Weaponisation of universities: a ‘back-to-the-future’ story
Consider, for example, this excerpt from the course’s instructional video: “The ‘Russian world’ extends beyond current Russian borders, transcending ethnicities, territories, religions, political systems and ideological preferences.”
As this curriculum becomes standard in Russian universities, it contributes to the emerging trend of weaponising Russian universities and turning them into instruments in Russia’s war of attrition with Ukraine and its broader standoff with the West.
What impact is this weaponisation process having on Russian universities, faculty, students and the academic communities they belong to? It is regrettably a story of ‘back-to-the-future’, reminiscent of the Soviet era of repression and attempts at control and manipulation of academics.
The increasing weaponisation of Russian universities is both historically rooted and motivated by immediate political imperatives. In our chapter on Russia in the recent book Neo-Nationalism and Universities, my colleague Igor Fedyukin and I argue that, for much of its history, the Russian state has maintained a tight grip on its universities, directing their missions and controlling operations. Moments of relative independence have been few and far between.
Under Putin’s reign, this trend has not only persisted but intensified and universities have further lost any remnants of autonomy. They have seen a decline in academic and civil liberties, with universities increasingly aligning with the political and ideological positions of the government.
A broader political strategy
Given this backdrop, the recent militaristic pivot of Russia’s stance – especially its confrontational posture towards Ukraine and NATO – is mirrored in the transformation of all of its social institutions, including universities. The weaponisation of higher education in Russia isn’t an anomaly; it’s a reflection of a broader strategy that leverages every societal pillar for political ends.
Yet, to solely attribute this shift to deep-seated historical tendencies would be an oversimplification. There are more immediate triggers at play. Universities, even under tight state control, have frequently served as arenas of relative freedom, often diverging from, if not directly criticising, the prevailing ideology.
Various surveys conducted in the first months of the war in 2022 revealed that support for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was lowest among students and academic professionals. Specifically, fewer than half of the students and approximately 10% of those employed in the academic sector endorsed the invasion.
For a regime deeply focused on consolidating its ideological narrative, such statistics stood out sharply, suggesting profound underlying discord.
Putin’s administration attempted to sway universities in anticipation of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since the mid-2010s, political pressure on Russian universities has been mounting.
This encompassed attacks on university autonomy, the increased precarity of academic jobs and explicit endeavours to regulate academic freedom and international collaborations. Dozens of politically outspoken faculty members were fired, sending a chilling ripple through the higher education sector. Yet, from Putin’s perspective, these measures weren’t enough to transform universities from mere silent bystanders into weapons during the war.
The weaponisation of Russian universities has unfolded across three broad areas.
First, universities are engaging in activities that directly bolster the war effort. Second, they contribute to crafting the ideological narrative justifying the war and disseminating propaganda.
Finally, by suppressing anti-war voices among faculty and students and pressuring other academics to display their loyalty, these institutions are increasingly morphing into echo chambers that are supportive of Putin’s regime.
A marked shift from the period before the full-scale invasion is the way universities are militarising. For example, a number of Russian universities have supported fundraising efforts to purchase drones and ammunition for the Russian military. At institutions like Irkutsk National Research Technical University and Voronezh State University, faculty members were reportedly required to allocate 10% of their monthly salaries to support the military.
Additionally, universities have played a role in glorifying students and staff who actively participate in the war, promulgating their stories through media outlets.
As Russia has increased its mobilisation efforts for the invasion, it has provided a range of incentives to those who support its actions. Apart from monetary benefits and medical services, higher education is a key part of this package. Children of participants in the Ukrainian conflict are now offered preferential admission and full tuition coverage at their chosen institution.
The university curriculum is also becoming more militarised. Beginning this academic year, all students will be required to take basic military training at their universities. According to the requirements of this training, students are expected to learn how to assemble and disassemble firearms and machine guns and will receive training in the combat use of hand grenades.
They will also be educated to evaluate “international and domestic events and facts from a patriotic perspective”.
Furthermore, the number of universities housing military training centres in Russia has surged to 120. These centres provide military training within universities, catering to the specific demands of the Russian army.
Moreover, universities are playing a pivotal role in aiding the military to seize control of institutions in occupied Ukrainian regions. Currently, almost two dozen Russian universities have forged ‘partnership agreements’ with occupied Ukrainian universities.
Under these agreements, Russian universities are implementing Russification programmes at occupied universities, ensuring their compliance with the Russian government’s regulations and political agenda. An eventual goal of these programmes is the indoctrination and ideological moulding of Ukrainian students and faculty living in the occupied territories.
Conflict against the West
The second pillar of weaponisation of Russian universities is their growing involvement in shaping and promoting pro-war ideologies. The new mandatory course, ‘Foundations of Russian Statehood’, introduced across all higher education institutions, aims to influence student perspectives, and justify the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. An increasing number of individuals affiliated with universities are advocating for heightened conflict against the West.
For example, a recent paper by Sergey Karaganov, a professor from HSE University in Moscow – an institution once recognised for its highly selective admissions process and Western orientation – contends that Russia “should carry out a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Europe” to “break the West’s will” and secure victory in the war against Ukraine.
The research priorities of universities are shifting, focusing on validating the war against Ukraine and promoting further territorial acquisition. Such ideologies, in essence, serve as weaponry, perpetuating and rationalising the ongoing war.
Finally, there has been an intensified clampdown on faculty and students opposing the war in Russia. Last year’s legislature aimed to ban anyone who has been exposed to ‘foreign influence’ from teaching at schools and universities.
The definition of foreign influence was intentionally made broad, and the designation of ‘foreign agent’ could be given quite arbitrarily to anyone criticising the government. Several prominent academics were removed from universities after being labelled as ‘foreign agents’.
Another method to suppress dissenting students and faculty involves laws that criminalise public anti-war statements, accusing them of discrediting the Russian army.
If a student or faculty member faces such charges, university administrations can expel them for violating their ethical code.
Mikhail Belousov, an associate professor of history at Saint-Petersburg State University, serves as an example. After he posted statements against the war on social media, pro-war activists reported him to the university administration. As a result, not only was he dismissed, but a criminal case was initiated against him.
Often, anti-war sentiments are twisted to portray faculty or students as breaching academic ethics, and these allegations are frequently cited as reasons for dismissal.
In addition to these repressive measures, the Russian government has sought to weaponise universities in more covert ways. Recognising that a substantial part of the academic community might not be in full support of the war, but are unwilling to openly criticise it, the government is attempting to co-opt them.
This involves drawing faculty and students into government-backed initiatives or events that propagate pro-war ideologies, thereby forcing academics to publicly demonstrate their loyalty.
This strategy serves a dual purpose: it establishes a semblance of unanimous support for the war among the academic community while also implicating academics in war propaganda. Making faculty and students complicit ensures that widespread dissent or backlash at universities is even less likely.
These examples highlight the increasing weaponisation of Russian universities during the war with Ukraine. The changes are driving Russian universities away from Western academic models, gradually turning them into instruments of war.
In response to this weaponisation, Russian higher education is becoming increasingly isolated, limiting its capacity for global influence. Foreign universities, governments and foundations are cutting ties with Russian institutions to protect themselves from weaponised universities and to minimise any reputational risks.
The joint statement endorsing the war, signed by over 300 rectors of Russian universities shortly after the full-scale invasion began, was a significant catalyst for this widespread disengagement. As a result, collaboration with Russian universities has become increasingly toxic. This dynamic is pushing the Russian higher education system into isolation, with significant implications for the future of research and international cooperation.
Part of this process is accelerating a brain drain: the conflict has intensified the departure of international and Russian academics, as Russia’s efforts to attract foreign scholars are undermined. Universities will face challenges in recruiting internationally and in retaining talent, while also contending with budget cuts and the prioritisation of military spending.
Universities in Russia are experiencing a structural transformation, marked by decreasing transparency. As they distance themselves from Western models, these institutions are reverting to Soviet-era approaches to higher education. This shift includes reintroducing elements like vice-rectors who are responsible for student moral development and the ideologisation of curriculum. The re-Sovietisation trend in Russian universities is expected to intensify as the war continues.
Igor Chirikov is the director of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium and senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California (UC), Berkeley, United States. This article is adapted from one of four Neo-Nationalism and University case study updates recently published as part of the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education’s Special Thematic Issue – Neo-Nationalism and University Updates: Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and the US (Johns Hopkins University Press, Open Access via Project Muse).