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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blown Into All Proportion

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Ah, college days! If you attended a U.S. university in the 1960s or 1970s, you and I probably share some common memories: anti-war rallies, Frisbee follies, getting bombed in your dormitory, your dormitory getting bombed ...

OK, that last one wasn't that common. But it did, indeed, happen to a dormitory of mine. Some sociopaths apparently decided that Stanford's Junipero House lounge would look better in burnt umber, and a late-night firebombing redid our common-room decor accordingly. House residents sought other lodging forthwith, some clad in blankets they had just been under.

University students are a resilient lot, and by the end of the term this victimless arson bombing had been largely de-traumatized ("Our ping-pong table burned down, taking the lounge with it.") I had not thought of it for decades, until two recent explosions at Moscow State University, or MGU, jump-started some middle-aged synapses: As it happens, the second blast, on Jan. 26, took place in residential Sector B -- another one of my old dorms.

During the 1980s, I spent two useful terms as a graduate exchange student at MGU. I have always considered myself a loyal alumnus (whatever the fundraising office tells you). For the record: Nothing blew up when I was there.

Explosions are seldom trivial here, in a country of serious terrorists, collapsible buildings, plummeting submarines and the like. Yet as an alum and veteran dorm bombee, I will not lose significant winks over these two MGU incidents, which seem to me less alarmingly sinister than recklessly stupid.

The first was soon classified as "hooliganism," and the second cries out for the same. The explosion happened a few hours after the (theoretical) conclusion of Tatyana's Day, the annual school-wide post-exam bash, during which countless undergrads imbibe this, abuse that and then, surprise, act sophomoric. Thus, the likelihood of a terrorist conspiracy here would seem relatively low -- and the likelihood of sophomores run amok relatively stratospheric.

An internal wall was damaged, several windows were blown out and some 1,200 residents were temporarily evacuated. But no one was injured, and the university's rector immediately spoke of getting on with business.

I don't know the rector, Viktor Sadovnichy, and didn't think that highly of him before this. When I was funneling high-paying students from elite U.S. universities into MGU in the 1990s, Sadovnichy never deigned to meet with me, leaving the running of this profitable partnership to a ham-handed subordinate, his vice rector for extracting money from foreigners, it seems.

Yet despite high-hatting me then, Sadovnichy is now close to rehabilitation in my eyes: After the Jan. 26 explosion, he went on television and calmly but forcefully told the national audience that this was not that big a deal and he had things under control. And I found myself agreeing. Given the circumstances, it probably wasn't and he probably did.

Russian higher education has a full plate of problems, and Sadovnichy isn't shy about telling the world about them, from bribery and corruption to scandalously neglected infrastructure (including some at MGU). On malicious "hooligans" blowing things up, the rector's message has been concerned but appropriately implacable: in effect, "No panic. We'll get these punks. Now everybody back to the books."

Sadovnichy speaks as a cultural heavyweight of relative independence. Unique among universities, MGU has its own line in the federal budget. Yet the rector isn't a government appointee. He is chosen by MGU's own educator-electors, who in 2005 gave Sadovnichy a whopping 99 percent of their votes. You get the feeling he not only has considerable gravitas, but is also smarter than various U.S. peers. Unlike Harvard's latest president, for example, Sadovnichy has certainly not alienated his faculty. Nor, indeed, has he ever schemed with Anatoly Chubais or mentored any bogus "development consultants."

I didn't like my dorm getting bombed in 1971, and I'm sure the "Sector B 1,200" didn't either. But I got over it, as they will. Meanwhile, I suspect that resourceful Rector Vic will find a way to put the kibosh on these in-house blow-ups. MGU will stay largely in one piece during his remaining tenure and may well set more academic standards worth emulating elsewhere. After all, beyond its myriad honors, this university can also claim a certain prescience Harvard and Yale cannot: It has never awarded a degree to George W. Bush.

This is one loyal alum who hopes it never will. At the next fundraiser, maybe I will pony up.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.