Underground University Provides Education in Hiding

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.”

The Collegium first came under pressure from authorities at the end of 1999, when public lectures it held every Thursday at the city library became too popular. After a few weeks, when the director of the library had received several threatening calls from authorities, the collegium stopped holding lectures there. The next warning came a few years later, when employees of an office where collegium classes were held found their door painted black.

No more warnings were needed. For the past 10 years, the collegium has worked quietly, holding lectures at private apartments or in the offices of sympa­thetic nongovernmental organizations, like the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Students hear about the classes from ads published in independent newspapers or from fliers they find on the windowsills of their state universities. The collegium also has a website (http://baj.by/belkalehium/index_eng.htm), but it does not list faculty members or class locations.

While its faculty members are harassed over permits and sometimes expelled from rented rooms, the university is allowed to exist in the sense that police do not raid the classes. Some of the professors have continued to work for officially recognized universities, their work for the collegium remaining under the radar.

A few students have not been so lucky: In the past two years, at least three students who were taking collegium classes alongside their usual studies have been expelled from state universities, according to collegium director Ales Antsipenka.

“We are breaking the rules by teaching the true history, by speaking Belarusian, and the courses we teach here would never be accepted by state universities,” says one of the collegium’s historians, Zakhar Shibeka, who holds classes at the Minsk Holocaust Museum. Shibeka continues to teach officially at Belarusian Economic State University, but he has been forbidden to teach graduate programs there for about 10 years, after authorities put restrictions on certain topics of history.

Antsipenka and his colleagues hope within a year or so to create a university in Minsk that they would call the American University in Belarus. They have been in negotiations with an American research center, which they do not want to name, and will seek permission from the government, which they hope might see an opportunity to raise its international stature.

Such permission would be hard-won, considering the collegium’s mission. “We develop critical thought with our students, and welcome doubts and analyses that the state university system rejects,” Maxim Zhbankou says. “We are an intellectual mafia, bringing up a new generation of Belarusian intellectuals.”

Excerpted from the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 1, 2009), a weekly reader on politics, culture, education, and other issues of interest to thinking individuals. The Chronicle of Higher Education was nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for best writing. Copyright © 2009 the Chronicle of Higher Education. www.chronicle.com

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.