Universities in Russia face a dramatic turning point
The invasion and brutal attack by Russian forces on Ukraine has brought tremendous suffering to millions of Ukrainians, including those in the higher education sector. Dozens of universities have been bombed and hundreds of thousands of students and academics have fled their homes.
Research and teaching have been disrupted almost everywhere across Ukraine. The global academic community stands in solidarity with Ukrainian scholars and is working together on initiatives to protect and support them.
The invasion of Ukraine has also led to a dramatic re-evaluation of the world’s relationship with Russia and its universities. Vladimir Putin’s war has accelerated Kremlin activism to smother criticism of the government, its autocratic leader and his oligarchical enablers.
While demonstrations against Putin’s war continue and the number of arrested protesters is growing – some 17,000 and counting – a new law expands the definition of sedition to Soviet-era standards. Even calling it a “war” is punishable with up to 15 years in prison. All semblance of a free press is now gone and Putin has resurrected an Orwellian wall and internal storm of disinformation.
So where are Russia’s universities, its students and faculty and academic leaders, in this mix?
Students and faculty make up a part of the population which is braving the protests from Moscow to Saint Petersburg and elsewhere. Of those arrested, some are reportedly detained for long periods; some are tortured; and many now have records that could prevent them from getting jobs or from entering or continuing their university education.
The stories are many and tragic. Konstantin Olmezov, a Ukrainian mathematician studying at a university in Moscow, committed suicide on 20 March after trying and failing to escape from Russia.
In understanding the plight of Russian faculty and students in the wake of a tragic and unprovoked war, it is helpful to track the slow arc of increasing autocratic control of universities by Putin and how it fits into a larger pattern of autocrats seeking managerial control of higher education sectors in other parts of the world.
Modernisation and tighter ideological control
We have seen it before: there was a movement towards a more open society and economy by both Russia and China, and in nations such as Turkey, and then a decided turn backwards as autocrats solidified their power.
In a chapter on Russia in the new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities, Igor Chirikov and Igor Fedyukin outline a series of post-Soviet reforms during the initial two decades of the new Russian Federation, including greater institutional autonomy, the election of rectors and deans and attempts to become more internationally engaged.
But this was followed by a slow process of returning to Kremlin-induced controls.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, establishing new universities, merging older ones, reforming governance and increasing funding for research was part of a “modernisation” campaign effort intended to elevate the quality of universities that had long been mired in corrupt politics.
While the old elite institutions, such as Moscow State University, remained politically powerful, new institutions were established, including the Western-styled Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, patterned originally on the London School of Economics before it expanded into an array of social sciences, engineering and basic science fields.
The merger of institutions – essentially a process that aimed to reduce the Soviet-era focus on institutions for specific industrial niches, like telephones or rail engineering – was generally needed and reconceptualised Russia’s network of universities.
These reforms brought a sense of optimism to Russian universities.
In the 1990s and into the early part of this century, there was a greater sense of academic freedom – although still constrained by Western standards – and the first significant opportunities to engage with European, United States and other universities throughout the world.
The isolation of the Soviet era, built around a command economy, military needs and severe constraints on criticism of the state, seemed to be dissipating.
But these same reforms, it turns out, also opened a new window for increased Kremlin power.
Putin and greater Kremlin control
Putin’s ascendency to the presidency in 2000 and his elongated reign resulted in increased central control over Russian society, such as greater Kremlin control over the governance and management of universities.
This included a return to the Soviet practice of appointing rectors, increasing government influence on the appointment of conformist deans and faculty and new constraints on interpreting Russia’s past and contemporary politics – a pattern of complicity found in other autocratic-leaning countries, including China, Turkey and now Hong Kong.
These patterns of forcing Russia’s universities to comply with the Kremlin’s political rhetoric accelerated in the period leading up to the invasion of Ukraine.
In the past year or so, Putin has pursued a cleansing of university leadership. Dozens of universities have new, Kremlin-approved rectors, including HSE University in Moscow, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and regional flagships like Kazan Federal University.
In an indicator of the clampdown by the Kremlin, Sergey Zuev, a rector of the elite private Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, which boasts extensive partnerships with United Kingdom universities, was arrested.
The space for dissent and debate had nearly disappeared. Outspoken faculty and students came under overt pressure to conform, including increased surveillance by the Federal Security Service (the FSB, the successor of the KGB). In many universities, the FSB is now actively participating in the review of student admissions and academic personnel cases.
Because of their public or, in some cases, private criticism of the Kremlin, a clear message was sent that disloyal faculty might be fired or arrested, even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Growing global isolation
After years of greater interaction with colleagues abroad and a period of greater academic freedom, most faculty and students in Russia’s universities have been socialised in the norms of civil society and global engagement.
The shock of the invasion induced a reaction. In the opening days of the war, over 7,000 faculty and journalists signed and posted a letter stating: “There is no rational justification for this war.”
A subsequent open letter by Russian physicists voiced their opposition and pleaded with all Russians: “We ask you not to be afraid to speak out against a horrific war and do everything possible to stop it.” After posting it, and in the midst of new Kremlin-imposed limits on social media, both signed statements were removed from the internet.
Signing such a statement was in itself a risk, and one made even more dangerous when on 4 March Putin’s new law threatening up to 15 years in prison for virtually any criticism of the war was passed by the Duma. The law essentially ended not only any semblance of a free press, but the concept of academic freedom in Russia.
Two days later the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR), under obvious pressure from the Kremlin, issued a statement on their loyal support for Putin’s invasion and their determination to “instil patriotism in young people”. The rectors at several universities, like Ural Federal University and Kazan Federal University, then published their own statements endorsing the war.
Making the situation even more precarious for Russian students and academics who oppose the war, the first reaction in many Western nations was to end all ties with Russian universities, including student and faculty exchanges and co-sponsored research projects.
The same day as the statement by the RUR, the European Commission announced a suspension of science cooperation with Russia. The European University Association suspended 14 Russian universities from its membership – in part because of the pro-war statement by the RUR.
More recently, the OECD announced that it is suspending its programmes in Russia, including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS).
While some significant changes in the relationship with Russian universities are appropriate as part of the effort to punish the Kremlin, or to ensure the safety of students, perhaps the more progressive approach would be something similar to the realpolitik policies used in relation to the old Soviet Union.
In a letter recently published in Science, a group of academics from the United States, Canada and the UK asked the world not to abandon Russian scholars, noting that “shutting down all interaction with Russian scientists would be a serious setback to a variety of Western and global interests and values”.
In the era after the fall of the Soviet Union, as noted, one major problem for Russian universities was their isolation from the outside world, including for research collaborations, access to publications for their own research and pathways for student and faculty exchanges.
Engaging with the larger world of research and scholarship, along with addressing the mentality of institutions and faculty brought up on a mindset of Soviet-era favouritism and corruption, was broadly viewed as a way to improve the quality and productivity of the nation’s universities and academies.
The efforts to internationalise and democratise universities in Russia now seem to have come to a Putin-induced halt.
Is there a future for Russian universities?
Like other autocratic-leaning governments, Putin worries that universities are real or potential centres for sedition – and with good reason. He and autocrats, like Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are afraid of the world of open debate that universities can provide and of the social networks that students and faculty have with international colleagues and friends. Hence, their overt efforts to specifically repress free speech and virtually any criticism.
For Russian universities, we see three major and immediate outcomes of Putin’s war on Ukraine.
First, and similar to the exodus of young professionals and academics of all ages from Hong Kong following the crackdown by Xi, Russia will see a much larger flight of talent. Many see no future in a Putin-run Russia.
While there are no gross numbers on the escape of faculty from Russian universities, there are numerous anecdotal stories and the expectation of many more, if they can find the means to get out and sense that the non-Putin-aligned world will accept them.
Second, even more young talented academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, will choose not to pursue careers in higher education. Unable to enjoy intellectual freedom and participate in global science, they may prefer other careers that are less vulnerable to ideological control.
Third, spending on education and research in Russia, which was already declining over the past decade, will drop even further amid Western sanctions and increasing military spending, making academic salaries unattractive. Russian universities will probably see declines in research output, funding for new construction and maintenance and international mobility.
We are still in the fog of war, without a clear sense of the outcome of this Putin-made conflict. Peace talks are seemingly making some progress. But even if international sanctions are later eased, what is apparent is that Russia’s universities are at a dramatic turning point, like Russia itself.
Will there be a post-Putin world in which the autocrat is removed quickly or slowly, where Russian universities get to re-join the global community and help revitalise a dormant political and economic national environment? Or will Russia be subjected to the Putin World Order, with it and its universities cast further and further into an isolated world of neo-Stalinist repression and decline?
While less dramatic, a similar repression of universities and their communities is happening in China and Hong Kong and in Turkey. It does seem like a moment of light or darkness, a realignment of geopolitical forces that benefits no one.
The plight of Ukrainians and their universities and the mass exodus caused by an unprovoked war is undoubtedly uppermost in all our minds. But we need to seek a better future for Russians, including the hope that they can also be part of a more liberal, democratic future. Any healthy vision of a post-Putin world will include a revitalised and globally engaged Russian university sector.
John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow and research professor in public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE), Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, United States. He is the author most recently of Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, autocrats and the future of higher education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. It is an open access book accessible via Project Muse. Igor Chirikov is director of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium and senior researcher at CSHE and co-author of the chapter on ‘The Role of Universities in Putin’s Russia’ in the book Neo-Nationalism and Universities.