Mobilized University

Russian universities have become a place for pro-war propaganda and the persecution of anti-war students and teachers.

Dmitry Dubrovsky

 

Photo: Anti-war-minded teachers are increasingly quitting and even leaving the country. Photo: https://t.me/romasuperromasuper

 

The beginning of so-called “partial mobilization” has sharply increased government pressure on academic institutions and universities. The Russian economy is on a war footing, and higher education is beginning to turn in that direction.

 

“Boots on the Ground”

It was clear from the very beginning of mobilization that, from the point of view of local recruitment offices, students at state universities could become an excellent source for replenishing the army. Thus, students at Buryat State University in Ulan-Ude were drafted into the army on September 22, right from their classes. At the same time, representatives of the Ministry of Defense routinely lied that they were not planning the mobilization of full-time students.

On October 5—two weeks after the start of the hastily launched mobilization campaign—President Putin signed a decree deferring the mobilization of students at state-registered universities, as well as graduate students.  Yet those who have entered master’s programs after receiving their specialist’s degree are still being mobilized.

Following Putin’s decree, the conscription of students became known as “mistakes in the field.” Some governors have stated that they will return students who have already been mobilized to classrooms.

 

Graduate Programs as a Means of Avoiding Mobilization

Since it became clear that graduate school defers mobilization, corruption has increased.

According to reports from a number of universities, the last names of university employees’ children have appeared on graduate enrollment lists. Many of them showed no previous interest in an academic career. For example, a husband and wife—relatives of the deputy director of the Center—became graduate students at the Federal Center of Animal Husbandry.

A criminal case has already been filed against the non-state university Synergy: its employees allegedly issued certificates about the availability of positions for students and graduate students in exchange for bribes.

 

Run or Return?

Those who have left. Some students tried to leave for foreign internships or enroll in universities abroad. Even before the start of the war, these statistics were troubling: for example, Yaroslav Kuzminov, research director of HSE, stated that Russian universities were losing up to half of their talented students.

After the war began, many students left the country (it is still impossible to gauge how many). It is possible that the deferral of army service that was put in place has reduced this flood, but it definitely has not stopped it.

Those who moved to Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan following the start of the war are trying to finish their studies remotely, where possible, and receive their diplomas early.

Others have enrolled in—or are trying to enroll in—foreign master’s programs and not return to the warring country. These plans have been made more difficult by the serious restrictions on the issuing of visas to Russian citizens.

 

Those who are returning. Exchange students who had been studying at Western universities were urged to return to Russia on the pretense of supposedly growing Russophobia. There was a desire to report that students who had suffered “from discrimination” were returning to Russia en masse.

Indeed, rejection from universities and internships was in some cases motivated by applicants’ Russian citizenship. Most European and American universities, however, have supported students from Russia, publicly arguing that they are not responsible for the actions of the Russian regime.

We can assume that a significant number of students who interrupted their studies returned because it was too difficult to live in countries where Russian credit cards do not work, making it impossible to pay for day-to-day expenses.

The total number of those who have returned, however, is not large—less than 1,000 people. For comparison, an average of 50,000 Russian students study abroad. Therefore, official statistics hardly confirm the stories about the “persecution of Russian students” at foreign universities.

 

Military Training Centers

The militarization of education at Russian universities continues.

In 2019, MTCs—military training centers—were founded at universities, replacing previously existing military departments. Today, there are about 100 such centers nationwide.

Previously, those who finished their education in a military department became reserve officers. Currently, the official policy is that a student can choose for himself whether he wishes to study at a military center. After completing his education at an MTC, a student is considered to have served and is sent to the reserves as a retired officer, sergeant or private.

Experts believe that, under the new conditions, this may mean that such students are considered to have “served” and are therefore available to be called into “partial mobilization.” This question, however, still does not have a definitive answer.

At the same time, students are cautioned to resist “the influence of alarmists and provocateurs” and wisely weigh “all of the risks with respect to calls for or participation in illegal activities,” according to the HSE website.

 

Dissent amid Mobilization

Against the background of mobilization, the persecution of those who insist on the university’s political neutrality is increasing.

 

Russian State University for the Humanities. According to RSUH, the director of the Institute of Psychology announced, after mobilization was announced, that “punishments from the university side for participation in protests will be much harsher than before.”

 

Moscow State University. In the Department of Journalism at MSU, two students who protested another student’s public display of the flags of the DPR and LPR were expelled for “inappropriate behavior” after facing serious harassment from both university leadership and state media.

 

The Higher School of Economics. The student magazine Doxa is collecting stories about how students are regularly “warned about liability for unsanctioned protests.” At HSE, such warnings come from the “head of the second department” (responsible for military registration and mobilization).

Even a student report can become the basis for persecution: an HSE student was detained over presentation material for her International Law course. Police considered it “propaganda,” and the student spent 48 hours at a police station and was fined 10,000 rubles “for participation in an unsanctioned rally.”

 

Pressure on Teachers

The same pressure is brought to bear on teachers who protest the war. Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma, is calling upon teachers who disagree with the ongoing “special military operation” to resign.

The FSB is also used to reinforce that position. For example, an FSB officer approached Omsk State Technical University professor Dmitrii Rudakov following his publication of an anti-war post. The officer threatened that Rudakov could “not only lose his work but also end up in prison, like all liberals.”

Employees of the same university conducted an investigation and concluded that Rudakov’s behavior was “immoral,” as expressed in “the coercion of students to accept anti-Russian political convictions and positions… and the imposition on students of his own negative views of the city, country, and OSTU.” Although his dismissal was ruled illegal in court, the teacher was never reinstated at work.

Another example is the story of Roman Mel’nichenko, a teacher and researcher at Volgograd University. He was fined 30,000 rubles for “discrediting the army.” The court declared it false that Russian forces were near Kiev and that soldiers shot at peaceful cities. The teacher was subsequently fired. Mel’nichenko lost all of his court proceedings.

Anti-war-minded teachers are increasingly quitting and even leaving the country.

 

The Threat of Mobilization

Despite the request of the Ministry of Science and Education and the petitions of researchers, teachers with candidate and doctoral degrees have not been granted a deferral from mobilization. According to some data, the Ministry of Defense considers the candidate degree “easily bought” and that “there will be too many candidates for positions.”

As a result, Candidates of Science and Doctors of Science who were trained in military departments are being conscripted. According to a general assessment, there are no fewer than 100,000 such individuals. Young teachers without a degree are simply leaving, trying to switch their work to long-distance contracts.

Meanwhile, even Galina Merkulova, head of the pro-government All-Russian Trade Union of Education, has appealed to Minister V. Fal’kov, making a statement that argues, in particular: “… the conscription of male teachers and researchers will worsen the situation when it comes to staffing universities and research institutions, which could negatively influence the continuation of the scientific and educational process.”

 

Propaganda at Universities

Universities are not only becoming a place for the persecution of activists who protest against the war. They are also now a place of pro-war propaganda.

 

Pro-war demonstrations. Students are coerced into participating in pro-government, pro-war demonstrations and other campaigns that welcome the war and annexation. They receive credit and “volunteer hours” for participating in demonstrations. Refusing to participate can sometimes result in punishment. For example, 17 people were expelled from Grozny University for refusing to participate in a “joy” demonstration over the annexation of Ukrainian territory.

 

Propagandistic lectures. Especially active teachers conduct propagandistic lectures. At the lectures, they discuss how “one of the arsonists of the recruitment office” did this because she is a “descendant of a soldier who fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.”

At a number of universities, anti-Ukrainian propaganda is conducted with the support of the leadership.

Some teachers do not shun even direct calls for violence. For example, Professor Nikolai Mezhevich of the Department of European Research at St. Petersburg State University called for the “hanging of deputies of the Verkhovna Rada by their guts” on social media.

 

Propagandistic courses. True, in the classroom, that same SPbGU professor presents a normalized version of his call. His class, which is taught as part of the online project “Open Education,” says that “the basis of the Ukrainian government system is ‘a certain mythology’ that has replaced ‘the traditional pillars that Russians, the Chinese, Americans, the English, and other people possess.’”

It goes without saying that the author of the course is a major enthusiast of “the special military operation” and signed an open letter supporting the “difficult but necessary decision” to initiate military aggression.

Mandatory viewings of propagandistic films or attendance at propagandistic lectures, similar to those described above, are among other pro-war activities.

 

The collection of humanitarian aid is another sign of wartime that looks positive. Some universities—for example, Tyumen and Saratov—have been collecting “humanitarian aid” to help “refugees from the DPR and LPR,” which, according to the Russian Federation, are now part of the RF.

Employees of the universities are occupied with this activity. Such actions are mainly initiated by the rectors of Russian universities.

 

* * *

The continuing war is causing the ongoing deterioration of the situation in Russian academia.

  • The militarization of higher education,
  • The activation of the “patriotic” segment of Russian academia,
  • Rectors’ ideological statements,
  • The constant practice of involving students in pro-war rallies and demonstrations of loyalty—

all of this deepens the chasm between politically different parts of the Russian scientific and educational communities.

This activism makes it even harder to continue cooperation with Western universities. Indeed, it gives more arguments to those who support the academic boycott of Russian science and higher education.

Finally, ever more talented students and teachers are leaving Russia, which has become an outcast in the global academic community. Again and again, Russian universities are reporting that it is difficult to conduct even ordinary educational programs—teachers and researchers are fleeing abroad to escape the war.

 

Dmitry Dubrovsky, Candidate of Historical Sciences, is a researcher at the Center for Independent Social Research (St. Petersburg), a researcher at the Laboratory of Academic Freedom (LAF), and a member of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council.

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