Jewish studies shuttered in Russia


MOSCOW (JTA) – Russia’s only graduate program dedicated to Jewish studies is caught in the crossfire between its parent university and St. Petersburg city officials, who closed the university last week over fire code violations.

Critics say the closure was a politically motivated response to a university course in election monitoring.

The European University at St. Petersburg received a court order to close Feb. 21 after city fire inspectors found 52 violations during a January inspection. A city court denied the university’s appeal, prompting speculation that the city’s decision had political motives.

The university is now seeking property to rent for the remainder of the semester, inquiring with “friendly” but largely immovable city officials and collecting letters of support from Russian and foreign academia, university president Nikolay Vakhtin told JTA.

“The city government, the fire inspection people and the judge are smiling and nice, but strangely enough nothing happens and activities are still suspended,” Vakhtin said. “This is a paradox which I don’t know how to interpret.”

Like the rest of the university the Jewish studies program, Petersburg Judaica, remains very much in limbo. Courses will continue, but the program’s exhibition hall, auditorium and main office are off limits.

“The situation for the whole university, in principle, and for us in particular is absolutely far from a normal situation,” said Valery Dymshits, a Petersburg Judaica professor and the head of the program’s exhibitions. “We can go on like this for several weeks or for a month, but for no longer.”

The university came under scrutiny in February 2007 when it accepted a grant for a course on training Russians in election monitoring. Last June, a deputy from the Russian Parliament’s committee on higher education said European University had violated its charter by engaging in overtly political activities.

The courses were never held, and university officials canceled the entire program on Jan. 30, Vakhtin said. He refused to comment on the reason for or timing of the decision.

The course was funded by a grant from the European Union for about $1 million.

Opened in 1994, European University at St. Petersburg is one of the leading independent universities in the city, with strong ties to Western academia.

The instructor for the course on election monitoring, Grigory Golosov, said there was no political motive behind the course. Its intent was not to train election observers but to exchange best practices on the election process, he said.

The subject of election monitoring has been a point of friction between Russia and the West since parliamentary elections last December. Both then and in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential vote, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, canceled its observer missions, citing Russian government obstruction of its election-monitoring activities.

A spokesman for the St. Petersburg’s governor’s office told JTA the city would not comment on the closure of European University and directed inquiries to the city’s fire safety office. A man who answered the phone at the fire safety office on Tuesday said no one was available to comment.

Meanwhile, the university’s president has played down the political undertones of the university’s closure, saying the administration will focus on fixing the fire code violations.

Until then, the future of Petersburg Judaica, which already has had to put one planned exhibition on hold, is unclear.

Petersburg Judaica was founded in 2000 and incorporated into European University in 2004 to help bolster Slavic Jewish studies, the youngest and most underdeveloped branch of the humanities in post-Soviet Russia.

The study of Jewish folklore, settlement and culture flourished in the wake of the Soviet Union’s Perestroika reforms and gained more prominence with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Today, the program at Petersburg Judaica serves as a center of gravity and a clearinghouse for foreign scholars seeking to do fieldwork in the shtetls of Belorussia, Ukraine and the Pale of Settlement, according to Dymshits.

On top of its research activities, the interdepartmental program teaches Jewish ethnography to students throughout the university. Over the past three years, it has played host to American students and foreign professors interested in doing fieldwork in Slavic Jewish communities.

The program’s five full-time professors sought to play down the political implications of their university’s closure. In an open letter to colleagues, they said their main focus was seeing the program return to its normal operations.

“If something happens to the European University, it will be a very, very dangerous situation for Jewish studies in Russia,” Dymshits said.

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