Academic Rights in Russia and the Internationalization of Higher Education

International ties have divided Russian educators.
By Dmitry Dubrovskiy

Translated by David Beecher

Modernizing reforms in Russia carried out under the banner of “Westernization” and “Europeanization”— and this has been their character throughout history—tend to treat modernization as a technical process, ignoring institutional transformations, not to mention the democratic values embedded in the modernization project. The implementation of educational reform in Russia thus raises a question: How does the incorporation of Russia into the system of international higher education affect academic rights and academic freedom? Can integration into that system by itself guarantee academic freedom within the Russian academy? To answer this question, one must first understand the role academic freedom played in Soviet scholarship and education.

The Soviet Era

The autonomy of the university and freedom of inquiry and education in the Soviet Union were, of course, illusory, primarily because of the role that higher education and science played in the Soviet modernization project, which aspired not only to technological and military-industrial development but also to the education of the “new communist person.” The natural sciences were closely monitored by the special security services because they were associated with military production, while the human and social sciences came under close scrutiny because they were part of the Soviet ideological project. Only a small portion—no more than 7 or 8 percent—of Soviet scholars enjoyed some freedoms within the Academy of Sciences, a research institution. The government granted much greater freedom here than in the broader system of higher education in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in order to keep science as such from completely disappearing. The system in general was rigidly centralized, uniformly administered both vertically and horizontally. It lacked competition and was based on single-channel funding. Civil society, of course, played a minimal role.

In practice, the nature of Soviet control was uneven, and it was especially weak in the wake of Khrushchev’s moderate de-Stalinization in the 1950s. A wide gap existed between official decrees and real practices in the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences and in universities, one that persisted until the last days of the Soviet Union and led to the emergence of protodemocratic processes such as the election of rectors and deans. Symbolic capital—especially international recognition as scientists—accorded privileges that might be viewed as a limited form of academic freedom to a very small percentage of scholars. Moreover, even during the Cold War, communication and cooperation with foreign countries did not cease, although it was severely limited and tightly controlled by the party, state bodies, and the state security agency, the KGB.

Nevertheless, it was this qualified freedom that led some research scientists to become founders of the Soviet human rights movement. Despite the near disappearance of this movement by 1980, perestroika and especially the first and last free elections in Russia in 1989 turned a number of academics, including A. A. Sobchak, A. D. Sakharov, and G. V. Starovoitova, into leaders of the new democratic movement. Scientists had been elected deputies before, but according to the logic of Soviet parliamentarism, those who became legislators had tended to come from the Academy of Sciences, prominent scientists who saw their political participation as a “social burden” and did not have any particular understanding of their role and tasks as elected representatives. The new wave of scientists in politics was different: it was not by chance that of the 24 percent of representatives of science, education, and culture who were members of the last Supreme Soviet legislative body, most joined the democratic wing.

New Divisions

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the situation changed significantly. For a long time the Russian Academy of Sciences and other educational institutions granted scholars considerable academic freedom, and the institutions themselves enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, albeit with very little state funding. I was at that time a student at Saint Petersburg State University, and I vividly remember the winter of 1992, when, as a result of a lack of funds, university buildings were not heated and students sat in classes as they sat in the military—in overcoats and gloves, in order keep their hands from freezing. Nevertheless, scholarly activity and educational contacts grew. The Soros Foundation Open Society Institute played an important role in supporting science and education, providing funding for projects and researchers, and encouraging many Russian national and educational initiatives.

At the same time, participation in the international system led to a deep split within the Russian educational community. The segment that supported international education and science, was competent in foreign languages, and generally shared a liberal-democratic orientation became an embattled minority within the national academic community following the long years of humiliation and economic crisis. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences began to recall the Soviet Union as a place that guaranteed basic material conditions that had all but disappeared by the end of the twentieth century, and many rejoiced at the reestablishment of state control in the spheres of education and science, even when this control was highly ideological. Researchers have described this as a “defensive reaction” of the Russian humanities to the apparent inequality in the divisions of the international intellectual labor market.

This part of the academic community has welcomed in many respects the conservative shift that has taken place in Russian higher education since the turn of the century. But because this shift coincided with the introduction of neoliberal market reforms in Russian education, Russian scholarship has been caught between the Scylla of traditionalist conservatism and the Charybdis of capitalist neoliberalism. The economic growth of the early 2000s transformed the state’s role in science and education as the state reasserted control over these spheres. During this period the institutional conditions for interaction between the academy and the state took on a Soviet character that they retain today. Apparently, state security agents have set as their main task “opposition to the West,” which they view as promoting a “creeping aggression” against Russia, including through influence on science and education.

Xenophobia—particularly with respect to American organizations—thus has taken root in Russia. The Soros Foundation was declared an “undesirable organization” in Russia, and official collaboration with such an organization could cost several years in prison; in response to the struggle “against the machinations of the West,” books published in the 1990s with financial support from Soros were removed from general circulation at a number of libraries and placed in special storage.

The political reaction to the 2011–12 protests against election fraud made use of old as well as new practices of control. These included both institutional restrictions on academic freedom and new legislation and ideological policies that have sharply increased the pressure on universities by the state. Such practices are usually justified by citing the need to “protect national sovereignty and state secrets,” primarily from the countries of the West. Significantly, however, in introducing these restrictions, Russian lawmakers constantly refer to the practices of democratic Western countries, stressing that the use of measures that restrict academic freedom is widespread in the world and hence does not prove the existence of authoritarian tendencies in Russia.

The so-called first departments, by which Communist Party control was exercised in Soviet times, disappeared almost everywhere after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But now they have returned to universities and other academic institutions. The law on export control, the provisions of which became more stringent after 2005, has also become a convenient tool not only to control opposition-minded teachers but also to abet a wave of spying—even state-approved contracts have come to be treated as acts of industrial espionage and treason against the homeland. Thus, for example, the scientist Viktor Kudriavtsev is currently in prison, accused of treason for having allegedly collaborated with the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Belgium in a cooperative arrangement previously approved at the state level. An analysis conducted by a group of Russian attorneys called Team 29 shows that most such charges are based on secret examinations conducted by anonymous experts, which are simply impossible to refute within the framework of existing legal procedures.

The fight against “extremism” has become another convenient tool for restricting academic rights and freedoms. In Russia, the charge of extremism has a very loose definition, ranging from “rehabilitating Nazism” to “trying to organize a color revolution” (Moscow State University graduate student Azat Miftakhov was falsely accused of the latter, according to human rights activists, and was tortured in prison). Most of the new legislation explicitly or implicitly asserts that unspecified forces either artificially inspire interethnic conflict in a supposedly traditionally tolerant Russian society or seek to provoke revolution.

Finally, a turn toward the policy of “protecting traditional Russian” (read: conservative) values could not but affect higher education: references to a special “national” science and the need to protect it from the machinations of a hostile West are commonplace in articles and speeches of many representatives of Russian academic science and education. In important respects, such appeals to nationalism seem to be a product of the way Russia joined the Bologna Process, which has sought to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher education throughout Europe.

The Bologna Process

By 2003, the Russian Federation had officially embraced the Bologna Process, and several of the country’s universities signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, the 1988 declaration that initiated it. Accession to the Bologna Process, the rapid development of new humanitarian disciplines such as human rights and gender studies, and the emergence of new educational institutions, often as a result of international support and cooperation, seemed to promise a major breakthrough for Russian scholarship. Nevertheless, as others have noted, such initiatives contradicted the desires of the country’s academic elite and came mainly at the behest of a political elite that sought to take advantage of Bologna and European integration for its own purposes. Numerous publications on the Bologna Process in Russia emphasized the “particularity” of Russian science, its “indisputable” advantages over Western science, and even the supposedly obvious superiority of a Russian doktorat over a Western PhD. Such arguments have often stressed the special spiritual mission of Russian higher education. Russia, according to these accounts, has traditionally aimed to provide a moral education, while the “unspiritual” West remains pragmatic and selfish. Thus, on the whole, the academic community in Russia accepted integration into the Bologna Process without much enthusiasm and for limited purposes.

Efforts to integrate Russia into the European educational system and develop international contacts have been hindered by Russia’s limited experience with international projects, by inadequate knowledge of foreign languages within Russia, and by modest state funding. Labor law, meanwhile, actually impedes the normal work of international teachers in the Russian higher education system. And the document that lays out the key philosophical values underpinning the Bologna Process—the Magna Charta Universitatum—remains practically unknown in Russia: even those seventeen Russian universities that signed it in 2003 rarely apply its principles and often do not include its text on their websites.

Nevertheless, mere participation in the Bologna Process helped stimulate an educational revival in Russia. European University in Saint Petersburg, Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Saint Petersburg State University, and the Moscow School of Economics and Social Sciences (known popularly as Shaninka), have all hosted international higher education projects, and academic exchanges have increased. In the years immediately following Russia’s accession to the Bologna Process, the state actively encouraged such projects in the interest of promoting Russian higher education, and it invested considerable sums in the so-called 5-100-20 program, which set a goal of having five Russian universities in the ranks of the hundred best universities in the world by 2020. It is now obvious, however, that this goal will not be achieved. The position of Russian universities in international rankings continues to be middling at best. By 2018, only Moscow State University had reached the top hundred in the QS World University Rankings (at 90th place), while other leading Russian institutions hovered around 350 in the international rankings. International publications and the number of foreign students and teachers play an important role in these rankings.

Active financial support from the state has not significantly increased the presence of Russian scholars in international publications. Steady growth in the number of international publications in the 1990s has since stagnated, and Russia remains stuck at twelfth or thirteenth place globally. The number of Russian international publications in 2016 was but a tenth of those of the United States and China, the world leaders in numbers of scholarly publications. In addition, Russian scholars’ publications are overwhelmingly restricted to the natural sciences, where, since the times of the Soviet Union, the country has traditionally been strongest. Finally, a fascination with metrics primarily based on English-language publications has further separated the “Western-oriented” minority within the academy from the majority of university scholars, who are increasingly excluded from the international higher education community and face dim domestic career prospects and low salaries.

The number of international students in Russia, despite a slight increase, remains inadequate, and as in the Soviet years, three-quarters of international students come from countries of the former Soviet Union, with the remaining quarter mostly from Asia (China and Vietnam) and Africa. Russian higher education remains most attractive for countries with nondemocratic regimes, and it seems that Russia employs higher education primarily to promote nondemocratic development. In this regard, it is significant that Rossotrudnichestvo, an organization responsible for attracting students to study at Russian universities, directly states in its report for 2016 that “an education quota has established itself as one of the effective tools” of Russian soft power in the area of international humanitarian cooperation.

Russia uses international education for soft power not so much to enhance the overall reputation of the country but rather to advance a certain political agenda, and, at the same time, “national cultural values.” The assertion of Russia’s interests in the post- Soviet space is carried out through both the network of “Slavic universities” and a number of branches of Russian universities, which are open in several post-Soviet countries (significantly, not in Ukraine). With the goal of exerting “influence on the world through education,” Russia not only supports higher education programs in post-Soviet states but also actively exerts influence in unrecognized states—in fact, a Tskhinvali University in South Ossetia, a Russian-occupied region of Georgia, functions as a Russian institution. Currently, the university in the Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine has Russian accreditation, and Russia continues to be the only country that recognizes diplomas issued by Donetsk and Luhansk universities, both of which are located in occupied eastern Ukraine.

Thus, the internationalization of higher education in Russia has two aspects. On the one hand, the Bologna Process, which was intended to draw Russia into the European educational sphere, clearly is not only stalling but has been interpreted by Russia solely as a formal bureaucratic process that does not require institutional restructuring or attention to the basic values underpinning the process. On the other hand, what the German historian Stefan Plaggenborg recently described as “structural Sovietization without socialism” is now taking root under the guise of neoliberal reforms. This domestic Sovietization, reinforced by a specific understanding of what the internationalization of Russian higher education means abroad, seems, paradoxically, to be alienating Russia further from the international educational community.  

Dmitry Dubrovskiy is a research scholar at the Center for Independent Social Research in Saint Petersburg and associate professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. David Beecher is a lecturer in global studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he specializes in the history of modern Europe and Russia.