Letter from Russia: A Statement from the Public Sociology Laboratory on the Closure of the European University, St. Petersburg

PS Lab is a team of young social scientists from Russia, many of whom are PhD or MA students in social or political sciences or alumni of the leading Russian and European universities (European University in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, European University Institute in Florence, Italy, National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Russia). For a description of PS Lab and their work in English click here.

The European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) is a non-governmental, post-graduate university, located in St. Petersburg, Russia, which specializes in social sciences and humanities.  As of Friday, December 9, 2016, the university has been ordered to cease instruction, or any other educational activities, by the government agency called Rosobrnadzor (“Federal Service for the Oversight of Education and Science).  EUSP is one of the few Russian universities whose contribution to various disciplines is recognized internationally (for instance, according to Simon Hix’s ranking or European universities, it is ranked top 3 in Eastern Europe and the best in Russia).   Each year several students from the EUSP participate in the Diversity & Democracy Institute in Wroclaw, Poland organized by the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at The New School.

The university is under attack. The initial request to the prosecutor’s office was submitted by Vitaliy Milonov, an odious ultra-conservative member of the Russian State Duma responsible for Russia’s anti-gay laws.  This led to the university being raided by 11 various federal oversight services, ranging from the Ministry of Interior checking whether EUSP uses illegal migrants as a workforce, to Rosobrnadzor checking whether EUSP follows education law. Rosobrnadzor’s check found 120 violations such as the absence of anti-alcohol propaganda in the University building.  All of them had very formal character. In the end, three violations remained and cost EUSP its license which was suspended. This means that the university no longer has the right to teach and students should be transferred to other universities. The situation is absurd in character.  While the inspection agency acknowledged that the violations are formal in character, and argued that officials have nothing against the ESUP, the court’s decision cannot be rolled back (the full description of all vicissitudes of the EUSP related to these checks can be found in the rector’s public statement). The rector appealed directly to the president urging him to resolve the situation, and the court temporarily suspended suspension of the license (which, however, does not mean that EUSP can function normally: it cannot teach until given a special directive of Rosobrnadzor, and the final court decision will be made in January).

There are different versions of what has happened. One says that it is a direct political attack. The university had already experienced closure in 2008, when a decision of the Fire Safety Inspection was used as a pretext. At that time the EUSP got funding from the EU commission to monitor elections and train elections observers.  Most people assume this was the real reason for the closure. The closure provoked protests by students and community around ESUP and finally the university was re-opened – though rather due to the patronage of the minister of finance, and known systemic liberal, Alexey Kudrin who is a member of the board of trustees of EUSP. In light of the recent attacks on Kudrin in the press, many people associate the attack on EUSP with this figure. Kudrin collaborates with EUSP to advise on judicial reform, which is a very sensitive issue for the Russian government (the general prosecutor publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with this project), and he is well-known liberal. Being quite influential in the 2000s, in the 2010s systemic liberals and liberals in the government are haunted by another elite group – ‘siloviki’ (military and security officers). In this case it is the attack of the government on systemic liberals.  Another version is related to the project of reconstruction of the ESUP building, which is the 19th century mansion of a noble family. Some people assume that the attack may have been related to property business: the project’s cost is 35 billions of euro, which is too much to ignore. However, if it is blackmail, the university would have received an offer from the party interested in take over of this contract, which, according to the rector, has not happened. Finally, the last version is related to the general condition of Russian bureaucracy. Being provoked by an ultra-conservative politician, Rosobrnadzor unleashed the might of the state bureaucratic apparatus on EUSP. It is a government agency, which should make universities follow myriads of contradicting rules. However, only large universities, with extensive divisions of paid employees involved solely in dealing with bureaucracy, not teaching or research, can deal with such “checks”.

All three versions have yet to be confirmed, but in any case the attack fits the logic of dismantling any critical thought and education independent from the government in Russia. We believe that the solidarity of the international professional community matters and will help to overcome this crisis.