The war with Ukraine has drawn a line under the attempt of Russian universities to be free. As early as the fall of 2022, they will effectively be unable to offer students a higher education in social sciences and humanities that would be valued outside of Russia. Freedom of research is also over. The arrest of the RANEPA rector Vladimir Mau showed that even a soft opposition to the Kremlin is now unacceptable. Boris Grozovsky explains why the logic of growing authoritarianism required those steps and what it means for the prospects of higher education in Russia.
The government's desire to “regulate” education grew tangibly throughout the 2010s. The political leaders, Vladimir Putin and his friends, were gradually aging, while the level of support for the regime among the 18-25 year old cohort of “near freshman-aged” kids was in tangible decline. It is not even a question of active protest participants or organizers. The most unpleasant thing for the regime is that the agenda of its political opponents is ethically and aesthetically consonant with the sentiments of 20-year-olds. It is contemporary and it speaks their language, unlike the Kremlin's archaic agenda, which appeals to the ideas, values, and mental skills of a much older generation. The aging, increasingly closed-off authoritarian political regime cannot offer its “children and grandchildren” neither a coherent strategy for social mobility nor a positive and peaceful image of the future.
The oppositional agenda, unlike the archaic Kremlin agenda, is ethically and aesthetically consonant with the sentiments of young people in their 20s
In the medium term, however, the stability of an aging autocracy critically depends on the sentiments of 20-year-olds, not on those of pensioners. That is why the authorities have made it a strategic priority to turn the universities from “hotbeds of free-thinking” into controlled “budgetary institutions.” The more so because there were few such “hotbeds” - I could count them on my two hands.
In the 1990s, the authorities were much freer than they are now. It is hard to imagine, but back in 1998, the Congress of the Russian Union of University Presidents threatened the government with widespread student and teacher protests over salary arrears and scholarship delays, while the RSUH (Russian State University for Humanities), headed by historian and politician Yuri Afanasyev, was revising the ideas about what happened to Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Purging the education system of “seditious” ideas and establishing control over students’ sentiments required a lot of effort and was a gradual process.
The process was completed by 2022, when the higher education system was thoroughly purged: heads of universities became de facto state officials, and departments in charge of state security were restored and granted expanded rights. Natalia Forrat, a researcher with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, says that by providing more funding for universities and the entire public sector since 2005, the state has subjugated the universities and undermined their political solidarity and autonomy.
University rectors have really joined the system. This has been backed up by big money: the income gap between university administrators and faculty is measured by a factor of twenty: the state spends a lot of money to pay for loyalty. Since 2005, the share of state financing in the revenues of higher education institutions has exceeded the revenues from fee-based education. Initially, state control of the universities was about “evaluating whether state funds are spent effectively,” but gradually extended to education and research processes: the state as a “customer” was acquiring a taste for it.
After receiving money, the universities lost what little self-governance they had been enjoying. Since the early 2000s, elections of deans and vice-deans have been practically abolished, and in 2015, most of the universities replaced rector elections with appointments. In richer universities, rectors are more often appointed than elected. The role of academic councils at universities is decreasing, and heads of departments are now appointed by the rector in most cases. The same “power vertical” as in the other state-financed institutions has been set up in universities, and “academic freedom” has become an empty shell.
Under Putin, the vertical of power has been set up in universities. “Academic freedom” has become an empty shell
More and more scientists are becoming involved in the ideological service of the authoritarian state. They write expert reports for the courts, find extremism in works of art, literature, and scientific papers, participate in the creation of all kinds of security doctrines and patriotic education strategies, look for the spiritual foundations of sovereignty, justify the need to protect the state from external threats, including information threats, compose concepts of “spiritual security.”
Regional universities were completely put under “control” back in the first half of the 2010s. The St. Petersburg State University, the alma mater of the current political elite, can be considered a model: back in 2013 it banned professors from giving comments and expert opinions without the permission of the rector and required them to notify the rector of all publications and part-time work, and then banned part-time work altogether and got rid of politically unreliable scientists. Beginning in 2018, the university started to fine and then expel students for participating in protest rallies (in 2021, it became a common practice for other universities as well).
After the “cleansing” in the RSUH, created by historian Yuri Afanasyev, and the tightening of control in regional universities, the number of Russian universities with at least a small degree of freedom has shrunk to a handful: the Higher School of Economics, the European University of St. Petersburg, the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (and individual schools within RANEPA), and the Smolny Institute of Free Sciences and Arts. Each of these projects, with the exception of the European University, was a “pocket of effectiveness”, that is, a project that was financed and supported as a matter of priority and implemented under special conditions and rules, often enjoying some kind of preferences, with a much greater level of autonomy. The practice of creating such institutions - “success stories” - was described by Professor Vladimir Gelman of the St. Petersburg European University.
In recent years, the state has taken almost complete control of the situation in universities. Only the European University of St. Petersburg has yet to see an attack by state agencies, although attempts were made to close it back in 2008 and 2016-2017 (see here and here). The attempt by the Smolny Institute of Free Sciences and Arts, patronized by Alexei Kudrin, to secede from St. Petersburg State University proved extremely traumatic and displeased the University rector, Nikolai Kropachev. It put an end to a decades-long collaboration with the Bard College in New York City, together with which Smolny had been developing one of the few liberal arts and sciences programs in Russia. The General Prosecutor declared the educational and scientific organization, as far removed from politics as possible, undesirable, and Smolny had to abandon its intention to separate itself from St. Petersburg State University. In May, Kudrin stepped down as Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and in July he resigned from SPbU altogether. In fact, the siloviki closed this educational project, deeming it ideologically hostile.
The HSE was actually brought to the “common denominator” in 2014-2019. The Higher School of Economics put up strong resistance, it had many pockets of freedom in its research divisions, faculties, departments, and student organizations. The departure of instructors and researchers that irritated the authorities the most (Yevgeniya Albats, Alexander Kynev, Nikolai Petrov, Elena Panfilova, Sergei Aleksashenko, Vladislav Inozemtsev, Sergei Medvedev, Hasan Guseinov, Ella Paneyakh, Kirill Martynov, Viktor Gorbatov, Sergey Erofeev, Roman Bevzenko, Sergey Savelyev, Artem Karapetov, Elena Lukyanova, Irina Alebastrova, Tatiana Levina, Ella Rossman, Daria Serenko, Ilya Guryanov, Sergey Pashin, Gennady Esakov, etc.), the refusal to admit Yegor Zhukov, a defendant in the “Moscow case,” to a master's program, and denying DOXA the status of a student organization - these and many other stories changed the situation at the HSE. There are still a few researchers at the Higher School of Economics, but their departments have been liquidated. The situation at the Higher School of Economics is now like everywhere else - with rare, alas, exceptions. Simultaneously, the HSE began to actively recruit political scientists with extensive experience of cooperation with the presidential administration.
“The cherry on the cake was the replacement of Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov with the “technocrat” Nikita Anisimov, followed by a shake-up of vice-rectors and heads of departments. Kuzminov did practically everything that his supervisors asked him to do. But even that was not enough for him to keep his post. It can be assumed that Kuzminov's resignation, presented as voluntary, was a payment for the absence of criminal cases, something that has been shaking up the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka) and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration for several months now.
A large group of researchers and professors from leading universities left Russia after the war began.
At the same time, more and more restrictions are being imposed on the work of those who stayed. Silent professors and students are in demand. They must not criticize the authorities, much less express their position at political rallies. In December 2021, Tamara Morshchakova, a retired judge of the Constitutional Court and a professor at the Higher School of Economics, said in December 2021 commenting on the resignation of a prominent lawyer and retired federal judge Sergei Pashin from the Higher School of Economics: “As soon as you start expressing your criticism in a legal review, you are immediately deemed as trying to influence government decisions. And that, as we know, has been declared a political activity.”
The government needs silent professors and students
Researchers still working at the Higher School of Economics, the European University, Shaninka, and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration have to take ever greater precautions in order to avoid provoking an attack from both from inside and outside the government. Now they have to think twice before entering into an agreement with a foreign organization. Scientific and analytical cooperation is also hampered. The research centers that in the 2000s and 2010s were actively planning reforms in various sectors of the country's socio-economic life have now been muted or have been speaking out in hushed tones: reports or analytical papers that are too loud can provoke the wrath of the higher-ups. And the demand for such research on the part of decision-makers has fallen to almost zero.
Another bad news for researchers in social and economic sciences in 2021 was the merger of the two foundations issuing research grants - the Russian Science Foundation and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. As a result of the merger, the social sciences and humanities suffered: they have been receiving dozens of times fewer approved grants than the natural sciences. The Russian Foundation for Basic Research specialized in small grants in the social sciences and humanities, while the Russian Foundation for Basic Research focused on large grants to natural science projects. Now it will be even more difficult for the former, especially young scientists, to obtain funding.
Cooperation between Russian and foreign scientists has become very difficult. Some researchers working in Russia have been denied entry visas. Others, sensing the hostile environment, are afraid to come themselves. For example, sociologist Carine Clément, author of “Patriotism from Below,” has been banned from entering Russia altogether. “Today you read structuralists, tomorrow you record a YouTube video, and the day after tomorrow you go out on the street to prove that you exist and can still act,” sociologist Konstantin Gaase wrote at the time. “The real enemy is not the professional oppositionist, but a girl with a volume of Bourdieu or a boy with a volume of Arendt under his arm. Who needs a science so dangerous for the state of minds?”
Could it be that repression threatens only the social sciences and humanities, while in mathematics and the natural sciences one can work as if nothing had happened? It could, if there is consent to a gag in the mouth. In July 2022, an International Mathematics Congress was to be held in St. Petersburg. More than a hundred Russian mathematicians called for a postponement of the congress until the release of Azat Miftakhov, who had been sentenced for taking part in a street rally. But in the end the congress was canceled by the war in Ukraine. More and more Russian scientists are being prosecuted in far-fetched cases of treason - such cases are filed primarily against natural scientists. In June 2022, the FSB arrested Novosibirsk physicist Dmitry Kolker on charges of treason. Immediately after his transportation to Moscow, Kolker died - he had stage four cancer.
The goal of the education and science overseers is not to keep out individual scientists or trash a specific university. They need professors and students “not to muddy the waters,” “not to create problems,” and not to produce opponents of the regime. It can only be achieved by preventing Russia's incorporation into world science and by strengthening “domestic science.” The one that explores the “spiritual foundations of sovereignty,” while studying philosophers and sociologists not from the originals, but from textbooks written by Russian authors. This is exactly how the social sciences and humanities were structured in the USSR, and nothing prevents them from being structured the same way again. It proved impossible to defend the autonomy of knowledge in the midst of the reign of terror, either in the USSR or in modern times: the Russian government is too biased towards education and science.
And towards students as well. The case against DOXA will soon be a year old: the editors of the magazine on university life and science are being accused of engaging minors in rallies. The one-minute video which was later deleted, the 212 volumes of the criminal case, the absence of victims - the demonstrative and cynical case is designed to show only one thing: unlike the 2010s, in the 2020s the authorities will not tolerate any street activity.
The case against DOXA shows that the authorities will not tolerate any street activity
This is precisely why the universities, which only a few years ago were relatively tolerant of student protests, in 2021 sought to expel the most politically unreliable students as quickly as possible.
The Russian authorities reacted in a similar way to the revolutionary sentiments of students 120 years ago. Only the radicalization of the political situation before 1905 forced the authorities to reinstate partial autonomy in the universities. Could this be the genetic memory of political regimes? After all, it was the perennial student unrest that was the prologue to the Russian Revolution.
And it was precisely this that originally motivated the arrival of security officials at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. Back in the fall of 2020, the Nikulino Prosecutor's Office began looking for unreliable students and faculty at the university - those who “form an opinion about the need to change the government,” participate in the preparation of research commissioned by foreign NGOs aimed at “undermining the economic foundations of Russia under the pretext of protecting the environment,” do not recognize the annexation of Crimea and support sanctions against Russia, criticize “the social and economic situation and educational system of our country,” falsify history, and take part in selecting promising students to be invited to study at foreign universities, and destroy “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values”. At the same time, the investigative department of the FSB opened and investigated a case for salary fraud.
Perhaps the success of those efforts encouraged the law enforcement agencies to attack Shaninka: in recent years it was operating as a division of the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. From the point of view of the security agencies, its rector, economist Vladimir Mau, an associate of Yegor Gaidar and Alexei Ulyukayev, who often advises the government, has “kept under his wing” at the RANEPA and Shaninka an impressive number of researchers hostile to the political regime. I think this, rather than financial considerations, is what motivated the harshness of the “raid” on the Shaninka rector Sergei Zuev, who is actually being murdered in pre-trial detention. Shaninka is not ready to kowtow. When in February 2022 a dean's office employee helped detain student Maria Tillert, the university administration apologized to her and launched an internal proceeding against the “police support volunteer”.
The arrest of the RANEPA Rector Vladimir Mau may be related to his unwillingness, like Kuzminov's and Kudrin's, to “close the project” and completely start playing by the rules that are being imposed by the FSB handlers. Gentle and ingratiating, Mau mostly did what he was told to do. Even too much. But he was careful not to “give up his own people.” There are still quite a few professors and researchers working at the RANEPA and Shaninka who are disliked by the FSB because of their anti-war and anti-dictatorship views. The countless advice Mau gave to the government no longer outweighs the harm that the security services believe is being done to the political regime by disloyal faculty and students. The political regime has entered a phase in which loyalty “with reservations” no longer suits it - it demands a complete merger with the government policy.
Such a situation is obviously fraught with years of unfreedom for the universities, and an iron curtain between “domestic” science and world science. There can be no free universities in an unfree country. And for the courageous scientists who remain in Russia and defend their right to a political stance, the coming years will be very difficult.