The editors of the student magazine DOXA, Armen Aramyan, Alla Gutnikova, Vladimir Metelkin, and Natasha Tyshkevich, joined the ranks of journalists who are increasingly being «rewarded» by the Russian government for their honest, selfless work. They are rewarded with criminal prosecution. The brave four have been “awarded”, or, more precisely, charged so far, with Article 151.2 of the Criminal Code on “involving minors in activities known to be dangerous to their lives and health” — meaning going out to street protests. The first part of the award was “presented” to each of them in the form of an electronic bracelet and a ruling on actually house arrest for two months, with a ban on communication with the outside world and use of the Internet.
But there is another initiative by our young colleagues that we are happy to note here — DOXA’s first serious professional achievement in the field of investigative journalism — a joint publication with the experienced reporters from Project media that was published under the title “Educational Qualification” (written by Anastasia Kuts, Tatiana Kolobakina, Nikita Kuchinsky, German Nechaev, with the participation of Yulia Apukhtina and Mstislav Grivachev).
The story saw the light exactly the day after the law enforcement agencies tried to shut the four DOXA editors out of the spotlight. Although the authors themselves considered their article a study of who teaches Russian youth, in our opinion, it complies with the criteria we use when analyzing and assessing the best investigations that appear on the horizon of independent journalism in Russia.
The authors have divided their text into four chapters. The first tells the story of democracy having disappeared from universities. The second deals with the advent of the United Russia Party (URP) to the leadership of universities. The third tells the story of what the authors consider to be the most odious university rectors in Russia. And, finally, the fourth gives an idea of what the FSB (the Russian secret police) are doing at universities.
The journalists discovered that the overwhelming majority of university administrators in Russia are one way or another connected with the government and the pro-government United Russia party. This fact alone explains the intensifying repression of politically active students and professors. The screws in the universities have tightened as the protest has “rejuvenated”. The authors describe in detail the history of how Russian universities ceased to be a place for discussion. The text is accompanied by an excellent infographic that traces the events depicted in the text as the struggle against dissent from 2007 to the present.
Journalists remember the “blessed” times of Marches of Dissent. In 2008, the administration of the Higher School of Economics (HSE, or simply Vysshka) responded to a letter from Major-General Alexander Ivanov of the Moscow Department of Internal Affairs, who suggested that the six students who had participated in the rallies be “considered for further study” with a dashing rebuff: “The political affiliations of students are their private matter”. In 2019, political leanings were no longer “personal”. During the Moscow protests against the non-admission of independent candidates to the Moscow City Duma elections, when the criminal case was brought against student Yegor Zhukov, the same Vyshka administration, in the same lineup, began to talk about the fact that “the university is beyond politics”. Soon the best professors, whose beliefs did not conform to “political standards” were dragged out of the university. Finally, in the winter of 2020, Vysshka banned its staff and students from using their affiliation with the HSE when making public political statements. All of this was taking place at a university that had once been hailed as a showcase for liberalism.
Politics, of course, came to the university. It came in the guise of United Russia Party. Project media and DOXA analyzed the biographies of 559 rectors, vice-rectors and deputies in charge of “security and upbringing” of Russia’s top 100 universities, according to Forbes magazine. The journalists found out that 74 percent of them are in some way connected with the government; 47 percent are URP members (including those who have the status of a deputy). Twenty-four percent of the university managers once were deputies at various levels, are deputies at the present time, were candidates for the deputy’s office, or participated in the primaries. No less than two percent are former members of the law enforcement agencies, and 14 percent lit up as proxies of Putin, Mayor Sobyanin and former Prime Minister (President) Dmitry Medvedev.
As an illustration of these policies, journalists present detailed portraits of nine rectors.
The richest in this company Vladimir Litvinenko, rector of St. Petersburg Mining University since 1994 (according to Forbes, his fortune exceeds $1.5 billion) is known for supervising Vladimir Putin’s and Igor Sechin’s PhD thesis, as well as for being several times the head of Putin’s presidential campaign headquarters. The origin of his billions has become the subject of journalistic investigations more than once.
The youngest is Natalia Pochinok, who became the rector of the Russian State Social University (RSSU) in place of her deceased husband, former Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok, who was about to take up the position but passed away. She is known to be proxy of two persons at once – both Putin and Sobyanin (the mayor of Moscow). In 2019, she ran for the Moscow City Duma with the support of URP, but lost her chance. Natalia Pochinok became famous for the fact that under her leadership at RGSU in October 2019 alone, several dozen students who were detained or simply participated in summer protests went through preventive conversations with the university’s security service. Students complained of threats and politically motivated expulsions. And, incidentally, it was the article about Natalia Pochinok that was the final straw that caused Vysshka to revoke DOXA magazine’s status as a student organization in December 2019, and, accordingly, the university’s financial support for the magazine.
The authors of the investigation drew attention to two managerial positions at Russian universities whose holders are primarily involved in dealing with “politically unreliable” students (and sometimes professors). These are vice-rectors or heads of departments for educational work and security. Project and DOXA identified 78 such positions at the 100 universities they studied. Retired or active security personnel make up the highest proportion among this category of employees. Even in open sources one can find references to ties to law enforcement agencies — the FSB, Interior Ministry, Federal Migration Service, Defense Ministry, Federal Bailiff Service, and Federal Penitentiary Service- — in one third of cases.
The vice-rector for security position is not even a Russian, but a Soviet know-how. And the point here is not that some technical universities offer access to state secrets, which these specially trained young people are supposed to protect, but rather the control over dissent, which the authorities want to eradicate by the root. To be more precise, it is about free-thinking among students and faculty. During Soviet times, this task was entrusted to representatives of the KGB, not only at universities, but also at all other state and public organizations. So the “new” university order is a throwback to the Soviet past.
Along with critical thought, the intellectual component is also swept out of universities. This is particularly evident in the “scientific achievements” of the URP origin university authorities. The authors have studied the biographies of university leaders in terms of the Hirsch index (a common indicator of a scientist’s productivity, based on the number of his/her publications and their citations) and the presence of incorrect borrowings in their scientific work, as revealed by the Dissernet project. The picture turned out so-so: the median value of the Hirsch index for the rectors of the first hundred Russian universities is three. By comparison, the heads of the top 100 foreign universities have a median value of 38. Thirty percent of Russian rectors do not have the index at all, or it is equal to zero. Incorrect borrowings, in a word, plagiarism, were found in the works of 19 rectors of the top 100 universities.
Anyway, the advent of the URP to universities was not supposed to start moving science there. Having successfully demonstrated that the Duma is no place for discussion, they went to the university to form the core of education, which is incompatible with the freedom of thought.
…And a few more words on DOXA. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, when asked how the Kremlin views the situation when students are being searched at their homes at 6 a.m. because of a video they have even already removed at the request of Roskomnadzor, predictably replied “in no way”, adding that he “does not comment on court decisions”. But then he expanded his own “no answer”, saying that DOXA is not a student publication, but rather “has a socio-political nature”, and that “even for this reason” he “would not comment on anything”.
The intention of the authorities to prohibit anything “socio-political” in the independent public space is nothing new. The law passed by the Duma that actually prohibits any educational activity in the country unless it is approved by the state has been signed by the president. But sometimes a little touch can illuminate the overall picture of obscurantism even better than the whole law. Marina Azizbekyan, mother of Armen Aramyan, one of the detained DOXA editors, recalls in her interview to Meduza media how the search without the warrant began at 6:20 a.m. in their house, during which Armen was not present (he had been detained at the editorial office that morning, and Marina’s three other children were home): “They went through all the books. They were indignant as to why there were so many of them. I said, «He’s a scientist, so there are a lot of books’. They thought: if there are so many books, then there must be some forbidden literature. I said that we bought all the books in the bookstore. They responded that the list [of banned materials] is constantly updated…”.
Search technologies used by the authors: work with open sources, databases, journalists’ own sources, information from social networks.
Techniques used: analysis of the entire array of data obtained, interviews, making graphs and charts.