Russian “Student Societies”

January 29 | 2024

Nationalist and conservative student societies are becoming more active in Russian universities.

Dmitry Dubrovsky

 

Photo: The network of “Russian societies” is distinguished by its particularly conservative-Orthodox inclinations. Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

 

Conservative Students

In our blog post on academic freedom, we wrote about people in Russia today who are protesting, in one way or another, and have lost their jobs due to their public stance on the war, or even just for criticizing the actions of university administration. In our evaluation report for 2023, we noted that a significant proportion of dismissals were directly facilitated (typically following a report to the authorities) by pro-war activists within the Russian academic space.

Who are these people? Often, it is not just other teachers, but also students pointing the finger.

As a rule, they are young people with rather conservative, often nationalistic worldviews, who actively discuss and promote the ideas of statism, state Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism. Even prior to the war, they were actively involved in the conservative swing, which began long before the open phase of the military operations in Ukraine.

 

The Rhetoric

The modern Russian student environment has produced a number of openly nationalistic or conservative student societies, many of which have appeared relatively recently. The public Telegram pages of these student groups present a motley picture. Rhetoric describing Russia as a “special civilization” is interspersed with stories about gulags, discussions of external influences in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and readings of Varlam Shalamov and The Gulag Archipelago.

Most of the activity on the page—both the publications and the response—is war propaganda and expressions of support for the “special military operation troops.” Tellingly, this is also accompanied by openly nationalist rhetoric and exaltations of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

 

Conservative Orthodox Societies

The network of “Russian societies” is distinguished by its particularly conservative-Orthodox inclinations and can be found at the:

  • Higher School of Economics (HSE) (Moscow)
  • Russian State Social University (RGSU) (Moscow)
  • Moscow State Linguistic University (MGLU) (Moscow)
  • Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) (Moscow)
  • Donetsk National University (Donetsk, ORDLO*)
  • Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU)
  • Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) (Moscow)
  • Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation (Moscow)
  • Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) (Moscow)

 

* transliteration of the Ukrainian abbreviation for the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts

 

The majority of these organizations are members of the Association of Russian Societies.

By law, these clubs are prohibited from conducting “political activities.” Their task is to “discuss the great Russian culture and the fate of Russian society…while remaining outside the realm of politics” in order to fight the “low level of cultural subjectivity among the Russian people.” Nevertheless, this often turns into a fight against “Ukraine supporters” and “traitors to the Motherland.”

 

MGIMO. Back in 2022, a MGIMO graduate created the channel “Podhokhlyata MGIMO,” whose task is to identify “unpatriotic” elements among teachers and students of the prestigious university. The content of the channel was so odious (for example, the author consistently referred to Ukraine as a “Reich of pigs”) that MGIMO University denounced it.

Soon, the creator renamed the channel to “Podhokhlyata Russia,” which continues to publish information about “pro-Ukrainian teachers and scientists,” now on a national scale.

 

Journalism Department at Moscow State University. At around the same time in 2022, a scandal broke out in the journalism department of Moscow State University. Pro-war “patriot” Stepan Antropov staged a public demonstration in the journalism building sporting a T-shirt bearing the letter “Z” (a Russian militarist propaganda symbol) and waving the DPR flag, for which he was harshly criticized by his classmates.

That being said, it soon became clear that there were other motivations behind the sharp rebuke—prior to his performance, Antropov had also repeatedly insulted fellow female students in social media chats. Comments from other students pointed to the political nature of the act, which, according to commenters, contradicts the “non-political nature of the university.”

 

White Raven, HSE. A prominent representative of the pro-war vigilantes is the White Raven, an organization founded at the Higher School of Economics. The organization, which calls itself the “All-Russian Student Patriotic Movement,” has public pages on VKontakte and Telegram, and in rhetoric and practice adheres entirely to the aggressive official line being pushed by the Russian authorities. They collect money for drones and pose with head HSU administrators while transferring the funds to the “defenders of the Fatherland.”

 

Russian Student House at the Peoples’ Friendship University (RUDN). The public VKontakte page of the Russian House at RUDN has posted media expressing gratitude to the Russian Club for offering humanitarian aid to Russian snipers in the Russian National Guard.

 

MGU Russian Society could be more accurately described as Orthodox. Although one of the main goals listed in its founding charter is “the restoration and fortification of the Russian national identity,” in fact, the majority of their efforts are concentrated on communication between “Orthodox teachers and students,” in addition to supporting the “special military operation troops.”

It seems highly coincidental that the chairman of the society bears the name “Konstantin Pobedonostsev”—a conservative 19th-century Russian lawyer and political figure who notably declared democracy “a false political principle.”

The public rules of this group, in particular, prohibit “…insults to the state-forming people and other peoples.”

 

The “Russian Society of Students of RANEPA” glorifies Daria Dugina as a “martyr” on its Vkontakte page. Unlike many leaders of public opinion, “who were ashamed that they were Russian,” she immediately supported the special military operation.

 

The Russian Society at HSE has popularized the White Raven on its Vkontakte page, which has about five thousand followers, in contrast with the White Raven’s one-and-a-half thousand. Here, they discuss “the lives of HSE students from Donbass.”

The society’s Instagram page urges people to help “refugees of Donetsk and Lugansk” under the slogan: “Russians help Russians” and also welcomes “new students of the DPR, LPR and Ukraine” to the HSE.

 

The Club for Research of Russian Civilization at the MGIMO Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia named after the Holy Blessed Grand Duke Alexander Nevsky declares that it unites Russian patriots and those who see the need to protect “traditional Russian values.” The student association charter states the importance of studying “the history and culture of the Russian and other peoples of Russia” and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Particular emphasis is given to the obligation club members have to assist “…the rector, vice-rectors, in particular the vice-rector for social and educational work and the vice-rector for scientific work, and the head of the department for educational work of the MGIMO Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia in their activities.” We have already written about the role of vice-rectors, in particular for educational work, in strengthening control over “student patriotism.”

 

FEFU Russian Club. Many public pages post media on memorable dates and describe historical events. The FEFU Russian Club Telegram channel, in particular, responded to the 150th anniversary of the death of the Cossack general Yakov Petrovich Baklanov, one of the “conquerors of the Caucasus.” It described the general as “a tireless persecutor of highlanders and Turks, and an enemy of political correctness and ‘democracy’ in all its manifestations.”

Other public social media pages contain many quotes from the conservative philosophers I. Ilyin, A. Suvorov, P. Stolypin and other historical figures, who, according to the authors of the Russian student group pages, constitute “the glory of Russia.”

The pro-war activities of these groups are encouraged by university leadership.

 

“White Raven” v. St. Petersburg State University Professor

However, not all students are enthusiastic about this brand of “patriotism”.

Conflicts at universities that have been brought to the public eye demonstrate how war activists publicly clash with those who either openly oppose the war or profess the principle of “keeping politics out of universities” and criticize flagrant propaganda.

One of the co-chairs of the White Raven branch at HSE St. Petersburg, student Mikhail Googe, essentially  single-handedly led the persecution of St. Petersburg State University teacher Mikhail Belousov, publishing an “investigative report” entitled “the Ukrainian abscess in the history department of St. Petersburg State University.” Googe calls history students at St. Petersburg State University who oppose the war “pro-Khokhol” (a pejorative term for Ukrainian people)  and “traitors to Russia,” who commit terrorist attacks and in the future will teach children a version of history that has been rewritten to favor Ukraine, thereby creating “Russophobic followers.”

Despite Belousov’s dismissal and the expulsion of seven students from the university, some students remained unintimidated. A few months later, Googe began complaining to politician and well-known author of right-wing literature Zakhar Prilepin, citing screenshots in which his classmates call him a “fascist” and advises that he be expelled from the “disgusting liberal university” (HSE).

White Raven members have also complained to an active pro-Z-blogger that their activities “do not find support among students of the HSE,” and that “due to our civic-patriotic stance” they face “…constant negativity from other students, receive personal threats, offensive and obscene statements addressed to our relatives, complaints, petitions, etc.”

 

* * *

Despite the state’s two-year campaign to militarize and ideologize higher education, it cannot be said that Russian students support the special military operation.

Any kind of activity that university leadership demonstrates as “student support”—collecting money and “humanitarian aid to fighters,” weaving camouflage nets and even producing drones—can hardly be called volunteer activity. In a number of cases participants—non-publicly—refer to the demands of their superiors.

The real level of support for the special operation is rather illustrated by the examples described above of the strong reaction of the majority of students to the pro-war rhetoric of their classmates.

Dmitry Dubrovsky holds a PhD in History and is a researcher in the social sciences department at Charles University (Prague), a research fellow at the Center for Independent Sociological Research in the USA (CISRus), a professor at the Free University (Latvia), and an associate member of the Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg.

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