Politics 18 October 2021

Outcry as head of top university arrested in fraud case

Sergei Zuev, rector of the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Science (known as Shaninka), was arrested Tuesday after a 30-hour interrogation by police. Shaninka is one of just two successful, independent universities in Russia and the arrest sent a tremor of fear through the country’s academic community.

  • Zuev was taken for interrogation directly from hospital where he was being treated for high blood pressure, according to Pyotr Shchedrovitsky, a political strategist, philosopher, and friend to Zuev. After a public outcry, including a statement of support in parliament, Zuev was moved to house arrest Wednesday. He is accused of embezzling 21 million rubles ($300,000) from an Education Ministry foundation, part of a broader fraud case against ex-deputy education minister Marina Rakova.
  • Investigators allege Rakova, 38, commissioned Shaninka to do research work, but that the payment was actually stolen and falsified reports were submitted by a scientific research committee to cover up the crime. Zuev said he was innocent, and the university insisted it had fulfilled all its contractual obligations.
  • The Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Science was founded in the mid-1990s by Teodor Shanin, a British sociologist who was born in pre-war Poland and spent several years in a Soviet prison. Shaninka is regarded as one of Russia’s leading universities, and one of the country’s few reputable non-state institutions.
  • Education watchdog Rosobrnadzor deprived Shaninka of the right to award Russian degrees in 2018 — at the time, a source told The Bell that Shaninka was under increased scrutiny by the intelligence services amid a conflict between Moscow and London. However, an academic partnership meant Shaninka continued to award U.K. degrees to its students and its accreditation was eventually restored last year. The school is seen as a “real hotbed of liberalism” by many in the Russian elite, one source told The Bell.
  • After leaving the education ministry in 2021, Rakova was appointed vice president at state-owned banking giant Sberbank. Earlier this month, she was put on a federal wanted list and charged in absentia with fraud. Rakova reportedly gave herself up a few days after this announcement — after the arrest of her partner Artur Stetsenko — and she is currently in jail awaiting trial. Apart from Rakova and her partner, other defendants in the case include two top managers at state-owned bank Sberbank, Yevgeny Zak and Maksim Inkin (Rakova worked with the two men when in government), and Kristina Kryuchkova, former executive director of Shaninka.
  • The basis of the Rakova case is reportedly an investigation into state contracts carried out by the Russian Academy of Education, which is headed by Olga Vasilieva, the former education minister and Rakova’s old boss. Vasilieva and Rakova were apparently enemies and clashed repeatedly during their time working together.
  • One of Rakova’s signature achievements in government was the so-called Quantorium project that teaches industrial design, technical English, mathematics, robotics, and programming to children in 84 Russian regions. Notably, Quantorium was backed by influential Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov. One of The Bell’s sources recalled how Rakova and Belousov often appeared in public together. “Belousov’s people would call, insert this [Quantorium] project into the technical specifications of other, more modest proposals, and throw money at it,” he said.

Why the world should care: Like the notorious criminal case against theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, the Rakova-Zuev case highlights the risks faced by independent institutions that work with government funding. The problem is they rarely have a choice. Russian officials have worked hard in recent years to scare off foreign donors, and make charities, cultural organizations and universities almost entirely dependent on state money.