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Student Protesters Successful at Moscow State University

by Johanna Olexy, ASA Public Information Office

An activist campaign by students at Moscow State University (MSU) to influence the conditions and curricula in the sociology department has ended with a special commission finding that educational quality is lacking at MSU’s sociology department. The rare and audacious student protest, which reached worldwide notice, sought an open and democratic spirit to be restored to the department.

The protest began in February when sociology student activists, who called themselves the OD Group, petitioned the dean to revitalize the curriculum by inviting foreign professors to speak and by providing opportunities for meaningful research. In addition to objections to the perceived entrenched anti-Western attitudes and creeping nationalism, the students complained of living conditions and studying conditions. According to a student statement, “The curriculum is unbearably tedious, and teachers are not allowed do to anything about it. The ‘education’ at our department is purely fictitious. Conditions at the department are reminiscent of a barrack.”

Student Claims Have Merit

The protests, marked by arrests and accusations that student activists were paid “provocateurs” and “extremists,” proved victorious for the students who reached out to leading Russian sociologists and sociologists in the West. In April, the results from the special commission of vice rectors and faculty members at MSU were released. The study found that there was merit to student claims that the dean was more concerned with power than with scholarship. According to a May 4 Chronicle of Higher Education article, the commission, appointed by Rector Viktor A. Sadovnichy, requested that the dean take a series of steps to involve young instructors and improve the conditions for work and study. The article said, “Among other steps requested in the order, the rector asked the department to stop the fluctuation in staff numbers and to cease laying off instructors during the school year, which disrupts the educational process; recruit more visiting professors from leading schools of sociology throughout the world (currently there are eight for a department of more than 2,000 students); and allow young professors and graduate students to lecture more often and from materials they prepare on their own.”

In addition to other international sociologists and academic groups, ASA Council and the Executive Office sent a letter of support in March on behalf of the Moscow State sociology students. Addressed to the Dean of the Department of Sociology, Vladimir Ivanovich Dobrenkov and Sadovnichy, the letter stated, “The problems these students have identified must be addressed if the quality of training in Sociology is to be restored, and the important concerns of Russian society are to be studied and analyzed from a scientific sociological perspective…. We stand with the students who have initiated this protest, and we urge you to consider their legitimate demands and peaceful efforts to support reform.”

Student Claims

According to students at MSU, sociology students at the University were under persistent surveillance by video cameras, harassed by security guards, arrested by the police for no legitimate reason, prevented from seeking opportunities to study abroad, and forced to study a curriculum that heavily emphasizes anti-Semitic propaganda. In a call for support from the MSU students, they said “We demand that the curricula be changed, competent teachers be invited, students be informed about foreign exchange programs, the rude security guards be dismissed, the rigid gating system be abolished, and a minimum of basic amenities be provided.”

In a March 22 New York Times article, Dobrenkov said that the student claims “are full of hints, rumors and halftruths.” He did concede that the living conditions were poor and said that they would be improved. Days before the report was released, the Dean continued to object to activists’ requests and claimed, in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, that the protests were financed by “certain political powers of a pro-Western orientation.” Despite his strong statements, after the commission results were released, he said that he would fully comply with the commission instructions.

Moscow State University is a government-operated university in Moscow, Russia. Founded in 1755, it is the oldest, largest, and most prestigious university in Russia. By the late 19th century it had established itself as a major center of scientific research and scholarship and its library ranks among the largest in Russia.