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Russia March 6, 2008
 
Russian Academia Under Fire
By Sean Guillory Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 4
 

The European University was established in 1994 on the initiative of then-St. Petersburg mayor and Putin patron, Anatoly Sobchak. The University's focus on social sciences and humanities is modeled on graduate programs in the West. It frequently invites scholars from American and European universities, and includes some damn good Russian faculty in its own right. If this wasn't enough to make EUSP a political target, the fact that the university receives funds from Soros, Ford, and MacArthur Foundations would alone make your average sycophantic chinovnik salivate. In fact many assume that the 673,000 euro grant which EUSP received from the European Union to help improve monitoring of Russian elections (the program was closed on January 28) is the real reason it was put under the fire-violations microscope.

Western grant money is increasingly a big no-no in an atmosphere where NGOs are seen as covers for spies, the coming of a new "Cold War" is in the air, and a transfer of presidential power is right around the corner. Even the fact that the late Sobchak, who was the mentor of Putin and Medvedev, set the university up could keep the fire-citation-wielding chinovniki off the EUSP's back. On the contrary, shutting it down could result in some sweet political capital. Who is going to care about some Western orientated university, which focuses on the humanities? Students? Academics? They're political midgets compared to the great legal powers of a chinovnik drooling at the chance to rim his boss for brownie-points.

Students and academics have been protesting the closing of their university. Last Saturday, students staged a small rally by Mikhail Lomonsov's statue near the University. In addition, the university's administration has filed appeals in court and directly to St. Petersburg's governor and Putin client Valentina Matvienko. The story has also received ample coverage in the Russian and Western press.

Perhaps most surprising is that even Western academics have sprung into action. Usually a rather docile and cringing bunch, reluctant to jeopardize their access to Russian visas, libraries, and archives, Western academics have been roused to an action of sorts, organizing a petition to protest EUSP's closing with the hope that international shame might have some effect. The petition can be found here: http://www.gopetition.com/online/17080.html. It currently has 3,414 signatures. In addition, the American academic trade paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, published a story on the situation. Numerous academic blogs have also taken to the cause.

Once such blog is Save the European University at St. Petersburg (found at: http://euspb.blogspot.com/). Run by a blogger named Mischa (whom I presume is a student), the blog gives readers up-to-date news, brings attention to other assaults on academic freedom, urges concerned individuals to donate money, and asks that readers flood the Russian authorities with letters. But he warns, "Be careful to avoid excessively political formulations unless you feel you have good reason to use them." There is no hard evidence of a "systematic Kremlin-engineered program to curb academic freedom or Western influence." As I stated above, I don't think there is any Kremlin directed campaign. I do however believe that the Kremlin has created and encouraged an atmosphere in which local bootlicking officials desperate to please their masters or to wage war on their local rivals are glad to get in on the repression action.

Mischa and other concerned academics are not the only ones cautioning against crude politicization. The European University's rector, Nikolai Vakhtin, while admitting that the reasons for the closure are "mysterious," has tried to dismiss the notion that EUSP's closure was political. He told the St. Petersburg Times that a political link was a "fantasy" cooked up by the media. In an article published on Polit.ru, suggestions of a political link were called "conspirologic." One may assume that Vakhtin's efforts to quell conspiracy theories are an attempt to prevent pouring gasoline on the fire. In an open letter to students published on European University's website, Vakhtin stressed that "We do not propose to speculate about [the reasons for EUSP's closure]. What is crucial for us is that we are now denied the opportunity to study, to attend seminars and lectures, and to carry out our own research." As things stand now, EUSP has been given a temporary license on the condition that they find a new building. The signal however has been sent. EUSP is untouchable and few are willing risk their necks to rent them anything.


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