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HSE’s transformation into a Kremlin-controlled research institute Meduza explains how the war has changed Russia’s most liberal university

Source: Meduza
Dmitrii Neumoin / Photobank Lori

For over 30 years, the Higher School of Economics (HSE) was considered Russia’s most liberal university, home to the country’s best researchers and instructors. In recent years, HSE’s image as an independent university has rapidly crumbled. It began to dismiss employees for making political remarks and banned independent student media. HSE nonetheless remains an important research centre and a sought-after place of study for prospective students. Meduza’s special correspondent Margarita Liutova explains how one of Russia’s leading universities has changed since the start of the war and the role that Yaroslav Kuzminov, HSE’s founder and previous rector, has played in these changes.

Before Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it had already become routine to hear of teachers considered “undesirable” be dismissed for political reasons — even before Yaroslav Kuzminov, the head of HSE, quit.

In June 2021, Kuzminov, who had worked in the role for 29 years, suddenly resigned his position as rector, three years before his contract was up. At the time, he said that he didn’t “wish to grow old as a rector.” The publication iStories later wrote that Kuzminov’s resignation “was carried out as part of a special operation.” The rector was supposedly given just one day to resign.

Nikita Anisimov, the former head of the Far Eastern Federal University, replaced Kuzminov as rector, while Kuzminov was left to “grow old” in his new position as HSE’s University Academic Supervisor.

A sinking ship

In March 2022, Nikita Anisimov signed a letter on behalf of Russia’s university rectors showing support for the invasion of Ukraine. After its publication, students and employees at HSE demanded that Anisimov retract his signature. Not long after, the university began to fire teachers who either protested against the appeal or spoke out against the war.

Throughout 2022, HSE employees started to experience more and more pressure from the university. Even those who left Russia without making any sort of political statements faced pressure, according to the publication Proekt. If an instructor wants to conduct an online class, they are now required to send applications to a special committee. Without the committee’s approval, it remains impossible to issue the documents necessary to work remotely. One of the committee’s members is Vice-Rector Aleksey Koshel, a former assistant to United Russia deputies in the State Duma. Koshel is described as Anisimov’s “eyes and ears” and “special vice-rector” responsible for “liasing with external organizations.” Koshel’s official duties include HR matters.

Meduza’s source says that Koshel “maintains a policy of denying people contracts to work remotely, pushing [those who want online work to resign].” If a “famous and distinguished” researcher applies for a remote work contract, there’s less room for the university to maneuver. Young researchers, on the other hand, are treated differently: “He left [Russia], so he should just quit and go to hell.”

The forced resignations affect HSE employees beyond just those who have left the country and want to work remotely. The historian and political scientist Aleksey Makarkin was dismissed at the end of March for “purely political” reasons, says one source. Russian independent media outlets (most of which the Russian authorities blocked after the start of the war) often cited him as an expert.

Makarkin reportedly decided “not to argue” and accepted the offer to leave as part of a “mutual agreement.” A source close to Makarkin explained that, “while the department supported an extension of his contract, the academic council refused.” The political scientist’s university webpage is no longer available. He refused to comment when Meduza reached out to him.

Three Meduza contacts close to HSE reported hearing of other instances when the university’s management “firmly recommended” that employees leave as part of a so-called “mutual agreement.” In October 2022, economist and former HSE professor Konstantin Sonin estimated that around 150 one-time HSE employees have either left the country or quit. One Meduza source gave a much more radical estimate: 700 people, which would account for approximately every 10th university employee.

Sources at HSE said that any estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, but they did all agree on one thing: a significant number of HSE employees left Russia, including many who are well-known. These include mathematics professors Viktor Vasilyev and Boris Feigin. Now, there are some departments where nearly all employees work from abroad. Whether an employee is allowed to work online largely depends on the department’s management. Some departments turn a blind eye, though employees may still not have the means to move abroad, even if they’re allowed.

“The ship is huge, so it won’t completely sink anytime soon. It’ll take a while for it to go under. Some cabins will have air left, while others will be flooded,” explained a source close to HSE, referring to the future of the university and differing views toward the war across different departments.

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A Kremlin-controlled research institute

“The paradox here is that one of the drivers behind the changes at HSE is Yaroslav Kuzminov himself,” notes one source close to the university. “It is a very sorry state of affairs when someone begins to destroy what he, and hundreds of others, once built.”

One Meduza source close to the presidential administration claims that Kuzminov continues to “resolve many issues” even after formally leaving his position – what’s more, he has become one of the foremost advocates for adapting the school according to “the new rules.”

Kuzminov continues to actively work with the president’s administration, just as he did when he worked as HSE’s rector. According to two sources close to the Kremlin, Kuzminov attends meetings with the Kremlin’s political bloc, led by Sergey Kiriyenko, and is responsible for “presenting current economic, political, and ideological policies at meetings.”

The president’s administration maintains official ties with HSE. Though the university formally reports directly to the Russian government, there is a university supervisor board, that has been chaired by Vyacheslav Volodin since 2014. In November 2016, when Volodin joined the State Duma as speaker, Sergey Kiriyenko took his place.

HSE also receives state funding, in addition to the university’s own budget. The state funding is intended for research on issues in the “public interest,” both theoretical and applied. The research agenda is not publicly available. However, Meduza obtained these “thematic plans” for 2023, which include topics suggested by the president’s administration. According to the research council’s meeting minutes, 115 of the 132 council researchers voted in favor of the proposed topics, while five abstained, with no votes against (the remaining members did not vote).

Most of the planned research topics are not unusual for HSE. However, the plans in “the interest of the presidential administration,” include the following:

  • Research on modern societal values: A consensus around patriarchal values and institutional practices that protect and preserve traditional, spiritual and moral values, reflected in public opinion;
  • Modern theological, spiritual, and moral education: Existing standards and practices for implementation in the educational system;
  • Expert-analytical support to the President of the Russian Federation;
  • Possible risks to Russia’s economy posed by the West’s global climate agenda;
  • Potential outcomes of a power struggle between Russia and “the collective West”

“This demonstrates HSE’s transformation into a Soviet-type research institute controlled by the Kremlin” explains a source close to HSE. “But even in Soviet times, they shied away from writing such plans.”

According to the source, the final version of the research agenda was agreed to only after Kuzminov discussed it with the President’s Administration. The source claims that the university’s agenda used to be much more academic, “at least in appearances.”

Another source close to HSE agrees that these new plans reflect HSE’s ideological turn. However, on the other hand, the source was certain that the government has “always reeked of ideology: liberal, anti-liberal, whichever, because it’s unable to give other orders.”

There is no need to assign too much meaning. The question must be more broad: in principle, is it good that the Russian government is the only one responsible for the educational system? That’s a very bad thing.

Ideology has not yet won over HSE, explains the source: “For now, it’s still impossible to imagine an article in the Journal of Educational Affairs on ‘Universities in Donetsk as part of the Russian educational system.’”

More on Yaroslav Kuzminov

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A retired official

Meduza’s sources differ on Kuzminov’s true impact on HSE’s research activities. A source close to the Russian president’s administration believes that the former rector’s impact has decreased but not completely disappeared. After he resigned, Kuzminov reportedly agreed with Anisimov to direct all of the university’s research.

Kuzminov continues to attend meetings with the president’s administration as a representative of HSE, though he is not included in decision making regarding key university issues.

According to sources, Kuzminov continues to fight “to save the previous order,” when HSE employees were able to criticize the politically conservative hierarchy, and even propose new reforms. In 2023, however, the state only listens to experts “in uniform” – and it certainly doesn’t need to hear from HSE, concludes one of Meduza’s sources.

One source explains that HSE employees have engaged in “shamelessly intellectual work” for decades, and Kuzminov himself “has always adapted to his environment.” When Russia looked toward the West, democracy, and liberalism, “Kuzminov and HSE moved in the same direction.” Later, Kuzminov approved of Russia’s new conservative path. One source says it would have been impossible to “save the university” otherwise.

A source close to Kuzminov recalls that he made it “clear that he would not deviate from the official party line,” when the war first started. At official events and even in private conversations, Kuzminov typically expresses the “correct opinion” regarding the situation in Russia.

However, it’s difficult to say whether he himself believes these opinions, explain two of Meduza’s sources who have attended meetings and conferences with Kuzminov since the start of the war.

“As evidenced by a well-known leaked phone call [between music producer Iosif Prigozhin and businessman Farkhad Akhmedov],” one source concludes, “it’s become difficult to tell whether someone truly believes the opinions they express publicly.”

HSE’s press office, Yaroslav Kuzminov, Nikita Anisimov and Aleksey Koshel did not respond to inquiries from Meduza.
More on Russian universities since the start of the war

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More on Russian universities since the start of the war

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

Reportage by Margarita Lyutova and Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sasha Slobodov

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