Underground University Provides Education in Hiding

An underground university in Minsk teaches what other Belarusian schools cannot

| September-October, 2009

Somewhere in an outlying district of Minsk, Belarus, four graduate students gather in a two-room apartment. The location is semisecret. They are attending a seminar on independent news media, a subject banned from the country’s classrooms. They sit in a cozy circle and, one by one, read essays they have written at home, in Belarusian, which may not be used in teaching even though it is an official language.

The professor, Maxim Zhbankou, and his students discuss the structure of each essay; students compliment or criticize one another. The scene looks less like an academic class than like one of the kitchen gatherings of intellectuals that used to happen in the Soviet era.

For 10 years, professors of the Belarusian Collegium, an unofficial insti­tution known as the “underground university,” have held classes in private apartments and rented offices. They are the cream of the Belarusian intellectual elite: scholars, writers, critics, journalists. Under the regime of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the dictator who has been in power for 15 years, professors who teach at the collegium face three years in prison if they are convicted.

A small group of academics, activists, and journalists formed the collegium in 1997, amid repression by the Lukashenko regime. In the years following, state universities expelled students and fired professors for participating in political opposition movements or for expressing views critical of the government. Academics wishing to teach without government interference had a choice: Either leave the country or teach in the underground.

Today, the collegium’s 50 faculty members teach about 100 students and run a three-year postbaccalaureate program as well as master’s programs in philosophy, literature, journalism, and modern history. Some of the course titles definitely spell trouble: “Manipulation of Public Opinion,” “The Anti-Communist Underground Movement in Belarus After World War II,” “Belarus Under Occupation in the 20th Century.”


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