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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For This University, 270 Years of Pride

There was a time when, in the strict hierarchy of the Soviet system, everything had its specific niche. Schools and institutions of higher education, a conservative element in many societies, were certainly subject to this rather rigorous stratification. This was expressed in a variety of ways, but the most telling one was an institution's name. Ours was not a country like the United States, for example, where universities were a dime a dozen, able to be found in every large city. Here a university was a source of incredible pride, and in St. Petersburg, a city of five million, there was only one.


The good old days are long gone, and now we have a dozen or so of such institutions, encompassing nearly every field of science. The old hierarchy has fallen apart, and a new one has yet to be created, but if we get back to the basics, like in the good old days, St. Petersburg State University is still this city's one and only.


Last Monday, St. Petersburg and the nation celebrated the anniversary of its pre-eminent school, built 270 years ago during a time of a reform not unlike the current one by Peter the Great, who decreed Russia's first university to be set up along with the Academy of Sciences.


Having since spread its 17 departments all over the city, with a contemporary campus moved to suburban Petrodvorets, the university's main building still stands in its original 18th-century location on the Neva's Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya overlooking the Bronze Horseman statue immortalizing its founder. It has graduated figures as diverse as Mendeleyev and Lenin, Pavlov and Chernyshevsky. And for nearly half a century it bore the name of Andrei Zhdanov, a Stalin cohort, years associated with the darkest time of suppressed culture.


At the anniversary ceremony, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak read greetings and congratulations from President Boris Yeltsin which praised the celebration with well-coined phrases like "national wealth." The oldest faculty members, some of whom have been with the university for over 50 years, were awarded a medal made especially for the occasion. Sobchak fortified his own congratulations with a birthday present of 150 million rubles, allotted out of the city budget to tend to the university's most immediate needs.


The cynic in me can't help but be suspicious that this kind of high-profile attention might have been the result of the nationwide strike of employees of educational institutions that took place within weeks of the festivities. Students and professors, made desperate by low wages and the government's almost total neglect of the country's educational system, walked out of their classrooms to remind the powers that be that culture, although very resourceful, may die out if not fed properly. Reviving it will be a hell of a job.