“Young people in Russia today don’t have it easy”

After young people and students took to the streets, education is firmly on the agenda in Russia. An interview with Mikhail Sokolov on the threats to academic freedom and whether one of Russia's leading universities will survive. Русский

Tatyana Dvornikova Mikhail Sokolov
12 April 2017

They’ve been dismissed as a “teenage rebellion”, but the protests that took place on 26 March suggest the country’s youth is slipping through the state’s fingers. (c) Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Education is high on Russia’s political agenda right now. While teachers fight for pay and conditions, the European University at St Petersburg, one of Russia’s best independent universities, is currently fighting to retain its licence, and many state universities have been putting pressure on students who have taken part in the recent wave of anti-corruption protests.

I talked to Mikhail Sokolov, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at EUSPb, about the effectiveness of state propaganda, the contradictions in Russia’s education system and licensing that the university has encountered and whether demonstrations of support might increase its chances of retaining its status.

Tatyana: How come the European University at St Petersburg, which is always ranked highly in university league tables, is failing to satisfy Rosobnadzor, Russia’s education watchdog. What complaints are being levelled against it?

Mikhail: Every governing body has an ideal type of university in mind, and these perceptions are not only unrelated to one another, but may be almost mutually exclusive.

Rosobnadzor wants to be given concrete evidence of a university’s credentials, to confirm that it’s not some Mickey Mouse venture that hands out degrees right, left and centre. In other words, proof that it can teach. The problem, however, is a tacit assumption that there is one specific type of university that offers a specific combination of courses and provides specific modes of education. And all other universities appear inferior because they offer a different combination and teach in a different way.


A new facade for the mansion of A.G.Kushelev-Bezborodko by architect E.Schmidt (1859), now the site of EUSPb. Credit: European University at St Petersburg. Free Art License.For many universities, Rosobnadzor’s requirements are irrelevant. What need is there for a gym in a university where there are no courses in Physical Education — who is going to use it and for what? Or take an assumption that courses will be textbook based and that the library should contain as many textbooks as there are students. And that they must, of course, be in Russian. So if a university bases its courses on primary sources— works by the German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for example, rather than books about him — it gets into trouble. For people studying the humanities, primary sources are more important than secondary ones. But try telling that to Rosobnadzor.

In terms of how universities’ effectiveness is monitored, as laid down by the Ministry of Education and Science, EUSPb, and especially its scientific research, looks very good. This is partly because teaching staff have a lot of free time in which to pursue their research. They have few contact hours and spend hardly any time on tedious paperwork. But the university’s main attractions for staff aren’t even its salary levels, which are pretty good for Russia, but the comfortable, unbureaucratic environment and research facilities. However, if a university decides to be a high quality research centre, it evolves in a direction that doesn’t sit well with the requirements of Rosobnadzor. And that body has decided to look at our paperwork and the formal qualifications of our teaching staff. It turns out, for example, that many of our lecturers and professors are not Doctors of Science. I, for example, am a mere PhD, and that is unusual in our system. There is no formal national requirement for professors to be Doctors of Science, but there are established traditions and qualification requirements that come to much the same thing.

At the same time, quite a number of people who would have been perfectly capable of gaining a Doctorate of Social Sciences quite early in their careers, decided against it for one simple reason: it has not been obligatory and the process of gaining it takes up a large amount of time. At a certain point a young researcher has to decide between two options: to write a Doctorate of Science thesis or a book and five articles. Our university has tended to choose people who went for the book and articles option, and so became famous in their chosen field. Other universities (the ones Rosobnadzor considers exemplary) chose people who preferred a doctoral thesis. So the EUSPb has had no problems with publications and citations, and the others had none with qualification demands. Unfortunately, these clashes are very common.

Tatyana: What are the university’s prospects if it loses its licence?    

Mikhail: Classes are still taking place at the EUSPb. We are hoping for the best, but it could go either way. And a negative outcome would mean halting our educational work. Nothing will happen while our appeal is being considered. If it is turned down, we shall have to stop teaching. In Russian law, research work doesn’t require a licence, so we can’t be stopped from continuing that. Losing our licence would be unpleasant, but not fatal for the university, because we can apply for a new one. If it comes to that, we should get one, because by the time we apply all our supposed contraventions will be out of date.

The problem with this scenario is that we probably won’t get a new licence before the new academic year, and we’ll have to transfer the end of this academic year to the autumn term, which means that our Masters students won’t get their degree in this academic year. Also, those who would like to do Russian graduate studies and only have a Bachelor’s degree will probably lose a year, and this includes a lot of students. Those who are going to do a PhD abroad won’t have this problem (or haven’t had it) because the academic year begins at different times in Russia and Europe. We also won’t be able to run our selection process for higher degree candidates this summer.   


Mikhail Sokolov, courtesy of the author. So losing our licence is a big nuisance for the university, but not fatal. But that’s not our only problem — they’re trying to throw us out of our building. And the two things are linked: to get a licence you have to have an appropriate amount of floor space. 

Tatyana: Could the letters of support for the EUSPb coming in from all over the world help it?  

Mikhail: I’ll be honest. We don’t know what’s going on, and we don’t know what might influence any decision. Everyone has their own theory, but there’s little clarity. If it’s just a question of various bureaucratic processes becoming entangled, then yes, letters might help. Officials don’t like it when their decisions draw attention to them. Nor do they like admitting their mistakes in public, and if there’s a row they’ll try to sort it out as quickly as possible by giving the university its licence, so people get off their backs.   

If it’s a bit of private enterprise on the part of our neighbours, then the publicity could also help, as the palace will become a pretty toxic asset if the university is thrown out of it. The city won’t easily forget how the new owners acquired the building and will remember the story for decades. So the support campaign is lowering its value to potential raiders.


A placard in support of EUSPb reads: "Did you become the best in Russia? Lose your license!" Image: Elena Tokalova. If, however, this is a political campaign aimed at eradicating the university as a haven for free thinking (as another conspiracy theory has it) then letters will make no difference. The events of 26 March will have much more influence — in one direction in the short term, and another in the medium term. In the short term, there will be attempts to dampen other smouldering issues: they’ll change their minds about handing over the cathedral and merging the libraries, just in case these issues acquire links with the anti-corruption protests. So here they are going back on their plans.

But in the medium term, I fear that there might be a reaction and a mass propaganda campaign aimed at young people. This campaign will probably be completely counterproductive, but places with a liberal reputation will suffer. Anyway, we’ll soon find out which of these possible scenarios is the right one.   

Tatyana: What are the options now for Russian students who want to get a high quality education in the humanities and go on to do research in some area of social sciences?

Mikhail: The humanities and social sciences are certainly not a priority for our government today, and not an area that receives a lot of funding. Science and technology are considered much more important: these are fields where Russia can compete internationally, and the development of a high tech industrial sector is a must for cracking the global market and making us technologically self sufficient. This is an official position that makes perfect sense within a particular frame of reference.

As a result, the situation with Humanities and social sciences is rather patchy. There are centres of excellence with a global reputation, especially Russian history, politics and culture. It’s difficult to say whether you could call any of them “leading” outside their specific geographical frame of reference — it’s certainly not the case in my field, sociology. But I can’t speak about linguistics, for example, which traditionally has had a higher profile.

To get back to the students: they’ll need to look for faculties with high reputations at other universities, and if there are none, and there is nowhere to transfer to, then they’ll have to wait to do their Masters studies in either a Russian university or elsewhere. You can theoretically stay at a strong faculty all your life, but it depends on your own research interests. The main thing with choosing where to do Masters or Doctoral studies is finding yourself the right supervisor.

More often than not, this involves going to a university abroad, since there are great gaps in Russian research fields – there are many in sociology, for a start. To do research at an international level and get known in the world means going to where there is research going on in your chosen field. Not much has changed there since the great Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov studied in St Petersburg in the 1730’s. The gaps are, however, shrinking, often thanks to people who study in the west and then return to Russia.

Those who have managed to complete their Bachelors degree can immediately enrol on a Masters course at one of the world’s leading universities, and often do so. But there’s a major language problem here –- another reason for the relative lack of Russian specialists in global science and scholarship. It’s easy, of course, to boast that the Soviet education system was the best in the world, and it was exemplary in some respects, especially mathematics and science. But students were not taught foreign languages — they had a reading knowledge at best. Today less than 10% of Russians say that they know any language other than those of the peoples of the former USSR –the 2010 Census recorded 5.5% saying that they spoke English, 1.5% that they spoke German and 0.5%, French, and there was also a large overlap within this group.

-декабрь акция в поддержку ЕУСПб.jpg

December 2016: Action in support of EUSPb in Paris. Image: Elena Tokalova. For those who can’t study abroad because they don’t speak another European language, the only possible springboards to higher studies in the humanities and social sciences are the EUSPb, Moscow’s Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences and its Higher School of Economics. These all select talented students via various summer schools. Afterwards, if students can join one of the research groups within the university, they stay with us. Otherwise they move on. Some have returned to their original universities or to another regional university. 

Tatyana: How long will it take for Russia to catch up with other countries in the humanities and social sciences? Or is that impossible?                  

Mikhail: Experience shows that educational breakthroughs can take place. Estonia, for example, has made a giant leap — it’s considered a global success story. Having started in the same situation as other post-Soviet countries, it has now shot ahead. The last PISA rankings showed Estonian students achieving some of the highest results in the world, and the highest in Europe, in science and mathematics — a long way ahead of Russia, despite its strong Soviet traditions. Political will and parental enthusiasm were major factors in this development.

In Russia, too, the situation is evidently improving. The statistics show that three times as many younger than older people say that they know a foreign language. Despite complaints about the Unified State Examination taken by school leavers, post-Soviet schools and general cultural environment have provided students with at least some minimal knowledge. We can’t write Russian science and scholarship off as incapable of improvement, even if it’s not so hot at present. Changes can happen very quickly.

Tatyana: School and lower university years’ students took a pretty active part in the recent protests in nearly 100 Russian cities. Why do you think this happened and what has united them?

Mikhail: I don’t feel I can talk about this subject, not for political reasons, but because I have colleagues who until 26 March were telling me about how apolitical young people were, and the next morning started going on about why they were so politicised using the same explanations on both occasions.

We don’t even know whether there were more young people involved than there were in the 2011-2012 protests. Experiments by Solomon Asch and other social psychologists have shown that we all tend towards conformism in our view of the world, and if the received wisdom is that protesters are young people, then everybody will see, or remember seeing young people and not notice older people — even if statistically their relative numbers mirrored those of the general population. Groups of people are capable of convincing themselves that they see much stranger things . You only have to think about spiritualist séances.

In other words, we need hard facts and figures. In 2011-2012 there were surveys and head counts, but there were none on 26 March. We could look at the number of people arrested, but the police may have deliberately avoided detaining children. And we could analyse video footage or locations on social media — in any case, we need to do some work before talking about the protesters’ age.


"It doesn’t matter what party you’re for – you’re certainly against thieves!” reads this placard at a protest in Moscow, 26 March. Image still via Radio Svoboda / YouTube. Some rights reserved.If, however, we do find reliable evidence of more young people protesting, it won’t be hard to explain. Young people in Russia today don’t have it easy. They have less chance of upward social mobility than previous generations, even if you discount the fact that today’s elite will pass their jobs at the top of state corporations to their children. In any rapid economic shift it is relatively young people who occupy the new niches. The older generation gets left behind in depressed sectors of the economy; the young don’t. So the group that benefitted from the fall of the planned economy and privatisation was those who were born in the 60s.

EUSPb graduates Yuri Agafonov and Vladislav Lepele analysed lists of several hundred of Russia’s richest business men and women and discovered that the children of the 1960s make up the majority. The 70s and 80s generations were too late but occupied those positions that were left. But think of the 80s and 90s generations: their potential places on the rungs high above them on the career ladder have been filled by relatively young people who will remain in their posts for another 20 odd years. There are sectors of the economy- new ones connected with innovation - which will provide jobs in the future, but don’t exist yet. All in all, you can’t envy the young people at the bottom of the pyramid. And don’t forget that over the next 15 years the number of economically active people will fall, and the number of pensioners rise, and you will see that the younger generation has good reason to be discontented.

The fact that one day there will be a reaction against government attempts at ideological indoctrination might also be relevant. It has always amazed me that most public officials believe that someone knows how to brainwash people. In fact, humans can no more control public opinion than they can predict the weather – and its longer term variables even less. Sometimes, for example, you just get sick and tired of overused symbols or whipped up passions, and a call that enflamed the masses yesterday now sounds like something out of last year’s pop charts.    

OK, there are recipes for propaganda. But their chances of success are 50/50. 50% that they’ll work; 50% that they’ll be totally counterproductive. The USSR built the most grandiose, centralised propaganda machine in history (well, or the second after the Roman Catholic Church – take your choice) and spent a considerable proportion of its GDP on it. It held a complete monopoly on propaganda. But did many people rise in protest against the Belovezh Agreement of 1991, which dissolved the USSR and set up the Commonwealth of Independent States? Did many people born in the Soviet Union believe in Communism? Or class warfare? Or the inevitable withering away of the state? Were many people ready to unite with the workers of the world? Or turn an imperialist war into a civil one? What evidence do we have to suggest that today anyone will rule Russia better than the CPSU?

The gigantic Soviet machine seems to have completely devalued the values it was set up to inculcate in the public. And it turned a large number of people, who didn’t like having stuff forcibly drummed into their heads, into stalwart anticommunists. Revolutions in general usually produce the very people who have tried the hardest to stop them — fiery counter revolutionaries breed fiery revolutionaries. And it seems to me that if the 26 March protests will engender more awareness raising work with young people, the results, in the medium term, will be completely unexpected by those who were involved in that work.

But you should ask me now: if it’s all so obvious, why did young people not start protesting (if they have started) earlier? Because, alas, it’s not yet at all obvious, and we need to be prepared for surprises, even when we find some intuitively alluring explanation for it.              


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