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Changing Lifestyles : Moscow's Marxist School Strives to Reinvent Itself : Patrice Lumumba University once trained Third World radicals. Now it trains budding capitalists.

February 16, 1993|BETH KNOBEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — It used to drill its students on the principles of Marxism-Leninism. Now it plans to offer a master of business administration degree.

During the Cold War, it was rumored to be a training ground for terrorists and pro-Communist revolutionaries. Now it trains budding capitalists who run small businesses to supplement their inadequate stipends.

It used to bring students from the developing world to its Moscow campus for a free college education, courtesy of the Soviet government. Now it is so impoverished that it will enroll students from any country, as long as they cough up the tuition.

Formerly known as Patrice Lumumba University, the school was once a well-funded propaganda tool, founded to help spread the gospel of communism in the developing world. But with that mission on the same historical dust heap as the Soviet Union, and its very existence threatened by financial and social troubles, the school is now trying to remake itself into a viable, if not respectable, university.

The struggles of what is now known officially as Universitet Druzhbi Narodov (the University of Peoples' Friendship) illustrate the challenges faced by Soviet-era institutions of all varieties as they strive to adapt to the democracy and capitalism of today's Russia.

The university opened in 1960, at a time when the Cold War was raging and dozens of nations around the globe were winning independence from colonial powers. Students from Africa, Asia and Latin America were recruited, often by local Communist organizations, to study alongside those from the Soviet Union.

Foreign students--as they do to this day--would spend their first year learning the Russian language, then complete a five- to seven-year course in one of six areas, from agriculture to engineering.

"This remains a unique university," rector Vladimir Stanis said. "It is the only one created with a special orientation toward developing Third World countries," he added, gesturing toward the gifts of African sculpture, carving and pottery that fill his office. More that half the school's 6,500 students currently come from abroad, and they represent 107 nations.

To emphasize its link to the developing world, the university was renamed in 1961 in honor of Patrice Lumumba, a revolutionary from Zaire (then known as the Congo). Many Muscovites still call the institution "Lumumba University," even though it has officially reverted to its original name.

A 1970s-era brochure shows the university as it looked in its heyday, with smiling, multi-ethnic groups of students sledding down snow-covered Moscow hills, working together over lab experiments and performing in cultural programs to show off their national heritages.

Students in the old days had reason to be happy. The school provided for their every need, even chauffeuring foreign guests during their first week of school to the GUM department store on Red Square, where they were given coats, boots and warm clothes to get them through the winter. Stipends were adequate for Soviet students and downright cushy for foreigners, who were given twice the monthly scholarship of their Soviet colleagues. Even the school cafeteria was enticing, preparing foods from foreign lands for all to sample.

"At the University of Peoples' Friendship, there really was friendship. It wasn't just empty words," recalled Tatianya Kostritsyna, a 32-year-old graduate who now teaches Portuguese there. "We all became friends. I was given responsibility for our study group, and if one of the foreign students was having trouble, I would go to one of the Soviet students and say: 'Our student from Laos is having trouble with math. Would you tutor him?' And our student would gladly help."

"But now, from what I see," she continued, "there is no friendship."

The problems began in 1987 with perestroika , according to Kostritsyna. Funds dwindled. The school's purpose became blurred. Students began to drop out in droves--now only 60% eventually receive their degrees--and the university began to lose its attraction for foreign students. "There are a lot of positive factors for the university" in the changes of the past few years, Stanis said. "But I can't say that poverty is a positive factor. We never had such difficulties before."

The difficulties are obvious in a tour of the university's campus, located in a colorless, relatively barren section of southwest Moscow. Although the school's gray, cinder-block buildings were put up in the late 1970s, they are already falling apart. Worst of all are the dormitories, where two or three students live in each tiny, roach-infested room.

"We live very badly," Ali Akhmed, a 23-year-old medical student from Sudan, said. "The toilets in the dorms don't work. The kitchens where we can cook are filthy."

Nor can the university provide students with the scholarships they need for even basic needs. Those with top grades get a stipend of 2,300 rubles per month--just under $4 at current exchange rates.

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