In Russia, a Top University Lacks Just One Thing: Students

In Russia, a Top University Lacks Just One Thing: Students

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — At this time of year, the halls of the European University at St. Petersburg, a private liberal arts college in the heart of Russia’s second-largest city, would normally be filling with students returning from summer break.

For the second year in a row, however, the college’s lecture halls are empty and dark, and the canteen is filled with an eerie silence. The only signs of life are in the faculty rooms, where the underemployed professors grumble about their enforced sabbatical.

The European University has a world-class faculty, a generous endowment and an outstanding reputation as a research institution. What it has lacked since August of last year, when the authorities took away the university’s teaching license, is students.

When that happened, the students were forced to leave and the university began a desperate search for high-ranking backers in the Russian government. At times, that seemed like a lost cause, even after President Vladimir V. Putin signed three resolutions ordering officials to support the school.

Lately, however, things have begun to look up. Mr. Putin’s re-election in March led to a major reshuffle of the Russian government. Aleksei L. Kudrin, a longtime associate of Mr. Putin and one of the most powerful liberal-leaning politicians in Russia, became the head of the Audit Chamber, with the power to send his own inspectors.

Suddenly, with Mr. Kudrin’s appointment, the Russian education regulator failed to find any violations when it surveyed the university, and a teaching license was granted this month. It now plans to reopen to students in October.

But the European University’s struggles may not be over. There have been times over the past year when the school thought its teaching license was about to be restored, and each time its hopes were dashed. The university was caught in the seesaw battles waged in the Russian government between reactionary, nationalist forces and more progressive, outward-looking factions.

It is not just the European University that the nationalists have in their sights. Last month, the Russian government revoked the accreditation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, another highly regarded Western-oriented institution.

The attacks underscore questions about how Russia can build independent, world-class institutions if they are constantly pressured by revanchist elements in the Russian leadership.

“The European University’s problem is that it is European,” said Vladimir Y. Gelman, one of Russia’s leading political theorists, who is a professor at the school. “The set of principles followed by our school — academic freedom, self-organization, and international openness — is the opposite of the one followed by today’s Russia: centralized control, power vertical and isolationism,” he said. “We are not compatible with these principles.”

The European University was a product of the immediate post-Soviet era, when money was scarce but grass-roots initiatives blossomed. It was set up in 1994 by a group of enthusiasts to try to prevent brain drain. Its aim was to bring together Russia’s leading scholars in the social sciences and humanities in an institution modeled after Western universities.

In those early years, it enjoyed generous funding from Western donors such as George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Ford and MacArthur Foundations. Later on, as those groups fell from favor, wealthy Russian industrialists pitched in.

The school was a success almost from the day it opened its doors, with students flocking there from all over Russia and from around the world. In contrast to most Russian universities, students were forced to think critically, and they were free to choose their own areas of interest.

The Soviet educational system had produced good mathematicians and physicists, but little else, with the disciplines of economics, sociology, political science and history burdened by Marxist dogma.

“Soviet economics was simply a collection of ideological symbols and scholastic constructions.” said Kirill Y. Borissov, a professor of economics at the European University. “Even the teachings of Marx and Lenin were misinterpreted. It had nothing to do with economics as such.”

To bring leading teaching and research practices to Russia, the university hired Russian academics who had left for leading schools in the West, including Oxford, Cambridge and several leading American universities.

“The European University is probably the best thing that can happen to a scholar of humanities or social sciences in Russia,” said another professor there, Ivan I. Kurilla, a leading specialist on Russian-American relations. “Most Russian academics dream to work like this. We spend our time writing, researching and teaching, instead of fighting the endless bureaucracy.”

The university invited guest lecturers and permanent professors from outside Russia. In 2016, the Russian Education Ministry named the school the top research university in the country, above the famed Moscow State University. One of the reasons for this success was the absence of censorship, said Grigorii V. Golosov, one of the most-cited Russian political scientists.

“For instance, today you cannot be part of the international scientific community if you don’t recognize that the Russian political regime is authoritarian,” he said. “For the vast majority of scientists, this is just an accepted fact.”

But not for Russia’s nationalists, whose influence grew steadily in the years after Mr. Putin’s rise to the presidency in 2000. Soon, they were making trouble for the university, which they saw as an intolerable outpost of Western liberalism.

The revocation of its teaching license was only one of several attacks on the university over the past decade. Fire inspectors banned classes for six weeks in 2008, apparently after the college accepted a grant from the European Commission for a program to improve election monitoring in Russia. After the university returned the grant, the fire inspectors dropped their complaints.

In 2016, Vitaly V. Milonov, an ultraconservative legislator best known for his anti-gay activities, filed a complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor General saying that his constituents were concerned about what was being taught at the school. Two other complaints were filed within the next three months.

One of those, Vyacheslav Y. Dobrokhotov, an activist with a nationalist movement in St. Petersburg, cited a book by Oleg V. Kharkhordin, a political scientist at the university, which argued that the Soviet social fabric was largely based on hypocrisy.

“I realized that this organization is harmful to Russia,” Mr. Dobrokhotov said of the school. “Its main organizer is the United States. They want to stage a color revolution in our country.”

The other grievance was filed by Dmitri Bikbov, who complained about illegal migrant workers unloading new plastic windows near the university’s main building, an 18th-century, marble-clad palace that had been designated a historical landmark. In an interview, Mr. Bikbov said that he had nothing against the university and that he had been asked to make a complaint by a government official he did not want to identify.

The complaints created a legal pretext for no fewer than 11 official bodies — among them the education watchdog, which issues the teaching licenses; the St. Petersburg government, which owns the palace building; and the Emergency Situations Ministry, which oversees fire inspection — to conduct inquiries. A legal wrangle ensued.

In the end, the St. Petersburg government evicted the university from the palace — because of the plastic windows, which were only temporary — forcing it to move to an ordinary building across the street.

University officials say they were never clear why the teaching license was revoked. They say the authorities cited the failure of the university’s political scientists to work outside the campus, and its lack of a proper gym.

“I am sure the reason we cannot study has nothing to do with fire safety regulations,” said Roman V. Popov, a student of economics, who had to transfer to another college in St. Petersburg to receive his degree. “It might be political, or perhaps someone just wanted to have our building.”

While the university may now to be back on its feet, some faculty members said they were disappointed with what they described as the administration’s subservient stance over the past year.

“The ability to make a deal with the government was good, but at one point, it turned into a catastrophe,” said Yevgeny V. Anisimov, one of the leading historians in Russia. “We lost students, we lost our building. The one we have now is still empty.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Russian University Closed in Political Tussle May Reopen. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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