‘Back in the USSR’ or Convergence of Interests?

Russia’s Higher Education Export in the Post-Soviet Space Explained through the Soft Power Rationale

Abbas Abbasov
4 min readNov 5, 2018
Dr. Philip Altbach delivering the opening remarks at the RHEC on October 24, 2018

On October 23–25, 2018, I attended the International Russian Higher Education Conference (RHEC) in Moscow, Russia. I presented a research project on the Russian higher education export that I have been working on with my advisor, Dr. Oren Pizmony-Levy. This project is a mixed-methods study involving a cross-section time series analysis of the proliferation of Russian branch campuses (‘filiali’ in Russian) in 14 former Soviet republics during the 25-year period of 1992–2017 as well as comparative case study research of six Lomonosov Moscow State University international branch campuses (IBCs) located in the post-Soviet space.

What makes this research important is the fact that there has not been much discussion in the comparative education literature about the Soviet higher education export since 1960s and how the legal successor of the Soviet Union — Russia has utilized this as a resource post-1991. In fact, we know that, during 1960–1991, the USSR established 66 HEIs (universities, institutes, university centers, specialized faculties and branches), 23 specialized vocational schools, and more than 400 professional-technical education centers in 36 foreign countries (Arefiev & Sheregi, 2014). Therefore, we try to understand what has led to the proliferation of Russian IBCs in this region.

Below you can see the high concentration of Russian IBCs in Central Asia, more specifically in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in Ukraine. There are two countries in the region that have zero Russian IBCs, Georgia and Turkmenistan (see Map 1).

Map 1. Lowest to highest number of Russian international branch campuses (IBCs) in the region

At the conference, I was presenting the findings from our quantitative analysis. We find that Russian higher education institutions (HEIs) have established 58 branch campuses during 1992–2017 (see Figure 1). Every year during this period, except for 2010, 2014, and 2016, there has been at least one Russian IBC established in the region.

Figure 1. Cumulative number of Russian IBCs established during 1992–2017

By testing different hypotheses, we find statistically significant positive correlation between the political affiliation with Russia and the number of branch campuses in a given country (p<.01). In fact, countries with stronger political ties to Russia are 26 percent more likely to have a Russian IBC. This led us to look into Russia’s soft power resources in the region.

We conceptualize the Russian higher education export through the soft power rationale developed by Dr. Joseph Nye (1990; 2005). According to Nye (2005), soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”. Dr. Andrei Tsygankov (2006) has expanded on Nye’s conception to operationalize soft power through three components: a) cultural values, b) economic interdependence, and c) political legitimacy. He further delineates three schools of thought present in the Russian soft power domain: Westernisers, Stabilisers, and Imperialists (see Table 1).

Table 1. Three schools of thought in the Russian soft power domain (Tsygankov, 2006)

Since political affiliation with Russia seems to be the strongest predictor of the Russian IBC establishment, we argue that the former colonial role that Russia used to hold within the Soviet Union can explain its use of political legitimacy as a soft power resource to establish branch campuses in the region. This is in line with the Imperialist school of thought that heavily relies on political dominance as a tool (see Table 1).

Our findings also support Dr. Maia Chankseliani’s (2017) research concerning knowledge development in Soviet and post-Soviet education explained through the concept of multi-layered colonialism. Acknowledging Russia’s role as a former colonial power — first, as the Russian Empire, then as the Soviet Russia, and now as the Russian Federation — Chankseliani (2017) argues that the educational research in the region is situated within the Russian imperialism and Western academic colonialism (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Multi-layered colonialism (Chankseliani, 2017)

In order to get a better sense of our research project, you can view the slides from my presentation below:

The slides from my presentation at the RHEC 2018 on October 25, 2018



Abbas Abbasov

PhD Student, Teachers College, Columbia University #highered #access #internationalization #postSoviet l lifelong learner, curious educator, outgoing introvert