Rectors for moral development ‘sign of Russia’s re-Sovietisation’

Position will be used to ‘keep universities on a shorter leash’ and ‘pre-empt any potential dissent’, academics say

六月 22, 2022
Guards ceremony in Kremlin ti illustrate rectors for moral development ‘sign of Russia’s re-Sovietisation
Source: Alamy

A new requirement for Russian institutions to have a rector for students’ moral development has been seen by academics as another sign of a country reverting to Soviet-style thought control.

Coined during the USSR era, the position of pro rector in charge of vospitatel’naya rabota – which roughly translates as “character-building” – was once a common fixture at universities. Such individuals were tasked with benign activities, such as organising volunteering and student scholarships, as well as more insidious ones, namely, inculcating state propaganda in their young charges.

The post still exists at many universities, but now, it will be mandatory at all of them. Announcing the measure, Russian’s deputy minister of education Petr Kucherenko emphasised the importance of developing students not only as specialists in their fields, but also as “fully-fledged citizens of Russian society”, according to state media.

Scholars said that the move recalled times when Communist Russia intervened more heavily to shape young people’s worldview.

“Given that the old system is gone, the Russian re-Sovietisers are looking for opportunities to recreate similar structures in their universities,” said Anatoly Oleksiyenko, a scholar of post-Soviet studies in higher education policies based at the University of Hong Kong.

“They look for somebody to be personally in charge of the student masses and thus be conveniently punished – as scapegoats – on behalf of the whole system in case of student protests.”

Dr Oleksiyenko said that for now it was uncertain whether Moscow would hand-pick candidates for the job, but tasking rectors with the selection could be a shrewd political manoeuvre.

“Most likely the Kremlin will give this responsibility to the rectors, so that they also feel greater responsibility – and thus become extra cautious and anxious – in the processes of student admissions and development,” he said.

Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed that the move reflected a broader trend toward the “re-Sovietisation of Russian universities”, with institutions “resurrecting or reinventing” Soviet rhetoric.

He said that Russia’s war in Ukraine – which has prompted protests by academics and students even as the Kremlin shows less tolerance for political dissent – “definitely plays a role” in the sector looking to the past, but that universities had been headed in this direction for years.

“The Kremlin already has far-reaching influence,” agreed Maria Popova, associate professor in the department of political science at McGill University, adding  that this was “a way to make the process of achieving political goals in the university setting more efficient and more centralised”. 

She noted that, usually, pressure on universities to rein in students “was high around elections” but predicted that now, “political monitoring will be permanently institutionalised” and that the appointment of pro rectors across the board would be used to put institutions “on an even shorter political leash”.

Still, Dr Popova disagreed with Dr Oleksiyenko’s assessment that the move to establish pro rectors for moral development was “an indication of growing anxiety among the Russian politicians expecting massive protests in the population” as a result of economic depression and growing frustration over the war.

“There is no evidence of massive protests brewing and I doubt that the regime has indication of it,” she said. “It’s rather pre-empting. It’s covering all its bases, so if an anti-war movement were to emerge and grow stronger, it could be nipped in the bud.”



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