'Peoples' U.' Still Tries to Win Friends, Minus the Marxism

Students from all over the world attend a former icon of the Soviet Union

Was it a shining icon of communist internationalism or a notorious training ground for the agents of Soviet world domination? That depended on your point of view.

In its heyday 20 years ago, Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow was the arch-symbol of the way Russia viewed the world. The university, which provided free education to international students, was an emblem of Moscow's drive for global influence.

Not much has changed since then behind the concrete-and-glass walls of the campus, built in the harsh "new brutalist" style beloved of Soviet architects.

The waiting room outside Rector Vladimir Filippov's office is a slice of Soviet-era taste suspended in time. Its floor-to-ceiling lemon-yellow velvet curtains clash with the faded, bordeaux upholstered swivel chairs set out for visitors.

Dr. Filippov, a genial mathematician, makes no bones about his university's goals. "Our main task is to train specialists who will maintain relations with Russia in the future - economically, culturally, scientifically," he explains. "So as to keep Russia's ties with the world."

Only today, the ideology has gone. Where once students attended obligatory classes in the history of the Soviet Communist Party, and Marxist theory, now they are offered courses in business management.

And in the new free-market Russia, students have to pay for their classes. "We are more commercial than US universities," laments Filippov, who says that the Russian Peoples' Friendship University, as Lumumba is now known, earned 51 percent of its budget last year from students' fees, more than American state universities manage to do.

Now that communist ideology is no longer the motivation for teaching foreign students, economic self-interest has more than filled the gap. "Training specialists is always a question of economic interests," Filippov says. "If you train somebody he will always be oriented toward your technology and the personal contacts he has made in your country."

Filippov may be thinking rubles more than international revolution, but his message doesn't always seem to get across to his students. Suleiman Sabikha, for example, a Syrian economics post-graduate student who has been here since 1988, says he came "because I loved the Soviet Union very much." What is the main lesson he will take home to the state-dominated Syrian economy? "Things were better here before; I would never support doing in Syria the things they have done here," he says.

Even the newer students, who have come for pragmatic reasons, are imbued with a sense of gratitude to Russia that Filippov hopes will translate into a network of influence for Moscow.

Monzooral Hakim, for example, a Bangladeshi who admits he would have gone to Notre Dame in the United States if his parents could have afforded the tuition, says, "It's my duty to build good relations between Bangladesh and Russia, because my country needs them."

Nasser Aruri, a Palestinian engineering student from Ramallah, in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, also says he feels "a debt" to Russia for his education. But there is one drawback to having studied here for 10 years, he concedes, something that is not likely to change.

Though he speaks fluent Russian, the foreign language he needs to make a career in his homeland, he says, is ... English.

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