The number of students coming to study at the universities of the aggressor country increased by thousands in the year of the full-scale invasion, while this year a new increase in recruitment has been announced. Expenditures of the Russian state budget on the education of foreign students also increased in 2023. In the conditions of severe economic sanctions, colossal war expenses, inflation, and budget crisis, the Russian Federation continues to increase its efforts to educate foreigners. Especially, in the temporarily occupied territory of Donbas.
Higher education since the time of the USSR has been a powerful tool for influencing the Society of the Socialist Camp and developing countries in a socialist way. Now, Russia is using the same technique.
Few people know that foreigners also study in the territories of Ukraine temporarily occupied by Russia. New students are being attracted to universities of the “LPR” and “DNR” that are “officially” included in the Russian Federation. The report has already been made in Donetsk, where a new course of teaching “Russian as a foreign language” is being prepared.
Whether foreigners will be ready to go massively to the regional centre, which is located literally on the front line, is a question indeed. However, it is a fact that Russia views the involvement of foreign students as a way of “legalisation” of occupation (and the war against Ukraine) in the eyes of the international community.
International students in Donbas: before and after the “Russian Spring” (2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine)
Before 2014, on summer evenings, the centre of Luhansk turned into the port of Marseille from adventure novels. The streets were filled with young Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, and Chinese; this human sea spoke a good different ten languages. Luhansk ranked third in Ukraine in terms of the number of foreign students, there were thousands of them in medical and agricultural universities, in classical universities named after Dahl and Taras Shevchenko. Almost all of them left Lugansk in the summer of 2014, escaping the shelling.
The number of international students indicates the competitiveness of higher education institutions and is a sign of recognition of the state’s educational system in the world and the state in general. That is why Moscow tried to “legalise” the occupation administrations of the “LPR” and “DPR” through such international ties.
“More than 70 per cent of students, including future doctors from 12 countries of the world, resumed classes at the Luhansk Medical University”, the propaganda publication LifeNews reported in January 2015.
In 2015, there were 380 foreign graduates at the medical university in the temporarily occupied territory, according to Iryna Krokhmal, the dean of the faculty of foreign students there. In 2016, only one female student from far abroad graduated from the university (the rest of the international students were citizens of the Russian Federation).
However, over the past few years, the number of foreign students in the temporarily occupied territories of Donbas has increased. This happened after the universities passed Russian accreditation: in December 2019, Luhansk Medical University and Luhansk National University named after Taras Shevchenko, and later the University named after Volodymyr Dahl, Agrarian and Donbas Mining and Technological University (Alchevsk). The same thing happened in Donetsk. Thanks to this, institutions began to issue Russian-style diplomas instead of self-made “republican” diplomas.
Schemes and propaganda
However, foreigners cannot simply come to study in the occupied territories. After all, there is a certain consular procedure, and the “republics” had neither embassies nor consulates. Therefore, these universities became part of the “grey” scheme. Students officially entered Russian higher education institutions, from the second year they transferred to the TOT (temporarily occupied territories) of Luhansk or Donetsk region, and for the last year, they transferred again to Russian universities. “Donbas.Realii” reported about this.
Foreigners were attracted primarily by the lower price of education in the TOT. This is a loss of millions of dollars for the universities of the Russian Federation itself. Why does then this “grey” scheme exist? It is a matter of propaganda. First, it made it possible to talk about the alleged “international recognition” of educational institutions in the temporarily occupied territory. Secondly, students’ families had the impression that Luhansk and Donetsk were part of the Russian Federation.
Currently, for example, about 300 foreign students are studying at the medical university (full name – “Federal State Budget Educational Institution of Higher Education “Luhansk State Medical University named after Saint Luke” of the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation”). Now that Russia has officially declared the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” as “subjects of the federation”, the number of foreign students is expected to increase.
Russia already has the experience of Crimean higher education institutions, which, through the means of mass propaganda, report about thousands of foreign students. Let’s try to guess how studying at a Russian university affects the beliefs of a foreigner.
A Czech deputy is a student in Volgograd
In December 2022, Jakub Zieba, a 23-year-old student, was elected as a local deputy in Pilsen, Czech Republic. This event is notable for the fact that Mr. Zieba combines his deputyship with studying in Volgograd, Russia. At the same time, he does not study remotely but works in the local council. Jakub Zieba studies face-to-face three thousand kilometres from the community he represents and says that “it will not affect the quality of his work”, and he will come to the Czech Republic “if it is possible and necessary”.
Zieba was elected as the representative of the first city district when he studied in Volgograd for one and a half years starting in September 2021. All this time, the young politician in his social media praised Putin’s Russia, expressed his admiration for Stalin, criticized LGBT and said that the quality of Russian products is higher than European ones. This flow of propaganda and misinformation did not prevent him from becoming a representative of the community.
He ran for the SPD party – Svoboda a přímá demokracie (“Freedom and Direct Democracy”), which is named after the Eurosceptic faction “Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy” and has ties to the French National Front of Marine Le Pen. Although Zieba is now not a member of the SPD, his speeches were previously approved by the party chairman.
And now the deputy of the Pilsen council studies in Volgograd, praises the Russian Federation (“the food there is tastier than in the Czech Republic, it is possible for a student to rent an apartment on a scholarship, and Putin is doing well – he is “restoring the USSR” like Stalin”). We tried to contact Mr. Zieba through his Facebook page, but our request remained unanswered.
Bacteria of the “Russian world” for the third world
This case is too revealing to be typical. But he draws attention to one of the areas, almost not studied by researchers of the spread of the influence of the Russian Federation on foreign society.
In the study of TEXTY “Bacteria of the “Russian World”. Who supports Russia in Europe” a database of 1,300 politicians (including at the local level) and almost 900 organisations is collected. But one of the methods of recruiting supporters of the “Russian world” – the attraction of foreign students by Russia – has been researched.
We have an explanation for why this topic fell out of the view of our colleagues. They studied European society – 17 EU member states, as well as Serbia and Great Britain. Russian universities also declare students from there, but mainly the propaganda of studying in the Russian Federation is focused on the countries of the global south, countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Perhaps these societies do not have such a decisive influence on world politics as European ones. Nevertheless, these states are members of the UN, participating in voting on sensitive issues for the Russian Federation. And their representatives vote following the policies of their country’s leadership and the public opinion that prevails in their homeland. An example is the recent proposal of African states for a “peaceful settlement of the conflict” between Ukraine and Russia.
Moreover, this is a huge part of humanity concentrated in mostly poor regions with a lot of problems. Education abroad, in “great Russia”, becomes an advantage for these societies. Graduates of Russian universities become opinion leaders and make careers, spreading a favourable attitude towards the Russian Federation both in their immediate environment and among a larger audience as well as in their political activity.
Foreigners even have a chance to study for free
Some foreign citizens have the right to enter Russian universities on a joint basis with Russians. Those are citizens of all states that once belonged to the USSR, except for the Baltic states. However, for the majority, there is a requirement that applicants permanently reside in the territory of the Russian Federation at the time of admission (for several countries there is no such requirement).
Moreover, “sootechestvenniki” (“compatriots”) have the same admission principles as the Russians. They include “representatives of peoples who historically lived on the territory of the Russian Federation” (including former citizens of the USSR). They can apply for budget places (free education) or pay tuition fees. The remaining students from “far abroad” can study on a contract basis. In addition, there is a special quota for foreigners studying in the Russian Federation at the expense of the Russian budget.
This quota is constantly growing. In 2010, Prime Minister Putin signed a decree that set a quota for foreigners at 10,000 entrants each year. They received a scholarship regardless of the success of their studies and dormitories. “For the purpose of assisting foreign countries in the training of personnel.” Three years later, Prime Minister Medvedev signed a resolution where the quota is already 15,000 entrants. In December 2020, the government decided that in 2021 the quota would be 18 thousand, in 2022 – 23 thousand, and 2023 – as many as 30 thousand new students!
Is it a lot or a little? According to the international research project Project Atlas, which monitors student mobility in the world, a total of more than 351,000 foreign students studied at Russian universities in 2022. In 2021, there were more than 391,000 of them, in 2020 – more than 353,000, in 2019 – almost 334,500. In this way, the Russian Federation is going to educate about 8 per cent of the total number of foreign students for free (that is, at the expense of its state budget).
This, on the one hand, may slightly reduce the foreign currency income of higher education institutions. On average, studying for a bachelor’s or specialist degree costs $3,400-3,700 per year; studying for a master’s degree costs $3,700-4000 per year, KP.ru reports. The minimum tuition price is $1,750 per year, and the maximum is $12,570. On the other hand, the Russian Federation, which provides free education (costing an average of $20,000), expects gratitude and repayment of the debt in the future.
Dreams and a school of propaganda
A student from Ecuador, Talia Maritsa Loor Vincennes, came to study directing in Krasnodar. As a freshman in 2016, she told the online publication “Krasnodarskie Izvestia” that she has never regretted it, she likes Krasnodar: “It’s not like any city in Ecuador – it’s so big.” “Ordinary people in Ecuador know little about Russia, but they treat it well,” they are related to the Russians by their”love of music and dance.”
But a few years later, she wrote on the Vkontakte social network how she was actually welcomed by Russia at that time:
“When I received a grant to study in Russia, I felt fulfilled, I could not believe it, I felt that I had conquered the biggest goal of my life. In fact, when I arrived it was a shock, I was alone, and no one spoke Spanish or English; when I heard Russian on the street, I felt like everyone was shouting or swearing.
There were many days of loneliness, and coldness when I cried and missed my family, my friends, and my food, and when I finally went to the first year at the university, I was worried about the fact that after a foundation year, I did not learn the Russian language.
I didn’t understand anything, I couldn’t make friends, some teachers didn’t understand how hard it was to be a foreigner and they just yelled at me or gave me bad grades. At that moment, I thought it would be best to go back…”.
Later, there was one teacher who finally helped the girl establish communication with the surrounding “Russian world”. Later, Talia Loor changed her university and major. She transferred from the faculty of theatre and film directing of the Krasnodar State Institute of Culture to “modern international journalism” at the Russian University of Peoples’ Friendship (RUDN) named after Patrice Lumumba. Now she says she has adapted and has no plans to leave yet, but in the future, she plans to teach “something related to Russia and the Russian language” in Ecuador.
Let’s not forget that “international journalism” in the Russian Federation is not a real journalism, but a weapon in hybrid wars, meaning that students are taught how to spread propaganda. But it is hardly known or understood in distant Ecuador.
Political career since student days
Dmitriy Pardaev from Uzbekistan also came to Russia to study under the education quota for foreign students. This year he completed his master’s degree at the Baltic Federal University named after Immanuel Kant (Kaliningrad) majoring in “Philosophy”. During the six years of study, he had already made a certain career: he became the head of the Association of Foreign Students of the Kaliningrad Region.
“The main goal now is to enter the next level of education. Postgraduate studies at the Baltic Federal University are waiting for me. I want to develop further as a research student and head of the Association of Foreign Students,” says Pardaev.
Despite successfully completing his master’s degree, Dmitry’s speech is far from normal. We will quote in the original language a fragment of Dmitry Pardaev’s comment on the university’s website: “Моя страна постоянно реформируется, изменяется. Очень важно донести суть политических, юридических, социальных и всесторонних направлений, простыми словами объяснить изменения. Философия помогает взглянуть на ситуацию будь то (политическая, развлекательная, молодежная, спортивная, музыкальная, арт) со стороны” (“My country is constantly reforming, changing.” It is very important to convey the essence of political, legal, social and comprehensive directions, to explain the changes in simple words. Philosophy helps to look at the situation, be it (political, entertainment, youth, sports, music, art), from the side.”) Yes, you are not mistaken, this Master of Philosophy talks about “comprehensive directions” and “an entertaining, youth and sports situation.”
At the same time, there are no doubts about Pardayev’s future career. And all thanks to “social activities” – Dmitriy participates in the forum of foreign students of Russia, he is a participant in the meeting of the Association of Foreign Students at the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation, and so on.
At the same time, Dmitry’s feed on the Vkontakte social network from April 2020 to October 2021 is full of his reports for the state TV channel O’zbekiston 24. Of course, his reports are in Russian and complimentary to the authorities. In his reports, entrepreneurs thank the President of Uzbekistan for their successes, athletes for their achievements, and artists for their creative assets.
That is, upon completion of studies, Dmitrii Pardaev may have different careers. As a functionary of the Association of Foreign Students in the Russian Federation – or in his homeland on state TV, where he will promote the narratives of Russian propaganda as well as the idea of brotherhood with “great Russia”.
In fact, he can combine this activity with “public activity” as a graduate of a Russian university. But we will discuss the unification of graduates of Russian universities a little later, and for now – the geography of foreign students in higher educational institutions of the Russian Federation.
From where do students come to study in Russia?
In their relations, Russian universities emphasize the fact that students from European countries also study there. For example, the Baltic Federal University wrote, among other things, about graduates from France. Other Russian sources also name some other EU countries, such as Italy, the Netherlands, etc.
The website of the Project Atlas research project (concerning the data of the Russian Ministry of Education) lists the leading countries in terms of the number of students studying in the Russian Federation. As of 2022, this rating looked like this:
- Kazakhstan – 62,358 students
- China – 39,959
- Uzbekistan – 39,825
- Turkmenistan – 36,773
- Tajikistan – 20,251
- India – 18,536
- Ukraine – 11,123
- Egypt – 10,535
- Belarus – 9,769
- Azerbaijan – 7,987
At first glance, it is clear that the majority of students in this Top 10 represent the states that used to be republics of the USSR, and mainly from Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan), as well as from Azerbaijan and Belarus. As we understand, Ukraine is represented mainly by students from the temporarily occupied territories of Donbas.
From far abroad – primarily China, India and Egypt. It is a pity that there was no separate rating for such countries. But the Russian media often mention foreign students from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Morocco. From African countries – Nigeria, Botswana, Ghana, Gabon. From Latin America, students from Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, and Haiti are often mentioned.
Russia does not hide that they consider students as future agents of influence. This goal is clearly outlined in the monograph “Attracting International Students to Russian Universities. Practical Guidance” (Ekaterinburg, 2016):
“International educational mobility is not only a factor of economic development but also a powerful geopolitical resource that serves to spread and promote the culture, values and technologies of the countries that educate foreigners. Foreign students are both a source of financial resources and a kind of “agents of influence” who, returning to their homeland, replenish the national elites and maintain personal loyalty to the countries where they spent their student years” (p. 30).
Therefore, a radical increase in expenses for the education of foreign students, no matter what they say in the Russian Federation, is not philanthropy at all, but a conscious investment in the loyalty of future elites abroad to Russia. We will give a few examples of how foreigners are initiated into adepts of the “Russian world”.
International students are made part of the “Russian world”
In Chelyabinsk, for example, the local TV channel reports: “Foreign students accepted Orthodoxy before Easter” (April 2022). The report tells that a group of students (three) from Brazil, Ivory Coast and Angola were baptized according to the Orthodox rite. And in the summer, their delegation went on a pilgrimage to the holy places of Russia. And this is not the only case.
Less than a year before that, another native of Angola, who came to study at the conservatory faculty of the Chelyabinsk Institute of Music, was baptized in the same Chelyabinsk. After a trip to the Orthodox church, he decided to put an end to his Catholic past. “His decision was supported not only by his teachers but also by fellow Catholics from Angola. The choice of the grandson was also accepted by the Catholic grandmother Rosalina Mavrikii,” the report says.
In Blagoveshchensk (Amur Oblast), foreign students are introduced to Maslenitsa to “help foreigners feel better in Russia.” In a comment to the television, student Abbas said: “I know Russian culture. Very good culture. I study, and I am proud of Russian.”
It is interesting that among the civilian students, foreign cadets also took part in Maslenitsa traditional celebrations. In the report, we see young people in Russian pixel camouflage with patches in Russian “Armed Forces of Laos” and cadet epaulettes. There are also cadets from African countries, in particular, Cameroon. They will also become, according to the plan of the Kremlin, the bearers of the values of the “Russian world”.
In Belgorod, as early as May 2022, foreign students participated in the all-Russian “patriotic” action “#МыВместе” (#WeAreTogether). They collected and distributed alleged humanitarian aid for “refugees from the LPR, DPR and Ukraine.” It is important here that all this took place under the Russian flag – the flag of the aggressor state on the initiative of Putin’s “All-Russian People’s Front”, and some foreign students had Z-logos in the colours of the flags of the Russian Federation and the occupation administrations of the LPR and DPR on their chests.
The universities of the aggressor countries assure that there was no outflow of foreign students after the full-scale invasion. This contradicts the words of the foreign students themselves, who say that many of their fellow students have gone home. Their attitude to the so-called “special military operation” and the new realities of the Russian Federation deserves a separate story because this is a very telling example of how people become supporters of the “Russian world”.
“I explain to my parents what we were told about SMO”
Propaganda media, of course, publish quotes from foreign students almost exclusively with the support of “SMO” (“special military operation”). This is an understandable technique, and we do not have to believe that foreigners wholeheartedly support the war.
However, at the same time, if students continue to study in universities of a state that is waging a war of aggression, in the same universities that have become strongholds of state propaganda and centres of “witch hunts”, then maybe they actually realise all this?
Colombian Diana Fernanda Bravo Hernandez chose the Faculty of Journalism in Belgorod on the advice of a friend who studied there. In August 2022, she told Fonar.TV that there was a large friend group from Colombia, about 50 students, and after February 24, 2022, almost all of them left. According to her observations, students from other countries also went home. Diana’s circle of communication consisted of about 200 foreign students, about half left – and not only Colombians but also other Latin Americans, students from Arab countries, and Africans.
What remained are those who associate their future life with Russia and those who have a much worse situation in their homeland than in the Russian Federation (often these are the same students) – from totalitarian Turkmenistan, where significant restrictions on women’s rights have been implemented and where it is generally difficult to leave; Haiti, perhaps the poorest country in Latin America, etc.
Most of those who stayed to study are “sympathetic” to the Kremlin’s policies, they like Putin, just like their families back home. It is important to note that through these students Russia spreads its rationale for the need for a “special military operation” to relatives abroad.
“I explain to parents what is true and what is not. (…) Now they understand what is happening in Russia and Ukraine because I explain it to them. I follow the news, and I understand what is happening because our faculty were invited to the event where people explained what is happening in Ukraine, why it was necessary, and told that it did not start today. They showed us everything, and explained the reasons and consequences. I don’t think this is [Roskomnadzor], they explained to us that it’s a special operation,” 24-year-old Jean Louis from Haiti told Fonar.TV in the summer of 2022 (the publication replaced the word “war”, which is prohibited in the Russian Federation, with “Roskomnadzor” in the direct speech of the students – RG).
Those recruited by Russia are recruiting new agents of influence
And now the Russian Federation has declared a colossal increase in budget places for foreign students. At the same time, more and more emphasis will be placed on the countries of the Third World, the global south – traditionally Islamic countries, as well as Africa. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced at the “Russia-Africa” summit about the increase in the number of African students in the pedagogical universities of the Russian Federation.
Why pedagogical? Precisely because their graduates will work with children, teenagers and young people, and will shape the views of young citizens of their countries.
But, as was said, foreign students of any major are useful for the Kremlin. And, with a high degree of probability, the numbers of students will increase. This will primarily be facilitated by the foreign offices of “Rossotrudnichestva”, also known as the Russian Centre of Culture and Science or as “Russian Houses”. It is these institutions that are responsible for attracting and selecting future foreign students to Russian universities.
But there is another network of organizations related to “Rossotrudnichestvo”, which is engaged in the promotion of education in the Russian Federation. This is the World Association of Graduates of Russian and Soviet Universities. It includes numerous foreign associations uniting such graduates.
The Board of Trustees of this World Association is headed by the head of “Rossotrudnichestva” Yevgeny Primakov – the grandson of the late Yevgeny Primakov. At one time, he was the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and after Putin came to power, Primakov maintained relations with him and was an informal adviser on many issues. Yevgeny Primakov Junior was a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian, and a member of the State Duma from “United Russia”.
An international organization with such a chief trustee promotes Kremlin narratives and generally works in the interests of the Russian Federation. There are nine other members of the board of trustees, and most of them are Russians. But there are also foreigners. These are, firstly, Mujavamarie Joan of Arc, Minister of the Environment of Rwanda, and secondly, Jiří Maštálka, a politician from the Czech Republic, until 2019 a member of the Communist Party of the Czech Republic and Moravia, a member of the European Parliament for five convocations (2003 – 2019).
Alumni associations are still active today, although in some places they do not advertise their pro-Russian orientation and even change their signs. For example, Jerzy Smoliński headed the Association of Graduates in Poland, and at the same time the Society of Cooperation “Poland – Russia”. He continued to promote friendship with Russia even after the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and regularly commented on Russian propaganda, personifying the “moderate”, pro-Russian part of Polish society.
The Society “Poland – Russia” is part of the Society of Cooperation “Poland – East”, which is based in the former House of Polish-Soviet Friendship in the heart of Warsaw. Currently, there is no mention of the “Poland – Russia” company on the website. However, Mr. Smolinsky works there himself.
However, in countries that are friendly to Russia, alumni associations continue to advertise studies in Russian universities. During the USSR period, friendly countries were the states of the “socialist camp” (mostly European, as well as Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba), where regimes were established by the Soviet Union. Developing countries that received aid from the USSR and paid those that declared a socialist path of development were also friendly, mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, and Latin America.
Now the “social camp” no longer exists, and the Russian Federation is trying to rally around itself all those states of the global south with which ties were established during the times of the USSR. The tools of influence have remained practically the same – allocation of funds (and/or cancellation of debts since the 1960s and 70s, such as the 23 billion dollars that Putin “forgave” African countries), the supply of weapons (sometimes even for free) and higher education of international students.