What the FSB is doing in Russian universities

Stylized Artist's Depiction of Shadowy Figures in Dark Coats and Dark Hats, One Carrying a Briefcase

(opendemocracy.net – ALEKSANDR CHORNYKH – September 2, 2014)

Aleksandr Chornykh writes for the Russian newspaper Kommersant. He specialises on education in Russia, and is one of the leading experts in his field.

In Soviet times, the KGB kept a close watch on intellectuals – they might turn out to be dissidents. Today, the FSB still skulks on university corridors…

In the Soviet Union, higher education was only available to a privileged few – most young people made do with a couple of years of vocational further education after school. A university degree was considered a passport into the world of the elite, so the security organs kept a close eye on students’ ideological ‘reliability.’ The situation is very different now, but the FSB still has a presence in Russian universities.

In 1967, the KGB set up a new department, the Fifth Directorate, responsible for ‘ideological counterintelligence,’ whose Third Section was solely concerned with the surveillance of students and teachers in higher education. Each university and research institute had its own KGB ‘minder’ whose job was to monitor the student mood, which they did by collecting regular reports from student Komsomol (Young Communist) leaders, HR departments, and so on.

The information gleaned from these sources was, however, rather cursory, so the KGB had to actively recruit agents among the students themselves. Some were blackmailed into this, and threatened with expulsion if they did not cooperate, but many happily volunteered their help, either out of a strong belief in Communist ideals, or perhaps in the hope that it might further their careers. The ‘squealers’ were even trained in basic conspiracy techniques: how to avoid giving yourself away; how to contact your ‘minder;’ what to watch out for in your friends’ and teachers’ conversations. Judging by the reminiscences of old Soviet dissidents, the students usually sniffed out the ‘squealers’ pretty quickly, but there was always the chance that someone might be missed. The possibility of running into a grass was a serious obstacle for simple friendships, let alone student societies or underground dissident groups – a situation that suited the Security Services very well.

After the fall

After the collapse of the USSR, higher education ceased to be anything out of the ordinary, and in fact became pretty universal. A lot of private universities appeared, and state universities could start making money out of students. Today, Russia alone has almost five times more universities than all 15 of the USSR’s republics put together. No security service in the world could monitor that number of colleges, but the FSB – successor to the KGB – continues to keep watch over the higher education system, if to a lesser extent than before.

Moscow State University file photoThe FSB and other security agencies are open about their links with the technical universities that train specialists for the armed services and similar high security sectors. Most graduates from these universities have had access to ‘military secrets’ and are subject to certain restrictions – banned, for example, from travelling abroad. Even before they start their course, students know that the security agencies will take an interest in their lives, and take contacts with the FSB as a given. It is the same for future diplomats – students at the Moscow State University (MGU) Institute for International Relations, and the Institute of Asian and African Studies, seen from Soviet times as hothouses for future Foreign Intelligence officers.

But the security organs also try to monitor the ‘reliability’ of ordinary students. ‘The FSB has no interest in obscure law or economics colleges that hand out Mickey Mouse degrees for a minimum of study,’ says Oleg, who works at MGU (he asked us not to use his real name or what his job is there). ‘The students there are of no interest to the security services; they’d be no trouble but no use either.’ But the major universities all have FSB officers attached to them. ‘You won’t find them on any staff lists, or anywhere on the website,’ Oleg tells me, ‘but everyone who works there knows that in room such-and-such there is a person from the security services, and it’s best to avoid them at all costs.’

What’s the point?

Today’s spooks still monitor student mood, compile dossiers on informal leaders and political activists, and try to keep an eye on clubs and societies. University authorities vary in their attitude to the ‘minders:’ the more independent heads try to politely ignore them; the others cooperate in one way or another. ‘Many universities don’t want the bother associated with young people who are too active, who go on political demos, protest against the government and so on,’ says Oleg. ‘They’re afraid they’ll be seen as hotbeds of freethinking, as has already happened with the Higher School of Economics, which is now under constant attack from the conservative media. So now university heads want to know their aspiring students’ backgrounds – if he or she is going to be a problem, they don’t get a place. Now school leavers are awarded places on the basis of independent testing, but the most prestigious universities can set their own entrance exams on top of that, and fail people they don’t like. Or, of course, they can fail them at their first set of university exams and kick them out then.’

According to Oleg, university FSB officers only reveal themselves in extreme circumstances. Since 2009, there has been a ‘Student, Graduate Student and Staff Initiative Group’ at MGU – an informal organisation standing up for students’ rights. It started with a request for bicycle parking facilities and easier visitor entry to student residences, but was soon asking for ‘genuine student self-government, run by the students themselves, and not by organisations subject to the university authorities’. This drew FSB attention to what was a small group; and its representative started coming to meetings between the group and the university administration. According to the students, ‘we then discovered that he had been talking to senior faculty members, asking them to keep a tighter rein on the most active students,’ In 2010, the initiative group posted a statement on their site, calling for support for students in California who were protesting against government education cuts. ‘After that,’ a group member told me, ‘we had a separate conversation with people from the FSB, who told us that posting statements like that and mentioning MGU was “dangerous.”‘ And during the 2011 protests in Moscow, the FSB kept trying to persuade students to stay away from unofficial political activities.

Teachers are under surveillance

It is not just students who are watched by the FSB: teachers are equally at risk. One recent incident that went public concerned 53-year-old Vyacheslav Dmitriyev, a lecturer at MGU’s philosophy faculty. In January 2014, Dmitriyev, a man of known left-wing convictions, reposted on his Livejournal blog an anonymous text, entitled ‘A Guide to Combat Operations against Occupying Forces,’ after editing it to remove obscenities and the more bloodthirsty passages. The article gave detailed advice on how to smuggle arms through security checks; how to fight riot police and military personnel; and how to seize and occupy residential areas. ‘The Russian government,’ wrote the author(s), ‘has yet again demonstrated that occupation lies at the core of its being, and has assured its people that it will not go away. The more people read this article, the better our chances of victory.’

‘Someone at the university saw the article and grassed on him to senior faculty members,’ says Oleg, ‘the squealers are still around too.’ FSB officers arrested Vyacheslav Dmitriyev, right in his office; and as colleagues later told journalists, they took him off to ‘a special room reserved for police officers in the MGU main building’. The lecturer was questioned there for several hours, and said that he had reposted the article purely out of academic interest, ‘as one possible line of development in the country’s political situation.’ In the end he was not charged with any offence, but all his colleagues have started to be more careful around social networks.

FSB sidelines

‘Of course it’s mostly a complete sinecure for the FSB guys,’ says Oleg. ‘We’re not in Stalin’s time anymore, so it’s all a formality. Nobody’s phone gets bugged, there’s no mass recruitment of squealers. They just want to know what students are thinking about, not to control their thoughts. Mostly they just get on with their own thing, trying to set up some business deal or other.’

And not just any business: ‘In 2011, FSB officer Sergei Vedishchev arrested a woman student who was going round the student residences handing out leaflets about our campaign against the tightening up of visiting rules,’ a student from the initiative group told me. ‘He held her until the police arrived, then she was taken to the MGU police office and questioned for ages, but they couldn’t find anything to charge her with. In the end they let her go after photocopying her ID details and those of the friends who came for her.’ Three years later, the same FSB colonel hit the headlines when he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for stealing a rare Gutenberg bible from the MGU library. In autumn 2012, he stole two rare volumes from the library and hid them in his office safe. With the help of two FSB colleagues he found a buyer who offered 40m roubles (£668,000) for the bible (valued by experts at £15m-21m). The FSB officers were so inept that they were exposed and arrested by their own colleagues. MGU head Viktor Sadovnichy admitted to journalists that Colonel Vedishchev, whose official position was Deputy pro-Rector for International Cooperation, ‘had had his complete trust.’

‘In the USSR it just wouldn’t have happened,’ Oleg assures me, who lived through that time, ‘The people who worked for the KGB then had some ideals, but now even FSB officers are just out to make a quick buck.’ The students, it must be said, have also changed – only interested in their own careers, rather than a change of power in their country. ‘There’s no need for anyone to keep an eye on our students. The overwhelming majority support the government and all its actions,’ the pro-rector of one of Russia’s major technical universities told me. ‘Strange as it may seem, the generation brought up on Hollywood movies is more patriotic than their parents.’

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