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Students allege political purge at Russia’s oldest university

Faculty dismissals stir controversy at Smolny College, hailed as a radical departure from Soviet teaching

ST. PETERSBURG — When it opened to great pomp and circumstance as Russia’s first liberal arts school in 1996, St. Petersburg State University’s Smolny College was hailed by many as a radical departure from Soviet teaching. A joint project between Russia’s oldest university and New York’s Bard College, its focus on critical thinking and academic exchange was meant to bring Russian education into a new era.

Nearly two decades on, a series of faculty dismissals has raised suspicions of a political purge at the school.

“When things started we didn’t know how bad they would actually get,” said Smolny student Alexandra, 20, who withheld her last name, fearing repercussions from the university. Alexandra is one of the leaders of an informal student movement at Smolny taking a stand against the university administration and calling for the reinstatement of several teachers dismissed under dubious circumstances.

On March 12, the rector’s office canceled a professorship opening at the school. Ivan Kurilla was the sole applicant for the position. A historian of U.S.-Russian relations, he arrived from Volgograd University on a temporary contract in February. On March 25 he was informed that his temporary contract was canceled. The position was opened in error, he was told, and an administrative review determined that existing staffers could manage the teaching workload.

On March 19, Smolny fired Dmitry Dubrovsky, a lecturer on international relations and human rights, on the grounds that he was not present to renew his employment contract.

On March 27, outside the baroque 18th century building that houses the university administration, about a dozen Smolny students held one-person pickets, the maximum size Russia allows for an unsanctioned protest. Police took down names of demonstrators, participants said, but no one was detained. The same day, an online petition was launched demanding Kurilla and Dubrovsky’s reinstatement. Within a week it gathered 15,000 signatures.

The effort seemed to have yielded results. On March 31, the day his temporary contract was due to expire, Kurilla was told his contract had been extended until the end of the semester. On his Facebook wall he thanked students for the support.

Yet the academic reshuffle at Smolny continued. On May 14, political science lecturer Pavel Kononenko was informed that the university’s authorities voted not to extend his contract.

“I was told my teaching doesn’t reflect the university’s standards, that I know nothing about political science. I think the reason was my support for [Dubrovsky and Kurilla]. My students had protested, so they wanted to get rid of me,” said Kononenko, adding that his use of Western academic texts over the university’s textbooks drew criticism from the administration.

The university’s academic senate is expected to cast a final decision on Kononenko’s fate at its upcoming session on May 25. If the 200-member council, headed by the rector, upholds the earlier vote, he will be the third teacher to be dismissed from the same academic program. Like Dubrovsky and Kurilla, he taught courses in Smolny’s international relations, political science and human rights major.

‘Aversion to criticism’

In interviews with Al Jazeera, all three teachers said they believe the administration’s actions against them were politically driven.

Kurilla believes he was deemed a liability after several of his Facebook posts were rumored to have been shown to the rector’s office by senior members of the Smolny administration, including links to an article he wrote in business daily RBC about the February murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Dubrovsky blamed his dismissal on a long-running dispute with rector Nikolay Kropachev, which he said escalated after he commented for an article in The New York Times on academic screening measures introduced at the university in 2009. He plans to appeal the decision in court.

“[Kropachev and I] have had various arguments in the past, mostly connected with my political position. I knew there’d be an attack on me, as my contract was set to expire, and I was preparing myself for it,” he said. “The university is not happy with my comments to the press, because part of my teaching contract apparently obliges me to represent its official position.”

The clause Dubrovsky referred to forbids university staff to identify with the institution when speaking to the press and was reportedly added to employment contracts in November 2013. Some academics immediately criticized the addition, and Dubrovsky ties its imposition to Kropachev’s efforts to centralize authority at the institution since becoming rector in 2008. That year, along with Moscow State University, St. Petersburg was granted autonomous status, meaning its rector would no longer be elected but chosen by the Russian president.

Like President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Kropachev is an alumnus of the university’s law faculty. Putin is a member of the faculty’s academic senate, and Medvedev maintains strong ties after having taught there for nine years before entering politics. It was Medvedev who, as president, appointed Kropachev to a five-year term as rector. Putin renewed his term in December.

‘I’ve had various letters of support from students, but none from my colleagues. I don’t judge them for it. If they’re scared, then that characterizes the situation at the university better than anything.’

Dmitry Dubrovsky

former Smolny lecturer

Since assuming the role, Kropachev has increased the administration's central control over many aspects of the university. Several faculties have been turned into institutes, giving the academic senate sole prerogative in appointing their deans. Plans to merge the philosophy and history faculties were drawn up in 2013 but shelved after protests from the student body, including a petition that gathered more than 11,000 signatures. Nevertheless, both faculties were made into institutes in November of that year.

During his first years at the helm, Kropachev was credited by many for improving the university’s standing. From 2008 to 2009 the institution took a leap of 56 places in the Times Higher Education rankings, although it has dropped markedly since. In 2010, success in global ratings was identified as a primary aim in the university’s development program through 2020, making its entry into the top 100 of the Times World Reputation rankings this year a fact widely cited in official statements.

Some have criticized the increased attention given to international rankings and the strict citation requirements imposed on candidates. Two teachers at the St. Petersburg State’s philosophy institute, Irina Romanova and Alexander Isakov, were not permitted to compete for their positions in March because they did not have the required minimum of published academic articles. Like Smolny, the philosophy institute has lost several teachers in recent weeks after the academic senate voted to replace them rather than renew their contracts.

On March 29, students sent an open letter to the philosophy institute’s academic senate expressing concern about the faculty replacements. The letter challenged the appointment of Kursk University’s Alexander Dyakov as head of the institute’s ontology department despite an overwhelming vote against him by department staffers, who questioned his competence and the originality of his research.

The letter received no response, according to Viktor Katchalovski, 24, who left the philosophy institute in 2013 and now assists the student campaign.

“There’s a complete aversion to criticism on the part of the administration,” he said. “All our questions regarding the situation at the institute are ignored. They’re simply refusing to enter into a dialogue with us.”

Defending university policy

Kropachev could not be reached for comment. Representatives of his administration denied reports of a politically motivated campaign against outspoken faculty. Ilya Dementyev, head of the rector’s office, described Kurilla’s case as a mistake on the part of the university’s authorities, who should have carried out their staffing review before opening the position at Smolny.

Dementyev defended the university’s policy on faculty selection. Citing Romanova and Isakov’s cases, he said the university followed the same high standards as Harvard and Oxford in rating teachers.

“Some teachers’ contracts oblige them, in exchange for the salary they get, to publish a certain number of articles. If they simply fulfill their contractual obligations, they can be considered as candidates,” he said.

Questioned about the 2013 regulation on employees’ interaction with the press, Dementyev insisted there was no ban on giving public comments.

“A teacher can talk to the press as a private person. But if he wants to talk to them as a representative of the university, then he has to warn the university beforehand,” he said. “There is no ban, simply a set of rules.”

According to Dementyev, students who staged protests against the administration’s policies were operating on assumptions, not evidence.

“It’s not enough to simply meet over a cigarette to chat and share rumors. It’s important to find out what decisions were made, who made those decisions and on what basis,” he said, adding that students are free to participate in commissions dealing with questions of employment and finances.

The student activists insist their opinions are ignored and that the university’s opaque administrative process exacerbates tensions.

None of the active teachers approached by Al Jazeera for comment were willing to express their views, many of them citing ethical considerations and choosing not to take sides. Dubrovsky laments their silence.

“I’ve had various letters of support from students, but none from my colleagues. I don’t judge them for it. If they’re scared, then that characterizes the situation at the university better than anything,” he said.

Smolny’s dean since 2011 has been Aleksey Kudrin, a former finance minister under Medvedev whom many credit for keeping Smolny afloat despite government pressure. 

Among those who praise Kudrin’s role is Smolny founder Nikolay Koposov, who left in 2009 after running the institute for 11 years. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he said he decided to resign from his position when he realized Smolny was losing its autonomous status and moving away from its founding principles.

“Our plan in the 1990s was to create a real liberal arts college not only in terms of teaching methods but also with a separation from the university’s system of governance. It was meant to inspire a democratization of the university and Russian education as a whole,” he said.

According to Koposov, Kropachev was a vocal opponent of the Smolny project during its creation, and his appointment as rector accelerated the process of bringing the faculty under the administration’s control.

It’s unclear how any administrative changes at Smolny will affect its partnership with Bard College. All students receive a dual degree from Bard and Smolny, and since its founding, Bard has had a large say in the way the school is run. Representatives at Bard’s campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, did not respond to emailed requests for comment in time for publication.

In the meantime, students continue to mount pressure on the university, demanding transparent decision-making at the institution and opposing what they see as suppression of academic freedoms.

“Taking away Smolny’s autonomy is equal to destroying the liberal arts foundation in Russia. Such an island of freedom cannot function in an authoritarian system,” Koposov said. “Ideological controls are returning. It’s a process taking place not only in St. Petersburg.”

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