The re-Sovietization of Russian universities

A new requirement for Russian institutions to have a rector for students’ moral development has been seen by academics as another sign of a country reverting to Soviet-style thought control.

Coined during the Soviet era, the position of pro rector in charge of vospitatel’naya rabota—which roughly translates as “character building”—was once a common fixture at universities. Such individuals were tasked with benign activities, such as organizing volunteering and student scholarships, as well as more insidious ones—namely, inculcating state propaganda in their young charges.

The post still exists at many universities, but now it will be mandatory at all of them. Announcing the measure, Russian’s deputy minister of education Petr Kucherenko emphasized the importance of developing students not only as specialists in their fields, but also as “fully-fledged citizens of Russian society,” according to state media.

Scholars said that the move recalled times when Communist Russia intervened more heavily to shape young people’s worldview.

“Given that the old system is gone, the Russian re-Sovietizers are looking for opportunities to recreate similar structures in their universities,” said Anatoly Oleksiyenko, a scholar of post-Soviet studies in higher education policies based at the University of Hong Kong.

“They look for somebody to be personally in charge of the student masses and thus be conveniently punished—as scapegoats—on behalf of the whole system in case of student protests.”

Oleksiyenko said that for now it was uncertain whether Moscow would handpick candidates for the job, but tasking rectors with the selection could be a shrewd political maneuver.

“Most likely the Kremlin will give this responsibility to the rectors, so that they also feel greater responsibility—and thus become extra cautious and anxious—in the processes of student admissions and development,” he said.

Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed that the move reflected a broader trend toward the “re-Sovietization of Russian universities,” with institutions “resurrecting or reinventing” Soviet rhetoric .

He said that Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has prompted protests by academics and students even as the Kremlin shows less tolerance for political dissent, “definitely plays a role” in the sector looking to the past, but that universities had been headed in this direction for years.

“The Kremlin already has far-reaching influence,” agreed Maria Popova, associate professor of political science at McGill University, adding that this was “a way to make the process of achieving political goals in the university setting more efficient and more centralized.”

She noted that, usually, pressure on universities to rein in students “was high around elections” but predicted that now, “political monitoring will be permanently institutionalized” and that the appointment of pro rectors across the board would be used to put institutions “on an even shorter political leash.”

Still, Popova disagreed with Oleksiyenko’s assessment that the move to establish pro rectors for moral development was “an indication of growing anxiety among the Russian politicians expecting massive protests in the population” as a result of economic depression and growing frustration over the war.

“There is no evidence of massive protests brewing and I doubt that the regime has an indication of it,” she said. “It’s rather pre-empting. It’s covering all its bases, so if an antiwar movement were to emerge and grow stronger, it could be nipped in the bud.”

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