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‘It creates the intended effect — fear’ Russia's wartime crackdown on higher education

Source: Meduza
Marina Lystseva / TASS

The invasion of Ukraine had immediate consequences for Russia's higher education system. At first, foreign universities opted out of partnerships with Russian ones, teachers were forced to stay in Russia and give lectures “explaining” the war, and state propaganda began spreading stories of Russians being “persecuted” in Western universities. Soon, professors who managed to emigrate were declared “foreign agents,” and anonymous groups on social media began harassing students and university faculty who dared to oppose the war publicly. Together with Komi-based independent news outlet 7×7, Meduza took a close look at how higher education in Russia has changed since February 24.

‘They want professors within their reach’

Back in November 2021, the Russian Science and Education Ministry gave the country’s educational institutions a carte blanche to choose how they wanted to conduct their classes for the foreseeable future. Technical schools like Moscow State Technical University (MGTU) and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MFTI) generally decided to keep classes in person, while humanities schools like St. Petersburg State and the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences (“Shaninka”) moved classes online or to a hybrid format. In early 2022, about a month before Russia invaded Ukraine, Vedomosti reported that most universities were planning to continue on as they had been due to an increase in coronavirus cases.

In December 2021, a month after the Science and Education Ministry’s announcement, Higher School of Economics (HSE) Rector Nikita Anisimov signed an order to transition most classes back to an in-person format; lectures and seminars would return to the classroom, while intercampus courses would remain virtual (though even some of those later went back to in-person).

One Higher School of Economics (HSE) history professor, Dr. Dmitry Dubrovsky, told Meduza that he was effectively prevented from teaching remotely. When he contacted the university’s HR department for an explanation, he was told that his request to conduct classes online had been refused because of an invitation he had received to complete a fellowship at a British college. The document outlining the reasons explains that the entire university was transitioning to in-person learning, and Dubrovsky, who the document says was already participating in a fellowship at a British college, was “not nominated for election to the position of associate professor in the Public Policy Department.” According to Dubrovsky, he still hadn’t accepted the invitation at that time and remained in St. Petersburg.

Dubrovsky told Meduza that he was teaching intercampus courses, which should have been eligible for online learning, according to the rector’s December order. In December, he said, he received the invitation to complete the fellowship at the British college, and that’s why he applied to teach his class online. “The paper [the application to conduct his class online] wandered off for two months [from October to December], and then at the very end of December, they told me they don’t sign those kinds of contracts. That’s a lie. They signed one with my colleague,” Dubrovsky told Meduza. When he found out, he said, he was getting ready to travel to Moscow, just as he’d done for lectures and conferences in previous semesters.

“I believe it’s politically motivated. I heard from senior management [university leadership] that there’s a list of disloyal professors who they don’t want working at HSE. I don’t know for sure who sent it — I think it’s from the AP [presidential administration],” said Dubrovsky. In their assessment of whether to allow Dubrovsky to keep his classes online, the university commission noted a “systematic overvaluation of grades,” citing the fact that “50 percent and more” of his students received high grades. Dubrovsky has since decided to accept the fellowship at the British college.

“I suspect that the Education Ministry and the Russian authorities’ logic is that people should be within their reach,” said Dubrovsky. “In the context of a war, spreading out to other countries and continuing to teach makes professors independent and inaccessible to law enforcement. Universities' general policy is to control their professors. We know that students are being asked to inform on professors and on each other.”

A day after Dubrovsky’s conversation with Meduza, the Justice Ministry declared him a “foreign agent.”

Other HSE professors who left Russia have faced pressure from their universities as well. Citing a Facebook post from cultural studies professor Ilya Kukulin, the Telegram channel We Can Explain reported that Kukulin and his wife, Maria Maiofis, also a culture studies professor, were forced to resign from HSE (Kukulin has since changed the privacy settings on his Facebook account).

“For the entire month of March, we didn’t have any in-person classes, just online ones, because we hoped to smooth over our relationships to our workplaces after we left,” Kukulin is quoted as saying. “But since the war began, conditions have changed, and now I’m prohibited from teaching classes at HSE, it seems, as long as I’m outside of the Russian Federation.”

Most of the professors who agreed to speak to Meduza about the situation at HSE asked for anonymity out of concern of either “putting their colleagues in a bad position” or being fired without even getting to finish teaching their courses. Some even ran into problems filling out the documents to apply to teach remotely. One professor recounted several unofficial conversations with the manager of education programs at the university about the necessity of conducting classes in person. According to the professor, in March, university faculty members received unofficial letters from laboratory directors (Meduza has obtained the letters) about the fact that the university’s “First Department” (its security service) was checking the employee database against the list of professors who had left since HSE was on a monitor list. He said it’s true that the lab directors had to write “some kind of explanations” for why some professors weren’t going to work.

Several other professors who had left the country after the war also reported not being allowed to extend their online teaching contracts. The person Meduza spoke to has so far been unable to sign a remote teaching contract; he’s legally on leave at the moment.

“I get the feeling that HSE didn’t want to fire me completely, but that they are being pressured to fire people like me,” he said. The letter he received from the university (obtained by Meduza) said that it would conduct a review of all classes conducted online at some point after March 17. It’s unclear whether the review ever happened.

“They [the university’s administration] never explained the basis [for refusing to sign contracts for remote classes],” one of the HSE’s laboratory directors told Meduza. “In theory, those kinds of contracts are possible, but they’re not signing any of them right now. There were some ‘scares’ about them checking professor attendance, but no specific information.” According to the director, he and four of his subordinates requested to extend their contracts to teach online and were all declined. The director himself has left Russia and is officially on unpaid leave. Like all of the university’s laboratory employees, he’s currently “teaching for free.”

The Higher School of Economics did not respond to Meduza’s questions about why multiple professors have had difficulty signing contracts to teach remotely.

Another HSE processor noted that the situation at the university is “quite opaque”: employees don’t know who’s making the decisions about whether to extend their contracts — university administrators or someone outside the school. “All we know is that the professors who ended up abroad after the start of the war were told that they’re not allowed to teach remotely,” he said.

He confirmed that some employees who left were given the chance to take unpaid leave, while others were told to resign of their own accord. It’s unclear whether refusal to cooperate with professors who want to teach online is a general rule for the whole university or if it’s, in the words of Meduza’s source, “a way to dismiss unreliable employees or suspend them from teaching.”

Another HSE professor, Alyona Vandysheva (who taught courses on law and countering corruption) told the Telegram channel Rotonda that the university also refused to let her sign a contract to teach remotely after she left Russia for Georgia because she felt unsafe due to her work with Transparency International. According to Rotonda, on March 11, Vandysheva contacted the administration at HSE’s St. Petersburg branch and asked to be allowed to teach her classes remotely. She was told that she would have to write a formal request. On March 15, she submitted the request, and three days later, she was informed that it had been denied. According to Vandysheva, she was told that the decision not to allow her to teach online was made in accordance with the official policy of the university’s main branch in Moscow. However, Vandysheva told Rotonda that she knows professors who received permission to teach their classes from abroad.

Ilya Guryanov, one of the leaders of the primary branch of the union University Solidarity, said that universities had been allowing faculty to teach remotely since the beginning of the pandemic. “The experience of teaching during the pandemic showed that this [remote learning] is completely feasible from a technical standpoint. And allowing professors to do it is the legal right of university administrations,” Guryanov told Meduza. According to him, the situations where professors are being denied the ability to teach online might be due to “external” forces influencing universities, especially as refusing to cooperate with professors can put universities’ ability to fulfill their obligations to students “under threat.” “No administrator is going to make his own life more difficult by firing three to five professors per department in the middle of the academic year,” said Guryanov. He expects mass “purges” of university faculty this summer since universities will have more time to select employees who “won’t bother” administrators and government oversight bodies.

Sofya Danko, an Associate Professor in HSE’s philosophy department, went on sabbatical before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is currently still outside of Russia. Danko previously planned to start teaching remotely after her sabbatical ended, but then she learned that the university’s administration had stopped offering that option. “I assume that anyone currently located outside of the Russian Federation is seen by the administration as a disloyal ‘foreign agent’ who shouldn’t be allowed to take part in the education process,” she said. “Being a Russian citizen means living and working in your country of citizenship. Judging by the tense political situation, these kinds of demands and ideas are to be expected; everyone will now have to decide for themselves.”

One professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU) also told Meduza that online courses at the university were being changed to an in-person format, and that the shift was happening “covertly,” with no official statements from RGGU leaders. According to him, professors were being required to “stay in place,” and the university isn’t offering contracts for online teaching next year. “The issue is the political trend. Our president unambiguously expressed the idea that anybody who leaves the country is a traitor. It’s natural that leaders of these institutions [universities] would want to show their loyalty [to the state].”

A source close to the AP told Meduza that the administration has not instructed any universities not to allow professors to sign online teaching contracts. The AP’s internal political bloc has, however, “highly recommended” that universities place the Z symbol on their websites, buildings, and classroom walls, as well as organizing patriotic events. The source explained that all of these gestures had become “practically mandatory requirements” for federal universities.

‘It’s scary to see your research director get branded a traitor’

It’s difficult to describe the overall attitude towards the war among students and faculty at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), one of the most ideologically “conformist” universities. Four MGIMO students told Meduza that the war’s most active supporters study in the international relations department, which aims to train future Foreign Affairs Ministry employees.

One fourth-year student who requested to remain anonymous told Meduza that most political disputes at the university are “cold” ones. “The overwhelming majority of both students and professors are very wary [about talking politics], and won’t talk about politics in any setting other than a one-on-one conversation. If the topic of the ‘[special military] operation’ comes up, everything can be boiled down to the Soviet joke about the man with the blank sign: ‘Everyone still understands.’”

In early April, an anonymous channel whose name loosely translates to “Ukrainian sympathizers of MGIMO” appeared on Telegram. The channel’s first posts were screenshots of anti-war comments under an anti-war social media post from student Alexey Demidov. Soon, more screenshots of anti-war social media posts and Instagram stories from MGIMO students and professors began appearing on the channel. One was captioned, “Here they are: the proud faces of liberal Nazism at MGIMO.” Another one referred to an MGIMO graduate who had been advocating against the war as the “main patriot of Ukraine,” using a derogatory term for the country.

“It creates the intended effect — fear,” said another fourth-year student who requested to remain anonymous. “It’s scary to see your research director get branded a traitor. It’s like something out of the pages of the NKVD archives. And they’ll do it without any evidence — just a name, a photo, and a link to the person’s MGIMO profile, and they always throw in a couple vile phrases.” The channel also broadcast the photos of all of the MGIMO students, graduate students, employees, and graduates who signed an open letter to the president calling for an end to the war; in total, more than 1,500 people had signed it.

The channel’s administrators described their goals to Meduza as follows: “Our main goal is to make sure that everyone [who opposes the war and] who plans on working for the state, or who benefits from our ‘hateful’ government, gets canceled. A side effect, though no less important, is to get some LOLs. But on a more serious note, we want to make sure everyone gets the message that you can’t bad-mouth our country and then try to become a civil servant. [...] If you don’t support Russia right now, you support sanctions and efforts that will, fire and foremost, make our lives worse. Do you really hate Putin so much that you’re willing to force old ladies in Saratov to starve?”

According to one channel administrator, the channel is run by a team of five people who were all “students [at MGIMO] at one time or another.” On April 13, channel administrators wrote to Meduza that the “university administration was putting a lot of pressure” on them. On April 14, all of the old posts on the channel were deleted, and the channel itself was renamed. Now its name translates loosely to “Ukrainian sympathizers of Russia.” Every message ends with a postscript that reads, “This channel has no connection to the administration or employees of MGIMO.”

Propaganda on campus

On February 28, three days after the war began, the first batch of straight-from-the-top war propaganda appeared in Russia’s schools. It contained the Kremlin’s official position on the “special military operation,” including direct quotes from the speech in which Putin effectively declared war.

On March 4, the Russian Rectors’ Union released a statement calling for its members to support “our country; our army, which is defending our security; and our president, who made what was possibly the most difficult decision of this life — a painful but necessary decision,” though the statement didn’t specify exactly what decision it was referring to. The union includes the rectors of all the major universities throughout Russia and is led by Moscow State University Rector Viktor Sadovnichy. It was signed by the leaders of more than 260 universities (a total of about 700 rectors belong to the organization).

Around the same time, the Education Ministry called on the countries’ university rectors to lecture students on the “fight against fake news” and on Russian history.

Meduza has previously reported on what these lectures looked like, using universities in Tomsk as an example. Some professors — the ones at Tomsk State University and Tomsk Polytechnic University, for example — refused to the present the materials provided by the authorities, citing the curriculum’s poor quality and the propaganda within it. The lectures still happened, however — a history professor at Tomsk Polytechnic told students about the “anti-Russian path” Ukraine had supposedly taken. The lecture about fake news included recommendations about how to verify information; students were told to rely on state outlets and the Russian Defense Ministry website to ensure the media they consumed was accurate.

In many universities, these kinds of propaganda lectures have started replacing students’ regularly scheduled classes, and some professors even choose to deliver the propaganda lectures directly in class. “Immediately after the ‘special military operation’ began, they gave us a kind of PSA,” said one student from Yaroslavl State Pedagogical University (YGPU). “We had to read the president’s statement from February 24 and answer the questions they provided.” According to the student, who requested to remain anonymous, the university has already held three such lectures since the war began: two on the history of Nazism and one on the fight against “fake news.”

Most students only went to the first lecture, one of the two about Nazism; they were told attendance would be recorded. By the time the lecture on the fight against fake news came around, some entire classes of students ignored it, choosing instead to attend their regularly scheduled lectures.

Sometimes, however, the lectures about “Nazism” occur in those regularly scheduled classes, rather than in other classrooms at the same time. “The Banderites never went away. They’ve raised a third generation [of Nazis]. The Nazis went to Argentina, Canada, the U.S., and now they’re breaking away. We can all imagine how it will end. Luckily, we have Kinzhal missiles and other high-tech weapons,” ecology professor Natalia Ivanova told students at YGPU (Meduza and 7x7 have obtained a recording of the lectures). According to students who were there, their class that day was supposed to be about geobotany.

Meanwhile, at Volga State University of Technology in Yoshkar-Ola, a course called “Historical Justice and Russia’s Role” appeared on the schedule. “This semester, Volga State students will go through a cycle of various disciplines’ perspectives — from economics to history. Our main goal is to help students correctly assess the information they take in and to discuss with them the events taking place in the world,” the university’s press service told 7x7 in response to a question about why the new subject was added.

Donat Sorokin

In addition to Yaroslavl and Yoshkar-Ola classes about “fake news” and history have been held in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Armavir, Kurgan, Saratov, and other cities. The campaign seems to primarily target pedagogical universities.

On the official anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Kirov authorities organized two rallies for students: one called “Crimean Bridge” and another called “Crimean Spring,” held on March 16 and 18, respectively. According to students from Vyatka State Agrotechnological University and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, at the March 16 rally, students formed a human chain while holding pro-invasion flags. The students said they were called to participate in the rally by professors and fourth-year students, who sent around messages that said “attendance is mandatory” (though Meduza determined that there were no consequences for students who didn’t attend). Some students were promised class credit in exchange for attending the rally.

The March 18 rally was held on Kirov’s Theater Square. Its participants, who gathered in the shape of the letter Z, included students from Vyatka State Agrotechnological University. They learned about the event from a university union representative. “I’m personally not a huge fan of these kinds of events, but this is an official policy, so they’re asking us to take part. Whoever is able to come, please do,” he wrote in a message to the students (Meduza and 7×7 have obtained the message).

Additionally, Belgorod University held an online rally called #WeAreTogether and included international students. The university’s social media pages included posts made by students from Angola, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. One student from Angola, for example, wrote that “to ignore the ongoing events related to the further expansion of NATO infrastructure and the military development of the Ukrainian territories would be to jeopardize the security of Russian and Ukrainian citizens.”

Cutting ties

The education sector was one of the first in Russia to be directly affected by the war. On February 25, the BAYHOST scholarship, which allows students to study for free in Bavaria, stopped accepting applications from Russian students. Meduza and 7×7 learned about the policy change from Russian students who are currently studying in Germany. The program’s organizers said the change was due to “Bavaria’s position on the events in Ukraine.”

A number of Russian research projects, grants, and studies were previously being conducted jointly with foreign institutions. In the initial days of the war, however, Germany suspended all research collaboration with Russian higher education institutions. “For the [German] Education and Research Ministry, this means that longstanding partnerships in the higher education and research sector, as well as in the professional development sector, will temporarily be suspended,” said German Education and Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger in an interview with Die Welt on February 26. According to the ministry, Russia “violated all of the norms of the European order.”

Russian researchers have taken the changes in stride. Ivanovo State University of Chemistry and Technology Vice Rector Yury Marfin told Meduza and 7×7 that the university has not faced “any particular difficulties” due to the suspensions of partnerships with Western universities.

“At the moment, our undergraduate and graduate students have not experienced any difficulties related to the current situation. No changes have been made to the deadlines or the formats of our competitions, and we [at the university] have continued to look for opportunities for internships in foreign institutions. I don’t have information about any of our professors being excluded from partnerships with foreign institutions,” he said.

Employees of the Center for Space-Based Monitoring of the Earth at Tomsk State University of Control Systems and Radioelectronics schedule satellite data intake.
Yevgeny Kurskov / TASS

He noted that there were initially “concerns” at Ivanovo State that a Czech university might refuse to fulfill its duties under one of the grants the institutions entered in together. Eventually, though, an employee of that university assured them that “everything will be okay.”

Marfin also said that the university had received a letter from a Polish university saying that the school was suspending the institutions’ partnership for a joint educational center. “It came back in February, before all of these events [in Ukraine]. The next one wasn’t supposed to be until 2023. It was most likely a political decision. Everything could change 10 times before next year,” said Marfin.

On February 28, Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova said in a meeting with Science and Education Ministry Head Valery Falkov that Russian students were being expelled from European universities because of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. The students, said Moskalkova, were being blamed for the events in Ukraine “just because they’re Russian.”

Moskalkova promised to provide spots for the expelled students to study in Russian institutions. Many European universities, student groups, and organizations that provide scholarships for students to study abroad refuted her expulsion claims. In fact, Moskalkova appears to have been referring to private statements made by individual university employees. For example, Martin Dlouhý, a professor at Prague’s University of Economics, wrote a Facebook post in which he expressed his refusal to work with students from Russia, though he subsequently deleted it and apologized; the university’s administration also condemned the statement. In an investigation conducted by journalists from Current Time, they were unable to find even a single case in which a Russian student was expelled from a foreign university; on the contrary, many professors and employees who made statements similar to Dlouhý’s subsequently issued apologies.

Nevertheless, Moskalkova’s claims got a lot of play in the media — especially from state and pro-government outlets. RT, for example, reported on a number of cases in which Russian students transferred from foreign to domestic universities — but not of the cases mentioned anything about the students being expelled for being Russian. One of the students interviewed by RT said that his visa extension was refused, “though citizens of other countries had their visas extended fairly quickly.” Another student said that her professors had started lowering her exam grades.

Story by Andrey Serafimov and Boris Kemanshev with assistance from Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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