The heads of Russian universities have supported the war against Ukraine: rectors are calling to “rally around our President,” students are being expelled for participating in anti-war rallies, teachers are being fired for speaking out against the “special operation,” and universities are closing or trying to close study programs due to “destructive foreign influence on Russian youth.”
"Important Stories" investigates how security officials facilitated the appointment of loyal rectors to take control of the financial flows of universities and rid the academic community of freethinking.
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Students are expelled, teachers are fired, programs are closed
From the first day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the leadership of dozens of Russian universities began to put pressure on students who disagreed with the war.
By February 24 of this year, a dormitory supervisor and, according to a student, an employee of the Federal Security Service (FSB) came to said student at Novosibirsk State University, because he had a Ukrainian flag on his window. The student was threatened to be evicted from the dormitory, and report on his conduct to the faculty*, as this became known to the FSB’s curator - or resident agent - at the university. The student was later arrested. The dean's office of the Faculty of Information Technology, commenting on this case, asked the students "not to mess things up," since "the police, the FSB, will apply the most stringent measures against protesters, sympathizers, and opposers."
Some universities are concerned about students expressing their political positions on social networks. For example, the leadership of the Institute of Social Sciences and International Relations at Sevastopol State University sent out an email blast, where they noted that some students “repost (original - ed.) and comment on pages with false and slanderous information about current military-political events, distributed on the Internet. The university management recommended deleting such posts and comments - and to continue to refrain from "ANY reposts and comments of a political nature."
On March 4, 260 rectors publicly declared their support for Russia's military actions in Ukraine. They signed an appeal in which they called for people "to rally around our President" and "to conduct a continuous educational process, to instill patriotism in young people - the desire to help the Motherland." The academic community did not unanimously support this position. For example, the Higher School of Economics (HSE) published a response letter in which they called on rector Nikita Anisimov to withdraw his signature on the appeal of the Union of Rectors. “The management of the University did not discuss with students and staff the position of the HSE community regarding the military operation. The culture of pluralism, the fundamental value of the Academy and the University, was violated. The rector of the HSE, without consulting the HSE community, single-handedly entered us into agreement with the ongoing actions,” the text of the letter says. Rector Anisimov did not withdraw his signature.
In a number of universities, management has appointed students to monitor what classmates post on social networks. At the Financial University, student group leaders were asked to “monitor” not only students, but also teachers for “incorrect statements, appeals, ‘their opinions’ and reposts in social networks.”
At St. Petersburg State Forestry University, on March 15, university leadership sent students “information received through official channels” saying that the FSB recommended tougher disciplinary measures against participants in “unauthorized rallies” and the monitoring of what students write on social networks.
Censorship and control by the security forces over the content of curricula is another issue. On March 17, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration received a document from the Prosecutor General's Office, which spoke of the "destruction of traditional values" at the Faculty of Liberal Arts. This is a program within the Institute for Social Sciences, which is headed by the arrested Sergey Zuev, the rector of the university. The prosecutor's office demanded that the academy exclude facts that would have a "destructive foreign influence on Russian youth through educational programs" and punish those responsible.
At Moscow State University, the administration of the Faculty of Journalism completely closed the educational module "Political Journalism." Leadership stated that interest in political journalism has been declining in recent years, so it will no longer be taught as a separate subject. The HSE closed its specialization in "Human Rights and Democratic Governance" within the master's program "Political Analysis and Public Policy." The head of the program, Nina Belyaeva, decided to quit the university.
Earlier, the HSE did not renew its employment contract with Dmitry Dubrovsky, Associate Professor in the Department of Public Policy. He called the main goal of his dismissal "the closure of the human rights program, apparently in connection with so-estimated political risks."
The number of examples of how freedom is being eradicated in universities today could be expounded on even more, easily.
For those who work in the academic system, the purge didn’t come as a big surprise: after all, the authorities have been purging everything living and independent from the education system for several years now.
How rectors are fired
“It’s not like it’s the 1990s anymore. How can it be like this? It’s like a hostile takeover! I'm just surprised by what’s happening ... I was called to Moscow three times, where we discussed how it was necessary to "take [some] heads off." At one of the meetings, they told me that I should write a statement of my own free will, then, they say, they would give me bonuses, a diploma* from the ministry. I refused. During another visit, I wanted to talk about the achievements of the university ... But I was told that I needed to familiarize myself with the ministry’s order.”
“The rector shouldn't be eternal. A person in such a situation inevitably turns into a monument - loses his taste for change. I really don't want this to happen to me. I don’t want to grow old as a rector.”
“We were removed, and that's it.”
“And what was the reason?”
“That’s just life.”
So, that’s how, in order, the rectors of the Russian State Vocational Pedagogical University, the Higher School of Economics and the East Siberian State University of Technology and Management recalled their respective dismissals last year.
Last year, an abnormally large number of rectors were let go in the Russian Federation - 32 people, which is about twice as many as were fired in previous years, Important Stories calculated. The reasons, as given, are different: contract ended, a corruption case was opened, and most often - they simply left of their own free will. But Important Stories' sources in universities, the Ministry of Education and the security services insist that this rectoropia is not at all accidental: new people in universities should wean young people from street protests and take control of the money that the state pumps into the higher education system.
The main academic dismissal of 2021 was the resignation of HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov. He created HSE from scratch, headed it for almost 30 years and made it one of the best universities in Russia. Kuzminov was not a political rebel - he knew how to stay friendly with the authorities: the HSE supervisory board was consistently headed by the first deputy head of the presidential administration - first Vyacheslav Volodin, then Sergey Kiriyenko, and the rector himself found time to work in the campaign headquarters of the mayor of Moscow. But even during the pre-war times in the midst of mature Putinism, Kuzminov, and most importantly the university itself, turned out to be too liberal. The rector was not saved either by a willingness to fire instructors who were objectionable to the authorities, or via a code of allegiance, which effectively forbade HSE employees from publicly expressing political views.
Kuzminov's resignation was carried out in the style of a special operation, two people with close ties to the university told Important Stories: “In the leadership of the university, everyone was shocked at how it was formulated - in one day. They told him: quickly write a letter of resignation, here is an order for you - and you are leaving for an honorable respite. The university learned about the new rector, 43-year-old Nikita Anisimov, two hours before he was presented to the Academic Council. A few months after dismissal, a compromising video was published on Kuzminov - many perceived it as senseless revenge. “Personal ill-wishers of Kuzminov, associated with law enforcement agencies, decided: “No, you won’t leave so smoothly. On the one hand, you have a hotbed of liberals, and on the other hand, how much budget money are you raking in? You are criticizing our government, our bonds, promoting values that are absolutely alien to us, to the youth, all the while taking away budget money,” an academic source explains to Important Stories.
The new rector of HSE, Anisimov, turned out to be “the best option out of all the bad ones that were considered,” the source continues: “He is known by the HSE leadership - he at least understands how modern university programs work; he is immersed in the agenda of the modern higher world school – that is, he speaks the language, or something close to it.” A former intelligence officer told Important Stories that Anisimov speaks the same language with the FSB. In his opinion, the new rector of the Higher School of Economics is under the complete control of the special services: “They call him, he says: yes, sir.”
As an example, a source from the intel services cited the story of how Anisimov refused to appoint the person for whom the Minister of Education, Valery Falkov, asked for the post of Vice-Rector of the Higher School of Economics (this person’s name is known to the editors)*. The current rector of HSE allegedly replied that it was necessary to coordinate not with the minister, but with the FSB - in the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System and the Fight against Terrorism. Many approvals for appointments to universities now take place in the "second service" of the FSB, the source from the intelligence services notes.
The real shock for the academic community was what happened to Sergei Zuev, the rector of the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, the famous “Shaninka” [a popular nickname for the school]. “Each rector took this as a signal, personally, because the accusations against Zuev are applicable to absolutely any dean in the university. After this incident, one of the rectors I knew tried to resign, and another considered emigration,” a source told Important Stories.
“Where it's possible, they appoint their own people, and where that’s impossible - with the help of criminal cases or intimidation - they demand that those who they object to leave. And through the ministry, they try to exercise general control.”
Former intelligence officer
Zuev was detained in October last year: he was accused of a number of economic violations. Investigators saw in his actions theft and fraud. While under investigation, Zuev underwent heart surgery, but this didn’t stop the court from turning his house arrest into an actual one. The list of Zuev's afflictions takes up half a page. Even Vladimir Putin admitted that there is no need to keep Zuev behind bars. But the rector is still there all the same.
18 rectors who left their posts in 2021 officially did so of their own volition. Six were fired, three were fired or suspended due to arrest, and two reached the age limit (70). Three more had unique reasons: the contract term expired, another lost an election, and yet another decided not to run for a new term.
Minister Falkov said back in the summer of 2021 that the appointment of new rectors was not a purge, but rather a rejuvenation (which does not contradict the data of Important Stories: in eight of the 32 “decapitated” universities, the new rectors are about 20 years younger than their predecessors). However, "Important Stories’" sources in universities, the Ministry of Education, and special services don’t agree with the minister. In fact, they agree that, whatever the official reasons for layoffs, there are two real reasons: politics - the need to keep young people from protesting. The second is money - to control financial flows. It’s for this reason that rectors have been replaced en masse at Russian universities. A former intelligence officer shared his opinion: “Where it’s possible, they appoint their own people, and where that’s impossible - with the help of criminal cases or intimidation - they demand that those who they object to leave. And through the ministry, they try to exercise general control.”
Politics and money
The number of young people showing up to rallies has grown. In the most recent massive protests across Russia in the winter of 2021, between 25% and 40% of the participants were secondary and college students aged 18 to 24. 60% of them came to the rally for the first time in their lives.
The intelligence services have seriously decided that people from abroad influence the minds of students, so they go to opposition rallies, says a former HSE employee. “Before, it never occurred to anyone to consider education as a threat to the security of the Russian Federation, but now this is exactly how they have it in their heads. This means that the intel services must take control of higher education - in the same way as they control politics,” the Important Stories source thus establishes the logic of the security services.
“The education system not only teaches, but also guides [students] - in many ways it shapes one’s personality, and transmits the values and traditions on which our society is based,” Vladimir Putin said in May 2020. He then sent amendments to the law on education to the State Duma. The president explained the meaning of the amendments via the need to "strengthen and emphasize the ‘guiding’ component of the domestic educational system." The corresponding by-laws are in the same "guiding" logic - they impede educational activities in general and international cooperation in particular.
A good example of what’s going on with higher education in Russia is provided by the Higher School of Economics, which for many years was considered to be the most liberal university in the country. Here, the turning point was the participation of university students in protests about the exclusion of candidates for elections to the Moscow City Duma in 2019 and, especially, the case of Yegor Zhukov (a student who was eventually accused of extremism).
“This case with Zhukov is quite important because, after it, HSE was suspected not just of disloyalty, but of preparing students hostile to the modern Russian political regime,” one former university employee believes. “After that, they began to rapidly cut [elements] of university autonomy, which resulted in a number of bans. For example, teachers were promptly asked not to make public statements and not to sign open letters where they call themselves teachers of the Higher School of Economics. And new employees with large gaps in their biography appeared in the administration. In particular, Gleb Gerasimov appeared. He has a very modest profile on the HSE website: it says that he carries out certain instructions from the leadership. There are no photos [of him]. And it’s not known what he’s been doing since 1999, after he graduated from RUDN University. Gerasimov also tried to talk to students, to recruit agents who study in this dangerous environment, where everyone hates our great leaders.”
“There was, as they say, the sale of birthright for lentil soup, because universities really wanted to develop financially. Many of them deliberately abandoned the election of rectors and agreed to a sharp reduction in democracy. As a result, this has led to a situation where there is a direct correlation between the funding of the university and the loyalty of the rector.”
Former employee of the HSE
In other universities, these practices began even earlier. A student at one of the universities in Novosibirsk (the editorial office has his real name) was head of a student organization. In 2017, she had a conflict with the administration and he was invited to a conversation by the rector's security adviser. “He had a portrait of Dzerzhinsky above the table and a calendar of 100 years of the NKVD in his office,” the young person* recalls. During the conversation, the rector's adviser suggested leaving the student as head of the organization and resolving the conflict if he stops discussing the situation in the media and social networks. Another condition was "cooperation" with the adviser: to report on the mood in the student environment on a common political agenda. For this, the adviser promised to help with admission to a master’s program. “I myself am an oppositionist and I think that the government is doing a lot of bad things,” he explained, “but we need a constructive opposition, and I suggest you change everything together.” The adviser also summoned other students who received "administratives" for rallies and had conversations with them that "only a strong alliance of state security and opposition-minded youth can change Russian reality."
Money goes hand in hand with politics and youth education. “When the state began to receive large oil revenues in the early 2000s, it also began to actively invest in higher education,” says a former HSE employee. “And there was, as they say, the sale of birthright for lentil soup [from the biblical story], because the universities really wanted to develop financially. Many of them deliberately abandoned the election of rectors and agreed to a sharp reduction in democracy. As a result, this has led to a situation where there’s a direct correlation between the funding of the university and the loyalty of the rector.”
The well-being of leading universities has grown: for example, the annual budget of the same HSE is about 30 billion rubles. The state program “5-100” appeared, launched in 2013 with the aim of increasing the competitiveness of Russian universities in the world. The project’s participants - 21 Russian universities - received generous state support. From 2013 to 2020, the number was more than 80 billion rubles in total (however, the program never achieved its goal: not a single participating university was included in the top hundred rankings of the world's leading universities). Now the state is promising new billions to universities through the Priority program.
It’s important for the state to place teams of people at universities, who, among other things, will be permitted to disburse major cash flow, sources close to the country’s largest federal universities tell Important Stories. The universal task is to establish an ideology, to educate young people, says a former intelligence officer. “And if, in the process of fulfilling this task, someone earns something, gives some contracts to his company or his guy, this, as always, isn’t forbidden.”
The Bad-Old Days
Russia has adopted the tradition of "raising youth" through the control of education, intimidation and recruitment of students from the USSR. Thanks to this system, under the strict control of the state security agencies, the future Russian President Vladimir Putin and some people from his entourage once made their way into the people.
In Soviet times, the mood among students was controlled not only by [the communist] party and Komsomol organizations, but also by KGB officers seconded to universities. They had a network of informants among the students and teachers, who informed them about the manifestations of dissent and deviation from the ideological line. According to stories from former employees of the KGB recruited as informants, students were also a source of manpower for the intelligence services. If an informer was good at gaining trust in people, collecting and analyzing information, then a career in the KGB could await him.
Students that were recruited - even those who got started when identified with anti-Soviet sentiments - have grown into generals in the intelligence services. For example, an old friend of the Russian president - Major-General FSB, Nikolai Tokarev, who heads the state company "Transneft" - had his beginnings as an ordinary informer. The KGB turned its attention to him in the 70s, when he was a student at the Karaganda Polytechnic Institute. Tokarev’s acquaintances say he showed an ability to compile and analyze, and after higher education, for another five years he aided the KGB to ensure there was no anti-Soviet sentiment and if privacy was respected at different enterprises. Then, for two years, he was sent off to study at the Moscow School of the KGB. Finally, he was assigned to work in the GDR, where he met Putin.
“I really liked him [Putin], and I'm not saying this because Putin is now president. No. Putin was not glib, but rather energetic, agile, and courageous. And most importantly, he knew how to quickly find the right contact with people. Without this quality, a person can't have anything to do with the KGB ... "
Former KGB officer who recruited student Vladimir Putin at Leningrad State University
Another student that went through the state security system in universities in his youth was none other than Vladimir Putin. He came to the attention of the KGB while still a student. The first biographer of the president - Oleg Blotsky - in his book "Vladimir Putin. A Life Story" cited the memoirs of Dmitry Gantserov, an operative of the 3rd department of the 5th Chief (ideological) directorate of the KGB, who recruited Putin during his studies at Leningrad State University:
"From 80-120 students, we took 8-10 people on. The first meeting is very important. After that, many dropped out. But with those that seemed to fit, we’d start to work more intensely. I really liked him, and I'm not saying this because Putin is now president. No. Putin was not glib, but rather energetic, agile, and courageous. And most importantly, he knew how to quickly find the right contact with people. Without this quality, a person can’t have anything to do with the KGB ... "
Gantserov met with Putin once a month, when he [Gantserov] gave him his assignments. The Fifth Chief Directorate of the KGB was responsible for combating ideological sabotage and protecting the Soviet system, so you can understand, roughly, what exactly the tasks were that the future president of Russia received. In 1975, when Putin was in his fifth year [at university], Gantserov recommended him for a job in the KGB. That’s of course where he went to work after graduating from university.
Intelligence service control of the universities existed in Putin’s early days as president - deputy rectors and security advisors were around in the 2000s. But in those more vegetarian times, their work lost meaning. Andrei Soldatov, an author of books about the intelligence services, told Important Stories a funny story: "In 2003, one of my friends from the FSB, who had previously engaged in the fight against terrorism, was transferred to the supervision of the university theater. It was a great loss, because he was not sure what to do. He was not given any clear directives. This acquaintance went to a meeting with the rector, introduced himself and explained that he now has to watch the students and teachers. The rector was also in great confusion. As a result, the employee told me that he decided to fight drugs in higher education, because 'it’s at least something real. '"
With the formation of mature Putinism, meaning returned. “Before, embedded employees from intelligence didn’t play too serious a role,” recalls a source from the academic environment. “Relatively speaking, 15 years ago it wasn’t a typical situation for the Vice-Rector for Security to say: ‘I won’t let you sign a contract with this professor, I don’t like his Facebook profile.’ And now it's a reality."