Communism is making a comeback among university teachers in Russia as the party's strong showing in this month's elections is reflected in growing support among a formerly privileged section of society grown weary of the failure of economic reform to support the interests of higher education.
The secretary of the central committee of the Russian Communist Party, Ivan Melnikov, is a professor at Moscow State University, and in the general election campaign before the poll for the state duma (lower house of Russian federal parliament), the party's leader, Gennady Zyuganov, boasted of the flood of new members from universities.
Russia's leading university, Moscow State - once considered second only to the Sorbonne in Paris in a Unesco world rating - now has 600 professors and lecturers in the Communist party, according to Mr Zyuganov, and their objections recently prevented the closure of the campus branch by over-zealous university authorities.
Party activists at Moscow State say that most of their core members had remained loyal communists throughout the historic upheavals in Russia since August 1991. But new members are also signing up and many academic colleagues give tacit approval to the party's ideas and policies.
Philosophy professor Vladimir Titov, a member of the Lenin Hills branch of the party, said: "Several hundred members of Moscow State have consistently defended the Communist party, several dozen have joined us in recent years and some thousand or more support us, but because of their circumstances don't join us."
Many university teachers were afraid to openly declare their support for the communists because they were worried it might affect their career prospects, he added.
"Who said we have democracy in this country? When our parliament is shot up by cannon fire and machine guns, democracy dies. When President Yeltsin came to power, democracy died," Professor Titov said in a reference to the October 1993, attempted coup and the storming of the White House federal government building in Moscow by troops loyal to Yeltsin.
The collapse of financial support and effective research in Russian universities in recent years are among the chief grievances Communist party members in academia hold against the country's free-market government leaders. They recognise that the rot set in as long ago as President Brezhnehev's "stagnation" days, but the rot has spread at an alarming speed in recent years, they say.
Svetlana Voronkova, Moscow State University historian and party member since 1963, said: "Moscow State was established as the top institution of higher learning for the whole of Russia. We used to attract students from all the regions of Russia, but today because of the economic state of this country very few come and the university has been reduced to the status of a Moscow city university."
Appalling wages mean many have to moonlight in other jobs increasing stress and affecting the quality of their academic work. For students on sub-poverty level grants, life is even harder.
The campus communists advocate a simple raft of policies for restoring university life to a position of power and effectiveness: first, a Communist-led government, working with other social-democratic parties and institutions, is needed to stabilise a chaotic nation. Then, university funding should be prioritised with between 3 per cent and 6 per cent of gross national product spent on the sector. Capital grants to restore crumbling, out-dated buildings and facilities are essential and resources should be directed towards research and supporting the international dissemination of Russian intellectual products.
Teaching styles and approaches do not need revamping, the communists believe: the high traditional standards of Russian education are already proven. But the communists are against the growing move towards a more European system of bachelor's and masters's degrees. Most Russian state universities continue to offer the five or six-year courses leading to a magister diploma, the equivalent of a British masters degree.
But despite protestations from university-based CP members that they do not want a return to ideological education, there is a heavy hint of nostalgia in their manifesto.
Ideological beliefs are still firmly held by CP members old and new and in conversation frequent references are made to the unshakeable core truths of Marxist economic, political and social analysis. Many of them are convinced that university tenure should go hand in hand with accommodation. The old Soviet practice of guaranteeing jobs for new graduates, know as raspredeleny, or redistribution, is also favoured.
At a more pragmatic level, today's communist academics are also a touch more realistic than those of old. A small local example of this at Moscow State's faculty of mechanical mathematics is the informal job placement scheme for graduates, established by CP members in the absence of an institutional careers advisory service.
Communist affiliations may expose academics to harsh criticism from their students. Maths faculty student at Moscow State, Natasha Hokhlova, 23, said she was shocked to learn some of her lecturers were communists. Perhaps this explained why the FSK (successor to the KGB) was seeking to recruit graduates as code and decoding specialists, she said. Alex Galatenko, 19, also a student at the faculty, was more charitable: "I deal with a person as a scientist, not as a political activist. We're not at university to vote - the important thing is the education or intellect of the professor, his political orientation does not matter."
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