According to some reports, the government is now assessing the Russian student community as a potential source of future protest activity. The key concern appears to be that wide-scale economic dislocation may spark discontent among the nation’s youth.

In the West students were often the source of political discontent, but in Russia the situation is quite different. Photo: EPA

The Congress of Vice-Rectors for Educational Work, which took place from Oct. 22-23 in Moscow, shed light on the inner processes happening within Russian higher education institutions. According to reports from Russian business daily Kommersant, university students and staff are being examined on the basis of their “protest potential” and the results of such examinations are being used for the “official use of state authorities.”

Nikita Danyuk, deputy head of the Institute for Strategic Research and Forecasts at the People’s Friendship University, told others at the Congress that his institution had started to assess the protest activity of students. For this purpose, a special educational program “Scenarios of Russia’s Future” has been developed, which contains a series of scientific and educational lectures on “countering destructive political forces.”

The program did not remain within the People’s Friendship University’s walls – it took place in more than 40 universities. The key aim of this program, according to Danyuk, is to assess the “protest potential” among students and professors. For this purpose, the participants of the program are being asked to share their positions on a variety of political questions during the course.

Danyuk stated that, “The results of this project were used in special reports for official use of the government and other state bodies.” The findings of the research showed that destructive propaganda of anti-state ideas is taking place at the level of staff members. This does not happen openly, but no one is hiding this either.

According to Gazeta.ru, the government funded the lecture series “Scenarios of Russia’s Future.” The project received presidential grants for non-commercial organizations no less than twice: 4.95 million rubles ($78,000) and then another 7 million rubles ($110,000). The spokesperson of the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, though, said that he has no information about university examinations and protest activity assessments. If they indeed took place, he said, there were not initiated by the Kremlin.

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Elena Shestopal, professor and head of the Political Sociology and Psychology Department at Lomonosov Moscow State University, thinks that the People’s Friendship University’s project does not have scientific goals. “It is impossible to assess the protest potential through lectures and similar work. Such estimates can be done only by a research project, not an educational one. Here one should ask questions and make conclusions,” she says.

“It is clear that other tasks are being completed, maybe this includes recruitment,” she says. The expert also suggested that such a controversial theme might have been seen by the project’s developers as a way to boost their recognition as a credible research center.

According to Shestopal, it is indeed necessary to examine society’s protest potential. “For example, law enforcement bodies are doing such assessments using their own tools. Any government should be ready if there is discontent growing in the country,” she said.

Students are not interested in protests

Experts agree that it is a mistake to treat students as a source of potential threat. The Russian student community has never been a trigger of protests. “Students in Russia do not have the same qualities as the students of the Paris spring. We didn’t have it either during the 1990s or during the Bolotnaya Square movement in 2011-2012,” said Shestopal. [In May 1968, students in Paris led a nationwide protest movement that included massive general strikes – Editor’s note]

Sergei Markov, a vice rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, is also certain that students are very politically passive and the attention paid to them from the university and state authorities is very high to minimize the risks of discontent.

“The authorities are afraid of student activity and are using all tools to prevent it. Any discontent is dealt with immediately and rational demands are being met,” he explains.

Moreover, it is hard for the youth to come together and form a united front. “Young people lack solidarity and an ability to connect with other people. They have a high level of mistrust and are oriented towards their career, not toward politics.”

According to Markov, political groups in Russia are very peculiar, so there a few who seek to get involved. “The main part of current activity has an antinational character and the majority does not participate in it,” he says.

For many, the key association with protest is the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is viewed negatively by the majority of the population. “It became more difficult to live after that, so now people do not really want to get involved in it. The human rights movement in Russia is discredited – the public does not trust in it and will unlikely support it,” he explains. “There are nationalistic groups as well, but they are not popular too.”

Shestopal is confident that protests might emerge when the majority of law-abiding citizens sense injustice from the government. “We had protests, for example, in 2005 when streets were blocked by pensioners, which are a very calm and law-abiding group of the population,” she points out. Any strata of the population can become a source of protest movement. In fact, any strata that experiences the injustice of the state will be a source of discontent. Today no one knows where the threat might come from, but if one chooses to rid the poor from the last source of survival, they will turn to the streets.

According to the research of the trade union movement, today much of the protest activity is based around difficult economic conditions. As Russia’s industrial production experiences challenges, many people are losing their jobs.

“The level of protest activity has risen compared to last year,” says Alexander Shershukov, secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia. “This happened due to the increasing number of redundancies, cuts and company closures. The number of labor disputes increased by a quarter compared to last year. But it is still far away from the protest wave.”

He points out that the situation is most difficult in cities where the economy is dominated by a single industry or company. “There is no united protest region, these processes are spread thinly across the country. There are problems in the Far East, in Sverdlovsk region. The problems are mainly in places where industrial production is dominant because it is in this sector where the most significant problems are taking place,” Shershukov notes.