Foreign education

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.

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11 thoughts on “Foreign education”

  1. “Only after the European revolutions of 1848 and Uvarov’s dismissal did the regime again clamp down on foreign study.”

    Even in 1848-9 the Imperial Russia was under “regime”! Tsk.

    Professor, when shall we see the term “regime” used by you while talking about the past governments – besides Russia? Or is this by now something of involuntary tick of all people writing/talking about Russia – use “regime” no matter what?

    “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…

    […]

    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.”

    Peter the Great sent Russians, both nobles and commoners, to study *everything* that cpuld be of use for the country, especially the military science, engineering and shipwright’s craft. Don’t you see there is a slight difference between that approach, back from the time when the nobility still truly served the crown and the country, and what happened to spoiled brats of ealy 19 c.? Let alone – the ones we have now.

    “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.”

    Yes, let’s handwave entire epoch of Russian education (“Циркуляр о кухаркиных детях”, anyone?) and jump right to the Bolsheviks bashing!

    “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.”

    That’s one – ideologically pro-Western – way of looking at things. Let me provide you comparison – what’s better:

    1) Allow you country’s muslims to travel studying abroad to madrasas in the countries, known to support wahhabism and who in the past used such islamic education insitution to brainwash those young people into becoming fanatics, jihadis and the terrorists?

    or

    2) Have your own sistem of education, covering everything – even such a sensetive topic.

    Are you trying to tell us, Professor, that there were no such thing as the Cold War, that the West did not tried ceaselessly to harm my country, to recruit and subvert people from all stripes of life but, first of all, from the intellectual elite? Or that the West does not want (and does not practise) the same thing now?

    In short – do you take me (or any other Russian) for an idiot?

    “In the 1990s, the collapse of communism “

    There was a *communism* in early1990?! I had no idea!

    “The new prohibition will not entirely stop this, as it applies only to the children of public officials.”

    What “prohobition”?

    “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… Either way, as a professional educator, I don’t think it is a good idea… “

    So, you want them to become potential hostages/catspaws for the West?

    “Furthermore, it is unwise to have an elite which is entirely isolated from foreign business and intellectual currents.”

    You are jumping to conclusions. No one “isolates” them. They only must be more mindful and less treacherous. Is it something bad in your book?

    And, btw, what are these “intellectual currents” you are talking about? Ideology, that proclaims the “End of History” and superiority of the West?

    “If Russia and the West are to overcome their current difficulties, they need more interaction not less. “

    Let’s not be coy here – this is not some spat of “difficulties” or “misunderstanding”. This is a conflict. We are here in the long haul confrontation with the West. And we must plan accordingly. The West won’t accept anything short of Russia’s unconditional surrender. Because the true, existential threat for its post Cold-War World Order was not Putin, or some ideology, but, and I quote them, the “Resurgent Russia”.

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  2. It should be noted there are pretty good reasons why many Russians want to go abroad for study. Here’s a rather comprehensive article on that: https://sputnik.t30p.ru/post/Strah-i-nenavistj-v-rossiiskom-visshem-obrazovanii.aspx

    Yes, it tends to be anecdotal, and cherrypicks the more outrageous ones, and yes, I am sympathetic to the notion that ratings institutions underrate Russian universities.

    But Russia’s lag in scientific research is undeniable (wedged in between Taiwan and Belgium in contributions to Nature: http://www.natureindex.com/annual-tables/2016/country/all) and the situation is if anything worse in the humanities.

    This particular initiative (if it is true – I think Peskov just denied it) is not actually something I oppose but a more reliable if harder solution would be to actually fix the higher education system so that fewer Russian students will feel a need to go study abroad in the first place.

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    1. “It should be noted there are pretty good reasons why many Russians want to go abroad for study…. Russia’s lag in scientific research ”

      Сhildren of state officials study abroad, not for scientific research.
      It reflects more the desire to pour into the Western elite – with the help of the stolen money.

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    2. Fixing the higher education requires more motivation among the elite to fix it which can be achieved by denying them the cheap solution abroad.

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    1. Thanks for that, though all he says is that he ‘hasn’t seen and hasn’t heard’ of such a recommendation being given to officials, which falls a little bit short of outright denial. I was aware in writing the post that this might turn out to be an unfounded story, but thought it worth commenting on anyway, given the history of on-again off-again attitudes to foreign education. It will be interesting to see if there is any further clarification about whether this is for real. Does anybody know anything about the reliability of Znak?

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  3. I have added a couple of updates to the main post, including a link to a piece on the subject in Vzgliad.ru, the essence of which is that although the government hasn’t issued a formal recommendation that officials bring their children home.it does happen that officials will be asked about where their children live and study, and so may draw the obvious conclusion that it would harm their careers to keep their children abroad. Vzgliad seems to think that this is a good idea. http://vzgliad.ru/politics/2016/10/12/837676.html

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    1. From UPD2:

      “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.”

      There is always several ways to spin objective data. Some might decry this as “isolation”. I (and a significant part of Russians) call it “about time!”. You, hovewer, might even call it “transparency”.

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