Russian students forced to act as unpaid labour

April 27, 2001

Students at some Russian universities are being forced to act as unpaid labour, cleaning up campuses and turning out for demonstrations to please local politicians.

Earlier this month, busloads of students from state universities in the central Russian city of Saratov were ferried more than 30 miles to space pioneer Yuri Gagarin's landing site as part of a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the world's first manned space flight.

The students - who were warned they would answer to the local education committee if they failed to turn up - were told to assemble at 7am for the one-hour trip to the site of Gagarin's landing in 1960 near the town of Engels. Hundreds of students spent all day sitting around in the open waiting for the regional governor and dignitaries to turn up. They were then told to stand in massed groups for 15 minutes while local television filmed them and governor Dmitri Ayatskov.

One student said the sense of going back to Soviet practices left many depressed. "I felt as if I was nothing more than a sheep with no will of my own and no choice but to obey," the 20-year-old, who asked not to be named, said.

"Lecturers had told us that if we failed to turn up we would not face college discipline but would have to answer directly to the regional education committee. A couple of students from my year were not there and have landed in serious trouble," she said.

"The obligatory attendance meant that lectures and seminars scheduled that day had to be cancelled," she added.

The forced use of students for activities unrelated to their studies appears to be growing. Students at universities in the provinces are expected to spend their free time helping with the cleaning and maintenance of colleges. In Soviet times, such "volunteer" workers were dubbed subbotniks , an expression based on the Russian word for Saturday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - who used the Gagarin anniversary to remind the country of its historic role in the space race - has ordered a $6 million (about £4 million) public education scheme to encourage a more patriotic attitude.

The scheme, announced early last month, is a reaction against what Kremlin officials see as the spread of indifference, negativity, aggressive individualism and lack of respect for the state, evident since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Encouraging the right attitude through college extracurricular activities committees is a key part of the plan.

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