Russian elections fail to dampen pioneer spirit

June 21, 1996

Russian academics have little to fear from a communist victory in the country's presidential campaign if the experience of Volgograd, which swung to the party in local elections last year, is an accurate political weather-vane.

In a city which witnessed the turning point in the war during the battle for Stalingrad, as it then was, 21 of the 24 city council deputies elected last December are from communist factions.

But if their political activity in the past six months is anything to go by, a nationwide swing to the communists in the two-stage presidential election this month and next, should present no threat to academics and intellectuals, according to city officials and university leaders in the city.

So far the communist deputies, elected on a low turn-out of mostly older voters from the 700,000-strong electorate, have backed populist measures such as resisting public transport fare and rent increases, says Stanislav Glinzhev, Volgograd's assistant mayor.

Funding for the city's ambitious and reformist education policies, which include publication of text books ahead of federal ministry deadlines and their own, local versions of new history, ecology and other materials, has been approved.

"The Communist party is not interested in education as an ideological tool now," Mr Glinzhev, a former regional and city communist official in Soviet times, said. "These deputies are against bad ways of living, such as sex in films and on the television and aggression and criminality in public life. " Like the Russian communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, Volgograd's left wingers are more concerned with economic issues and nationalistic concerns. "The system of education in our city and country is rather old, stable and conservative and is likely to remain so, regardless of which party is in power. There is little disagreement over education - most arguments in politics are to do with money," Mr Glinzhev said.

University leaders in the city tend to agree. Victor Pavlov, head of Volgograd State Pedagogical University's department for international affairs, says: "The only effective changes that can possibly occur in university education will be inextricably linked with the economic situation - as it is the entire higher education system is running on the initiative and hard work of ill-paid, but crazy enthusiasts."

The financing of regional Russian universities is even more haphazard than those of the relatively well-off Moscow or St Petersburg institutions, Dr Pavlov argues. Since politics in today's Russia is largely concerned with arguments about an all but non-existent public purse, political parties hold little sway in academia.

His university's innovation department, which was set up to introduce fresh western and domestic methodologies and courses, runs largely on the enthusiasm of its infrequently-paid staff.

"There can be no turning back: the economic situation of the country has changed sufficiently for that. If they really wanted to introduce radical change it would mean nothing less than civil war and it seems to me that they are ordinary people, not committed Communists of the old sort, and they do not want that," said Dr Pavlov.

European and western sources of cash are tapped for funding innovative programmes. After three attempts, the university won Tempus programme financing to help set up a faculty of social work - a new concept in a country where welfare functions were historically divided between different ministries, local authorities and large industrial concerns.

The faculty is working with partners in Nijmegen University, Holland, the Technical University of Kemlitz - formerly the Karl Marx University - in Germany, and a pedagogical institute in Denmark.

Integrating Russian and European approaches to working with mentally and physically handicapped people, and the unemployed is a core feature.

Introducing alternative educational systems, such as the Montessori method, to regional primary schools, is another of the innovation department's new projects.

"Enthusiasm and devotion without any visible signs of financial support is one of the mysterious features of what we call the Russian soul, and the Communists can't touch that," Dr Pavlov said.

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