In Blacklisting A U.S. College, Russia Shutters A Program That Bridged An International Divide

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in the United States, was awaiting the publication of his video tribute to Lyudmila Verbitskaya, his late counterpart at St. Petersburg State University (SPSU) in Russia, when he received news that the pioneering dual degree program the two scholars had conceived in 1994 was coming to an abrupt end.

Three years after the Soviet collapse, Bard and SPSU joined forces to launch SPSU’s Arts and Humanities course, Russia’s first liberal arts curriculum, informally known as Smolny College. Hundreds of Russian and American students took part in its academic exchange program, and Smolny graduates received two diplomas — one from Bard, and one from SPSU.

But on June 21, less than two weeks before Smolny students gathered for their graduation ceremony, The Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office declared Bard an “undesirable” organization representing “a threat to the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order.” The Justice Ministry formalized the designation nine days later, suddenly making any involvement with the school a potential crime.

“I was shocked. We had been working collaboratively with our Russian colleagues for more than 25 years,” Botstein said in an interview by videolink from the Bard campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, north of New York City. “We operated entirely in good faith about building an educational program, and had remarkable success.”

When Smolny students stepped on stage on July 3 in a colonnaded hall of the 18th-century building that houses their university, they were handed only one diploma. The Bard degree, a gateway to further study and career prospects abroad for many gifted Russian students, was denied them with two weeks’ notice.

“Everyone is upset,” said Liza Skorobogatova, a member of this year’s graduating class who planned to continue her studies in the United States. “A Bard diploma would have made it easier to gain admission abroad. Of course, I’ll be writing in all my applications that I spent a semester at Bard, but that won’t replace a Bard diploma.”

The effective end of the Bard-Smolny partnership comes at a time of heightened political tensions both within Russia and between Russia and the United States. Half of the 40 organizations Russia has declared “undesirable” are American – though Bard is the first educational institution to be blacklisted — and expulsions of U.S. embassy staff have slowed the process of issuing visas to a crawl. A crackdown on opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s government, as well as civil society and independent media outlets, has intensified ahead of parliamentary elections in September.

Interviews with more than a dozen Bard and Smolny teachers, staff, and former and current students — many of whom asked to speak anonymously because of the risks of being affiliated with an “undesirable” organization — highlight the effects this political decision will have on a study program that facilitated a rare exchange of ideas between citizens of countries whose leaderships are deeply at odds. Some students see themselves as collateral in a great power game whose scale they struggle to fathom.

“For many Russian students, this was the first step to an international education,” said Ilya Utekhin, a sociology professor who has given lectures at Smolny for over 15 years. “Now all this is gone.”

A Radical Break From Soviet Teaching

When it launched in 1998, Smolny College was a radical break from the legacy of Soviet academia. In the liberal arts system, students engage in a broad course of study including politics, economics, and history, a far cry from the intense singular specialization that underpinned education in the U.S.S.R., which produced some world-class scientists and mathematicians but stifled progress in other disciplines due to its submission to Marxist dogma.

Music students at Bard in the summer of 2018

Bard helped fund the program and ran it jointly with SPSU, but former teachers at Smolny say it was never a purely American import. Classes were in Russian, and the curriculum prioritized skills and knowledge applicable to a career in Russia.

“There was a feeling that Russian education needed serious reforms,” said Nikolai Koposov, Smolny’s dean from 1998 to 2009, who now teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. “Bard had a strong sense of mission, and they wanted us to be as close to their model as possible. But they also understood that we can’t create an imitation version of them.”

Smolny maintained its close ties with Bard even as it forged its own identity, despite worsening relations between the United States and Putin’s government especially since 2014, when Russia was slapped with Western sanctions for seizing Crimea and fomenting war in eastern Ukraine. Until the pandemic limited international travel, Botstein would visit Smolny every year to give a commencement speech and personally hand graduates their Bard diplomas.

Bard accepted around 70 Smolny students annually at its campus in upstate New York, and several dozen students from Bard and other American colleges and universities spent semesters at Smolny, whose campus housed a dedicated “American corner” that brought the U.S. visitors together with Russian students for lively discussions and language practice.

American students spent their semesters absorbing the best that Russia’s cultural capital had to offer, going to museums and performances, interacting with peers, and unpacking a complex country. Gina Lentine, a former Bard student, recalled her parents’ visit to St. Petersburg during her semester at Smolny in 2008. “They realized this is a country that has a real heritage and culture, that these are people just like us, with the same quotidian struggles,” she said. “They told me: ‘Had you not studied here, we would never have come and gained this perspective.'”

Bard President Leon Botstein conducting The Orchestra Now, a training orchestra for Bard students who often studied music alongside visiting Smolny students.

The Bard-Smolny project was itself the product of Russophiles. The 74-year-old Botstein, a historian who has been Bard president since 1975 and also serves as chief conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, is the son of Russian-speaking Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe. He was taught to read and write Russian by his grandfather, and in conversation he rattles off the names of famous Russian composers, writers, and scholars.

“Reading Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Gogol, I never thought I’d see any of the places [they wrote about]. They were off-limits, only known through the memories of émigrés,” he said. He recalled walking the streets of St. Petersburg “in wonderment and astonishment” during his first trip to the Soviet Union, in June 1987. In practicing Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, members of Bard’s orchestra learn about the Siege of Leningrad and read Vasily Grossman’s books about the Soviet campaign in World War II, a key pillar of Putin’s symbolic politics.

Growing Scrutiny

Even as U.S.-Russia ties frayed, Smolny endured as other bilateral projects closed. In 2014, Russia pulled out of the American high school exchange program FLEX after a Russian teenager sought asylum in the United States on the grounds that he faced persecution as a homosexual in Russia. In Russia, academics were subjected to increasing rules on communicating with the press and with foreign institutions, and some have engaged in self-censorship to avoid criminal liability.

The Higher School of Economics in Moscow, one of Russia’s best universities, was forced to side with the authorities last year in disciplining an outspoken student and to close its student newspaper, whose editors were detained in April after police raided their homes.

“I’m not getting the sense that there’s any kind of wider signal saying ‘That’s it, we need to lock our scholars away from their Western counterparts,'” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at University College London’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies . “But obviously individual institutions may well feel the need to plan for worst-case scenarios.”

But as a clampdown on dissent grew in Russia, unorthodox schools like Smolny were attracting the attention of nationalist groups tacitly backed by the Kremlin, which railed against it as a bastion of what senior officials now routinely cast as dangerous Western-style liberalism.

In 2009, law professor Nikolai Kropachev was appointed by presidential decree to become dean of SPSU. Two years later, Smolny College was turned into a full-fledged Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, appointing as its dean then-Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a Putin ally and fellow SPSU graduate who is one of the most powerful liberal-leaning politicians in Russia. Smolny had gained the reputation of a renegade school within SPSU, and Kropachev commenced a strict review of its curriculum. Critics say he also actively sought to circumscribe its autonomy.

“Smolny always demonstrated independence, and this is something that Kropachev never accepted,” said Dmitry Dubrovsky, who taught at Smolny from 2002 until his dismissal in 2015, which he blamed on a long-running dispute with Kropachev. Kropachev declined an interview request for this article.

An American exchange student from Bard taking part in class discussions at Smolny College in 2013

Kudrin lobbied for Smolny to break away from SPSU and become a separate university, and in March of this year, he announced that the government had finally approved the request. A few weeks later, on April 1, Bard announced a new $500 million investment from billionaire financier George Soros, a friend of Botstein’s and a longstanding Bard benefactor.

Two of Soros’s organizations, Open Society Foundations and OSI Assistance Foundation, were declared ‘undesirable’ by Russia in 2015, shortly after the law criminalizing such groups was passed by parliament. Soros donated large amounts of money to support education in Russia in the years after the Soviet collapse, but Bard says no Soros money has gone to Smolny since 2015.

‘Clarion Call’

It’s unclear how big a role either of those developments played in the events that followed, but after Bard’s announcement, Anton Tsvetkov, the head of an obscure organization called the Coordination Council on Nonprofit Organizations and the former leader of a pro-Kremlin movement, gathered a group of conservative public figures in Moscow for a press conference about Soros and his alleged influence on the Russian education system.

Protests across Russia in January and early February had prompted a massive crackdown on the Russian opposition and civil society groups, and Tsvetkov’s event — in line with unsubstantiated claims by Putin and other Russian officials — portrayed foreign chicanery as the reason for Russia’s unrest. The backdrop to his opening speech was a collage featuring a Trojan horse painted in the stars and stripes of the American flag and an image of Soros — a prominent target of false conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic rhetoric — with his hands clasped together.

Bard was declared ‘undesirable’ two months later, and the following day, Kropachev’s deputy Sergei Andryushin sent a letter to Bard College notifying its management that all cooperation and existing agreements between SPSU and the American institution were being unilaterally halted.

Vitaly Milonov, a socially conservative lawmaker from St. Petersburg who is a critic of the West and joined Tsvetkov’s press conference via videolink, told RFE/RL without giving details that Bard “is a college created specially to advance certain ideas that differ from the curriculum accepted in Russia.” He added: “People from various foundations think that by virtue of some U.S. exceptionalism they have the right to unconditionally export their ideas.”

Hungarian-born U.S. investor and philanthropist George Soros (file photo)

State news agency RIA reported that Tsvetkov’s group had petitioned Russia’s Prosecutor-General to investigate Smolny over its alleged ties to “foreign NGOs under the control of George Soros” and “destructive activities on Russian territory.” It was this appeal, according to an investigation by the news outlet Meduza, that prompted authorities to label Bard “undesirable.”

The decision most likely did not come from the Kremlin, Galeotti believes. “It’s more that the Kremlin won’t step in to save Smolny,” he said. “The machine has its own momentum,” with freelance actors advancing the state’s preferred narrative “because they feel that they have heard the clarion call, and they want to make damn sure that they demonstrate that they are responsive to what they assume the Kremlin wants them to do.”

‘They Cannot Imagine How Precious This Is’

Few of the Smolny students interviewed by RFE/RL seemed to dwell on the motives. For most, the practical consequences came first. When news of Bard’s prohibition surfaced, confusion took hold. Many had merchandise with the Bard name and logo, and wondered if they can continue to display it, both online and offline. Some took to social media to express their support for the American partner school; others kept quiet for fear of making things worse.

When Dubrovsky and two other teachers were fired from Smolny in 2015, dozens of students staged one-person pickets outside St. Petersburg State University and hundreds signed a petition calling for their reinstatement.

This time, a consensus was reached that any form of street protest would bring more harm than good, students say, and comments in support of an “undesirable” organization could lead to fines and even jail. It was a sign of how dramatically the political landscape, and the costs of dissent, had changed.

“We understood that we would only worsen the situation,” one student said. “And our actions would be used for political propaganda, to drive home the idea that Smolny is advocating protest.”

For Utekhin, Bard’s designation hit close to home not only because he teaches at Smolny but because the decision dashed the hopes of his daughter, who studies there and was looking forward to spending a semester at the U.S. college next year. “She had prepared herself to go to Bard, and this was one of the most attractive things about the program,” he said. “For her, this [situation] is now one more reason to start asking me: ‘Why do we go on living in this country?'”

He believes the authorities fail to appreciate the benefits that a joint program like Bard-Smolny could bring to Russia.

“They cannot imagine how precious it is. People who are able to express themselves and are not inhibited and possess critical thinking — they are the most important contribution to the future of this country,” Utekhin said. “Russia can have people like this, but they appear spontaneously in spite of the efforts of the education system. [Smolny] is one the few places where they are created.”

Ilya Utekhin (file photo)

On July 7, he added his signature to an open letter written by Smolny teachers and addressed to their counterparts at Bard, expressing remorse over Russia’s decision to effectively sever their ties and denouncing a move that “goes against Russian national interest and deprives our students [of the] better future that they deserve.”

Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and author who teaches at Bard and regularly travels to report from Russia, told RFE/RL this month that she had been advised not to visit Russia due to the lack of clarity over her possible legal liability as the employee of an ‘undesirable’ organization.

“There’s a nonnegligible probability that I would come to Russia and discover that I actually have a criminal case against me,” Gessen said. On June 28, a week after Bard’s designation, Putin signed a law that makes it illegal for Russian citizens abroad to participate in the work of NGOs declared ‘undesirable’ in Russia.

A Hope Of The Post-Cold War World

Smolny is forging ahead with the goal of spinning off from SPSU and establishing a separate university. Koposov, Smolny’s founding dean, said that Kudrin has long hoped to secure independence for the college because he felt the pressure from SPSU was growing excessive. Since Smolny’s founding, three Russian universities have launched liberal arts programs, paving the way for the model to spread. But whether Smolny survives, Koposov said, “will depend in large part on whether Kudrin survives in power.”

Kudrin, who was finance minister from 2000 to 2011 and now heads Russia’s Audit Chamber, was not available to comment for this article, but a source close to him said in e-mailed comments that the “situation is very sad.”

Vladimir Putin (left) and former Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin (file photo)

“Our goal is the creation of a new university and we’re trying not to jeopardize this goal with our actions,” including speaking to the press, this person said.

Denis Yesaulov, a spokesman for Kudrin, told Meduza that a new Smolny university would sever ties with Bard but “cooperate with leading Russian and foreign universities.”

Gessen said the campaign against Bard reflects the Russian government’s broader aversion to allowing any institutions to flourish outside its control.

Masha Gessen (file photo)

“They’re trying to build a closed society,” she said. “And yes, people well educated in the humanities, people who are taught critical thinking skills, people who go to an American liberal arts college for a semester or a year, are not perfect subjects of a regime like that.”

“The overriding logic of it is that anything that fosters cultural exchange, free thinking, open society is an existential threat to the Russian government,” she added. “Which it is — if it were given any force.”

Bard is appealing its ban in Russia’s courts, Botstein said, and the college has also appealed to the U.S. Congress, State Department, and President Joe Biden’s administration. He said he has set a time frame – the end of 2021 — to get the “undesirable” designation reversed.

“This puts at risk a fundamental hope of the post-Cold War world — international cooperation in science and the arts and culture,” he said. “Building new ventures like Smolny takes patience and a long view. We achieved a lot in 25 years, so it behooves us to have patience.”