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Russia March 6, 2008
Russian Academia Under Fire
By Sean Guillory Browse author Email

On any given day, the Russian media is filled with reports of restaurants, clubs, factories, hospitals, schools, and apartments succumbing to the searing flames of Vulcan. Casualties are common. Fire is often the result of teenage pyromaniacs, defective wiring, discarded lit cigarettes, industrial accidents, and just plain stupidity. Fire is a major killer in Russia. More than 17,000 Russians died in fires in 2006, about 13 for every 100,000 people. This is a staggering statistic. Not to mention one I take to heart. Several friends and I almost became part of those stats in the summer of 2005 when the kitchen in Moscow's Kafe Bilingua went up in flames.

Russia's fire epidemic is not just a threat to public safety, a taker of lives, or a destroyer of property. The threat of fire also gives the lowly Russian bureaucrat a measure of political and administrative power. There is no better example of how the chinovnik brandishes his fire code weapon than the recent closing of European University in St. Petersburg (EUSP). No one knows why agents from the Russian Ministry of Disaster Emergency (MChS) conducted a surprise fire inspection on 18 January which led to the University's closure. Was it a Kremlin sponsored attack on the liberal, Western orientated university? Was it punishment for accepting a grant from the European Union to monitor elections? I happen to think that European University's fate is not the result of some directive from above. Rather it is yet another example of the capricious nature of the Russian bureaucrat and the lengths he will go to prove his political loyalty to his bosses.

Historically, the Russian bureaucrat has always been in a perilous position. Sandwiched between leaders who demand obedience and a public eager to lynch him, the successful Russian chinovnik survives by manipulation, intrigue, guile, and corruption. He's a contortionist of the law; a practitioner of sly servility. When he receives a signal from his masters of an imminent threat, the chinovnik unleashes the little power he has at his disposal. These powers include bureaucratic foot dragging, a sudden concern for administrative order, and a selective devotion to the letter of the law. These methods allow him to show that "his house is in order" and cleansed of "spies," "liberals," and other political troublemakers. At the same time, if his actions are deemed excessive, he can claim that he was simply following the rules. In this sense, the fire code is perfect political weapon shrouded in the cloth of legality. Selectively wielding the fire code has a perfect Orwellian ring to it. "Hard" forms of political repression are attenuated with the "soft" language of the "law" and "public safety."

Given the dismal state of fire safety and prevention in Russia, no one should've been surprised that MChS agents slapped European University with 52 violations of the fire code. After all, EUSP is housed in the Kushelev-Bezborodko mansion, a nineteenth century marble structure that is a hotbed for fire safety violations. Neither is EUSP a stranger to the Vulcan's rage. A few years ago, fire broke out in a fourth floor office, but the fire department, which is luckily stationed nearby, extinguished the blaze before it spread. The university has since made some needed changes to conform to fire code—replacing of doors and installing fire alarms with loudspeakers that run throughout the building. However, even by administrators' own admission, these measures are not enough to bring the building up to code. The building is protected as a historical monument and any radical changes to it, even for fire safety, are forbidden. So when the Dzerzhinsky Court ruled on 12 February that the University be closed, EUSP had few legal legs to stand on.

Well versed in chinovnik machinations, academics and students at the EUSP saw right through the MChS's bleating claims about fire safety. After all, if the MChS really cared, over half of St. Petersburg would be shut down tomorrow. The entire city is a fire violation. Not everyone though thinks it's politically motivated. Some suspect real estate interests: the University building is a prime chunk of real estate. Most, however, see MChS' actions as politically motivated especially when European University's academic and political affiliations are considered.

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