Students are normally considered to be among the most politically active sectors of society, often campaigning for such idealistic goals as equality and social justice. At the other end of the spectrum are the autocrats who sustain their regimes with the mantra of stability, whether that be linked to conservatism or modernisation.
One of the most long-lasting autocrats of recent times, Vladimir Putin, is about to reappoint himself to the Russian presidency for yet another six-year term. Putin, who has been in power since 1999, faces elections in March. He reportedly expects officials to deliver a 70 per cent voter turnout, with 70 per cent of the votes in his favour. However, although he enjoys a remarkably high approval rating, many Russians dislike his authoritarian, corruption-riddled regime. Many more consider Putin’s rule to be stagnant rather than stable. Thus, guaranteeing the magic 70/70 result might be a challenge, in both relatively well-to-do Moscow and some distant, depressed regions.
You would naturally expect the opposition to Putin’s regime to be particularly high among students. However, student activism in Russia is remarkably weak. No matter the cause, the few student protests that do take place are always small.
Part of the failure to mobilise students against the regime may be attributed to the absence of a strong, charismatic opposition leader. Those few who regard themselves as such are no match for Putin. But another reason for students’ political passivity relates to the repercussions that their protests can have for their universities’ relationship with the regime.
Russian universities are all public, non-autonomous and state-funded, so are very much in thrall to the government. This dependency was used by Putin to good effect ahead of the 2012 presidential election. A wave of repression rolled through higher education institutions in order to keep students away from protests and to make them vote for the “right” candidate.
In Tomsk, students accused their rector of ordering them to vote for Putin, and of having his officials photograph their voting slips in the polling booth to make sure that they did. They also alleged that they were told that refusal could result in expulsion. In Chuvashiya, students said that their provost called on them to support the president’s re-election in these terms: “Putin said that he trusts youth. And if Putin trusts youth, then how can youth distrust Putin?” Such political calls are unlawful, yet this kind of abuse of public office is not even regarded as misconduct in Russia.
The 2018 elections are no different. In Tomsk, a faculty member has reportedly asked students not to attend “dubious” anti-corruption protests. Students in Samara were allegedly obliged to attend a forum against “political radicalism and destructive forces”. In Ural, an academic apparently forced his students to write essays on the danger of liberalism. Even students at the world-renowned Moscow Conservatory reportedly learned from one lecturer that Aleksei Naval’ny, who positions himself as the leader of an anti-corruption movement but has been denied registration for a presidential run, is among a number of members of a “fifth column”.
The regime uses corrupt faculty and administrators to control students’ behaviour through blackmail. Those academics who do not comply are mistreated, harassed and fired. It has got to the point where students do not want to be involved in politics, but protest against political pressure instead, because they are forced to participate in staged pro-government rallies.
My prognosis is that, for the foreseeable future, students in Russia will continue to dedicate most of their energies to jumping through the academic hoops required of them by their universities. We might well ask whether this passivity is the legacy of the communist past. Well, even the most iconic of communist idols, Lenin, was expelled from what was then Kazan Imperial University for political protest. It seems that the Russian Empire simply does not change, no matter whether it is run by czars, communists or kleptocrats.
Ararat L. Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, New York, and honorary associate in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.