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Russian Underworld Extends to Higher Education

Many schools rely on shady business deals, one of which may have cost a professor his life.

March 31, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Viktor Frantsuzov might as well have been in Al Capone's Chicago: Arriving home after midnight in his chauffeured car, the professor and university administrator was cut down by a hail of bullets.

The ambush-execution early this year -- which the wounded driver survived -- remains unsolved. But few doubt that it was tied to the respected scholar's work as head of moneymaking activities at the Moscow State Academy of Fine Chemical Technologies. Somehow, it is believed, he must have angered gangsters in the corrupt world of Russian business.

In an era of post-Soviet cutbacks that have slashed state support for higher education to about one-quarter its level of two decades ago, many universities find themselves trapped in an unsavory stew of murky business deals and rampant bribery -- by applicants and by students in the market for a guaranteed passing grade.

Adding to the crisis, rock-bottom academic salaries, typically $100 a month, have led to a brain drain. Many scholars, particularly in scientific and technical fields, have left once-coveted positions to take business jobs at home, high-technology work in places such as Silicon Valley or teaching posts in the U.S. and Western Europe.

"It's best that a professor stick to science and not get into business activities, but that wasn't always possible in the 1990s," said Yuri B. Minkin, a friend of Frantsuzov who quit academia and is now co-owner of a cheese-making company.

"The last decade was a decade of the wildest capitalism, where businesses were locked in one embrace with police and gangsters, all of them fighting for their own piece of bread," he added. "If you think of Russia in the 1990s, you can think of Chicago in the 1920s, during Prohibition. So the risks are colossal.... It's as easy for a gangster to pick up a gun as it is for a professor to pick up his pen."

Leasing out campus space to private companies has helped many schools survive but also made some corrupt administrators rich. Many academics who stick with teaching supplement their salaries however possible: through bribe-taking, tutoring future applicants, paid research, teaching at other institutions or moonlighting outside their specialties.

Meanwhile, in a country where higher education used to be free for anyone who could get in, half the students now pay their way.

As the chemical academy went into a steep decline in the early 1990s, Frantsuzov "was very sorry about professors leaving, but he couldn't stop them because of the low salaries," recalled his widow, Natalia. "The situation at the academy was hurting his soul."

A specialist in oil-related chemistry, her husband "just adored" science, but beginning in the mid-1990s, he focused on fund-raising because "somebody had to do it," she said.

Given the financial pressures faced by their schools, many students seem not to mind sharing space with businesses.

"What can we do, if the state doesn't have the money?" said Vitaly Fokin, who is enrolled at the chemical academy. "Some problems may arise, but I think it's useful. It helps us get our education."

Asked what sort of problems might come up, Fokin replied: "One of them is the murder of Frantsuzov."

In the eight years before his death, Frantsuzov struck deals worth millions of dollars, including rental of campus space to dozens of businesses, Minkin says. Among the biggest renters is San Diego-based ChemBridge Corp. It pays the academy about $300,000 a year for laboratory and office space, according to Sergey Altshteyn, the firm's vice president.

ChemBridge, which specializes in synthesizing chemicals for pharmaceutical research, has 300 full-time employees in its facilities on the campus. In addition, about 350 scientists across the former Soviet Union supplement their income by helping the firm.

Frantsuzov's biggest project was one in which the school received 25% of a five-building apartment complex built by investors on academy land, Minkin says. The school sold most of its share to fund academic construction and kept the rest for employee housing.

Some educators argue that although the mood on campuses may be desperate, the overall direction of education is not necessarily down. Rejection of Communist ideology, new academic freedom and vastly expanded access to worldwide scholarship are important gains. The number of students in higher education jumped 71% between 1990 and 2002, while the number of institutions leaped from 517 state schools in 1990 to a total of 1,337 schools in 2000, including 365 new private ones.

Still, fears for the future are immense.

"As long as our professors get $100 a month, they will continue receiving bribes," lamented Yaroslav I. Kuzminov, co-chairman of the Russian Public Council on Education Development, a high-profile lobbying group pressing for reforms.

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