“Cadres decide everything”: in the late 1920s, this Stalinist slogan expressed the state’s reliance on thevydvizhentsi, a new generation of “promoted workers” that formed a mid-range elite, servile and loyal to the party apparatus and its general secretary, to whom it owed its promotion. Around the same time, the term “cadre forge” also emerged, which expresses the state’s nearly Foucaultian view of power as knowledge. If one knows, one can come to power and take control over its production and dissemination. All of this made Francis Bacon’s famous phrase that “knowledge is power” sound frighteningly material.

2002 marked the onset of  a new epoch in the history of the Russian university, as it once again became a political cadre forge. In this year, the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow (RGGU) signed a contract with by-now defunct oil company YUKOS, which promised to pay the university $100 million over the course of 10 years. Around the same time, Khodorkovsky announced his plans to take part in the presidential elections of 2008. This did not only clearly show which kind of career opportunities the university’s graduates would enjoy in the future, but also clearly determined their political choice. But Khodorkovsky’s conviction and imprisonment did not end this new phase of financial investment into institutions of higher learning. Quite on the contrary, it has only just begun. The banner that had fallen from the beleaguered oligarch was picked up immediately, if not grabbed by his opponents. Once again, the RGGU became a model object, though now for United Russia, the ruling party, whose intervention into the university seems softer and less immediate. This is Moscow. But in the regions, the party leadership of United Russia acts more decisively, though it is far less effective. In other words, one could place one’s hopes in the party’s blunt decisiveness, which is so ineffective that it cannot help but spark protest to the prevailing status quo, at least among students, who are far more sensitive to crude interventions into a sphere they usually think of as sovereign beyond politics.

Recent events at the University of Saratov this spring followed precisely this paradigm. To simplify, the situation was as follows, and seems symptomatic of an overall state of affairs. On the one hand, there are corrupt administrative structures, who see the university as a private company and seek an alliance with the ruling party, offering loyalty and ideological support in exchange for the indifference of state prosecutors and tax inspections to their half-legal dealings. On the other hand, there is the ruling party, which manifests illusory ambitions of staying in power forever, and then declares its interest in the intellectual resources that higher education produces. These two powers are counterbalanced by a third force that is far weaker, not so much because it is small, but because of its contradictory social and political interests. This third force consists of those who side with opposition parties and movements (both liberal and left), as well as those who advocate a university that remains autonomous from politics, is well-integrated into the international system of grants, and sells the knowledge it produces, rather than its political loyalty. Unified protests of this segmented “third power” were once highly unlikely, but now become possible in opposition to United Russia, so that the ruling party finally has earned its name.

As it public relations provost eloquently puts it, “the University of Saratov sees itself as a partner of the United Russia party, because it is the only party that creates anything by helping universities directly.” (https://www.zeminfo.ru/news/?id=6792). This sums it all up, just like the new humanities buildings constructed with party funding, allocated by the chairman of the university’s Sponsorship Council Vyacheslav Volodin, who also happens to be the deputy head of the State Duma, Russia’s parliament. And everything would be alright, if the historians hadn’t demonstrated such obduracy, accepting the present without effusing their endless gratitude. This proved so irritating that the dean of historical faculty was eventually fired on Volodin’s demands, relieved of his elected position without any regard for proper legal procedure on grounds that included “supporting parties that oppose United Russia.”

Both faculty and students refused to bow to this decision. Refusing to recognize the authority of the new dean, they unleashed a broad media campaign, and held up to many days of pressing from the university’s administration and security services. When student activists were threatened with expulsion one-on-one, students organized meetings and conferences. The faculty building was surrounded by campus security; militia and OMON troops were also called, so that its interior soon took on the recognizable traits of a student uprising.

In the end, the administration opted not to resort to methods of direct physical force to end the standoff. Instead, the dean was restored to his position, while the local party branch of United Russia distanced itself from the conflict and insisted that it was an internal university matter and nothing more.

Preliminary, yet obvious results: the student community was politicized and made an experience of successful struggle based on solidarity (this is important, precisely because the protests’ subject was not a small group of student activists, but the faculty as a whole.)

Taking a broader perspective, one could say that the state’s increasingly blunt attempts to subordinate institutions of higher learning promise to radicalize and intensify protest against its policies.