Friday, March 21, 2008


The European University may return to its building!

""The European University may resume its regular activities. Federal Judge Anzhelika Morozova, of the Dzerzhinsky Court, granted the university's request for an early lifting of the administrative suspension of its activities.
The university's activities had originally been suspended for 100 hours by court order so that it may correct all fire code violations [...].
At the court hearing, a fire department representative stated that the university had fully complied with most of the fire inspectors' injunctions, and that those instructions whose removal required co-ordination [with other authorities?] are currently being implemented.
The university had drawn up a plan for removal of the violations and had it approved by the chief fire inspector; the fire department therefore considers it possible for the building to be used at this time. According to the rector of the EUSP, Nikolai Vakhtin, a meeting of all students and faculty will take place tonight to celebrate their victory." (

The city's science and education committee has already restored the EUSP's license.

This success is obviously due to the widespread Russian and international support the university has received over the past weeks. I think we should all be proud of ourselves! :-)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I mentioned earlier in this blog that Simon Rabinovitch was launching a petition by former international students at the EUSP. This has now been signed by 30 alumni in Europe and the US and is being sent to the authorities.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New article: Governor Says Uni Will Open (St Petersburg Times).

Meanwhile, a EUSP team has lost a soccer match against a team of fire inspectors (2:3), but beat a team of journalists 3:2. Watch it here.
A new court hearing about the European University and its fire code violations is scheduled for Friday, March 21.

Monday, March 17, 2008

New hope?

Sorry for the hiatus, caused by bad health rather than a dearth of events.
First things first:
This morning, rector Nikolai Vakhtin spoke with Valentina Matvienko, the governor of St Petersburg. He was advised that the fire inspectors are apparently prepared to issue a positive verdict at a new court hearing to be held next week, after which the university is likely to be re-opened. It is hard to know what to make of this announcement after so many inconclusive promises by lower-level civil servants, but it does mean that all may not be lost. An earlier public meeting with the city's top education official, Nikolai Viktorov, was remarkable only by its lack of substance.

Last week, an offer of teaching facilities by yet another organization was revoked after a few days, meaning that the European University does not have the space it needs to receive a temporary license. Meanwhile, the Street University initiated by students and some faculty is becoming a regular event: the next open-air teach-in will be held on March 23.

In other news, a demonstration in support of the European University had been scheduled to be held on Sakharov Square on March 15. It was banned by the authorities because the pro-Kremlin Russian Youth Union had allegedly declared its intention to hold a concert there on the same day. Not surprisingly, the square was completely empty on that day: the Russian Youth Union probably decided to make it a virtual concert...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Latest news & events

The EUSP's official web site says that refurbishments undertaken to meet the fire safety code requirements will be finished by March 21.

March 6: Having signed a new temporary lease, the EUSP showed this to the relevant municipal authorities, taking them up on their promise to grant the university a temporary license quickly once such a lease had been obtained. Artemy Magun, a faculty member, openly acknowledged the political background to the shutdown. But he also said that the unspecified political issues had now been resolved, and thus there is hope that the EUSP will be able to resume its activities soon.
If all this sounds cryptic (including the fact that nobody seems to have mentioned which institution has offered to host the EUSP), it is probably because, understandably, the rector and faculty do not want to disclose any information that may endanger the university even further.

March 7: A vaudeville play about the shutdown was staged at a playground in St Petersburg despite icy temperatures. Watch it on video here and here.

March 9: Students and faculty organized an open-air seminar on student protest movements.

Other public manifestations had to be CANCELLED for safety reasons: The city authorities prohibited one meeting and called the play "inexpedient," although there is nothing in Russian legislation that would allow them to say anything of the sort. In addition, the students learned that there may be a threat of violence or agents provocateurs at scheduled events, and have decided to put safety first.

March 16: Various Jewish Studies centers are organizing a conference in SPb entitled "Fire safety practices and conspiracies in the Slavic and Jewish cultural traditions."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More letters

I am not listing every letter of support to the EUSPb from Russian institutions (most of them are published in the save_eu blog or on, but two recent texts are worth mentioning:

- a letter signed by 28 Academicians published in today's issue of Kommersant ("Academician" is the highest official scholarly title in Russia, a very rough equivalent to Member of the Institut français): see it as an image or text file. 28 is, of course, a very small proportion of the Academy's over 1,000 full and corresponding members, though perhaps not that small if one only counts those whose interests overlap with the European University's five departments (sociology and political science, history, art history, economics, ethnography)
(UPDATE: Anya Kushkova at EUSP has sent me an English version of the letter)

- an official letter from the European Humanities University in Minsk, which was itself shut down by the Belarusian authorities in 2004 and forced to relocate to Vilnius (Lithuania)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Write letters!

Let me emphasize once again that INDIVIDUAL letters to the Russian authorities are more effective than collective petitions (although these are also useful if published as open letters). Many of them have bureaucratic guidelines which oblige them to respond to every letter individually, and statistics showing how many letters they have received. (Having worked with such letters in a Soviet-era archive, I can assure you that this bureaucratic rule is indeed a non-negligible counterweight to bureaucratic cynicism.) To be entirely honest, I don't know what their rules are on letters from foreigners, especially in languages other than Russian, but I would assume these might actually carry GREATER weight.

If at all possible (and I know it may be expensive), please send your letter by registered mail. You might want to write to the Russian ambassador in your country in addition to some of the Russian addresses mentioned in this link:

Here and here are detailed instructions (in Russian), including points you might like to mention, sample letters, and an expanded list of addresses.

To summarize:

1. Say who you are, write what has happened with the EUSPb.
2. Say that the EUSPb is a renowned scholarly institution and that the international scholarly community is very concerned.
3. At the moment the EUSPb is unable to function (its license has been suspended) because of the fire safety measures.
4. The university is prepared to meet the demands of the fire safety inspectors as far as possible, but it should be allowed to continue to function.
5. Ask the authorities to lend their support to the university.
6. IMPORTANT: Please include a formal request for a reply, stating your address (private addresses seem to work best).

And finally, please don't forget that it's counterproductive in such letters to lambast the 'evil Russian regime'. The point is to put enough pressure on the authorities that they will find a face-saving solution to restore the university, not to provoke them into making it a point of honor to keep it closed.

PS: If someone wants to draw up a list of relevant Russian embassies, or other addresses specifically relevant to letters from outside Russia, I would be happy to post it on this site.

Appeal to former visiting students at EUSPb

Simon Rabinovitch, a post-doctoral associate at the University of Florida and a former visiting student at the European University, has just sent me a letter of support.
He is asking all former visiting students to get in touch with him to put together a joint letter of support.

FYI, the EUSPb has one of Russia's best programs for foreign visiting students in history and the social sciences: students can attend lectures and seminars in English and get credits that are honored by their home universities. This may not sound like much, but it's extremely rare in Russia, where most academics don't have a sufficient command of English OR enough knowledge of the international social science literature to be able to teach students from English-speaking countries.
Once again, all this is now under threat.


1. Please note that the link lists on the right are updated almost daily, especially the list of articles, blogs etc. in Russian.
2. I have now enabled comments posting for everyone. Please share your views on how to help the European University.

Closed Days

Many universities around the world hold Open Days to attract prospective students.
This week, European University students are organizing Closed Days to draw attention the the closure of their university. Here is a program in Russian.

The highlights:

March 5: Press conference and photo exhibition on the EUSPb
March 7: Vaudeville roadshow on the shutdown
March 9: Open-air university with public lectures on students unions, protest movements, etc.
March 10: Urban orienteering competition: "The Running University"
March 15: Demonstration on Sakharov Square

Friday, February 29, 2008

Video ethnography in difficult times

EUSPb students, faculty, and supporters have proclaimed the 'week of the European University'. They inaugurated it today with a public performance in which they laid down a fire hose in front of a monument to Mikhail Lomonosov, known as the father of Russian scholarship. Other events scheduled include a theatrical performance, a photo exhibition, and an academic conference.
Ilia Utekhin, a professor of ethnography at EUSPb, is documenting events surrounding the shutdown in his video blog, which also features interviews with faculty and staff on their academic work and their assessment of the current situation. You can also watch the most recent videos directly from my blog by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Flash mob

Tomorrow afternoon the students are organizing a flash mob to draw attention to the closure.

Russia Profile article

A detailed article on the European University has just been published on the Russia Profile website. It is especially interesting because it is up to date and includes quotes from a wide range of people who have been associated with the EUSPb. It also links the shutdown to the earlier case of the European Humanities University in Minsk (see my list of academic freedom links in the bottom right-hand corner). Thanks to Alexander Etkind for the link.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

New petition

Anika Walke at UC Santa Cruz has launched a new petition specifically for academics with no direct links to the European University. Read it here and don't forget to mention your academic affiliation if you want your name added to the list of signatories. The letter will be sent to the Russian authorities by regular mail and is thus likely to be an effective supplement to online petitions. There is also a pdf version (without the list of signatures) which you can download and forward to friends and colleagues.

More bad news

The private institute that had offered temporary shelter to the European University has rescinded the lease. Thus the university remains homeless, and will continue to look for new premises. Meanwhile, the SPb Committee for Science and Higher Education has _promised_ to issue a license to the EUSPb to continue its activities in a new location (if if finds one). To make things clear: if, for whatever reason (including new fire hazards...), nobody steps forward to offer the temporary use of teaching facilities, the university will remain closed - probably for good.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fundraising campaign

The European University is asking for donations to bring its historic building in compliance with the fire safety requirements, thus enabling it to continue teaching. Donations are tax-deductible in the US. See here for details. UPDATE: You can also download the university's call for donations and an info card on money transfers as pdf files.
Latest news: It has just transpired that the university's license was suspended on Feb 21. UPDATE: Rector Vakhtin comments that if it does not receive a new one within a month, that will mean the end of the European University.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

In a nutshell

Founded in 1994, the European University at St Petersburg is Russia's best social science grad school. Most of its teaching staff hold PhDs from US or West European universities. It is the second university in Russia to have built up an endowment.

On Feb 7, 2008, the university was closed by court order for 90 days due to fire hazards in its historic 19th century building. This decision followed a visit by fire inspectors on Jan 18. The ruling was upheld on Feb 18, even though many of the hazards had been removed.

The sudden closure of this excellent university, without regard for its academic needs and despite the fact that it has occupied the same historic building since 1994, has alarmed many in the academic community in Russia and abroad. Some have suggested that economic or political motives may have influenced this decision. Explanations range from attempts to appropriate the university's building for other purposes to a politically motivated crackdown on academic freedom. In particular, there seems to be a direct link with IRENA, a political science project focused on electoral monitoring which had been publicly criticized by a member of the Duma in June 2007 and was closed by decision of the university (under pressure, as some suggest) on Jan. 28.

On Feb 22, the university signed a four-month lease allowing it to use the premises of the Economics and Finance Institute, on the outskirts of town, to proceed with teaching in the second semester. Members of St Petersburg's city legislature and government indicated that they endorse the decision. However, it later transpired that the EUSPb's license was revoked on Feb. 21, and the Institute withdrew its agreement. Thus the university now finds itself homeless. It will not be able to obtain a new license unless it finds temporary new premises to proceed with even a limited curriculum, and much indicates that eligible partner organizations are intimidated and will offer no help. Keeping up public pressure on the Russian authorities is the only way to solve this problem.

This blog documents the events and provides links to pages in English and Russian with updates and letters of support.

What you can do to help

1. Donate funds to repair the building.

2. Write to the Russian authorities to express your concerns. Here is a list of addresses. Please note that e-mailing is not very effective. It is best to fax or (ideally) send your letter by registered mail, asking for a reply. In that case the authorities are legally obliged to respond. Send your requests for information individually, not as single letters with multiple signatures. In addition, sign one of the petitions (see link list on the right).

Rector Nikolai Vakhtin has suggested that the recent decision to allow faculty to continue teaching in new premises may have been due to the many public displays of solidarity. Thus it is important to keep up polite but firm pressure on the relevant authorities.

Before writing, please make sure you are up to date on the situation: events are moving quickly.

Please also be careful to avoid excessively political formulations unless you feel you have good reason to use them. Although of course the shutdown is related to the general political situation in Russia, there is no evidence that this incident is directly linked to a _systematic_ Kremlin-engineered program to curb academic freedom or Western influence, or that it was ordered by either the incumbent or the (inevitably) future president. And if only for tactical reasons, headings such as "Putin shuts down Western-oriented university" are simply counterproductive. (Thanks to Jeff Weintraub for prompting me to mention this.)

That said, there is a range of views on this topic, both in Russia and abroad. It might be useful to have a discussion on how the current situation ties in with Russia's particular type and dynamic of authoritarianism, and I would welcome contributions on that topic in this blog.

Legal Q&A

Two points on the legal situation:

1. Why make such a fuss about the EUSPB's closure, given that the fire hazards involved are real?

Indeed, following a recent spate of much-publicized fires across Russia, the Ministry for Emergency Situations published a list of endangered institutions in Moscow, including some educational institutions, that were fined or closed by court orders for brief periods of time. A new law that came into effect on Jan 1, 2008, stipulates that fire inspector may no longer order a building's shutdown without a court order.

But many of the fire hazards pointed out by the inspectors have been known for a long time, and indeed ever since the university's creation. (Incidentally, the very same fire inspector examined the building last year, and had no complaints.) Some of them cannot be removed without illegally altering the structure of this listed historic building. The vast majority of organizations in historic buildings such as this one are allowed to go about their business. If this was a bone fide concern with fire safety, some solution could have been suggested that would have allowed the university to continue its work while dealing with the problems.

Moreover, the fire inspector's visit coincided with controls by the Federal Registration Service and the Federal Agency for the Supervision of Education. While it is important to note that, as usual in such cases, there is no positive proof of a concerted attack, this coincidence does raise serious doubts about the motives behind these actions. All of this does very much look like an instance of selective application of the law. Nevertheless, it is crucial not to oversimplify the situation: it is counterproductive, for example, to blame everything directly on a supposedly omnipotent Vladimir Putin, as the New York Times did in a recent editorial.

2. Now that the university has been offered to move to new premises, is the situation resolved?

Far from it. In addition to the logistical issues pointed out in my opening post, it is far from clear that the EUSPB is even allowed to move. Its license explicitly mentions the building on Ulitsa Gagarinskaya #3. A new license can only be issued by the city government's Committee on Science and Higher Education. While this committee has sent the university a letter of endorsement for its partial move to new premises, that letter has no legal force since it is not an official license. So far it remains unclear whether the university will actually be able to proceed with even a limited curriculum.
I thank Vladimir Gelman and mesopotam for pointing this out.

UPDATE: Rector Nikolai Vakhtin just mentioned in a Radio Liberty interview that the university has received a _license_ to carry out its activities in other buildings. (Sat 5:35 ET)

FEB 26 UPDATE: That seems to have been a misunderstanding. The license was revoked on Feb 21, and no new license has been issued (yet?). See my new post.