Moscow's academic nightmare University in decline: Patrice Lumumba University once was one of the jewels of Moscow. Today, like the rest of Russia, the school -- now renamed -- struggles amid reform and is a shadow of its former self.

Sun Journal

November 05, 1995|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In the old days, the typical student at Patrice Lumumba University would be a young African, someone who could hope to become his country's first native-born doctor or engineer after graduation. The new graduate would be expected to take communism home with him and preach of its glories. That communist dream is gone, but the university goes on, struggling to survive in free-market style.

Patrice Lumumba University -- alma mater of the terrorist "Carlos" and of hundreds of men and women who are government officials throughout the Third World -- now is a cheap and not so choosy institution. A mathematics professor despondent over the school's decline describes it as where "the best of the world's worst students" come for an easy degree.

"I couldn't get into the university at home, and that's the only reason I would come here," says Nayana Prematilaka, a medical student from Sri Lanka who hopes to improve her English enough to pass exams qualifying her for her dream school -- the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Her classmates from India, Jordan and Peru offer similar stories: Even with the necessary year of Russian language study, they find it cheaper and easier to pay $8,000 up front for a six-year degree program in Moscow than getting in anywhere else in the world.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the school awarded full scholarships to everyone, and the Communist Party offered subsidies that paid round-trip airfare and room and board, plus a stipend generous enough for students to use to build a nest egg. More than 70 percent of the 6,500 students were foreigners.

The foreigners are now slightly outnumbered by Russians, who can still attend the university free of charge. The mix of foreigners has changed, too: Those from Africa and Latin America, whose countries were considered the most fertile ground for Soviet cultivation, have been supplanted by their students from Arab states and Southeast Asia, who can more easily afford tuition.

Russia still honors the scholarships awarded to foreigners who began their studies before 1992 -- but there are complications, says V. M. Filippov, the school's rector.

The food stipend -- about $20 a month, when the school has money to pay it -- is no longer enough to feed anyone. Moreover, the university is housing graduates whose native countries are not safe to return to, such as Rwanda and Somalia. There are no jobs for those graduates at home and none for them in Russia. Those hardships mean that the profit motive that was vigorously denounced in the mandatory courses on scientific communism and Marxist economics now runs strong.

Some of the poorest students take holiday smuggling trips for goods they can sell in Moscow's outdoor bazaars. It is not uncommon to see inventories of crocodile-skin purses in dorm closets, merchandise available for sale when the need for cash arises.

The golden age was the 1960s. Communism appeared to be on the rise, and the university was brand new.

When Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed in 1960 that the Russian Peoples' Friendship University existed, "Communists being communists, they had to do what he said," says Anatoly Kirillov, an International Labor Organization consultant and a graduate and teacher at the school.

"I was student No. 7 , picked on Aug. 23, 1960," says Mr. Kirillov, who was drafted without much choice from another college. The university was created nearly overnight, and the military's general staff academy was evicted from its headquarters to make room for students from abroad.

"I was selected as a good representative of the Soviet young people. We knew there was a fight for the young brains of these countries; we wanted them to go the socialist way. But we were also doing it from our heart," Mr. Kirillov says.

"Yes, we taught them Marxist-Leninist philosophy, the same way you taught capitalism in the U.S."

For the Russians, the school offered the first contact with foreigners in nearly a generation and a first contact with blacks. When the African students ventured off campus, "old people would crowd around in the streets," the better to touch them, Mr. Kirillov says.

Within a year or two, the school was renamed Patrice Lumumba University, in honor of the first prime minister of the African nation now called Zaire, a figure who was a vocal critic of the West and who was assassinated in 1961.

In 1992, the university reverted to its original name, without anyone taking much notice.

The campus of Soviet-style cement-block buildings is in what used to be forest on the outskirts of Moscow. The buildings are crumbling, the university too nearly broke to repair them. In fall and winter, when darkness comes early, students climb unlighted stairwells because the school can not afford light bulbs.

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