Talking openly about corruption in today’s Russia is not a good idea. One risks retaliation from those directly involved in filthy activities. Sometimes, state bodies like the police may be involved into the filth themselves. For this reason, you will not find in the article below any names of people or institutions, only facts. Yet I have access to the proof – in electronic form – of everything I am talking about below.
May and early June in Russia is the time when graduating seniors of all majors take a state qualification examination in their field. The examination is developed by the Ministry of Education for every major in advance and tests students’ knowledge of the most important concepts they were supposed to learn during their entire course of study at a university. State exams are conducted after universities’ own exams but before students are awarded diplomas.
University X is a specialized school in Moscow. It is a prestigious research university in Russia with more than a hundred specialized support centers in Moscow. It is currently ranked number one in Russia in its field. Mister Y is a graduating senior at University X and my acquaintance. In early June this year, I was staying in Moscow and I asked Mr. Y how his preparation for the state examination was going. Mr. Y says he is concerned that he does not have enough time to memorize the correct answers for his state exam. I did not get it and asked for an explanation. Mr. Y says that dean’s office at his university (Yes, dean’s office) distributed to all students, a few days before the exam, a full list of exam questions with correct answers marked. I thought it was a bad joke and asked Mr. Y to show me the test questions, which he did. Ironically, looking through the questions, I noticed a typo – an incorrect answer was chosen in place of the right answer. I asked him what answer he was going to memorize for that particular question. “Of course, I’ll put the answer they (dean’s office) told me to!” Then our conversation went like this:
ME: But we know this answer choice is incorrect.
Mr. Y: There is probably an error in the testing system and they [dean’s office] know about it.
ME: Or they just do not want the whole school to score a hundred percent on this exam and attract suspicion from the Ministry of Education.
Mr. Y: Well, they also told us to make a couple of mistakes on the test.
ME: This is probably to ensure that not all of students’ mistakes are identical…. But why do you even need the answers? Can’t you answer the questions yourself? You have been an A student at this school, you are graduating with honors, you must be able to get all the questions right yourself!
Mr. Y gets angry with me: You don’t understand! They don’t teach you this in school!
I wonder what they have taught him then in the school that is considered best in Russia in its field. I wonder what they teach you at other, less prestigious schools. It’s quite understandable, however, what kind of fears make Russian universities go that far and distribute the right answers to their students in such a centralized manner. The universities understand that there is a discrepancy between the quality of their teaching and professional standards established by the Ministry of Education. They understand that if a significant proportion of their graduating students fail state exams, they (the schools) risk losing their accreditation with the Ministry of Education. So they engage into this machination, collect money from government and students’ families, and continue to produce defective professionals – accountants who don’t know what accounting is about, doctors who incidentally maim their patients, teachers whose knowledge of the subject they teach is equivalent to that of their students…
Russian students reading this will undoubtedly get irritated and accuse me of all sorts of things, from the lack of understanding of the benefits of Russian education to the lack of patriotism. Yet, unlike most of them, I have been fortunate to study abroad and see that education without corruption is possible, where professors teach students the minimum that is expected of students and trust the students to learn it.
What is interesting here is that the problem stems from something other than lack of funding. In that particular school, students enjoy the latest education technologies and are taught by nationally and internationally recognized professionals. This fact leads me to conclude that production of defective specialists is an institutional problem rather than an economic one, and solving it requires dealing with institutions directly. Also, as my next example below will illustrate, the scope of this problem is much wider than just incompetent and corrupt university authorities. Since dean’s office at University X somehow managed to obtain the exam questions before the exam, someone at the Ministry of Education must be someone’s friend at University X. But professionals from outside universities, who represent the state during state qualification examinations, get involved into the machinations too. It seems that who gets involved and how depends on the form in which state exams are conducted in a particular school.
Consider, for example, University Z in a city thousands of miles away from Moscow. University Z is a well-known and respected public school locally. Here is what students say about the state qualification exams at that school:
“The exam lasts about three hours and is attended by a special state committee. It is an oral examination and students are supposed to answer to that committee. A couple of weeks before the exam, the departments distribute to students a full list of exam questions. Students contribute money to the pot and then use it to buy food the day before the exam day. On the exam day, students set the table with this food in a room across the hall from the room where the exam is supposed to take place. When the exam starts, students invite the committee to the table, all the committee members accept the invitation and leave the exam room [whether they actually go to eat what the students have put on the table for them is an open question]. The committee members leave the exam room for about an hour. This one hour is just enough time for students to copy the answers from their cheat sheets which they had prepared having been given the exam questions in advance. When the committee returns, the students take the examination and all get excellent or good grades. The process is repeated every year.”
Here, the state committee did not mind disappearing from the exam room for an hour or so. As it has been seen, although state exams are conducted differently in different schools (orally or in form of a test), schools adapt to circumstances. Thus, each particular school has its own way of surviving to continue to produce defective professionals for the national labor market, while in the meantime Russian media are shouting that the West with its double-dealing politics is really to blame for all Russia’s social ills. This is, however, a topic deserving its own post.
A continuation of my conversation with Mr. Y that didn’t fit into the article above:
ME: … Imagine this hypothetical situation: you take the exam and you fail it. What will the consequences be? How would dean’s office react?
Mr. Y: Errr … I don’t know. They have already put “Excellent” for the state exam into my diploma.
ME, almost speechless: A week before the exam? How is this possible?
Mr. Y: Dean’s office distributes to students draft copies of their diplomas so that each student can check it for spelling and other errors. It is a standard practice. I saw in the draft copy of my diploma my grade for the state exam.
ME: What about other students? Did everyone have “excellent”?
Mr. Y: I’m not sure about others. I only know that all students graduating with honors had “excellent” written in place of their state exam grade, and some other students who are not going to get honors got “good.”
Welcome to Russia, the country where students can get their exam grades a week before the actual exam, and then dare claim that Russia’s education is the best in the world!
 Here I am talking about three real people, all are my peers, whom I know personally.
A few weeks ago, the 57th session of the United Nations annual Commission on the Status of Women brought together countries’ representatives and members of civil society organizations in New York City. Delegations from countries and organizations shared their vision of and good practices for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. The series of meetings turned out to be bitterly disappointing for two reasons.
First, the session was overtly politically charged. Quite a few countries did not hesitate to make politically provocative statements oriented more towards past conflicts and misunderstandings than the topic at hand. Syria, for example, appealed to the international community to “take action against Israel” and “condemn the occupiers.” It also mentioned that “some governments” breed terrorism within its borders and asked the international community to address this issue. Venezuela’s speech sounded very much like an attempt to glorify Hugo Chavez and his regime. Russia, paranoid, as usual, about other countries interfering into its domestic affairs, reminded the international community that Russia’s government is the only body that knows best what policies would be good for Russia. Such an atmosphere at the session showed that countries came to the meeting with heavy political baggage that they were unwilling to leave aside for even five minutes – the time given to each country’s delegation for a speech on the session agenda.
But perhaps more disappointing was some countries’ explicit reluctance to even discuss certain issues related to violence against women. Kuwait, for example, stated that, in its view, any attempt to make a link between religion and violence against women is “intolerable.” What is really intolerable is closing a particular issue for open discussion on the grounds of some allegedly universal truth. Whether some religions sanction socio-economic or physical violence against women and girls is a question that is currently being explored by scholars and civil society. Attempts to turn this question into a statement, without any evidence, are equivalent to imposing one’s highly subjective perception on the international community.
In a similar vein, Tunisia declared that it fully supports the goal of elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, as long as it doesn’t contradict “the precepts of Islam.” What this means, in my understanding, is that there is a line that some countries draw for themselves and which, no matter what, they do not want to cross. It’s the line beyond which there will be no discussion. It’s the line beyond which there can be no questions.
Unlike Kuwait and Tunisia, Lebanon admitted the “challenge of promoting non-violence while retaining cultural values and religious beliefs.” In other words, the country was open to dialogue with the international community, recognizing in advance the complex nature of the question and potential disagreements about it.
Some countries, when opening highly controversial political issues for debate, were unable or unwilling to elaborate on their views and offer a viable alternative. For instance, the Holy See stated that China’s one child policy is a blatant violation of reproductive rights, but did not provide any potential solutions for China’s demographic problem. Indeed, does today’s China have an alternative?
The second aspect in which the session was a disappointment were the many countries’ approaches to the agenda. Almost every speech was a listing of how many rehabilitation centers a country has built, how many hot lines it has opened, and how many counseling services it has funded. No doubt, many countries have built up an extensive infrastructure to provide legal and psychological support and medical assistance to women victims of domestic violence, rape, or other abuse. These achievements are laudable, but they all address the symptoms of the “disease” while ignoring its causes. Only two countries of all the countries I heard speak, touched upon the roots of the problem. One of them, Moldova, explicitly referred to society’s morals and the need for moral education as fundamental in eliminating violence against women and girls. The other, the Holy See, went deeper and stressed the mass media’s responsibility for society’s sense of morality:
“In many parts of the world, women are the first victims of reductive ideologies that postulate and glorify a conception of the human body and of its sexual availability that is strongly threatening to the dignity of women. Pursuing this ideology only leads to a vision of the human person, wherein women … are easily considered as a possession … disposable at will. The advertising which proliferates around the world today is an example of how the human person is demeaned, commodified and sexualized into an object for others’ perversion and lust. The woman is thereby reduced to a body without a mind or a soul. In this context, it is most urgent for us to discern solutions that are not merely limited to the short term, or lowest common denominator, and which inevitably prolong the causes for violence, but rather to pursue solutions which address the root causes of violence versus women.”
Many countries also boasted on how many of their seats in parliament or minister positions are now taken by women. Although this is an achievement that has the potential for inducing long-term changes in the societal status of women and girls, countries should keep in mind that attitudes cannot be imposed from above unless they have a strong foundation at other levels of society. Legal changes do not necessarily bring in wide-scale societal changes.
As I was walking early Saturday morning in Manhattan to catch my bus home, I was verbally abused by two adult men in their 30s or 40s. When I chose to ignore their offensive sexist comments, they shouted at my back threats of rape. If it had not been the center of Manhattan and if they had dared to physically abuse me, I would surely have appreciated hot lines, rehabilitation centers, and counseling services. But why do I have to become a victim in the first place only because of someone’s fundamental lack of morality? And would the fact that the United States is at the forefront of promoting legal gender equality have made my trauma less painful? Very meaningful in this regard is one of the slogans of the recent campaign against rape in Delhi, which reads “Don’t tell your daughter not to go out, tell your son to behave properly.”