St. Petersburg State University’s Courageous Voices

Smolny Cathedral

Smolny Cathedral

Tucked behind the circa 1764 Smolny Cathedral sits the Political Science department of the St. Petersburg State University. The vast convent, considered to be one of the architectural masterpieces of the famed Italian Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, is situated on the shore of the Neva River, just before it swoops westward and dissipates into the Gulf of Finland.

I spent four months in those magnificent halls, studying mostly Russian language but also Modern Civilization and Political Science. As many of the other American students, my notions of Russia were shaped by the past influences of professors back home. My Slavic mindset was molded for almost 64 consecutive months by an old Kazak, through a methodology of applying Soviet ideals and loyalties to modern Russia and her leaders. Consequently, I fully expected the Russian lecturers at a state controlled university to be draped in the Russian flag and to have headshots of Putin in their wallets.

But, that was not the case. There were no portraits of Putin, not even on the office walls. The professors were unassertive, humble, often monotone and dressed in dark, simple attire. The Soviet national anthem wasn’t echoing on repeat in those vast corridors and the concept of a glorious superpower was not imposed in the classrooms. Instead, the reality of a faltering society was made thoroughly evident every day and in every class.

A few circumstances, from a long list of societal faults, resonated more than others. The professors would note how the ruling system was in fact not a parliament, but what they referred to as a super presidency. Putin has the authority, through constitutional power, to dissolve the state Duma if they disagree with any of his political measures. The founder of VK, a form of Russian Facebook, emigrated under threat of imprisonment when he refused to black list political dissidents and refused to disclose personal information to the FSB (Federal Security Services). We were also provided a list of varying bribe amounts and how they pertained to different institutions, such as 15500 RUB ($344 USD) to avoid the military draft or 10000 RUB ($230 USD) to adjust a criminal trial judgment in your favor.

The courage of those professors was astonishing, especially in a country where dissidence is dealt with using bullets or prison bars. Many Russian students arrive at that university touting pro-Putin ideals and leave with a reformed sense of their own reality. After all, it was the Smolny Institute where Lenin dispatched the Bolsheviks to dissolve the Tsarist regime and the same institution that Stalin endlessly feared due to that event. Maybe the history of revolution that has emanated from those halls is what motives its professors to push back against the Putin regime and to provide their students with a better understanding of the society they live in. Or maybe those events provide a form of protection for freer speech and education. Regardless, hopefully, some day, individuals and institutions such as those will help to shape Russian society for the better.