Education Makes Elections Happen

1999 > Russia

The fun of molding young Russian minds

Russia Today January 29, 1999

The Politics of Education

By Rod Pounsett

Russian politicians know that education and the future of the younger generation
will be a key factor in country’s next elections — both parliamentary and
presidential. For instance, it will be the first time that many young people,
those born the early ’80s, will have their chance to pass judgement on the
current political regime. It is they and their parents who have suffered
most because of the worsening conditions within schools, universities and
colleges due to lack of funds for equipment, general education supplies,
building maintenance and teachers’ pay.

These parents and children have witnessed severe deterioration of the Soviet
education system that, apart from the elements of political indoctrination,
was admired around the world. It was free for everyone, provided the best
conditions for both students and teachers and instilled a universal incentive
for high academic achievement. Even including the remote, relatively primitive
regions of the former Soviet Union, it was among the top countries in the
world for adult literacy.

Now Russia’s education system, starved of government funding, is at the sharp
end of the worst elements of market economy supply-and-demand conditions.
It has become a system where a good education and even fair assessment is
mainly reserved for the wealthy. Even choosing a line of study, however bright
a student might be, is governed by the amount of cash a family has available
to pay the high prices set for study within prestigious institutes, especially
those providing skills to match the new Russian economy.

One has only to look on any campus and see where all the cars are parked.
There will be no free spaces outside the law, business and computer studies
departments while lots near chemistry, physics or biology departments are
virtually empty. The less well off can still get into universities, but only
for less popular courses and then they have to struggle to survive.

More than 1.5 million young Russians are due to return to their university
and college studies on Feb. 8. But a high percentage of these, especially
among those in their fourth and fifth years, will not show up on campus.
They have already been forced into full-time employment in order to survive
or help their parents, and will attempt to scrape through the final examinations
with home studies after work. Or they will simply buy their degrees. For
enough cash, many low-paid professors are prepared to alter end of studies’
assessments and exam results.

Pay levels — when and if wages get paid — for school teachers and higher
education staff remain appallingly low. This in itself increases the temptation
either to opt out of the education system altogether, or bow to near corruption
tactics by taking unofficial payments from wealthy parents seeking better
opportunities for their offspring or buying time for sons who would otherwise
be called up for military service.

Children from low-paid or unemployed families now face severe hardship if
they are to complete their education. If they are attending a university
or college within their own home town, they get a mere $6 a month from the
government and some travel and other concessions. But these are highly dependent
on examination results. If they are from out of town and living on campus,
they get an extra $7 a month by way of food tokens. Out of these stipends,
the students have to buy basic writing materials and any special books they
need. Many from poorer families will also have to buy their own clothes and
pay any leisure expenses.

We have already seen protests by students and teachers in various regions
around Russia and the current worsening general economic situation is bound
to provoke more. Politicians who take up their cause could capture large
votes at the next election. Those who do not may well be turning a blind
eye and ear to the seeds of widespread ferment.

4 February 1999 Johnson’s Russia List

Russian Education Today and the Myth of the Soviet Golden Age

By Edwin G. Dolan

Rod Pounsett laments the decline of Russian education and compares the situation
today unfavorably with a Soviet Golden Age when (aside from a little forced
Marxism) education was free and of high quality. Of course, there is some
truth in what he says, for education, like all other institutions in Russia,
has suffered from the country’s economic decline. Nevertheless, there are
some points to which I would like to take exception, based on my own nine
years’ experience teaching in several undergraduate and graduate programs
in Moscow, and occasionally lecturing at universities in other parts of the
Former Soviet Union.

The main point I would like to make is that the seeds of most of what is
wrong in Russian higher education today were sown in the Soviet period. I
believe that the apparent success of Soviet higher education was a result
of the same approach–in fact, literally part of the same approach–that
produced the mighty Soviet military machine. That approach was the so-called
“extensive model” of development in which problems were attacked by throwing
vast resources at them with little concern for efficiency, or for the number
of defective rocket parts, computer chips, or whatever that had to be thrown
away for every working model that was produced.

In the case of Soviet higher education, the basic idea was to channel vast
numbers of the brightest kids into science, math, and engineering, so many
that some of them were bound to come out with good educations. But a lot
of “defective chips” were produced as a result of some characteristic features
of the system that are well known to anyone who has been a part of it.

(1) Any visitor from America is immediately struck with the enormous
number of hours of lectures, seminars, and laboratories included in a typical
Russian university program, regardless of the field of study. If the norm
at a US university is 15-18 classroom hours per week, the norm in Russia
is 30-36. This creates an obvious problem: when do the students have time
to study, that is, to read, do independent research, write papers, and so

There are two parts to the answer. One is that Soviet and Russian university
education does not put much emphasis on independent study or research. For
example, most of the students in our Moscow MBA program, graduates of some
of the very best Russian undergraduate institutions, have never written a
term paper and have literally no clue as to what things like sources and
citations are all about. They are also baffled at first (although they catch
on quickly enough) by Harvard-type cases that have no “right” or “wrong”
answers but instead just aim to get the student to think. These students’
prior education has consisted primarily in learning facts.

The other part of the schedule puzzle is that attendance at lectures is low,
so that the students really don’t spend those 36 hours in class after all.
For example, I once taught a course in the economics department at MSU (by
reputation one of the strongest such departments in the country) where average
attendance at my lectures was 20 students. Yet 119 students were officially
enrolled, and they all showed up for the final exam. Not only was this a
required course, but the novelty of an American lecturing in Russian on the
hot topic of banking probably drew a larger than usual attendance.

(2) Any visiting teacher soon also learns that, although some departments
in some schools are very hard to get into, they are even harder to flunk
out of. There is a tradition that everyone must move “lockstep” through the
program with his or her group. No retaking a course next year if you fail
it the first time. To ensure this, you need to have everyone pass every exam.
What if the student has never come to class or studied? The solution is to
allow the exam to be repeated as many times as needed until it is passed.

I well remember my own induction to this system. During my second year of
teaching here (this time not at MSU or our own school), the rector and the
business school dean invited me to lunch just before my final exam. After
softening me up with some excellent Armenian cognac, they dropped a hint
that one of my students was the son of the then-speaker of the Russian
parliament, and that it would be nice for everyone concerned if he passed
the exam. Well, even I could understand that such a situation might make
the rector nervous, so I promised to see what I could do. In fact, the student
in question was quite capable of getting a passing grade without special
help, and did so. However, another student, whose name meant nothing to me,
not only cheated, but was dumb enough to cheat from someone who had the wrong
answers, so I gave him a failing “dvoika.” Oops. That one turned out to be
the son of the Russian ambassador to a major Western European country! Another
conference with the rector followed, at which it was suggested that I give
the exam over again. I protested that I had a ticket back to the States the
next day, so that I not only could not administer such an exam, I couldn’t
even put one together. Gotcha! In the blink of an eye, the rector kindly
offered to find another faculty member to compose and administer a make-up
exam, and everyone was once again all smiles.

(3) This leads into the endemic problem of cheating on exams and other
work. Yes, I know there is cheating at American colleges. For example, once
when I was teaching at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, an anonymous survey
was conducted to examine the school’s honor code. It found that about half
of students had cheated on an exam at least once in their college career,
and 5 to 10 percent cheated every time they thought they could get away with
it. But in Russia the numbers are higher, so high, in fact, that copying
on exams is the norm, not the exception. Our students report that professors
at their undergraduate institutes, far from discouraging cheating, encouraged
it to make sure everyone got through with the group. Our students are often
the bright ones who were cheated from in their undergraduate days, and report
being asked by their professor to leave room beside them for Vanya, because
poor Vanya would never pass unless he had a good paper to copy from.

In my above-mentioned class at MSU, when the 119 students showed up for the
final I handed out 4 variants of the exam in a checkerboard pattern to discourage
copying. The students quickly discovered this and began quite openly forming
little committees to work on each variant. “Hey, Stas, do you have Number
4?” That kind of thing. When I became upset at this, the students were amazed.
“You have to understand, this is the Russian way of doing it,” they told

(4) While cheating involves nearly all students in the copying or
the copied-from mode, I want to make clear that this next problem applies
only to a minority. This is the problem of the corrupt professor who sells
grades. Such behavior is not really accepted or condoned, yet it is reported
to be frequent enough that it can make a difference for a student who really
needs to get through some tough point in the program. I have even been told
of professors who extort bribes by systematically refusing to give a “5”
(or A) unless they are paid for it.

When all of these elements are combined, the result, even in the Soviet golden
age, was a system that did not prevent a bright, motivated student from getting
a good education, but one which also did not prevent a dull, lazy student
from getting an identical diploma in the same field of study from the same

For example, our MBA entrance exam attracts many absolutely brilliant candidates,
but every year it also attracts kids with diplomas in math and engineering
from perfectly reputable schools who cannot solve even the most elementary
problems in calculus or statistics. Perhaps our entrance exam is the first
exam they have ever taken that is given under conditions where copying is
not only not permitted, but is not physically possible.

Now that the Russian educational system is under strain, it is harder than
ever for even the self-starters to learn as much as they would like to, and
easier than ever for the weak students to pass on through. Physical facilities
are crumbling. The best faculty members are leaving for commercial work.
Low pay, or late pay, increases temptations for corruption are grade selling.
With stipends nearly nonexistent, there is great pressure on students to
take jobs that reduce class attendance and study time even more than in the
past. And, with application rates down for many programs, the average quality
of students passing through the system is lower, so standards have to be
reduced even more than in the past to keep the throughput rate at an acceptable
level. However, it needs to be stressed that all of these serious problems
are not unique to the “New Russia,” but rather, have roots in the structure
of a system that was formed in Soviet times.

It is an exaggeration to say that Russian higher education today is in a
state of complete collapse. For example, many talented teachers are sticking
to their dilapidated lecture halls despite low pay. A number of new schools
are starting up to fill the demand for education in needed fields like finance
and economics, which were weak points in the Soviet curriculum. These new
schools are not entirely free of some of the old vices (such as unrealistic
schedules and the pressure to stay with the group), but they have greater
freedom to pick quality instructors and a greater degree of financial

Most important of all, students do still seem to understand the value of
a good education. Given a program that repays their effort, they will spend
their own hard-earned money on tuition even if Papa isn’t a banker, and even
if it means riding the Metro to class instead of buying a BMW. They will
also work hard and successfully on their independent study and research if
it is demanded of them.

Finally, we are encouraged that graduates of our own MBA program, after landing
the jobs they want, have contributed thousands of dollars to an alumni financial
aid fund so that students whose families are not wealthy can attend our program.
So even in these difficult times, not quite everything has descended to the
level of “Upper Volta with blackboards.”

Edwin G. Dolan, President,
American Institute of Business
and Economics,
An independent, not-for-profit MBA program in Moscow.

04 February 1999, Johnson’s Russia List

Russian Honesty

By Mark Scheuer

I was very interested to read Mr. Edwin Dolan’s discussion of Russian eduction
(JRL 3042). As I was reading his article, I began remembering my brief encounter
w/ the Russian academic culture while teaching English in Moscow. Albeit,
the classes I taught were supplementary and did not count on anyone’s academic
record, I was exasperated by the degree of cheating that took place at all
levels and in all age groups. I thought one or two incidents from the poorest
students was expected, but it seemed that those who knew the lessons had
no problems helping others who did not.

I know that cheating occurs in the US, but it seemed to me to decline the
older Americans get and the farther along they are in their education. I
expected such in my Moscow English classes, but I was wrong. I found myself
coming up w/ seating schemes to combat this ritual and it became a source
of amusement for my students. They went out of their way to continue cheating
and defended the practice with a dismissive “this is Russia” (eta zhe Rossiya).

07 February 1999 Johnson’s Russia List

Teaching in Russia

By Adrian Helleman

Edwin Dolan’s remarks in JRL #3042/7 deserve a few comments. My experience
teaching at Moscow State University and some other schools both in Moscow
and St. Petersburg is similar to his. This is now my fourth year here. My
wife teaches in the same faculty. Our experience may be limited in terms
of schools and time here, but we can empathize with what he narrates.

Allow me to share some of our own experiences. In our relatively short time
here we have noticed many improvements. For example, the philosophy faculty
at MGU is better organized than when we first arrived. Some changes predate
the arrival of the new dean, but they have accelerated since then. Yet there
is much that causes us to shake our heads in wonder. The condition of the
university buildings is the most immediately apparent. Anyone who has had
to use the washrooms at MGU comes away shocked, unless they have also taught
in third world countries, as we have. Yet even in this area, there have been
noticeable improvements. It is indeed remarkable what a little paint and
several new toilets can accomplish. And our classrooms have recently received
new desks.

Dolan’s remarks about the legacy of the Soviet period is apropos. While our
very best students are as good as students anywhere, we have also had students
who should never have been admitted. Aside from those who get in because
of their connections, there are commercial students who pay for the privilege.
Once they are in, the students know that they will probably graduate. The
failure rate is only 1-2%. As a result some work very hard and other don’t.
But in this respect they are no different than students in all the other
countries where we have taught, including Canada.

At MGU we have occassionally failed students, but this was always done in
consultation with our colleagues. We have also reexamined a few students
until they passed. And we have examined students whom we had never met before.
If they are able to pass our exams, however, we pass them. Typically about
half our students turn up regularly for class, which is apparently a high
ratio. Both teachers and students are overworked. Our colleagues not only
teach many classes, but they hold down one or two other jobs to make ends
meet. A full-time professor at MGU earned no more than $200 before the crisis
startedin August. At the current exchange rate they are now earning about
30% of that. Students cannot survive on their small stipends, and many are
forced to work. This helps to explain the absence rate in most classrooms.

While certain faculties are more prestigious and harder to get into, all
the faculties experience the same problem. Philosophy may have lost some
of its glamor, but our students still want to get a good education. Some
are not very hopeful about their own future nor that of their country, but
they do come to class regularly. They are often not very satisfied with the
teaching in our faculty, in particular by professors who use outdated teaching
methods and should have been forced out long ago (which happens occassionally),
but they are still eager to learn.

About cheating, we have experienced little such overt behavior during our
exams. We would be naive to suppose that it does not happen in our courses.
We take measures to prevent it, but we realize that these are not fool-proof.
Students will always find a way! On examination day typically the best students
come first, early in the morning, while the worst come last, just before
we are ready to go home. The bright students help the others, of course,
by telling them of what sort of questions we ask, but since we prepare a
long series of questions, and they must pick one randomly, no one knows what
question they will get. Since our exams are oral, we can supplement these
questions in order to check. We warn our students before the exams that we
will not tolerate any cheating. We know that it happens anyway, but we do
try to minimize it.

As far a professors taking payments from students in order to give better
grades, that happens, no doubt, but we have never heard of it happening among
our immediate colleagues. Our biggest disappointment, perhaps, is that our
students are largely incapable of doing research and writing a paper. Until
recently, they got no instruction and little experience in this, until they
finally have to write the thesis for their diploma. Our faculty now requires
the students to write one paper per year, and some faculties require a paper
in every course. We encourage them to write short papers for us, as well
as helping us in our research. This is a new experience for most of them.

For your information, we are currently preparing an anthology of recent Russian
philosophy, which we hope to have published in English. A brief comment yet
on Sarah Busse’s article and the ensuing debate. I believe that she is right
on regarding the need for teaching morality. We see this need especially
in our students. I will not even attempt to refute Mark Ames, who does not
agree with her. He lives in an amoral universe and seems to be incapable
of understanding what she means.

Adrian A. Helleman, Ph.D. Moscow State University Faculty of Philosophy