'An Attack On Young People': Russia's Decision To Ban U.S. Bard College Baffles Observers

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- "This is very bad news," wrote historian and instructor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences Daniil Kotsyubinsky when he learned that the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office had moved to name his faculty's U.S. partner, Bard College, an "undesirable" foreign organization.

"It is nothing more than self-defeating state paranoia. It is inexplicable....," he continued. "The men in epaulets are sewing themselves new badges and stripes any way they can while educated youths once again receive from our superpower a hairy fist in their 'servile snouts.'"

"For the students, this decision is humiliating," Kotsyubinsky added in an interview with RFE/RL. "How are the instructors now supposed to tell them about what a great country they live in? That's what I'd like to ask those who make such decisions."

On June 21, the Prosecutor-General's Office asked the Justice Ministry to list Bard as an "undesirable foreign organization," saying it "represents a threat to the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation." When listed, Bard would become the 35th organization so designated.

The designation effectively ends -- and potentially criminalizes -- all activity connected with the "undesirable" organization in Russia.

Bard College, a respected private liberal arts college with about 2,000 students based in Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York, has been actively partnering with St. Petersburg State University since 1997. The first students came to Russia on a program called Art and the Humanities during the 1999/2000 academic year.

The exchange quickly evolved into a dual-degree program, with successful students earning degrees from both institutions.

In 2011, the two educational institutions created the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and selected former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin as its dean. Informally, the faculty was known as the Smolny Institute. Kudrin, who is believed to have close relations with President Vladimir Putin and who has for many years been seen as a leading relatively liberal voice in the ruling elite, remains the dean.

According to its website, the faculty "is the first Russian school designed around the principles of liberal education, which are based on an individual approach to each student and the creation of a suitable atmosphere for creative and original thinkers."

The new institution was actively supported by prominent St. Petersburg academician Dmitry Likhachyov, who said the initiative would restore "the best native traditions of university education, including those that unfortunately were lost because of the dramatic cataclysms our motherland endured in the last century."

According to Bard College's website, "cooperation between St. Petersburg University and Bard College takes place on many levels, including student and faculty exchange. Each year up to 45 students spend a semester at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences through Bard and an equal number of SPbU students attend courses at Bard…."

In November 2019, St. Petersburg State University announced it had become "the first Russian university to open a representative office in the United States" on the campus of Bard College.

"The creation of the representative office of St. Petersburg is especially well-timed now in the light of the difficulties that are found in relations between Russia and the United States in policy and diplomacy," said longtime Bard College President Leon Botstein at the ceremony. "We have been cooperating for 22 years."

Earlier this year, the Russian government decided to separate the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences from St. Petersburg State University and establish it as an independent university. That decision became official on March 3. About a month later, Bard announced it had received a "transformational" $500 million endowment from financier George Soros. Bard earlier played important roles in two Soros initiatives -- the Open Society University Network and the Central European University.

After Bard's announcement, St. Petersburg University rector Nikolai Kropachev invited prosecutors to the university to check whether it was in compliance with Russian laws.

Around the same time, prosecutors received a request from the Coordinating Council of Noncommercial Organizations of Russia complaining that Soros, the Open Society Foundations, Bard College, the Central European University, and Botstein were using the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences "as part of a global network of controlled educational institutions to indoctrinate young people into the pro-Western sphere, form a protest electorate, and sow a hostile ideology regarding our country."

In April, the Kremlin-friendly Coordinating Council held a roundtable to discuss "the negative influence of the Soros Foundation on Russian education."

Soros's Open Society organizations were among the first foreign NGOs declared "undesirable" in Russia back in 2015. The Kremlin and its supporters have long accused Soros of funding and promoting so-called "color" revolutions in the former Soviet Union.

St. Petersburg State University could not be reached for comment.

Bard College has not issued an official reaction to the "undesirable" designation, but Botstein gave an interview to the Chronicle Of Higher Education in which he described the prosecutors' decision as "shocking" and "wildly wrong-headed."

"We hope the Russian government will reconsider," he said. "It's a terrible blow against cultural and human exchange between our two peoples."

He said he had recently shipped the latest batch of Bard diplomas to students in Russia, but he wasn't sure the students would ever receive them.

Botstein added that Bard was already "cut off in communications from our colleagues in Russia."

"This law puts individuals at risk of being jailed just for having contact with us," he said. "We have alerted the secretary of state in hopes of including this in dialogue with Russia."

Immediate Consequences

Maksim Olenichev, a lawyer with the Team 29 legal-aid organization in St. Petersburg, agreed that the decision by the Prosecutor-General's Office has immediate consequences for the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"It must immediately cease all projects and, if some support came from [Bard], either financial or otherwise, it cannot be received," Olenichev told RFE/RL. "Any support that has not yet been spent on projects must be returned. In addition, it is illegal to keep or distribute any literature that was created with the participation of Bard College. This is expressly forbidden by the law on undesirable organizations. In general, any form of cooperation or interaction with Bard College must halt. The faculty can no longer host students, invite specialists, or carry out joint projects."

A person found to have violated the law three times within one year could face criminal prosecution and up to six years in prison, Olenichev explained.

Ilya Utekhin, an instructor with the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the "undesirable" designation "reflects the schizophrenia of the authorities."

"Bard College is not a political organization," he said. "It is simply a university that is promoting a liberal model of education…. These days, the liberal educational model is advancing rapidly around the world. In China, more than 100 universities are using this model. It is an American invention, and Bard College is at the forefront of this process."

Utekhin added that the decision seems to be a "another case of the authorities' hysteria" ahead of national legislative elections to be held in September.

"It is an attack on young people," he said. "The authorities are rather hysterically showing who is the boss around here. Every election is an opportunity for panic."

"Earlier, targeted repressions led me to understand that a person had done something publicly and if I didn't want to share his fate, I just shouldn't do that. I shouldn't express certain opinions or go to protests," Utekhin said.

"Now the authorities are introducing another behavioral model. The story of Bard College is different. After all, I can't change my past. I can't change the fact that I spent four years at the Smolny Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences and that I spent four months studying at Bard. That is, the authorities are telling me to think about the 'wrong' choices I have made in life. It is a tendency to look at a person's biography rather than his actions. This really scares me."

Historian Ivan Kurilla wrote on Facebook

"Should we expect that all universities around the world that were helped by Soros will be declared 'undesirable'?" he wrote. "Is it the prosecutors' goal to bring to an end all educational cooperation between Russian and foreign universities? Are Russia's elites prepared to live with the perspective of the destruction of the best hope for competitive domestic education for the sake of the paranoia of some and the intrigues of others?"

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by correspondent Tatyana Voltskaya of the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service