Closure of Russian univ sparks off Internet protests

Published: Tuesday 15 April 2008

Re-open European University<sc Protests were expected when authorities shut down St Petersburg's European University, one of Russia's most respected higher-learning institutions. But their scale seems to have exceeded authorities' worst expectations. With their building now off-limits, students and faculty have fallen back on Internet forums, and blogs to coordinate their efforts.

"A university is not merely an auditorium, a library, and a computer room--it is, above all, an academic community. You can shut down an auditorium, but you can't shut down people's brains," Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science told a crowd of a popular Petersburg art club in early March. It was a powerful speech for those who went to hear him. For those who didn't, the speech--and other events staged by European University activists--can be replayed on a blog run by Ilya Utekhin, an anthropology professor at the university. Many of the campaigners' initiatives, Utekhin says, were actually born on blogs.

One blog on the site LiveJournal-- Russia's most popular Internet forum--has been collecting signatures protesting the university's closure. Utekhin's blog, also found on LiveJournal, contains a raft of pictures and videos documenting the campaigns. One video shows students laying a fire hose--symbolizing the alleged fire-safety violations for which the university was closed--and a ribbon of mourning at the foot of a statue of Mikhail Lomonosov, a scientist often regarded as the father of Russia's higher education. The blog has more serious footage too. One video, for instance, shows the university's real rector, Boris Vakhtin, pouring scorn on the official motives for shutting down the university. "The most staggering claim is that we built a spiral staircase that obstructs fire exits," he says. That staircase was built in 1881.

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