Russian Universities During and After Putin

photo of the Kremlin

The invasion and brutal attack by Russian forces on Ukraine has brought tremendous suffering to millions of Ukrainians, including those in 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 in Ukraine has also led to a dramatic re-evaluation of the world’s relationship with Russia and its universities. 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 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 up to fifteen years in prison. All semblances of a free press are now gone and Putin has resurrected an Orwellian wall and internal storm of disinformation.

And where are Russia’s universities, and students and faculty, and academic leaders, in this mix?

Students and faculty make up a big part of the population of those braving to protest from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and elsewhere. Of those arrested, some are reportedly detained for long periods, some tortured, many now with records that could prevent them from getting jobs, from entering or continuing their university education. The stories are many and tragic. Konstantin Olmezov, a Ukrainian mathematician studying at the university in Moscow, died by suicide on March 20 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 see the slow ark 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.

Modernization and tighter ideological control

We have seen it before: there was a movement toward 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 have 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, included greater institutional autonomy, and the election of rectors and deans, and attempts to become more internationally engaged. But then 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 “modernization” campaign effort intended to elevate the quality of the nation’s universities long 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 after the London School of Economics before bridging out to an array of social science, engineering, and basic science fields.

The merger of institutions—essentially a process to reduce the Soviet-era focus on institutions for specific industrial niches, like telephones, or rail engineering—was generally needed and reconceptualized Russia’s network of universities.

These reforms brought a sense of optimism for 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, US 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, in turns out, also opened a new window for increased Kremlin power.

Putin’s ascendency to the presidency in 2000 and his elongated reign resulted in increased control over Russian society, including a pattern of greater Kremlin control over the governance and management of universities. This included a return to the Soviet practice of appointing rectors, increased 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 in Hong Kong.

These patterns of forcing Russia’s universities to comply with Kremlin’s political rhetoric accelerated in the period leading up to the invasion of Ukraine.

In the past year or so, Putin pursued a cleansing of university leadership. Dozens of universities have new, Kremlin-approved rectors, including HSE University Moscow, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and regional flagships like Kazan Federal University. In an indicator of the clamp-down by the Kremlin, Sergey Zuev, a rector of the elite private Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences boasting extensive partnerships with UK 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, there was a clear message that disloyal faculty might be fired, or even arrested, even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The response to the war and 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 socialized to 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 to 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, 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 made even more dangerous when on March 4th 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 “instill 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 relationships 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 programs in Russia, including the Program 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 with the old Soviet Union.

In a letter recently published in Science, a group of academics from the United States, Canada, and the UK has 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 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 mitigating the mentality of institutions and faculty from a mindset of Soviet-era favoritism and corruption, was broadly viewed as the means for improving the quality and productivity of the nation’s universities and academies.

The efforts to internationalize and democratize universities in Russia now seem to be at a Putin-induced end.

Is there a future for Russian universities?

Like other autocratic-leaning governments, Putin worries that universities are potential centers for sedition – and with good reason. He and autocrats, like Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are afraid of the social world of open debate that universities can provide, and 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 crack-down 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 many anecdotal stories and the expectation of many more, if they can find the means and sense that the non-Putin aligned world will accept them.

Second, even more young talented academics, especially in social sciences in 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 less vulnerable to ideological control.

Third, spending for education and research in Russia, already declining in 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 rejoin the global community and help revitalize a dormant political and economic national environment? Or a Putin World Order, with Russia and its universities cast further and further into an isolated world of neo-Stalin 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 diaspora caused by an unprovoked war is undoubtedly first on 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 revitalized and globally-engaged Russian university sector.

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Neo-nationalism and Universities
Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Higher Education
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Written by: John Aubrey Douglass and Igor Chirikov
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Featured Contributor

John Aubrey Douglass

John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow and research professor of public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His previous books include The New Flagship University: Changing the Paradigm from Global Ranking to National Relevancy and Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University: Its Past and Vital Future.
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