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Russia: Banned University Takes Protest To The Blogosphere

A fire hose became a symbol of the protests, after the university was closed due to "fire-safety violations" (AFP) Protests were expected when authorities in February shut down St. Petersburg's European University, one of the city's most respected higher-learning institutions.

But the revolt unleashed by the closure may have exceeded authorities' worst expectations.

Defiant students and professors have launched an all-out campaign to save their university. With their building now off-limits, they have fallen back on Internet forums, blogs, and videos to coordinate their efforts.

"Yes, things are undeniably very difficult for us now that our license is suspended and our auditorium is closed," said Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science and sociology, to a crowd of supporters at a popular Petersburg art club earlier this month.

"But a university is not merely a piece of paper with a licensing stamp; it's not merely an auditorium, a library, and a computer room -- it is, above all, an academic community. You can shut down an auditorium, but you can't shut down people's brains."

It was a powerful speech for those in the room. For those who weren't, it -- and other events staged by European University activists -- can be replayed in its entirety on a blog run by an anthropology professor at the university, Ilya Utekhin.

The Internet has been instrumental in bringing the university's troubles out into the open. Russian national television channels, all of which are state-controlled, have largely snubbed the issue.

Building Community

But the Internet has been much more than just a platform for distributing information about the university closure. Many of the campaigners' initiatives, Utekhin says, were actually born on blogs.

"Graduates formed their own association; students started gathering; even university applicants -- people who want to enter our university -- set up their own association," he says. "And all that originated on the Internet. People didn't meet and then decide to create a website. Things happened the other way around -- people formed a community on the Internet and then started interacting."

One blog on the U.S.-run blogging site LiveJournal -- Russia's most popular Internet forum -- has been collecting support letters and signatures protesting the university's closure.

Utekhin's blog, also found on LiveJournal, contains a raft of pictures and videos documenting the campaign to rescue the university, including some of the activists' quirkier protest actions.

One video shows students laying a fire hose -- symbolizing the alleged fire-safety violations for which the university was closed -- and a ribbon of mourning at the foot of a statue of Mikhail Lomonosov, the Russian scientist often regarded as the father of the country's higher education.

In another street performance, videos of which are also available on the blog, a fireman chases a mock university rector around a playground with a fire hose.

The blog has more serious footage, too. One video, for instance, shows the university's real rector, Boris Vakhtin, pouring scorn on the official motives for shutting down the university. "The most staggering claim is that we allowed the installation of a spiral staircase that obstructs fire exists," he says. "That staircase was built in 1881!"

Yankee Go Home?

What could have prompted officials to close down the European University remains unclear. It is renowned as one of the country's top universities, and has made a priority of reversing the trend of brain drain, the exodus of Russian intellectuals to the West.

Some suspect local authorities of trying to get their hands on the university's building, an ornate, 19th-century palace in the heart of St. Petersburg.

Others see the closure as a politically motivated attack against the Western-funded university, which has close links with universities in Britain and the United States.

The Kremlin in recent years has waged an active campaign to oust Western NGOs and other foreign-funded entities from the country; critics say the European University may be a victim of this xenophobic trend.

In a letter to outgoing President Vladimir Putin, a group of academics from the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences protested the university's closure, denouncing what they said were efforts to portray it as a "shifty entity, created with European money to meddle in the running of Russian elections."

The European University came under Kremlin fire last year after accepting a $1 million EU grant to run a project aimed at improving monitoring of Russian elections. The university eventually bowed to pressure and ditched the project in January.

Web Successes

The university's campaign highlights the growing popularity of Internet forums and blogs in Russia -- Russians are the world's second-largest group of users of LiveJournal.

And like European University activists, growing numbers of Russians have turned to blogs as a weapon to defend their interests amid growing impunity enjoyed by officials and a clampdown on civil society.

In 2006, a blog-based motorists' lobby group called Freedom of Choice organized massive car rallies across the country to protest the jailing of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a railway worker sentenced to four years in a labor colony for failing to yield to a Mercedes carrying the governor of the Altai region, Mikhail Yevdokimov. After hitting Shcherbinsky’s car from behind, the Mercedes crashed into a tree, and Yevdokimov was killed instantly.

Just weeks after the car rallies, Shcherbinsky won his appeal and walked free. By the end, he was represented by a top Moscow lawyer and even had the support of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

Bloggers joined forces again this month to fight the closure of a top-notch cardiology center offering free treatment to residents of Tarusa, a sleepy town some 130 kilometers south of Moscow. The center is entirely financed through donations and fund-raising events.

On March 3, just days after opening, the clinic was shut down and its chief physician was fired on orders of Yury Nakhrov, the head of the Tarusa district administration. Hospital staff, Nakhrov claimed, embezzled donation money -- an accusation the donors themselves swiftly rejected.

Since then, Russian blogs have been buzzing with outrage. Two LiveJounal blogs collected signatures for an open letter denouncing the "arbitrariness of bureaucrats." The appeal was sent to President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, Health Minister Tatyana Golikova, and regional Governor Anatoly Artamonov.

Maksim Osipov, a well-known Russian cardiologist and the driving force behind the clinic, says Internet forums have helped raise awareness of the case. "I wrote an essay that was widely discussed on the blogs," he says. "I think this encouraged people to trust me. A lot was written about the actual conflict on the Internet; signatures were collected.

The story has a happy ending -- the Tarusa hospital will be reopening soon and Nakhrov, with his back to the wall, has resigned. Governor Artamonov sacked his deputy governor overseeing social programs and issued a strong rebuke to the region's health minister.

It remains to be seen whether the European University and its web-savvy supporters will enjoy a similar resurrection. Russia, where the Internet remains available to just 20 percent of the population, still lags behind many nations in terms of penetration. But the population's embrace of web-driven activism may prove a force to be reckoned with as the Kremlin continues its crackdown on free expression and public dissent.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

Where's The Fire?

Where's The Fire?

Students and faculty at St. Petersburg's European University, reacting angrily to their school's closure, have organized their protests through online communities. One online activist, anthropology professor Ilya Utekhin, shot footage of some of the protests, then posted his videos on a blog documenting the campaign to save the university. In these clips from February 29 and March 7, 2008, student and faculty protesters mock the fire safety charges that prompted the university's closure, laying a fire hose at the foot of a monument to Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov, considered the father of higher education in Russia.

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