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Summer has arrived and exams are over. Now is the perfect time to study at university in Europe, unless you are from Russia.
In the wake of the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, which began in February, Russian students at European universities have been caught in a difficult situation.
On the one hand, some students report increasing levels of Russophobia in the West. On the other hand, Moscow is trying to entice them to return home to study. All the while, European universities oscillate between helping students and making their problems worse.
“Not many people know that I am Russian, I usually don’t tell people my nationality,” said a 20-year-old student from Moscow at the University of Exeter in the UK who requested anonymity to speak.
“If I say something bad about Russia, I’ll get in trouble there – if I say something good about Russia, I’ll get in trouble here,” the Exeter student added.
At some universities, Russian students say Russophobia has almost become normalized, while others accuse universities of actively contributing to discrimination.
A 20-year-old student from Siberia, studying at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, western Poland, who also asked to remain anonymous, said she was “very shocked” to hear a professor tell his students that Russophobia was “the most appropriate response”. at war. “I left that class,” she said. POLITICO was unable to contact the professor to obtain a response to the student’s allegation.
Elena Ledneva, 33, applied to the University of West London for a masters program in luxury hotel management after moving from the Russian region of Samara to London last year. To her surprise, the university rejected her, telling her in late May in an email seen by POLITICO that the decision was made “in response to recent events and the situation in Ukraine.”
“It was really frustrating because I have no influence on what’s happening in the world right now,” Ledneva said, adding that she was “totally against” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. . “I [just] I want to study and I want to do good and be useful here in the UK”
In response to the allegations, a University of West London spokesperson said the email was sent “in error” and was “due to internal miscommunication”.
In a similar vein, the University of Tartu in Estonia also sparked controversy after announcing in March that it would ban all prospective Russian applicants, something the university’s vice-rector later defended for “security” reasons.
Mikhail Suslov, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen who studies the Russian diaspora, argues that any academic discrimination is counterproductive. He said it risked playing into the hands of the Kremlin, which has long held the propaganda line that Russians are being unfairly victimized.
But universities have largely tried to provide support, and such cases are rare, said Michael Gaebel, director of the European University Association, which represents more than 850 universities across Europe.
“The focus is really on Ukrainian students, but what we can see in the sector is a growing awareness that we need to take care of our Russian colleagues in Europe,” he said.
A second Adam Mickiewicz University student, a 21-year-old Siberian who asked not to be named, says she felt supported. After arriving in Poland for an exchange program a day before the start of the war with only €300, she was soon left with no way to withdraw her savings after EU countries cut Russia off from the SWIFT payment system.
But the university stepped in to help the anthropology major. She said they gave her visa advice as well as a monthly allowance of 1,000 zlotys (€212) after her accounts were frozen.
Over 48,000 Russians study abroad each year, with the largest numbers going to Germany, the Czech Republic, the UK, France and Finland.
Markéta Martínková, vice-rector of Charles University in Prague, which hosts 1,500 Russian students, said the institution made it clear it would not tolerate Russophobia after hearing reports from students.
“We don’t judge our students – we just try to support them,” she said. “We emphasize that we do not support any action based on the principle of collective guilt.”
But the Kremlin seized on allegations of discrimination to stoke fear among Russian students in a bid to persuade them to return home.
At the end of February, Russian human rights envoy Tatyana Moskalkova claimed without proof that Russian students were expelled from European universities. Russia’s education ministry then announced that those facing “rights violations” would be granted automatic entry to the country’s top universities if they returned home.
University anthropology student Adam Mickiewicz says officials at her university in Russia called her 10 times in the first month of the war and eventually persuaded her to return despite the support she had received and the fact that she wanted to stay in Poland.
Suslov argues this is because ultimately the students pose a threat to the survival of Putin’s regime and the Kremlin needs them to be contained in a controlled information environment.
“The Russian political elite views the Russian diaspora as a potential competitor and a potential hotbed of dissidents with anti-Kremlin sentiments,” he said, adding that cultural exchange is also important because it contradicts the narrative of the state that Russians have “different” values. West.
Could today’s Russian students be tomorrow’s agents of regime change? The Kremlin is doing its best to torpedo this notion.