Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

European University at St Petersburg: a survival guide

One of Russia’s foremost research and education institutions is under threat of closure. The solidarity of its staff and students gives hope for the future.

lead A new facade for the mansion of A.G.Kushelev-Bezborodko by architect E.Schmidt (1859). Credit: European University at St Petersburg. Free Art License. Last Friday, Russia’s state education watchdog Rosobrnadzor suspended all education activities at the European University at St Petersburg. The university’s educational license has been suspended, meaning that some 200 of its MA and doctoral students might be left in limbo, with two equally unattractive options available to them: a transfer to a different school — or giving up on their theses altogether. 

A private school, the European University (EUSP) is possibly Russia’s best postgraduate school in social sciences and the humanities. Involved in a dense network of international research projects, the university’s staff and students contribute regularly to leading academic journals; their names are well-known to Palgrave, Sage and Cambridge University Press editors; their conferences are attended by scholars and practitioners of the highest rank. 

Indeed, back in the early 2000s, I was a sociology postgrad at the rival Saint Petersburg State University, and I managed to apply for and win my first research grant solely by spending hours at the EUSP’s library, teaching myself the basics of academic writing. Unlike the musty shelves of my own alma mater, which, alas, contained little more than rancid Soviet textbooks, the EUSP had the American Journal of Sociology stacked in neat piles, publications in gender studies and a range of Judith Butler’s works. These treasures were particularly precious because almost all of them were contributed to the library by the university staff personally.

These books were selected thoughtfully, with one pressing imperative in mind: knowledge must be disseminated, it must be passed on to students and to everyone else who wants to have it. This is precisely the imperative that is now put under threat, with EUSP’s educational license announced invalid, a blow that hits the very core of the university’s ethics and its identity: 

“We do not want to turn into a think tank, a purely research organisation. That would be inconceivable to us.” Mikhail Lurye, Professor at the Department of Anthropology

Like always in similar situations, most experts are preoccupied with the question: “Who is to blame?”. Given that the university actively conducts and promotes research in spheres which are not exactly welcome in the current Russian political climate (such as LGBT studies, law administration and human rights), few observers doubt that the reasons for the situation with the EU have a clear political nature. The fact that the EU was on the verge of being shut down back in 2008 (on the premise that the university’s building — a gorgeous, if somewhat dilapidated, 19th century palazzo — was not “fire safe”) certainly adds credibility to this interpretation. 

Another aspect of the current conflict between the EU and Rosobrnadzor in support of political motivation is the fact that most of the “flaws” in the educational process detected in 2016 concern the university’s Department of Political Science and Sociology. The department, ostensibly, does not have enough “practicing” political scientists to comply with state regulations

EUSP's home in St Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons / EUSP. The St Petersburg branch of the opposition Yabloko Party announced the suspension of the university’s educational license to be “a yet another reactionary, witch-hunting attack meant to establish ideological monopoly in science and education”. The series of extraordinary investigations undertaken by Rosobrnadzor into the university over the summer were initiated by the Russian parliament’s greatest reactionary, senator Vitaly Milonov.

Milonov, who is infamous for his marches against gay rights, immigration and abortions, filed a court complaint against the European University in July 2016. According to university officials, this complaint contained statements that were either deliberately false (like the fact that students were paid scholarship in foreign currency, in cash), or required a thorough inspection by state authorities. And thus, the inspections started — and continued throughout the year, interfering in research and teaching. 

No society can develop successfully by simply producing knowledge, no matter how refined and advanced. Knowledge cannot and should not be kept in closed laboratories

What followed next, was a tragic, unstoppable proliferation of bureaucratic absurdity, best outlined in the university’s own official statement and an analytical essay by Dmitry Butrin on InLiberty

The investigation into EUSP’s educational process has reached a truly kafkaesque scale as the news of EU’s license suspension broke out, and it has become apparent that no one in the highest echelons of power — except, perhaps, Milonov himself — is willing to have the university closed. President Putin, Vice-Prime Minister Olga Golodets and Education Minister Olga Vasilieva have made statements in favour of supporting the university, and Rosobrnadzor is now under pressure to find a way out of the bureaucratic trap they have created for themselves. 

Some mass media present the EU as already closed down (or at least under threat of closure), but the suspension of the university’s educational license does not prevent research from being carried out, along with scheduled public events. While negotiations with Rosobrnadzor are carried out, the university is holding a seminar on the poetry of Sergey Shnurov, the  front man of Leningrad, the band infamous for its usage of taboo lexicon and overt promotion of equally taboo behaviour (pissing on walls, for example). 

The university building remains open, professors can continue meeting with their students and having conversations on most intellectual subjects — as long as they do not engage in formal teaching. 

I can chat with my student about the theory we had discussed the last seminar, and we can discuss their thesis at length, however, we are not allowed to engage in ‘educational process’, and this very term is subject to interpretation. Who is to decide when I am ‘teaching’ and when it is just intellectual conversation? In the worst case, someone can submit to a complain to the court, and it will be up to the court to decide.” Mikhail Lurye, Department of Anthropology.

Students and professors will just keep seeing each other at the University. It is not about teaching, it is about our natural, human relationships with each other.” A graduate student who requested to not be called by his name. 

The blurred line between “natural human relationships” and “teaching” is, however, very precarious — and crossing it may, indeed, cause further conflicts with Rosobrnadzor. These concerns are grave to the point that the university administration has asked students to remove all humorous speculations about “visiting their professors at home” or “grabbing drinks with their supervisors” from social networks. If a new theory is to be born in a bar, it is better that the bureaucrats be the last to find out.

Solidarity between students and professors is one of the main features of the university’s atmosphere. And still, the empathy academics feel for their PhD students cannot prevent the simple fact that the license suspension will affect professors and students very differently. The university academics I spoke to — professors at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, as well as the Department of Anthropology — speculate that their scholarly projects will not be affected directly. Formally, research can continue — but with one amendment: 

“If the educational license is revoked, it will inevitably affect our research. Plenty of our students are involved in research projects along with their professors and supervisors. In such cases, their fieldwork is crucial to studies the university carries out as a whole. As professors, we learn from what our students do. The theses written here are not just qualification papers, they are real contributions to the academic research and are of great value.” 

Should EUSP’s license be suspended, its 200 graduate students will be hit hardest. In accordance with law, students may apply for transfers to other graduate schools with comparable programmes. The only problem — and a tragic hallmark of Russia’s educational system — is that there are no postgraduate programs comparable to those on offer at the EUSP. Several current EUSP students I spoke to stated that they’ll never accept a transfer: they would rather dump their dissertations altogether. 

The case of the European University is a yet another insight into the ways Russia’s administrative system destroys every form of civil tradition, community and interaction that isn’t directly established “from above” 

There are two reasons for such a decisive rejection. The first reason is purely academic. No other school can offer the level of excellence achieved at the EU through years of training and publishing. Although the Higher School of Economics and St Petersburg State University — schools that at least formally can be compared to the EU in terms of their agenda in the social sciences and humanities — have prominent scholars in their staff, neither can boast the EU’s interdisciplinary team, which is capable of producing a whole school of thinking rather than individual research projects.

“You’ve got to understand what EU is about. People who come to study here, they want to do real research, to move on with an academic career internationally. With few exceptions, there are no other Russian schools where these ambitions can be realised.” Maxim Alyukov, a PhD student at the Department of Political Science and Sociology.

The second reason the students are not willing to be transferred is more materialist. No other grad school, no matter how well-equipped and staffed, will be able to accept a large number of new students for state-sponsored tuition. Even if individual students may opt for a transfer, they’ll have to bear the costs out of their own pocket — in contrast to personal scholarships they were awarded in the EU. 

EU students are resolute in defending their school and their right to study there:

“Solidarity among students is very high. It is not the first time the University is facing pressure, we had the ‘firemen crisis‘ in 2008 and we learnt from it. Back then a mass media and a protest campaign were initiated and this history remains a source of identity for many of students even now, although most of them did not participate in those events directly. The end of the ‘firemen crisis‘ is now celebrated as University Day. I don’t think that something has changed in this respect. If the authorities do not handle the situation officially, by administrative measures, the students will protest.” Maxim Alyukov. 

Currently, Moscow City Arbitration Court has issued the EU with temporary permission to continue with all educational activities until the next court session on 11 January, where the university’s claim against not fulfilling the instructions of Rosobrnadzor will be considered. The suspension was, then, suspended. In the meantime, the university will get back behind the desk, as the official statement from 13 December states. However, the situation is far from resolved. As the university’s statement claims: 

“Regardless of how the situation with our university resolves itself, we must bear in mind that what we are observing is not a problem of one individual university, but a systematic problem our society faces at different levels and different spheres. This situation is exemplary of administrative failures in state control mechanisms and their estrangement from public interest.” 

No society can develop successfully by simply producing knowledge, no matter how refined and advanced. Knowledge cannot and should not be kept in closed laboratories. Instead, it must be passed on and disseminated.

These principles have guided the work of the European University since its foundation in 1994. These principles make the prospect of re-making of the university into a think tank (even one of the highest rank) inconceivable. The case of the European University is a yet another insight into the ways Russia’s administrative system destroys every form of civil tradition, community and interaction that isn’t directly established “from above”.

However, being a school characterised not only by an extraordinary level of academic performance, but also extraordinary ethical principles, the EU is fighting back in ways many of us can learn from, with solidarity and courage guiding it through crisis. In the future, perhaps such crash courses in civil heroism will be obsolete, replaced by a “normal” study plan — with the American Journal of Sociology, queer studies and Judith Butler the subject of everyday debates.

 

About the author

Polina Aronson is Debate Editor at oDR. A scholar and journalist from St Petersburg, she holds a PhD in sociology from Warwick University and is a 2013 winner of the Einstein Fellowship (Potsdam, Germany). She researches migration from the former USSR to west, in particular, identity and emotional ambivalences of belonging to several cultures at the same time. She is currently working on a book about ways people think of and express love in different cultures.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.