A world-class education How the Russian state strives for global academic recognition while undercutting its universities at every step

Vladimir Putin in Novosibirsk at a session of the Presidential Council on Science and Education dedicated to the “global competitiveness of Russian science” on February 2, 2018.Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant

Academic rights and freedoms were among the few achievements won by Russia’s democratizing turn in the 1990s, even as government funding plummeted. Now the state has returned to the academy, aiming to make it world-class. In an essay for Meduza’s Ideas section, sociologist Dmitry Dubrovsky explains why such a goal is incompatible with a repressive stance seeking to limit contacts with the global academic community. 

Maxim Trudolyubov, Meduza’s Ideas section editor

It’s not uncommon in Russia for the state to pull in opposite directions — at once pursuing development and stymying it with its own actions. This contradiction is clearest in the area of education. Vast sums are spent to pull Russian universities up in world rankings, academics are pushed to publish ever more often in international journals, and yet the state creates problems for those schools and scholars that are the most integrated into global academics. Security concerns always dominate over developmental goals. 

Of course, the security efforts and the development work are handled by different people, but the coordination in such a centralized state happens behind the scenes. 

In this piece, Dmitry Dubrovsky speaks about academic rights and freedoms and especially human rights in the context of cultural and social diversity. Just recently, Dmitry was forced to leave the Smolny College of Liberal Arts when the school refused to renew his contact. 

Science as a source of liberty

In the USSR, any scholarly work happened under the tight control of the state. Higher education was crafted to serve the Soviet modernizing project with two purposes in mind: achieving technological progress (especially in a military-industrial sense) and to form the “new Soviet man.” 

As a result, academic freedoms were a rare privilege afforded only to a small circle of insiders until the 1990s. 

A sliver of Soviet scholars — not more than 7–8 percent — could enjoy some independence in deciding the direction of their research. Leaders of the Soviet Academy of Sciences reluctantly had to agree to this; party bosses simply lacked an understanding of what needed to be done to advance military-industrial technology. 

An even smaller group of scientists — those with global reputations — could afford some privileges that could charitably be called academic freedoms. Even during the Cold War, exchange and cooperation with the outside world never stopped. Instead, it was strictly controlled by party organs, the KGB, and the state itself. And yet some select segments of the academy got to evade that control. This state of exception gave rise to some limited, quasi-democratic norms — for instance, the elections of rectors and deans. 

Andrei Sakharov speaks at the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union on June 9, 1989.Andrei Sakharov speaks at the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union on June 9, 1989.Valery Khristoforov, Igor Zotin / TASS

Even such limited freedom meant that its beneficiaries emerged to lay the groundwork for the Soviet human rights movement. In the final democratically-elected Congress of People’s deputies, academics and cultural figures occupied nearly a quarter of the seats. It was no coincidence that most chose to align themselves with the democratic opposition. 

The Soros connection

The realities of Soviet science changed dramatically with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Russia’s academic institutions found themselves both with newfound autonomy and a sharp drop in government funding. Still, enterprising academics strengthened their networks and forged new relationships. The ever-controversial American financier George Soros played a pivotal role with his Open Society Institute. He actively supported Russian researchers and their projects, helping fund universities and publications. 

George Soros in the computer lab of a Kalinigrad university on October 12, 1999. George Soros in the computer lab of a Kalinigrad university on October 12, 1999. Igor Zarembo / TASS

Such a rapid globalizing of Russia’s higher education led to deep polarization among its academic community. A minority of academics began writing at global standards and conversing freely in foreign languages. At the same time, they were opposed by the majority of the scholarly community — long repressed and frustrated by economic crises and a sense of disrespect from the authorities. Many of them, notably from the humanities and social sciences, reminisced fondly about the Soviet period and its guaranteed standard of living. Researchers characterize this situation as a “defensive reaction” of Russia’s liberal arts establishment to an emerging inequality on the international academic market. 

As the Russian economy rebounded in the 2000s, the state regained its ability to influence research and education. In particular, the government invested heavily in the “5-100-2020 strategy” — an initiative to place Russia’s top five schools in the global top 100 by 2020. Though per the QS World University Rankings, only Moscow State University met this goal (87th place) while the rest got stuck along the way in the mid-300s. 

The government places great value on quantitative metrics of scholarship — for example, indices of how often a scientist is cited or the number of publications they have in prestigious journals. These are used as indicators of the “effectiveness” of scientific work, and they’re used to evaluate individuals and institutions alike. 

As a result, many of those who were heartened to see the state’s return to higher education found themselves harmed the most by this obsession with international, mostly Anglophone, recognition. The “westernized” group of the academic community continues to drift further away from the pack. Meanwhile, the unhappy majority continues to be excluded from international scholarship while limiting their career prospects and their hope for reasonable pay. 

Still, even the scholarly output of the “advanced” minority has stagnated despite government largesse. While Russia’s contribution to global publications grew strongly through the 1990s, Russia has long stayed at 12th-13th in world rankings for many years. In 2016, for instance, Russia’s number of publications in international journals was 10 times smaller than that of the US and China. The bulk of renowned Russian scholarship is concentrated in the “hard” sciences — a legacy from Soviet times that lives on today. 

The return of the “first departments” 

So what’s wrong with Russian higher education? While the state resumed the flow of funds to science and education, it kept a high degree of control over their activities. The relationship between the state and the academy remained unchanged from the Soviet era (researchers describe a unilateral flow of information, in which the government largely issues orders). This fits the state’s goals of preserving the Soviet-style structure where university education, research, and innovation are detached from industry, where discoveries are applied. These functions are not supposed to work autonomously in a unified system; they should not be creating the principles by which they work or the research problems they seek to solve. 

With their re-emergence from the post-Soviet thaw, security institutions hurriedly began “resisting the West,” which, in the intelligence community’s understanding, is fomenting “creeping aggression” towards Russia and using science and education as a vector of attack. As a result, Russian universities’ autonomy was curtailed, academic councils lost much of their power, and elections of deans and rectors became mere formalities.   

President Vladimir Putin and Moscow State University Rector Victor SadovnichyPresident Vladimir Putin and Moscow State University Rector Victor SadovnichyDmitry Astakhov / TASS

So-called “first departments” returned to institutions of higher learning. These vestiges of the Soviet period were responsible for exerting government control over a given organization. A strengthened export control law in 2005 made it easy for scientists to be charged with industrial espionage for contracts with foreigners, even if the contracts had government approval. As a result, politically disloyal educators came under greater scrutiny while a new espionage panic rocked Russia’s scientific community. 

Likewise, the authorities’ recurring desire to clamp down on foreigners working in state universities has had a chilling effect on their internationalization efforts. Few universities are interested in developing global projects whose fate is unpredictable even in the short term.

A few examples: Nizhny Novgorod University fired its “innovation prorector,” venture capitalist Kendrick White; administrators at St. Petersburg’s State University expelled German student Lukas Latz for interviewing environmental protestors as part of his research; and sociologist Karin Kleman was branded a “threat to [Russia’s] national security.”

All this creates a sense around the world that cooperating with Russia in academic or scholarly ways is a toxic and dangerous activity. Over the past 10 years, the number of international students in Russia from Europe and the U.S. plummeted, and they have largely been replaced by exchange students from China and Vietnam. 

Foreign agents, unwelcome organizations, and plain old enemies

Legislation about “foreign agents” and “unwelcome organizations” dealt a serious blow to research and academic exchange. A range of non-governmental scholarly organizations and institutes were labeled as such, including those that were at the forefront of Russia’s global academic turn. Examples of these include the European University in St. Petersburg, Bard College (branded as an unwelcome organization), the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (awaiting consequences for working with Bard), and the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (nearly lost its accreditation). 

These very flagships of Russian education were the same ones that had a shot of getting into the global ratings that occupy the minds of Russia’s authorities. They’ve been involved in many high-profile scandals in recent years: from pressure on the European university to recurring crises at the Higher School of Economics (once considered a bastion of free thought). Through their deep global partnerships, these institutions always distinguished themselves with fierce independence and liberal approaches — and they’re the biggest targets of the state’s harsh and censorious restrictions. 

A rally in defense of the European University in St. PetersburgA rally in defense of the European University in St. PetersburgAlexander Koryakov / Kommersant

A university’s spot in the rankings depends in large part on activity in international publications, but also on the number of international students and instructors. As international contact is ever more restricted, the consequences seem obvious. Most damaging is a law about “educational activities” that obliges universities to seek government approval to invite foreign specialists. 

Meanwhile, the Bologna Process designed to bring Russia into the European educational system has stalled. Though its most visible reform has been to delineate between undergraduate and graduate studies, its overarching purpose is to harmonize the flow of academic information with the rest of Europe and to liberalize university life. Progress on these goals has been glacial. 

Just as “American infiltration” was feared in the Soviet era, today’s foreign and domestic policy converges to defend “traditional” values from the “West’s pestilent influence.” Unsurprisingly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Essay by Dmitry Dubrovsky

Translation by Nikita Buchko


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