Russia’s New Privatization

The country's universities are moribund and behind the times. Can Moscow's entrepreneurs and philanthropists build something better?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It wasn’t supposed to be so cold in Moscow this late in May, which is why Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas arrived wearing only slacks and a T-shirt. He stood on stage with a slate-gray fleece blanket clumsily draped over his lanky frame, making him look like the superhero that the crowd — a who’s who of the Russian artistic and media elite — already believed him to be.

Koolhaas was gracing the opening of the Strelka (or "Arrow") Institute, a new design school, housed in a stylishly restored old factory on an island in the Moscow River, with the ambitious goal of offering a transformative push to Russian architecture. Strelka is but the latest example in a larger crop of similar ventures. Frustrated with the tepid pace of traditional university education in Russia, private investors are dropping serious money on some unorthodox methods to tap into the intellectual harvest of the world beyond the country’s borders.  

Koolhaas stood by patiently as the (private) funders and architects of the space — a sternly swanky Dutch-inspired compound with a cozy bar decked out like a vintage furniture store — spoke about Strelka’s mission to educate and inspire a new way of thinking about architecture, design, media, and urban planning in Russia.

Strelka’s position is that "in Russia there is a serious issue in terms of [architecture] education," Koolhaas, still wearing his fleece cape, told me after he clambered down from the stage and made the rounds of the audience. "Of course, I’m not in a situation where I can say whether it’s true or not, but I see the same situation with education in general." The star architect had been brought on to help Strelka design a curriculum for young professionals in the architecture and design fields that would bring them up to speed with the industries elsewhere and train them to bring the cutting edge to Russia.

It’s an experiment increasingly embraced, in a variety of fields, by Russians who are ill-served by an aged and slow-moving university system combining the worst elements of old and new Russia. The schools are still stocked with Soviet-era administrators, cloaked in unbudging tradition, prey to antediluvian ways of thinking, and marred by massive corruption, with students buying everything from a place on the class roster to a passing grade. (Just last month, a lecturer at Moscow State University, Russia’s most prestigious university, was filmed taking a million-ruble bribe to grant a student a spot in her department — chaired, incidentally, by the professor’s father.) Reform may be finally in the air, but its pace is glacial and uneven. Instead of waiting for universities to catch up, a handful of private initiatives are taking matters into their own hands, educating and training a hungry Russian populace in everything from modern art to data analysis.

Strelka is the youngest of the lot. Funded by three new-media moguls, its goal is to supplement the classical education Russian architects receive at old temples of the trade like the Moscow Architectural Institute, which traces its lineage back to 1749. Students at the old schools are trained to sketch and draw and plan and make, but rarely to think conceptually about their craft. "Russians are naive about questions of architecture and design," says Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, one of Strelka’s founders and the creator of the Afisha media empire, Russia’s answer to Time Out. "Most people here think of an architect as someone who can build a pretty house, not someone who has a dynamic social role." (His co-founder, Web mogul Alexander Mamut, thinks Moscow architects aren’t even good at that. "If you look at what’s been built in Moscow in the last 20 years, it’s humiliating," he told me. "They haven’t built anything that we can be proud of.")

Natalia Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Architecture Institute and heir to a long dynasty of famous Moscow architects, does not disagree. "The most important thing that should happen here is to teach architects to think conceptually," she said.

At the opening, Oskolkov-Tsentsiper told the crowd that a Moscow architect had "to make the city more habitable, and our society more humane." That is a tall order for architects trained in building pretty houses, so Strelka is helping by providing a free yearlong master’s program to young professionals in the field, who, starting this fall, will work on tangible projects with Koolhaas and other stars of the architecture and design world.

This is all new to Moscow, but the model isn’t, points out Arkady Volozh, founder and CEO of Yandex, the dominant Russian search engine. In the Soviet Union, university upperclassmen would be placed in internships through their departments to prepare them for real work after graduation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, this system did, too. As universities languished from lack of funds and modern curricula, young Russians began to all but abandon class for work, much of it full-time and during the academic year, in new fields that were chronically understaffed.

In fact, the Soviet apprenticeship tradition has been better maintained in the private sector than in Russia’s educational institutions. When Yandex found that the excellent but abstract mathematical education provided at most Russian universities wasn’t equipping its graduates for the workforce, the company founded the School of Data Analysis. The two-year program, a partnership with two prominent universities in Moscow (but not Moscow State, which refuses to be involved despite supplying half of Yandex’s employees) aims to mold good math students into excellent programmers — and future Yandex workers who need no on-the-job training. It has been a sound investment: The school has served as a laboratory for innovations like MatrixNet, which, within a month of its introduction, bumped Yandex’s market share by 6 percent.

Strelka and its ilk are not without their problems. How deep, for example, are their founders’ pockets, and how expansive are their philanthropic spirits? How long can they fund the free education of 20 to 40 people per year? At Strelka’s grand opening, however, the crowd just seemed happy that something so promising — and promisingly unacademic — had been born. The founders, for their part, hoped that the institute would bring another kind of sustainability to Russia and prove immune to one of the country’s most persistent problems. "Someone who graduates from our program can work for any of the most fashionable firms," Dmitrii Likin, who is responsible for the new media program, said. "But I hope they’ll stay and work here."

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