Higher Education and Civil Society Building in Russia

The task of rebuilding the social, economic and political institutions of a nation that was previously ruled by Marxist-Leninist elites is a daunting one. For those of us in the West, it is easy to become impatient with the pace of progress, the lack of significant breakthroughs, and the limited enthusiasm for a more democratic society. Steps forward are being taken, sometimes hesitantly, and sometimes punctuated by steps backward, but the signs of progress are there. Changes in the educational world in Russia offer signs of hope, yet also reminders that there is much yet to be done.

Russia’s Higher Education System

Early in the planning process for the founding of the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) in Moscow, the Trustees, both Russians and Americans, discussed the critical importance of establishing a private educational institution, one that was not controlled by the Russian government. This was a unique phenomenon in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since the founding of Russia’s first major university (Moscow State University) in 1755, all Russian higher education institutions have been state-controlled. In fact, the history of Russian higher education is a history of institutions closely connected by the governing elites to the economic interests of the state. For centuries in Russia, university students were trained to fill the needs of the economy or the military-industrial complex.

There were no private universities created by the Russian Orthodox Church or other religious groups, only seminaries. Theological education was available, although even this training was controlled in part by the government. Since the days of Peter the Great, the Russian Orthodox Church operated as a department of the monarchy and the Romanov tsars had significant influence over the church and its educational activity.

One of the few achievements of the Soviet regime was its literacy campaign and the development of state universities that became some of the best in the world in the natural sciences and engineering. At the same time, subjects not directly linked to the needs of the military-industrial complex, such as the social sciences and the humanities, suffered serious setbacks during the Communist period. During both the tsarist and Soviet periods, state universities were the only higher education option available.

This experience is in sharp contrast to that of the West, especially the United States, where today there are approximately 4,200 degree-granting higher education institutions, of which 2,500 are private and 1,700 are public. Of these 2,500 private institutions, 900 are religiously affiliated.

A Time for Fundamental Changes

The Russian Revolution of 1988-1991 provided an opportunity to make some fundamental changes in the character of education in Russia. Many new private educational institutions were formed and, although some were merely tax shelters for commercial operations, the birth of new private schools is a sign of hope for the development of a democratic Russia.

We know from the history of Western civilization that education contributes to the development of civil society by instilling values such as equality, respect for liberty, and tolerance. When students are enlightened through the study of the humanities and the sciences, they begin to see the greater good of society as a good in and of itself. And it turn, they are more capable of foregoing selfish personal interests for the good of the whole.

We also know that educated individuals make better citizens. Unlike authoritarian states in which educational institutions function as agents of the government, in democracies schools and universities enjoy autonomy and teach students to think freely, to be citizens, to become informed members of their communities, and to participate in the nation’s political and economic processes.

Civil Society and Religious Freedom in Russia

The experience of developing educational institutions grounded in religious faith has also been an important part of civil society building in the West. Church-related colleges and universities that teach their students the values of their theological tradition, as well as respect for other religious traditions, are important structures in the West; Russia can greatly benefit from the development of similar schools.

The Russian-American Christian University in Moscow was developed with this goal in mind and it is an exciting example of Russian-American cooperation, a cross-cultural cooperation of Trustees, faculty and staff from both countries. The university is unapologetically Christian in its character, in the content of its academic programs, and in its commitment to hiring faculty and administrative personnel who are Christians. It attracts students from various Christian denominations, including the full range of Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic churches. The university is built on the belief that there is a basic historic Christian faith that is shared by Protestants, Orthodox and Catholic believers and that people from these traditions can learn together, can live together, and can grow together. Students from these different traditions can also learn to understand each other’s beliefs and to respect their differences.

Russia needs private universities because institutions with these characteristics are training productive citizens — young people who are learning to think creatively and independently, and who are experiencing the value of institutions that are not state-controlled. Private educational institutions are non-governmental organizations that comprise the basic building blocks of a democracy. The Russian government should encourage the creation of other private education institutions, those that are secular as well as those established by other religious communities, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the Muslim and Jewish minorities of the Russian Federation.

Religious freedom, or freedom of conscience, is a basic building block of any democratic society and private higher education institutions are places where this freedom, tolerance and mutual respect is taught. Education has an important role to play in rebuilding Russia and it needs to become a priority for everyone who cares about the long-term development of a new democratic Russia.