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Young, brilliant and (so far) politically oblivious

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The Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) is one of the most prestigious universities in Russia. The School abounds in clever and often rich young students, groomed to be the stars of tomorrow’s elite. Yet this privileged group is also one that has ousted politics from its daily life and — so far at least — has failed to respond to the momentous events currently shaking the country.
Augusto Come
16 January 2012

Walking down Prospekt Vernadskogo, you cannot miss the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). The complex, a monstrous pachyderm from the Brezhnev era, clashes abruptly with the routine architectural rhythm of Soviet-style apartment blocks. It looks as if the building landed in this southern suburb of the Russian capital completely at random. As you get closer, however, your primary focus becomes the elegant crowd of youngsters that populates the institution. You just have to pass beneath the hammer and sickle panel on the main entrance and, provided conditions of the security check are satisfied, you have the most prestigious (and palpably most elitist) group of students in Russia before your very eyes.

Forging the new elite

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MGIMOs reputation as one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the former Soviet Union meansthat it is still able to attract the best and brightest mindsfrom right across fhe post-Soviet space. Photo (cc) Foma

MGIMO was founded in 1944 as a department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served to form the huge diplomatic corps needed for the Soviet empire - during a time of  inexorable expansion. The operation was undoubtedly successful: MGIMO more than fulfilled its role, providing a steady stream of eminent diplomats the calibre of Sergei Lavrov and Andrey Kozyrev. Over time, the university also  became one of the key institutions to form (and often co-opt) the local elite of the former Soviet satellites. A friend from the Czech Republic once told me a funny story. After an interview for an internship at the Permanent Representation of his country to the OSCE, his future boss told him: ‘You’re young and smart and your CV looks great. You’re hired. But first let’s check you’ve not passed through MGIMO’. Whether a joke or otherwise, this is a good example of how cautiously this institution is still perceived in former communist Central and East European states.

Needless to say, much has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Without losing its vocation in foreign affairs, MGIMO adapted its curriculum, which is now largely oriented toward the private sector. The institution has quite successfully completed this ‘transition’ and safeguarded its status of a peerless university in Russia, while enjoying an incommensurable reputation in all CIS countries. It still harbours some of the nation’s best brains. To be admitted, both top grades and outstanding command of foreign languages are required. However, if you are a self-financing student, your chances to be selected are higher; and depending on the course, the tuition fees range from 6500 to 16000 USD — quite a sum of money in a country where the GDP per capita is around 16000 USD. The queue of Bentleys – with and without chauffeurs — parked in front of MGIMO is certainly a popular hyperbole, but does give a taste of the posh lifestyle enjoyed by many MGIMO students.

No politics, we’re students!

An international student on the World Politics programme, it did not take long for me to become captivated by this crowd. Well-educated and open to the world, MGIMO’s students clearly represent the future of Russia. But I was curious to find out what they thought about the Russian domestic political situation; I wanted to know more about their political desires and their personal convictions.

'If [the MGIMO students] were interested in politics, they seemed to cultivate this passion only privately, inside themselves, as if politics were just a part of their spiritual life. Unfortunately, however, politics cannot exist if it does not exist publicly.'

From the very first day inside MGIMO, I sought out political associations, party representations, student syndicates and any other organisations involved in political activity. Naturally, I was far from expecting the sparkling political life that animates universities of some European or Latin American countries, where students are often busier with political activity than with their studies. At the same time, I did not expect the political desert I found either. Apart from some sporadic initiatives — such as the celebration of the Independence Day of the democratic Republic of Tajikistan, some debates on the status of women and a conference held by Zhirinovsky, leader of the LDPR nationalist party and chief prankster of the Russian political system – the university’s ‘political life’ lay in a cosy lethargy.

The students I saw did not not organise themselves into political associations, and the overwhelming majority of them were politically inactive. It seemed as if they had banished politics from their lives, refusing any form of engagement with it. Of course, the fact that they did not get involved in politics did not equate to a lack of political beliefs. On the contrary, when spurred, MGIMO students enjoyed talking about the latest political developments. Often they were outraged at the arrogant and incompetent political class that seemed to be stealing their future. However, even if they were interested in politics, they seemed to cultivate this passion only privately, inside themselves, as if politics were just a part of their spiritual life. Unfortunately, however, politics cannot exist if it does not exist publicly.

So far, so calm. But until when?

As December’s post-election demonstrations began to grip the country, things seemed to change in MGIMO too. Suddenly students started discussing politics — a topic that only a few days before was considered bad taste. At the students’ own request, lessons were suspended to give them a chance to discuss those unprecedented events. In the cafeterias, charming girls re-discovered themselves as revolutionaries, declaring between tapas that they had been full participants in the protests from the start, and that they were determined to hold on until the fall of the regime.

No doubt, the grand majority of the students do indeed sympathise with the demonstrators. Some of them too will have even taken part in the protest. But had things really changed at MGIMO?

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MGIMO alumni include many top Russian diplomats including the first Foreign Minister of the post - communist Russia, Andrey Kozyrev and its current Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. The prospect of a good career leads many students away from political activism. Photos (cc) by Mikhail Evstafiev and www.kremlin.ru

From what I could see, the university canteen was simply the equivalent of the Soviet kitchen scene — a safe and comfortable place for chatting about politics if in the absence of a public sphere. MGIMO students remain some distance away from developing a proper political consciousness as a distinct social group and acting consequently by taking ownership of what should be the natural space for their political action: their own university. MGIMO largely remains the politics-free space it used to be. No agitations, no propaganda, no general assemblies. The only flyer that appeared during those heady December days — ‘Kids, don’t sleep, the revolution has just begun!’ — was silently removed from the bulletin board after just a few hours. If Leon Trotsky was right to say that students are the barometer of revolutions, it would seem that the current regime still has many long days ahead of it.

When I shared these observations with Professor Andrei Zubov, a famous Russian historian, he looked at me with the benevolence of a wise and elegant XIX century gentleman (which in many respects he actually is). ‘Decades of bloody political repression inculcated into people a terrible and unconscious fear of politics which persists in the new generation, despite the fact that it was already born in a completely different country and era’, he said. He is undoubtedly right: the country is definitely different. But it still works by the same logic. Russian society still — quite dramatically — resembles the one depicted by Griboyedov in his masterpiece comedy-in-verse ‘Woe from Wit’, where only servile and conformist Molchalins are allowed to advance, while the idealistic Chatskys are doomed to failure.

MGIMO students remain some distance away from developing a proper political consciousness as a distinct social group and acting consequently by taking ownership of what should be the natural space for their political action: their own university. MGIMO largely remains the politics-free space it used to be.

Shortly before the December events, seven students of the Moscow State University were arrested for holding a flash-mob protest in front of the University during the visit of President Medvedev. The group was protesting against the fact that several students thought likely to ask the President uncomfortable questions had been banned from taking part in the conference. Examples such as this would seem to suggest the MGIMO establishment are not keen to see any kind of political engagement from their students. In a particularly surreal interview I conducted for this article, an MGIMO professor advised me not to write about students’ political opinions at all: ‘Soon our students will graduate and they will have to find a job. If I were you I would think twice before creating unnecessary problems. What is more, I do not want our rector to receive any unpleasant calls. He is a good man’.

Walking along Prospekt Vernadskogo, you have ambivalent feelings about Russia’s future. The country can certainly rely on a brilliant and enterprising new generation of diplomats and businessmen eager to do well and fulfil themselves. Thank heavens for that. But let’s also hope that Russia will also be able to count on this generation during its democratic spring, so dramatically needed and seemingly just around the corner. So far, MGIMO students, like their counterparts in other Russian universities, have yet to rise from their political slumber. History, however, tells us that the awakening of collective political consciousness is often abrupt, unpredictable. And always explosive.

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