December 13, 2016

Russia shuts down European University at St. Petersburg amid highly suspect bureaucratic hoodoo


The European University at St. Petersburg. Photo by TasyaPolina.

The European University at St. Petersburg. Photo by TasyaPolina.

The European University at St. Petersburg, located in the Russian city whose name it bears, has been ordered to cease classroom instruction, and may face closure or further reprisals, according to reporting from the Moscow Times. (The Times article actually says the university has already been shut down, but faculty members contest this.)

The private, post-graduate university, which celebrated the twenty-second anniversary of its founding a few weeks ago, is one of the premier liberal institutions of Russia’s post-Soviet period. It is a lynchpin of free thought and open discourse in a country where higher education has been under fire for a while now.

The government office responsible for the closure is called Rosobrnadzor (not a typo), which is short for “Federal’naya sluzhba po nadzoru v sfere obrazovaniya i nauki,” or “Federal Service for the Oversight of Education and Science.” According to a statement from the university, a series of Rosobrnadzor raids earlier this year provided an initial list of 120 violations, including “the absence of anti-alcohol propaganda stations,” which administrators addressed, providing “kilograms of documentation.” Nonetheless, a federal court issued a finding that they had not been addressed, presenting no details or prescriptions for remediation.

The university cites four allegedly ongoing violations that have been used to justify its suspension: that both the political science and sociology departments have inadequate percentages of “teacher-practitioners,” that teachers working on fixed-term contracts lack appropriate certification, and that the university doesn’t have a functioning gym in a location where it is supposed to.

The complaint that led to the raids was allegedly filed by Vitaliy Milonov, a member of the Russian Duma known for his public anti-semitism, his desire to change the Russian name of Istanbul (“Stambul”) back to Constantinople (“Konstantinopol’”), and his authorship and sponsorship of Russia’s medieval anti-gay laws. Milonov is a member of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

The organization’s future appears to be in some doubt; more should be known after a meeting scheduled for tomorrow between rector Oleg Kharkhordin and representatives of Rosobrznadzor.

While it’s not yet clear exactly what is happening or how recent developments may play out, a growing chorus of voices are decrying the news, even while counseling caution before assuming the worst. On social media, Artemy Magun, the university’s Dean of Political Science and Sociology, wrote, “The reason for an unprecedented series of control raids against the university seems to be political, even though we do not yet understand what exactly is the political actor behind the attacks and what it wants. I guess generally speaking there are people in this state who are afraid of any, even modest, touch of enlightenment and internationalism.”

On social media, poet (and Melville House authorPolina Barskova referred to those behind the closure as “inhuman.”

And a small group of Parisian students staged a protest outside the Sorbonne this weekend.

It’s not the first time the EUSP has faced controversy and questionable state interference. In 2008, when term limits forced Putin to vacate the presidency, the university was a hotbed of the movement to increase scrutiny of Russia’s highly contested elections. Shortly thereafter, it was closed for a series of alleged fire code violations. (The results of that election installed Putin loyalist Dmitrii Medvedev in the presidency, while Putin assumed the nation’s prime ministership, in what was widely termed “tandemocracy.” Several years later, the two men switched jobs, term limits be damned. Russian dissidents often refer to the “third-term logic” underlying Russia’s current, brutal politics.) Earlier this year, the university’s accreditation was briefly revoked, for similarly bureaucratic reasons.

EUSP professor Ilya Utekhin wrote on Facebook this weekend that “the situation is different now than it was in 2008, because there was then a single pretext… whereas this is now part of a trend. It’s a trend firstly of expanding the collective farms, of centralizing management — a straight line to the closure of all university campuses and small colleges, especially private ones. Strangulation made easy: a proliferation of rules, often contradicting one another and rarely bearing any relation to either common sense or educational objectives, so that they can always get the drop on any college that lacks a large department dedicated to realizing the demands of government inspectors.”



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.