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Arrest Of Russian University Rector Sparks Fears Of Further Clampdown On Liberal Arts

Sergei Zuyev, the rector of Moscow's Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, was controversially arrested by Russian authorities on October 11. (file photo)

When news emerged on October 12 that Sergei Zuyev, rector of the prestigious Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences – known as Shaninka -- had been detained in connection with a fraud investigation against a former education official, the arrest was quickly framed by critics as the latest salvo in the Kremlin’s ongoing crackdown against dissent.

“This is complete trash,” tweeted Lyubov Sobol, an exiled aide to jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, alleging that law enforcement officials were targeting the school to facilitate corruption. “Hands off Shaninka!”

Zuyev’s blood pressure exceeded 200, and the 67-year-old was suffering from acute hypertension when he was taken from a Moscow hospital late in the evening of October 11 and placed under arrest, a friend later wrote on Facebook.

Zuyev had been the head of Shaninka for more than a decade.

The school is one of four Russian universities that have launched highly regarded U.S.-style liberal arts programs and have helped pave the way for the model to spread in a country where education continues to be heavily influenced by staid Soviet-era practices and hampered by inadequate funding.

In a statement, Russia’s Interior Ministry said Zuyev’s arrest was tied to an ongoing probe into Marina Rakova, a former deputy education minister who was detained last week on charges of embezzlement.

Former Russian Deputy Education Minister Marina Rakova (file photo)
Former Russian Deputy Education Minister Marina Rakova (file photo)

The ministry alleged that Rakova had lobbied for the redirection of state grants toward an educational foundation that was meant to finance projects at Shaninka under Zuyev’s oversight but misused the funds.

Zuyev, who was placed under house arrest on October 13, denies the charges.

His supporters have rallied to his cause, alleging that he fell victim to a criminal case that was opportunistically used to target a plucky school that some officials see as an incubator of dissent. On October 12, Zuyev’s pregnant daughter, Daria, held a picket outside the police headquarters in Moscow, holding a poster that read: “Release Sergei Zuyev. No to fabricated cases.”

In addition, more than 200 of the university's students havesigned an open letter in Zuyev's defense.

A New, Ruthless Campaign?

Aleksandr Arkhangelsky, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE) who said he has known Zuyev for “a quarter of a century,” said the veteran pedagogue had been used as collateral after previously resisting officials’ attempts to shut Shaninka down.

Aleksandr Arkhangelsky
Aleksandr Arkhangelsky

“He fell between the millstones of a criminal case [against Rakova],”he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “They were simply looking for an excuse to rope her into a criminal case. And the easiest way was to point to a grant and say it wasn’t used.”

But recent developments surrounding another liberal arts program, the country’s oldest, have prompted fears that the moves against Zuyev augur a new, more ruthless campaign against Shaninka and Russian liberal arts education in general.

On June 21, less than two weeks before students at Smolny College in St. Petersburg gathered for their graduation ceremony, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office declared Bard College -- Smolny’s partner institution in the United States -- an "undesirable" organization representing "a threat to the foundations of Russia's constitutional order." Any involvement with the school suddenly became a potential crime.

“This is simply a coordinated campaign of pressure against Shaninka,” opposition politician Yulia Galyamina told RFE/RL’s Russian Service about Zuyev’s arrest. “Russia has few remaining intellectual centers where modern forms of humanitarian study are blooming. And it’s clear that none of the people in power today needs them."

The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences was founded in 1995 by Polish-born British sociologist Teodor Shanin, who opened the school with funding from the Open Society Institute, a nongovernmental organization created and funded by billionaire George Soros. The school’s graduates have gone on to join prestigious foreign universities and take high-status jobs in the Russian public and private sectors.

The Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences is one of a handful of Russian universities to offer a highly regarded U.S.-style liberal arts program. (file photo)
The Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences is one of a handful of Russian universities to offer a highly regarded U.S.-style liberal arts program. (file photo)

But the university has faced pressure just like Smolny, HSE, and other outspoken institutions in Russia. In June 2018, it was stripped of its license as a university, with officials citing vague reasons for the move but critics alleging that the university was being targeted for its liberal stance. The license was reinstated in 2020, returning to Shaninka the right to issue state-recognized diplomas.

“Everyone in academia should be aware that there are no protected people,” said Arkhangelsky, warning of a new purge. “It’s not enough to be obedient — you have to be absolutely loyal. But even that won’t save you. They can take away anyone they want.”

With reporting by Lyubov Chizhova of RFE/RL’s Russian Service
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