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Russian students in Europe face discrimination — and pressure from Moscow

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Summer’s here and exams are over. It’s a great time to be a university student in Europe — unless you’re from Russia.

In the wake of the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, which began in February, Russian students in European universities have been caught in a tough spot.

On one side, some students report rising levels of Russophobia in the West. From another direction, Moscow is attempting to incentivize them to come back home to study. All the while, European universities lurch between helping students and aggravating their problems.

“Not many people know I’m Russian, I usually don’t tell people my nationality,” said one 20-year-old student from Moscow at Exeter university in the U.K. who requested anonymity to speak.

“If I say something bad about Russia, I will have problems there — if I say something good about Russia, I will have problems here,” the Exeter student added.

In some universities, Russian students say Russophobia has become almost normalized, while others accuse universities of actively contributing to discrimination.

A 20-year-old student from Siberia, studying at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, western Poland, who also asked to remain anonymous, said she was “very shocked” to hear a professor tell his students Russophobia was “the most appropriate response” to the war. “I quit this class,” she said. POLITICO was unable to contact the professor for a response to the student’s allegation.

Elena Ledneva, 33, applied to the University of West London for a master’s program in luxury hospitality management after moving to London from Russia’s Samara region last year. To her surprise, the university rejected her, telling her in late May in an email seen by POLITICO that this decision was made “in response to the recent events and situation in Ukraine.”

“It was really frustrating because I have no influence on what’s going on in the world right now,” Ledneva said, adding that she is “totally against” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I [just] want to study and I want to do good and to be useful here in the U.K.”

In response to the allegations, a spokesperson for the University of West London said the email was sent “in error” and was “due to an internal miscommunication.”

In a similar vein, Tartu University in Estonia also caused controversy after announcing in March it would ban all future Russian applicants, which the university’s vice-rector later defended on “security” grounds.

Mikhail Suslov, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen who researches Russia’s diaspora, argues that any academic discrimination is counterproductive. He said it risks playing into the Kremlin’s hands, which has long wielded the propaganda line that Russians are victimized unfairly. 

In some universities, Russian students say Russophobia has become almost normalized | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

But universities have largely tried to be supportive, and such cases are rare, said Michael Gaebel, director of the European University Association, which represents more than 850 universities across Europe.

“The attention is really on the Ukrainian students, but what we can see in the sector is growing awareness that we have to take care of our Russian colleagues in Europe,” he said.

A second student at Adam Mickiewicz University, a 21-year-old from Siberia who asked not to be named, says she felt supported. After arriving in Poland for an exchange program one day before the war began with just €300, she was soon left without any way of withdrawing her savings after EU countries cut Russia off from the SWIFT payment system.

But the university stepped in to help the anthropology major. She said they gave her advice on visas as well as a 1,000 zloty (€212) monthly stipend after her accounts were frozen. 

More than 48,000 Russians study abroad annually, with the largest numbers going to Germany, the Czech Republic, the U.K., France and Finland.

Markéta Martínková, vice-rector at Charles University in Prague, which hosts 1,500 Russian students, said the institution has made it clear that it wouldn’t tolerate Russophobia after hearing reports from students.

“We don’t judge our students — we just try to support them,” she said. “We stress that we don’t support any action based on the principle of collective guilt.”

But the Kremlin has seized on allegations of discrimination to stoke fear among Russian students in a bid to persuade them to return home.

In late February, Russia’s human rights envoy Tatyana Moskalkova claimed without evidence that Russian students were being expelled from European universities. The Russian ministry of education then announced those facing “infringements of their rights” would be granted automatic entry to the country’s top universities if they returned home.

The anthropology student at Adam Mickiewicz University said that officials from her university in Russia called her 10 times in the first month of the war, and eventually persuaded her to return despite the support she’d received and the fact she wanted to stay in Poland.

Suslov argues this is because ultimately students pose a threat to the survival of Putin’s regime, and the Kremlin needs them to be contained in a controlled information environment.

“The Russian political elite sees the Russian diaspora as a potential competitor and as a potential hotbed of dissidents with anti-Kremlin sentiments,” he said, adding that cultural exchange is also important as it counters the state’s narrative around Russians having “different” values to the West.

Could the Russian students of today be the regime change agents of tomorrow? The Kremlin is doing its best to torpedo that notion.

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