Russian students studying in the United Kingdom have expressed skepticism about a recently unveiled initiative from Moscow aimed at luring them home.
“This project might be attractive for those who feel some sort of pressure or discrimination because of their origin and regret that they came abroad to study,” said Alena Fedotova, who is studying for a master’s degree in communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. “I don’t have that problem. In fact, I don’t sense any negativity stemming from the fact that I am from Russia.”
Russia’s Rossotrudnichestvo aid agency launched its appeal on April 16 under the tongue-in-cheek name Highly Likely Welcome Back, referring to an earlier statement by British Prime Minister Teresa May in which she said that London believed it was “highly likely” that Russia poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a deadly nerve agent.
“I am not considering going back to Russia under this proposal,” Timur Khairov, who is studying machine building at the University of Bath, told RFE/RL. “I don’t feel any negativity here. Everyone is very polite.
“In fact, I don’t understand the…[Russian government] initiative at all,” he added. “I think it would be better to offer Russian students a program under which they can study abroad if they agree to return to work in Russia.”
The Skripal incident was the latest in a spate of developments over the last decade souring Russia’s relations with the West generally, and the United Kingdom particularly.
An unnamed Rossotrudnichestvo official told RIA Novosti that many countries, particularly in Europe, have demonstrated “Russophobic attitudes on the activity of our compatriots, which purposely narrow their opportunities for self-realization.”
Under the proposal, returning students would be accepted to study at the Foreign Ministry’s prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) or other state institutions or would be given jobs in the Russian Far East.
“The matter of the safety of our young people studying abroad has become critical,” said Oksana Buryak, moderator of the Rosstrudnichestvo press conference that announced the project.
But none of the handful of Russian students who spoke to RFE/RL expressed any concerns for their safety.
“I’m definitely not going back to Russia under this program or in any other way,” said Sofya Zakharova, who studies history at the University of York. “I feel free here, while in Russia it feels like I have to conform to stereotypes. I’m not saying that is wrong, but it doesn’t suit me. I like it that, in England, people have every chance to participate fully in society despite their orientation or religion or nationality…. Moreover, people here aren’t afraid to criticize the government.”
“I feel very good here,” said Adriana Kyupar, a youth from Pskov who has lived in England for two years while studying long-distance at a Russian institute. “I don’t sense any political pressure. Speaking of pressure, I’m more likely to feel it when I’m in Russia — when I turn on the television, for example. I am so sick of being told that everyone is bad and only we are good.”
Aleksandra Medvedskaya, 23, is working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Westminster. She also says she has encountered no problems in England.
“Russians don’t feel any tension from the locals,” she told RFE/RL. “Judging from the questions I get sometimes from my relatives, who ask how people in Europe treat me, it seems our [Russian] television is creating a tense atmosphere and for some reason is trying to prove to Russians that we are surrounded by enemies and that everyone hates us. This isn’t true.”
Dmitry Zhikharevich, who is working on a doctorate at the London School of Economics, recalled the fact that the Russian government has been pressuring the respected independent European University in St. Petersburg for months and refused to grant it an educational license in December.
“I have a hard time imagining anyone who would be seriously interested in the [Rosstrudnichestvo] offer,” Zhikharevich said. “The whole initiative seems dubious, particularly against the background of what happened to the European University in St. Petersburg.”
Student Timur Khairov said for him, the bottom line is that studying in England is better for his future.
“I chose an education abroad because a Russian education isn’t always acceptable,” he said. “I wanted to have more choices in the future.”
Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Siberia Desk correspondents Natalya Kondrashova and Aleksandr Valiyev