MOSCOW, December 26 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – Moscow students on strike to protest the merger of their college plastered the premises with portraits of President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to repel possible police attacks, a strike organizer said on Wednesday.
“Riot police are known to crack down on protesters who do not represent a threat, we hope this will make them think twice,” Ivan Mironov, a nationalist champion who teaches history at the Russian State University of Trade and Economics (RSUTE), told RIA Novosti.
Several busloads of police were deployed at the university while students blocked the entrances by barricades and human chains on Wednesday, but no violence took place.
The students also appealed to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill for protection; although as of Wednesday evening he had not responded.
The ongoing standoff has been called the first – but likely not the last – aftereffect of the government’s latest attempt to overhaul the Russian higher education system, notoriously inefficient and bloated, and often accused of corruption.
In November, the Education and Science Ministry published a list of 136 higher education establishments across the nation that were deemed “inefficient” and slated for revamp, closure or merger.
The RSUTE – which failed to make the top 100 Russian colleges in a 2012 rating by respected weekly Expert – was to be one of the first mergers, joining with the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics (24th in the same ranking) by 2014.
But about 400 of RTUSE’s 70,000 students went on strike last Wednesday in protest, refusing to leave the building – they spent the night on college grounds singing songs and playing Counter-Strike.
The college administration endorsed their protest, issuing a statement opposing the merger. Three RTUSE professors declared a hunger strike on Tuesday. The protesters said they feared that the merger would mean tuition hikes, mass expulsions and sackings among the teaching staff.
Education and Science Minister Dmitry Livanov and Plekhanov University officials denied these rumors, but Mironov told RIA Novosti that the protesters did not believe them.
On Tuesday, the ministry also fired RTUSE head Sergei Baburin, who claimed the decision was unlawful. Baburin is better known as a nationalist politician who co-organized the Russian Marches, a series of annual ultranationalist rallies in Moscow frequented by neo-Nazis, among other participants.
His background did not discourage his political adversaries from helping the protesters: Leftist opposition leaders Sergei Udaltsov, Ilya Ponomaryov and Dmitry Gudkov dropped by the college last week in a show of solidarity.
Mironov denied the strike was in any way political. “We all have our own views, this is only natural. But we don’t bring them into the current protest,” he said. The student strike has been running for a week now, with no compromise in sight.
Russian students rarely strike to protect their rights, unlike their peers in the West. The Kremlin under Putin was also known for its aversion to unpopular measures that could trigger public protest.
At the same time, government officials have for years threatened to purge the Russian higher education system, which teems with low-quality colleges and “diploma mills.”
RTUSE was one “weak” college ripe for a revamp, said Irina Abankina, a higher education expert who works at the Higher School of Economics, which took 5th place on Expert magazine’s ranking.
The students and teachers are likely protesting out of fear that they will fail to meet the Plekhanov University’s higher educational standards, she told RIA Novosti on Wednesday.
She added that she believed the ministry’s inefficiency list a “well-conceived” and “sensibly implemented” measure.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Abankina's name as Abalkina.)