Digest of Russian media
While Western Students Rally, Russian Universities Silencing Dissent and Pushing Loyalty to the Kremlin
May 13, 2024
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities have significantly clamped down on dissent among university students.

Universities nationwide host lectures featuring pro-Kremlin speakers, which university administrations force students to attend under the threat of expulsion. One of the frequent speakers is Ekaterina Mizulina, who leads the Safe Internet League, an organization leading the charge in internet censorship and known for its denunciations of disloyal artists and bloggers.

During a lecture in Yekaterinburg in February, a student confronted Mizulina, accusing her of being an informant and censor, and also questioned the effectiveness of conscript soldiers due to their lack of skills. Mizulina responded by threatening the student with persecution.

“The young man who allowed himself to insult conscript soldiers in our audience had better apologize for it now before he is held accountable for discrediting our army,” said Mizulina.

Another well-known guest at Russian universities is the film director Nikita Mikhalkov, known for his conservative views and unquestioning loyalty to Putin. In March, students at Moscow State University were required to attend a lecture — instead of classes — where Mikhalkov spoke about Russia fighting against “global Satanism.”

“I believe that the special military operation was sent to us by God, because we finally understood who is who, what is what, because we opened our eyes,” said Mikhalkov at the meeting with students.

At the Moscow State Art and Cultural University, regular meetings with “patriotic” guests are held. Students say that whereas “Hero Hour,” as these meetings are called, used to be held every few months, now they take place almost every other week.

“The format has become more diverse. They hold ‘master classes’ with writing postcards for soldiers, invite those who fought in the special military operation and intelligence officers as speakers, there was a stand with books dedicated to the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics,” one of the students anonymously told RFE/RL.

In addition, students shared with RFE/RL that their university made them write letters to soldiers. However, they noted that beyond threats there have been no actual consequences for missing such events.

First-year students at the Baltic State Technical University must sign employment contracts with military equipment manufacturers or face expulsion. These contracts give them access to “state secrets” (confidential information), meaning they cannot leave the country, even though they are not told about their exact duties.

The administration of the Higher School of Economics (HSE), a top Russian university, is planning to create a student government made up of “patriotic activists.” Whoever opposes this new policy also risks being expelled.

“We have every reason to believe that this time the formation of the new student government is being approached with a policy of filters, excluding individuals deemed ‘undesirable’ for one reason or another. It is worth noting that the only selection criterion seems to be whether a person is liked by a relevant administrator or not,” HSE students anonymously told TV Rain.

In April, the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU) announced the founding of the Ivan Ilyin Higher Political School, named after the conservative, anti-Communist philosopher and one-time Adolf Hitler sympathizer. The far-right political philosopher Alexander Dugin was chosen to lead it (see Russia.Post for more).

Outraged RGGU students have created a VK group called “RGGU against the Ilyin School” and launched a petition demanding its renaming, pushing for a vote on a new name. Nearly 30,000 people have signed the petition.

“The scientific center at one of the leading universities in a country that defeated fascism cannot bear the name of a supporter of fascist ideas, taking into account the socio-political situation in our country at the moment,” the petition reads.

In 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying admission to Russian universities for the children of those who fought in the special operation. In particular, universities are now required to reserve 10% of the tuition-free places for them, while children of soldiers killed in action are granted admission without consideration of exam scores.

“I do not support this decision,” one of the students from a top Russian university told Afisha Daily. “I know firsthand what it took to get a high score on the Unified State Exam [the exam that Russian students take after high school] to get into my university: it was a titanic daily effort over two years just to get myself on the list of admitted students.”

Last year, around 8,500 students were admitted on the basis of this quota. Among them was the son of a soldier who enrolled in one of Russia’s technical universities. Though his exam scores were half those of all other applicants, he was admitted; however, three months later he was expelled for poor academic performance.

Meanwhile, students are also being expelled for participating in antiwar rallies, engaging in activism, criticizing the war and the Russian army, etc. According to the Russian news outlet Bumaga, since 2022 18 individuals have been expelled from St Petersburg universities solely for political reasons.

Earlier this month, a student from the Department of Philology at St Petersburg State University joined this list for placing flowers in memory of Alexei Navalny after his death, for which she was arrested. The university considered this act “a violation of Russian legislation” and expelled her — one month before graduation.

A student at Moscow State University (MGU) was arrested for naming the Wi-Fi network in the dormitory “Slava Ukraine!” (Glory to Ukraine!). He received a 10-day sentence for “publicly displaying extremist symbols” and was subsequently expelled.

MGU has also expelled students who objected to their classmate displaying the flag of the Luhansk people’s republic on the main staircase at the Department of Journalism. Screenshots from a private chat were leaked to major state media outlets, with the third-year students receiving death threats from strangers on social media. Nevertheless, the university supported the pro-war activist.

“My [female] classmates became the target of mass harassment because of unchecked and one-sidedly presented information,” an MGU student told MSK1. “At the same time, the department administration openly decided to take the side of Antropov [the student who displayed the flag] and threatened to put before an ‘ethics commission’ those who had spoken out, completely ignoring the thousands of threats directed at their own students. Apparently, they chose not to stand up for students whose political position is more oppositional.”
  • Sofia Sorochinskaia

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