A university known for its embrace of Western ideas over the past 20 years now appears to be under pressure from the state. That could pose problems for Russia to modernize its educational system.

Pictured: The European University at St. Petersburg. Photo: vk.com/eupublic

The European University at St. Petersburg, the most successful private university in Russia, is well known for its independent and critical approach toward the Russian authorities inside and outside the country. And that’s exactly what might have led to the university’s latest problems.

Last week, the Russian authorities briefly revoked the university’s educational license – a move that would have led to a complete ban on its educational activity. The ostensible reason behind this move was that the university had failed to meet some formal requirements, including the establishment of a gym hall in the university and the lack of professors in one of the departments.    

At first glance, the problem seems to be technical in its nature and one that can be resolved easily: one should just hire more professional political experts and sociologists and set up a gym and the license will be returned. However, in reality, the challenges of the university are more fundamental (and political) in their nature.

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Although the license was finally restored and classes will be resumed on Dec. 16, the incident with the European University indicates that it is becoming politically challenging to conduct any independent academic activity in Russia.

The background of the European University

Created in 1994 with the support of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak (one of the most prominent advocates of the perestroika reforms), the European University has been funded by numerous charities and foreign nongovernmental organizations, including the Soros, MacArthur, and Spencer foundations, as well as other organizations.  

The university was created as a research center that deals with social and humanitarian majors; as a result, only Masters and Doctoral programs are available for students. Initially, Russia’s researchers who became famous in the Soviet era took leading positions in the university. Yet, afterwards, young researchers with academic experience in Europe and the U.S. filled their shoes.

The European University has already gained a very good reputation in academic circles; however, at the same time it was seen as the center of liberal and Western values and ideas. Amidst the economic crisis and political turbulence in the 1990s in Russia, the university looked like a ray of light in the realm of darkness. Thanks to its consistent adherence to Western academic approaches, the university achieved success in the field of science and education.    

Russian values vs. Western values

The common political trend in Russia in the 21st century has become authoritarianism, as evidenced by the Kremlin’s attempts to tighten the screws in the country. Moreover, after the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s presidential tenure in 2012, the authorities started rigorously and even aggressively imposing on society conservative ideas about Russia’s so-called “unique path” and the imagined threat emanating from Western values.

No wonder, then, that the European University found itself in a very challenging situation, where it had to defend its right to academic freedom and autonomy from the state. The University had to decline support from its Western sponsors (that were banned in Russia in 2015 after the adoption of the law on “undesirable” organizations) and look for new sources of funding. In 2008, the University was even closed after the request of the fire safety authority. However, the university was able to survive, due to the nuanced political situation in Russia.

The fact is that Russia’s political culture is very ambiguous. Historically, it has always represented the competition between pro-Western and anti-Western narratives. Neither of the two sides can achieve the final victory and change the agenda. After all, the West still remains a part of the outlook of many Russians, including the representatives of the country’s political elites.

The admiration with and the hate toward Western culture and values co-exist in the minds of many Russians, which make their behavior bizarre and difficult to predict. Without doubt, President Putin’s mentality is the same, with his ambiguous attitude toward the West. Driven by purely political calculations, he chooses a very tough, anti-Western and anti-liberal stance. Yet when he deals with economy, science, research and education, he has to recognize the efficiency and indispensability of the Western approaches. 

And the case of the European University manifests these peculiarities of the Russian worldview. The anti-Western trend in Russia became a big troublemaker for the European University, with many pro-government and “patriotic” campaigners accusing it and its researchers of spreading foreign values that allegedly undermine traditional values.   

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The reason why the license was revoked from the European University came at the request of notorious Russian parliamentarian Vitaly Milonov, the author of the law banning what he calls “homosexual propaganda.” He is reported to have sent the request to the public prosecutor’s office because the university deals with research on gender programs.

Russia’s embrace of educational reform

At the same time, the Kremlin has taken a very clear move to develop Russian science and education in accordance with Western standards despite the decline in U.S.-Russia relations, as indicated by several facts. First, in 2012, the Kremlin ordered Russian universities to improve their record in the Western global educational rankings.

Second, the Russian president supported the European University and was asked to resolve the problem after a request from the leadership and the founders of the University, including well-known Russian liberal and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. 

Naturally, such a move contributed to the restoration of the university’s license. The crisis is over, yet the future of the European University remains in limbo.

Today, most Russian universities, if not all, can only dream about such level of efficiency and such international acclaim in social and humanitarian studies, which the European University has achieved. Remarkably, it succeeded not because of some special state-initiated programs or lavish funding from the government, but primarily because it was initially “tuned” to the leading international research trends in a very specific academic field.    

Russia’s state universities cannot repeat this success story, partly, because of an ossified bureaucracy, as well as pressure from a domineering anti-Western and conservative ideology in academia, which is not compatible with the current global trends in social science. At the same time, the leadership of the country insistently demands high educational standards from state universities and wants them to be included in the Top 100 lists of international rankings.

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In such a situation, the European University — with its successes and prominence — started irritating its Russian rivals. Probably, the state-supported lobby within academia is tacitly expressing its indignation about the European University. And this could be one of the reasons why it is faced with troubles.

In such an environment, the existence of external stakeholders and their ability to exert pressure might pose many risks for the European University. There are unconfirmed rumors that the university might be forced to move from its historic building in central St. Petersburg or that the authorities could launch another attack, because they don’t like the reforms of the country’s law enforcement agencies proposed by the European University’s researchers.

However, even though it would be possible to counter these private attacks, the harsh contradictions between Russia’s turn to conservatism and the principles of academic independence, defended by the European University, will remain. The only hope in this fight against the state Leviathan is its indecisiveness: Should it be a friend of the liberal West, or should it be its enemy? That’s why the European University is a necessary symbol, if only to showcase that freedom in Putin’s Russia might survive after all. 

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.