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Textbook monopoly behavior Meduza takes a closer look at the recent arrest of former deputy education minister Marina Rakova — and the multi-billion ruble publishing company her plans threatened to disrupt

Source: Meduza

From graduating from the prestigious Bauman Moscow State Technical University to serving as Russia’s deputy education minister and Sberbank’s vice president, Marina Rakova has had an impressive career as a public figure. Nonetheless, on October 7, she was sent to a pre-trial detention center on charges of large-scale embezzlement. Rakova’s former Sberbank colleagues Maxim Inkin and Yevgeny Zak were also detained, as well as former Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences (“Shaninka”) director Kristina Kryuchkova and rector Sergey Zuyev. Meduza explains the charges — and how they’re connected to recent attempts by Rakova and others to restructure Russia’s education system.

In late August, Education Minister Sergey Kravtsov gave President Vladimir Putin a status update at a meeting of Russia’s State Council Presidium. He spoke about the construction of new schools, the establishment of hot meal initiatives for schoolchildren, and the creation of new children’s technoparks called Quantoriums.

Kravtsov found plenty to boast about. “135 Quantoriums have already been built,” he said, “and by 2024, there will be more than 400.” Just a month later, however, Marina Rakova, who originally came up with the idea for Quantoriums and oversaw their construction throughout Russia, was accused of embezzling 50 million rubles ($715 thousand) through state contracts.

The accusations of fraud were unrelated to Kravtsov’s work with the Quantoriums; at that point, Rakova no longer worked in the education ministry or oversaw the parks. Now, she was the vice president of Sberbank, where her ideas and responsibilities were even bigger — she was working on a digital platform for Russia’s schools that, among other things, threatened a textbook company that rakes in more than 30 billion rubles ($429 million) per year.

“No one’s disputing that the work was completed”

Marina Rakova was interrogated on September 29 in her home in the Moscow suburbs but wasn’t immediately detained. She gathered her things, turned off her phone, and went into hiding.

Later that day, investigators arrested Rakova’s Sberbank colleagues Maxim Inkin and Yevgeny Zak, along with former Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences (“Shaninka”) director Kristina Kryuchkova, on the same charges of embezzlement through state contracts. A week later, on October 6, they arrested Rakova’s common-law husband Artur Stetsenko.

After Stetsenko’s arrest, Rakova, who had been in hiding for a week, went to the Moscow Police’s Main Investigation Department and turned herself in. On October 7, Moscow's Tverskoy Court arrested Rakova for two months. On October 12, Shaninka rector Sergey Zuyev was detained on the same charges; the following day, he was put on house arrest.

Marina Rakova (in the back on the left) and her lawyer Yulia Novichkova in Moscow’s Tverskoy Court. October 7, 2021
Tverskoy Court / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

The basis of the case against all five defendants consisted of an expert analysis conducted by the Russian Academy of Education (RAO). The experts examined two contracts between the Foundation for New Forms of Education Development (FNFRO) and Shaninka for the development of a new project called “Teacher of the Future.” The FNFRO is a complete subsidiary of Russia’s Education Ministry. Marina Rakova was its director until 2018, and it was in that capacity that she oversaw the establishment of the Quantoriums and similar projects.

According to the RAO analysis, the work conducted within the bounds of the “Teacher of the Future” project didn't meet the requirements outlined in the project’s terms of reference, and according to Forbes, when the results were delivered to the client (the FNFRO itself), they were functionally unworkable.

According to the BBC Russian Service, the authors of the report, which is referred to as the “document research reference” in the case itself, the experts in question are employees of the RAO Education Expertise Center, which analyzes textbooks: former National University of Science and Technology (MISiS) deputy director Alexey Ganeyev, “Professionals in the Field of Educational Innovation” head Natalia Bulayeva, and International Academy of Pedagogical Education Sciences member correspondent Vera Checheleva.

The flaws identified by the report’s authors include missing citations, a lack of “practical orientedness,” and a lack of criteria for “effectiveness” in the “effective methods” section. In addition, according to the first contract, Shaninka was supposed to train a hundred teachers from 11 different regions of Russia. But the experts claim that the university’s records don’t indicate what regions their participants were from, which means that the documents “make it impossible to confirm that the requirements [outlined in the contract] were fulfilled,” according to the BBC Russian Service.

“At the same time, nobody’s disputing that the work was completed,” said a source familiar with the case. Nonetheless, all five of the defendants are being charged with embezzling 21 million rubles ($300 thousand) — the amount the FNFRO managed to transfer to Shaninka.

After Marina Rakova left her post as head of the FNFRO, her successors terminated the contract with Shaninka. The fraud complaint was actually filed by FNFRO acting director Yulia Ponomareva, though that wasn’t until after someone from the Internal Ministry had already commissioned the RAO analysis. The investigation hasn’t revealed exactly who in the Ministry made this decision or why, but Ponomareva, for her part, agrees with its conclusions.

Meanwhile, the RAO is currently being led by Olga Vasilyeva, former Education Minister and Marina Rakova’s former boss.

“I will destroy you”

“She’s terribly unpleasant to interact with, but she does a lot of good.”

“She’s crazy.”

“She doesn’t listen to anybody, but she gets the job done.”

That’s how Marina Rakova’s previous coworkers and collaborators describe her.

What else do we know about Marina Rakova?

Marina Rakova was born on April 7, 1983, in the town of Gornyak in Altai Krai.

In 2002, when she was 19 years old, she graduated from Bauman Moscow State Technical University.

After that, she returned to Altai Krai and, according to SPARK Interfax data, led a tutoring and continuing education center called “Visiting a Fairy Tale.”

In 2014, she sent a proposal for a project called “A New Model for the System of Additional Education for Children” to the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, which funds children’s technoparks. Her proposal was accepted, and in 2016, Rakova became head of the planning office for a project called “Accessible Additional Education for Children,” and in 2018, she became an administrator for the project.

In October 2018, she became the deputy education minister.

In March 2020, she left that position to become vice president of Sberbank and to head the bank’s Digital Education Platforms division.

It took Vasilyeva a while to warm up to Rakova, according to a source close to the Education Ministry; at first, Rakova effectively forced herself on Vasilyeva.

A source from the Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI), with which Marina Rakova first launched her Quantorium project, told Meduza that Rakova enjoyed supported from people on variety of levels — from First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov, who originally created the ASI, to presidential administration employees.

Marina Rakova and Sergey Sobyanin at the Quantorium technopark in the Technopolis Moscow complex
Alexander Shcherbak / TASS

Rakova was fiercely independent; according to Meduza’s source, she had “progressive” views that conflicted with Vasilyeva’s. Often, this led to direct conflicts. “[Education] Ministry employees said that she might shout ‘I will destroy you’ right in the hallway,” said a source close to that Ministry. Meduza asked Olga Vasilyeva for comment through the RAO’s press service but did not hear back.

And Rakova wasn’t afraid to run up against the Ministry of Education’s most important subentity: a publishing company called Prosveshcheniye, which found an ally in Vasilyeva. From 2013 to 2017, more than 20% of the publisher was owned by billionaire and friend of Putin Arkady Rotenberg.

Initially, the company belonged to St. Petersburg businessmen Vladimir Uzun and Oleg Tkach, who became a senator in the early 2000s. Uzun continues to head Prosveshcheniye’s board of directors, but the company’s current ownership structure is kept under wraps.

Olga Vasilyeva became education minister in 2016, and though she was widely expected to leave the government in 2018, she managed to stay on board. In May 2018, Putin divided the Ministry into two parts: the Science Ministry and the Education Ministry. The Science Ministry was put in charge of post-secondary institutions and scientific organizations, and the Education Ministry was left in charge of the country’s primary and secondary education.

By one account, Vasilyeva became the minister of education as a direct result of Prosveshcheniye’s lobbying. Until that point, the company was the largest textbook publisher on the market (in addition to providing school equipment and even sometimes building schools themselves) but wasn’t yet a monopoly. But it was Vasilyeva who made Prosveshcheniye into an almost complete monopoly.

Previously, Prosveshcheniye had shared the multi-hundred million dollar state textbook market with the publishing group Eksmo-ACT (or, more precisely, its subsidiary, Rossiyskiy Uchebnik). The Education Ministry regulated the industry by issuing lists of textbook recommendations; schools were only allowed to spend state money on the textbooks included on the list.

After becoming education minister, Vasilyeva removed almost all of Rossiyskiy Uchebnik’s publications from the list based on a recommendation from the RAO. According to Eksmo-ACT owner Oleg Novikov, the company’s sales dropped by 75 percent. To make things worse, Prosveshcheniye then filed a lawsuit against Rossiyskiy Uchebnik for 3.7 billion rubles ($52.6 million) for using the Federal State Education Standards trademark.

In the end, Novikov chose to sell Rossiyskiy Uchebnik, citing a “lack of understanding of the rules and a lack of consistency in [Education Ministry] operations.” He first sold it to a company called Rustitaninvest, but then it was acquired by Prosveshcheniye themselves. Just months later, the Education Ministry put the company’s textbooks back on the approved list. Prosveshcheniye was now an undisputed monopoly.

But that’s not Olga Vasilyeva’s only connection to Prosveshcheniye. Meduza has reported before how her sister Irina worked for the company.

Prosveshcheniye’s owners also wanted it to become the main equipment supplier for the country’s network of Quantoriums, which bought it for about 14 billion rubles ($200 million) in 2015, as well as for rural schools and various other projects, according to sources who spoke to The Bell. Rakova, however, resisted, advocating against the suppliers the publishing house lobbied for.

“Marina, inflexible as she was, started trying pretty hard to push Prosveshcheniye away. At the same time, though, I never saw anything self-serving about her actions: by the looks of it, she really did want to preserve competition in the market,” a business acquaintance of Rakova’s told The Bell.

In 2020, Olga Vasilyeva finally left the Education Ministry and was succeeded by Sergey Kravtsov. Her appointment to the Russian Academy of Education caused a backlash; multiple academics spoke out against it, ultimately causing the Academy to change its charter (which previously did not permit people from outside academia to serve). RAO member Alexander Asmolov claimed Vasilyeva’s appointment would bring a “return to the distant, archaic past.”

Vasilyeva managed to overcome the academics’ objections with the help of Prosveshcheniye, whose owners long had designs on the academy, which plays a central role in the school market, according to a source close to the Education Ministry. Prosveshcheniye also continued doing all it could to shore up its position in the market. For example, other than Vasilyeva, who led the RAO, former Prosveshcheniye manager Tatyana Sukhanova was put in charge of the RAO’s Institute for Strategy of Education Development.

Now, Prosveshcheniye and its subsidiaries make about 30 billion rubles ($426 million) a year (according to SPARK Interfax’s 2020 data) selling school textbooks, equipment, and related goods. Many of the textbooks the company sells were written in the 1980s; a partnership with Yandex, announced in 2017, that was supposed to result in an online platform for Russian schools, fizzled out.

In the spring of 2020, after her conflict with Prosveshcheniye escalated again, Marina Rakova left the Education Ministry to work for Sberbank.

The classroom of tomorrow

In March 2020, Rakova was appointed vice president of Sberbank. This made her in charge of the bank’s Digital Education Platform division, where she worked on SberClass, which was supposed to replace the country’s outdated physical textbooks.

Sberbank leader Herman Gref had long been interested in education reform. In 2017, he funded the construction of the “Khoroschola” school in Mnevniki; Sberbank has also opened a charity foundation called “Investment in the Future,” which helps fund school education. “In Gref’s view, our education system is in crisis; [he believes] we have an imitation education system, an imitation of increased requirements for teachers, and imitation exams,” said a source close to Sberbank.

Even before Rakova came on board, Sberbank was working on a digital platform for schools. According to a source close to the Education Ministry, Sberbank’s leaders have thought a lot about how to motivate students themselves — for example, students can now access a more in-depth curriculum in various subjects on the platform.

Sberbank has also invested heavily in the platform’s content, even hiring teachers and teams of writers to develop lesson plans and assignments. Technical exercises and competitions complement the content. SberClass now includes textbooks, exercises for students, and toolkits for teachers, “all in one place,” according to a source close to the bank. “With Rakova, the project started to develop with just unbelievable speed,” he said.

SberClass is now used by 2.5 thousand schools in 65 regions. It’s been praised by Vladimir Putin, and during the pandemic, Sberbank gave out 25 thousand devices that allow students to connect to SberClass through their televisions.

Meanwhile, Prosveshcheniye has also been trying to take things to the next level: in 2020, the publishing company started building schools in Nizhny Novgorod. They had plans to build them throughout the rest of the country, but needed funding. In May 2021, they found it: Sberbank, VEB.RF, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) each bought a 25-percent share in the company.

The Prosveshcheniye publishing company’s building on Krasnoproletarskaya Street in Moscow.
Anastasia Diyeva / TASS

Sberbank initially set its sights on full control of Prosveshcheniye, but according to a source close to the bank, Gref wasn’t able to negotiate successfully; as a result, the RDIF and VEB joined the deal. Each member got a 25-percent stake in the company and two votes on its board of directors. The publisher was valued at 108 billion rubles ($1.5 billion), and the three stakeholders paid 81 billion rubles ($1.15 billion) for their shares.

When Sberbank was still in talks with Prosveshcheniye about purchasing a majority stake in the company, there were press reports that Rakova would head the publisher after the deal went through. While that didn’t come to pass, Rakova does have a seat on the board of directors and has undeniable influence over the company’s work.

“One of the agreements was that [Prosveshcheniye board of directors chairman Vladimir] Uzun would be in charge of construction, and Rakova would be in charge of textbooks,” a source close to Sberbank told Meduza, describing some additional stipulations to the deal.

But Rakova’s ideas were at odds with Prosveshcheniye’s usual way of doing things: she wanted to implement more digital materials, while the publisher, used to dealing with physical textbooks, didn’t see how that could be lucrative.

“Prosveshcheniye has always been oriented towards making a profit,” said Meduza’s source. “Rakova was operating from a desire to help students, not to make money. As a result, she wanted to do things her own way and use digital wherever it was necessary and possible.”

“Basically, Prosveshcheniye doesn’t want to do anything, they’re still selling the same textbooks they’ve always sold. And since they have a monopoly, they can afford to do nothing,” said another source close to Sberbank. “It’s impossible to make them create new content; they’re unable and unwilling. With Rakova, there was some discussion about at least making some platform changes.”

But on the whole, Rakova’s proposals were not welcome at Prosveshcheniye. “They didn’t want Rakova bossing them around, and they didn’t hide it,” said a source close to Sberbank. “Despite the agreements made, [Prosveshcheniye’s leaders] later realized that textbooks are a business like anything else, and it’s a shame to give that over to a lowlife like Rakova. Meanwhile, Sberbank wanted to make her the head of Prosveshcheniye.”

Prosveshcheniye’s press service didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.

Three sources Meduza spoke to agreed that in the short term, Rakova’s actions threatened to hurt Prosveshcheniye’s main business — physical textbooks. In recent years, the company has repeatedly earned about 10 billion rubles annually from state textbook contracts. SberClass provided schools with its system for free and then filled the system with its own content.

And the pandemic only underscored SberClass’s value. “Over the course of the pandemic, many people offered their own ideas for schools, but it became clear that we were the best equipped, and this clearly scared some people. This led to a flurry of pressure on Sberbank and its top officials,” said a source close to Sber.

Gref still has big plans for SberClass. “The plan was to expand the platform into a digital mega-textbook,” said a source close to Sberbank.

In December 2020, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed an order to implement a digital education platform for Russian schools, and SberClass was slated to be one of the approved digital publishers — along with Prosveshcheniye, though the former would have a great deal more leverage.

The government has increasingly been taking concrete steps to digitize its education system: in August, the Education Ministry approved criteria for the examination of digital educational content. The same month, after a State Council meeting, Putin signed a decree on the use of state digital education resources in schools beginning in 2023.

Sources close to Sberbank and the Education Ministry told Meduza that Rakova has been a thorn in Prosveshcheniye’s side, with her visionary ideas about the digital future of education, her Sberbank projects, and her unpleasant personality.

“A lot of things came together — her conflict with Vasilyeva, the division and competition between SberClass and Prosveshcheniye. I think they decided to add Shaninka to the company, too, which Vasilyeva, obviously, didn’t like either — why wouldn’t they?” a source told Meduza.

On October 6, Rakova was fired from Sberbank. Natalia Zhuravleva replaced her as acting director of the Digital Education Platforms division.

“Now, it’s not clear what’s going to happen with SberClass, whether things will keep moving forward at the same pace,” a source close to Sberbank told Meduza. “I’ll put it this way — there are some signals pointing to things slowing down.” Several days later, the source added that there’s been “very strong pressure on the leadership” as a result of SberClass, but he didn’t specify what form that pressure has taken.

“Marina Nikolayevna [Rakova] aimed to start changing our country’s education system,” a source close to Sberbank told Meduza. “It’s not like it’s profitable for a publishing monopoly to give away ownership of its content, to make its educational materials accessible and free for all of the kids in the country. And what are the company’s owners supposed to do — just go home?”

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Story by Anastasia Yakoreva and Svetlana Reiter

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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