According to the website Znak, a strong recommendation has been issued to Russian state officials to bring home any children who are studying abroad. Strictly speaking, this is not mandatory, but ‘One of the sources said that anyone who fails to act, will find such non-compliance to be a “complicating factor in the furtherance of their public sector career”.’ This follows instructions issued several years ago prohibiting public officials from holding financial assets abroad.
This issue is not a new one. Russians have been debating the pros and cons of foreign education for several centuries. Sometimes the state has encouraged it; other times it has done its best to suppress it.
It is Peter the Great who is most often celebrated for opening Russia up to the West, but he wasn’t the first Tsar to send young Russians abroad to study: Boris Godunov had already done so about 100 years previously. But the scale of foreign education certainly increased dramatically following Peter’s reign. Travelling abroad became common for members of the Russian elite.
Under Alexander I, however, the situation changed. The liberalism which marked the early years of Alexander’s reign vanished following the war against Napoleon. In its place came a form of religious obscurantism which regarded higher education with immense suspicion. Fearing that Russian students would be infected with rationalism, atheism, and nihilism, the government ordered that they be prohibited from studying in foreign universities.
Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I, was in some respects even more reactionary, and had a similarly negative view of foreign education. But his long-standing education minister, Count S.S. Uvarov, was rather more enlightened. Under his guidance, Russian universities underwent a major expansion, the quality of teaching greatly improved, and the flow of students abroad began again. Only after the European revolutions of 1848 and Uvarov’s dismissal did the regime again clamp down on foreign study.
The retrenchment which followed 1848 did not last long, however, as Nicholas I died in 1855. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Russia once more opened up the world. The revolution of 1917 then changed everything. For the next 70 years, access to foreign education remained very restricted. By the Brezhnev era, there were exchange programs between many Soviet and Western universities, but the total number of Soviet students able to study in the West was always fairly limited. Any advantages which the Soviet state might accrue from having a better educated population was outweighed by fear that Soviet youth might imbibe Western liberalism or would come to realize how poor and inefficient their own country was with comparison with the West, and thus come to doubt the validity of communist doctrines.
In the 1990s, the collapse of communism permitted Russian students to study abroad in massive numbers. The new prohibition will not entirely stop this, as it applies only to the children of public officials. It is also somewhat different to past efforts to restrict foreign education. In Muscovite Russia, under Alexander I, and then in Soviet times, the primary motive for such restrictions appears to have been fear of ideological contamination. This is not the case today. The exact reasons for the prohibition have not been made public, but a couple have been suggested.
First, ‘It appears that the underlying reason behind the command is that the Russian government is concerned about the optics of having children of the Russian political elite being educated abroad, while their parents appear on television talking about patriotism and being “surrounded by enemies”.’ Viewed this way, the decision is driven by internal Russian politics and a desire to appease nationalist sentiment.
Second, the decision can be seen as a continuation of the policy of isolating Russia’s elites from the West so that they cannot be pressured by Western governments. Just as officials have had to remove their financial assets from the Wests, so they now have to remove their children also, lest they be in effect held hostage.
Either way, as a professional educator, I don’t think it is a good idea. There is a reason why rulers such as Peter I encouraged study abroad – the knowledge young Russians acquired brought benefits to Russia as a whole. Furthermore, it is unwise to have an elite which is entirely isolated from foreign business and intellectual currents. If Russia and the West are to overcome their current difficulties, they need more interaction not less. As one commentator remarks, the measure ‘underscores the severity of the ongoing diplomatic crisis and just how significant the upcoming isolation between Russia and the West is likely to become in the coming months.’ As such, it is not a move we should welcome.
Update: It turns out that this story is probably false (see comments section). An unfortunate aspect of modern media is the tendency to leap upon unsubstantiated stories and make more out of them than they deserve. In this case, I plead guilty!
Update 2: Maybe I apologised too quickly. Vzgliad.ru writes that while there has been no official circular making such a recommendation (that officials bring their children home), in practice ‘officials, who intend to climb up the service ladder, or simply to join the state service, are asked where their relatives live. And if it turns out that they study in London or Paris, and their parents live in the USA, then this is grounds for an explanation of why those close to them have chosen to do so.’ Vzgliad defends this practice, saying that it is necessary to ‘liberate the nomenklatura from the West’, although it also says that this is just part of what needs to be done to improve the public service. From the available evidence, I can’t say whether officials are really being pressured in the way described, but what is clear from the Vzgliad article is some Russians consider it a good idea. It’s therefore worth commenting on regardless.