Notes from Moscow

When I first entered MGIMO, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, on the first of September, I thought I was in the wrong building.

First, turnstiles and security staff surprise me at the entrance, but more than this I was stunned by the fact that all students wore suits, costumes or dresses and high heels. I ascribed it to the fact that it was the opening day of the new academic year with a speech from Sergey Lavrov, the foreign affairs minister and a MGIMO graduate. On the second day Lavrov was gone, but the security, suits and high heels stayed.

In Russia, MGIMO is considered to be the most prestigious address for the study of international relations and one of the most respected universities. It is incredibly interesting to compare the local tuition with my experience from a German university. After being in Moscow for two months, I have the feeling that the universities differ in its very basis. The central goal of MGIMO is the education and breeding of a succeeding generation of Russian high government officials, diplomats, journalists, managers of state-owned concerns and CEO`s of big private companies. The focus does not lie on science or research, but on making contacts and training students for future jobs. This is reflected in the overall structure of the study. The students within one study program are put into small groups; they have lectures from morning until three or four, from Monday until Saturday. Additionally, they have intensive compulsory teaching of two or three foreign languages. On top of that, there are several hours of obligatory sports and boys have to complete military training. In the curriculum, this is called “preparation for war”, which sounds for a Middle European somewhat scary. All the students from the West agree that the amount of lectures the Russian students have in one semester incomparable with western universities. At the same time the lectures are often very broad introductions to different fields and not seminars, which would talk over one topic deeply. The amount of non-compulsory courses chosen by students themselves is significantly smaller than in my study. The result is, that the curriculum of the first years of the four-year bachelor degree are more similar to a rigorous elite high school than to a western university, where students have more freedom and responsibility in the choice of the subjects and study orientation. The fact, that the Russian students are significantly younger than students in Germany or the Czech Republic could serve as further explanation as to why the study as have a different structure in Russia. Here, pupils reach the A-level exam in their eleventh school year. It is also not usual to prolong the high school with one-year study exchanges or to spend one year after A-levels on voluntary projects, as is the rule under most of my German university mates.

Two Russian rules.

In the first week I signed more forms, nocked at more doors with tags and waited in more rows than in my whole live combined. The first rule of Russia is: whatever procedure or process is so difficult that even the biggest genius could not invent it, he would be asked to do so. Everything has to be sign multiple times and there is always another stamp from the other side of the building required. Fortunately, the Russian students are ready to help and everyone is very patient with the international students. As is in accordance with the first rule, the library sign-in, the dorm or university entrance log-in and all other simple matters are considerably more complex than in Germany After waiting the first few weeks, I now possess eight different official papers, cards, and books for stamps. Sometimes, if I’m standing for an hour in a row to get library books and with one of these small papers, I realise that my university life hangs in the balance of this papers existence. I feel like I`m in a soviet movie. But thereafter I look around and see all my Russian university mates, on their latest IPhones, messaging all their friends from around the world., It reminds of all the Porsche and Mercedes’, owned by these eighteen year old students filling up the big university car parks every morning. It is no Soviet movie. There are just two different worlds meeting in a very strange way.

The woes connected with the first rule are balanced by the second rule: Everything is a matter of negotiation, many rules are arguable and most things can be arranged in some way. For example if you lose one of the countless cards or need to arrange an alternative exam term, negotiation is always available.

Often friends ask if I can feel the Russian propaganda here. In the state TV, it is running at full speed. It is quite incredible how many debates on foreign policy can be broadcasted, while the debate format and the moderator contradicts an open discussion completely. As for university`s message, the majority of my seminars are in the fields of economics and energy policy. In these lectures, the Russian demagogy is not distinctive, yet, I often feel a misplaced national pride and anti-Americanism present. In discussions with international students from France, England, Germany and Norway we agree that the most controversial are the history lectures. I sometimes can`t understand how it is possible to speak about the some historical events in the West and in Russia but with such different concepts. On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that all professors are completely uncritical of Russia and its foreign policy, especially regarding the Russian economical situation and the relation with the EU. Many disagree with the governmental strategy.

As Stuart Lawson, a former CEO of City bank, HSBC and other banks told at one of the lectures, Russia was never an economically classifiable country. In the nineties it was a developing country with a space station. Over the last 20 years, the economic situation has fluctuated so fast, that the only thing we do know is that the future will be fascinating to watch.


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