. Or the level of social responsibility of the various academies by the content of their academic seminars. We could judge the quality of the work of the ministry of education by the number of specialist science schools opened more over 10 years ago.

It’s scary to consider the score we’d receive. It turns out that only 500 students passed the “intelligence test” by rallying in defence of Russian science. And no one in the government is concerned about either double standards when university teaching licenses are up for review, or the decline in our unique scientific schools, or the public’s ironic attitude towards the slogans about the “openness” and “transparency” of our society. People whose social status demands they preserve and advance cultural and civic values look on indifferently as growth areas in education are destroyed (the European University is far from being the only victim of this tendency); buildings where great intellectual schools came into being over the centuries are seized on a bogus pretext and young people, whether out of frivolity or hopelessness, look for a better life outside Russia.  

No one in the government is concerned about either double standards when university teaching licenses are up for review, or the decline in our unique scientific schools  

Surely the 300-600 people who turned up at the rally on 11 November can’t be the only ones who are worried about these developments in Russian academia. They, you’ll notice, weren’t just defending a specific university, but trying to draw the government’s attention to what is happening all over across our education system today.

Unfortunately, those people who want to protect the European University don’t have the political clout of those who want to seize its building, an 18th century palace on the banks of the river Neva. Novaya Gazeta reports that the building on Gagarin Street is sorely needed by people who have already bought the adjacent mansion and converted it into 29 apartments, each worth between 17 and 180 million roubles (£217,430 - £2,302,200). I suspect that the university building will suffer a similar fate.


The building of the European University. Wikimedia Commons / EUSP.I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in one of these apartments. It would be like buying a flat in a house where there had been a murder. Of course, it would be difficult to find many sensitive people among those who can pay two hundred million roubles for a home. But will their children really be proud of living on the bones of their country’s academic heritage? They can gaze at the river, show off their impeccable manners at dinner parties, and blow hot air about timeless values.

Someday, we’ll find out the names of these people, and show tourists around the building, like today’s tourists are taken round the Necropolis in the Kremlin Wall. Or perhaps our descendants will put up a plaque with a list of the insatiable raiders who desired more than just villas in foreign resorts and offshore accounts.

Meanwhile, the European University is still fighting on, like Andersen’s little tin soldier. But it is not just defending its own students and staff. It is defending the things that lay at the heart of its education system and which assured it a prime placing in international ratings: academic freedom, real academic productivity and a good business reputation. But for some reason, these are concepts our government simply cannot comprehend.

Translated by Liz Barnes

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