Smolny Beyond Borders

A Liberal Arts Initiative

History of The Andrew Gagarin Center for Civil Society and Human Rights


The Andrew Gagarin Center for Civil Society and Human Rights at Smolny College of St. Petersburg State University was a stronghold of human rights teaching, innovative research, and networking among human rights activists, scholars, and academics in Russia and globally. Created together with Bard College, New York, in 2003, it was a multifaceted endeavor. At its heart was Russia’s first academic Human Rights Program, an undergraduate minor that promoted the critical understanding of human rights not merely as a code of laws, but as a discourse in transformation extending to the humanities, social sciences, and arts. The subject of human rights was well integrated into the College’s curriculum as a whole. Over the past years, 170 courses with a focus on human rights were developed and taught. Cross-listed with Human Rights were courses in the programs on Art History, History of Civilizations, Economics, Philosophy, Sociology and Anthropology, Film and Video, Literature, and Religious Studies. The student response to human rights courses was very positive; the number of students applying for the courses consistently exceeded capacity. Many students engaged in human rights- and civil society-related activities through fieldwork, internships, volunteer work, and developing their own civic engagement projects. Besides, in order to promote human rights-centered reflection within the College, the Gagarin Center Fellows together with their students organized the Debate Society, the Model United Nations Club, and the Cinema Club, as well as essay contests and thought-provoking discussions with international students. All those initiatives were especially relevant in view of the student community’s growing awareness of the human rights situation in Russia and beyond, as well as its interest in contemporary politics and world affairs.

Smolny’s multidisciplinary undergraduate Human Rights minor was enriched by Gagarin Fellows’ contributions. The Fellows constituted a team of professors with strong academic credentials, outstanding teaching skills, and the capacity to carry out important research on diverse subjects related to civil society and human rights. Since the program launched in 2013 and until 2021, the Center has appointed 12 long-term Fellows, as well as 3 international Fellows.

Apart from teaching and course development, the Fellows carried out individual and collective research projects on a variety of civil society-related issues, published dozens of book chapters, articles, and books, and often served as guest editors and gave expert comments in mass media. The Fellows’ interests and connections shaped the Gagarin Center’s regular program of local, regional, and international events, including international conferences.

Over the past years, the Andrew Gagarin Center held more than two dozen conferences and roundtables, which played an important role in raising awareness of such issues as the role of university; minority rights protection, hate speech, politics, and arts; nationalism in contemporary Russia; Hanna Arendt’s, Walter Benjamin’s, and Michel Foucault’s intellectual heritage, post-truth, and fake news, historical memory, contemporary conservatism, photography as a tool of representation of political violence, etc. Also, the Center’s seminar series served as an open platform for distinguished intellectuals and civil society actors from Russia and abroad. The Center’s outreach activities took place on both sides of the Atlantic and all had the goal of fostering a dialogue between the University and society at large. The Center provided essential intellectual resources and organizational support for the study, research, public awareness, and discussion of issues of human rights that are found nowhere else in the Russian Federation.


The Gagarin Center for Civil Society and Human Rights had ceased to exist at St. Petersburg State University in June 2021, when Bard College’s activities in Russia were banned. Several Gagarin Fellows and Smolny faculty were either fired and/or ousted from the country for political reasons. Others left the country due to the invasion of Ukraine and the risk of political persecution. In order to support those Russian academics and students and help them continue their work and studies, in the fall of 2022 recent faculty members of Smolny and other liberal arts programs launched an education initiative titled Smolny Beyond Borders. It partners with the Gagarin Center for the Study of Civil Society and Human Rights, which now operates at Bard College. Supported by the Andrew Gagarin Trust, the Center continues to offer research on vital issues, and public programming and serves as a venue for the critical exchange of ideas.


In 2003 Smolny introduced its first courses in civil society and human rights. In 2007, the Human Rights Program was officially adopted as an academic minor of Smolny College, and the first students defended their Senior Projects on Human Rights. In April 2012, the Andrew Gagarin Center for Civil Society and Human Rights was officially institutionalized within the new Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg State University (SPSU). Creating the new faculty of the SPSU based on Smolny, with former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin as its Dean, has created new possibilities in developing and sustaining the civil society and human rights sector of Smolny’s education and research activities. 

The entire educational project, which continued to be known as Smolny College from 1999 to 2021, operated as a cooperative undertaking with Bard College, New York, and was the longest-existing and most significant dual degree program between a Russian university and an American institution of higher learning.

The core of the Andrew Gagarin Center’s activities was educational, including teaching and curricular development, research, and seminars and conferences focusing on civil society and human rights in the Russian Federation and globally. The Center equipped students with multi-disciplinary knowledge rooted in history, the social sciences, philosophy, literature and the arts, and fostered knowledge of and informed engagement with the public issues. In this context, the Center provided forums where academics in different disciplines and from different institutions and countries taught, presented research, developed curricula, and engaged with other scholars as well as civil society actors, to draw closer links between theory and practice for the benefit of both.

Traditionally in Russia and in many countries in continental Europe, human rights issues have been studied primarily from a legal perspective. While it is clear that legal issues play a key role in the study of rights and societies, the strictly legal view is

constraining. The legal positivist perspective on law (this perspective essentially implies that law is the will of the legislator) hampers the critical comprehension of human rights experience. Also, the human rights education existing in Russia fails to acknowledge the link between the human rights philosophy and the research in humanities and social sciences. Finally, the human rights education centers working in regional universities do not collaborate with each other, are badly equipped with teaching and reference materials, and do not have regular working contacts with human rights organizations. Such a situation spurred the creation of an academic and research center that could develop a new, critical, multidisciplinary approach to human rights education in its historical and contemporary contexts and, at the same time, would meet the needs and concerns of the professional human rights community.

On a day-to-day level, the Gagarin Center provided invaluable resources and opportunities for faculty members, students, and the interested public. The Gagarin Fellows program allowed Smolny to attract young and more senior teacher-researchers whose work in civil society and human rights was of international caliber. The group’s diverse educational background and range of different disciplines and research interests made this group unique in its breadth of perspectives and connections. Their contributions enriched the work of Smolny’s multidisciplinary undergraduate Human Rights minor—the first of its kind in Russia. Their interests and connections shaped the Gagarin Center’s regular program of local, regional, and international events, including international conferences.

Bard College and SPSU administered the proposed project in cooperation, drawing on SPSU’s knowledge in law and social sciences (among other areas) and Bard College’s unique experience in the creation of multi-disciplinary undergraduate human rights programs on the campus in Annandale, New York, and in conjunction with its international partners.

The Gagarin Center focused on three broad areas of activity:

– Faculty and curriculum development: supporting and strengthening the Human Rights component (minor) of the International Relations, Political Science and Human Rights major and helping to expand its focus, to match or exceed the highest standards for multi-disciplinary teaching of human rights in today’s global context.

– Research: fostering rigorous research that drew on the best in Russian and international scholarship, and that resulted in publications and conferences.

– Outreach and service to civil society: exchanges of ideas between the academic community and members of civil society and human rights organizations.

Faculty and Curriculum Development

Since the Fall Semester 2003, Smolny offered courses on human rights, which were open to all Smolny students. Spring 2007 marked the introduction of the Human Rights Program as an independent minor program of concentration (the first program at a Russian higher education institution of the humanities and social sciences to focus on human rights). This accomplishment—a major ambition that had inspired the project since its inception—was made possible by 1) training and encouraging significant numbers of faculty to pursue human rights interests; 2) introducing human rights issues and perspectives into courses throughout the Smolny College curriculum, with special emphasis on the program in International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights, where the Human Rights program was housed, and 3) creating a human rights culture at Smolny. 


The Human Rights Academic Minor Program


The Human Rights Academic Minor Program based on the liberal arts approach did not train professional human rights activists but educated specialists who would be able to critically conceive human rights through the prism of social sciences and humanities. It was the liberal arts approach to human rights education that made the Smolny’s program different from other similar tracks at the legal studies departments. The program strived to strengthen the students’ civic consciousness and democratic thinking. By including human rights issues in the agenda of social sciences and humanities, the program analyzed human rights from a multidisciplinary perspective and took into account all spheres of society’s life.


The subject of human rights was well integrated into the College’s program on International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights, and into the curriculum as a whole. Over the years, 170 courses with a focus on human rights were developed and taught. Cross-listed with Human Rights were courses in the programs on Art History, History of Civilizations, Economics, Philosophy, Sociology and Anthropology, Film and Video, Literature, and Religious Studies. 


Moreover, International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights was one of two programs that co-directed Smolny’s First Year Seminar (the other was the Program on History of Civilizations). First Year Seminar was a foundational element of Smolny’s curriculum, aimed at introducing first-year students to liberal education through intensive study of a specific subject within the social sciences.  The goal was to inspire critical thinking about political science and current politics. Human rights were a logical and important aspect of this process, and the response from faculty and students was enthusiastic. 


Courses “Social Movements” and “Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, and Human Rights” were designated as “D” (Distribution Area) courses that all students might take during their first two years in fulfillment of Smolny’s distribution requirement in social sciences. Readings for the latter course included the most basic documents on human rights, which were also among the materials students had to master for the final exam of the BA program on International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights. 


Among the most well-attended courses were the following: “Crime and Punishment: Theory, Criminal Policy, Human Rights”(core course); “Literary Theory: Social and Political Aspects”; “The Roots of Modern Russia”; “Theory of Democracy”; “Gender Studies”; “Political Theory and Human Rights”; “Visual Anthropology and Political History of the 20th Century”; “How Does the State Works?”; “Social and Political Inequality”; “Comparative Politics”; “Metaphor in Artistic, Academic and Political Discourse”; “Why Do I Hate You? History and Theory of Nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe”; “History of the Human Rights Movement in the USSR.” The latter was taught together with prominent human rights activist Alexander Daniel of Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow). A cross-listed course “Cinema and Human Rights” was also very successful. Students shot short films on the subject of human rights for their final projects.


Forty-five Smolny faculty members from a variety of disciplines developed and offered courses with a human rights focus. Initially, the program supported Smolny faculty and students who wanted to incorporate a human rights dimension into their courses and research through the program of Andrew Gagarin Incentive Grants. Over past 10 years, Smolny offered 32 incentive grants for human rights-related activities. Incentive grants also allowed faculty and students to organize a great number of international conferences and workshops.


Furthermore, course offerings increased due to the Gagarin Center Fellows. Dedicated to the principal of popularizing Human Rights, the Gagarin Fellows made systematic efforts of involving students in the study of basic human rights texts. In particular, the Gagarin Fellows integrated the study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in all their classes when feasible. The majority of courses allowed including this problematic in their required reading.


Besides, the Gagarin Fellows offered two Bard network-wide undergraduate courses: “Global Citizenship: Global Thinking and the Problems of the Contemporary World” and “Volunteerism and an Individual’s Role in Society.”


An important stimulus to curriculum development was given by Smolny’s cooperation with the Open Society Institute’s Academic Fellowship Program (International and Returning Scholars Program), which supported Smolny’s programs in International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights, and Sociology and Anthropology. The development of the human rights program curriculum was regularly discussed at retreat seminars. 


Students’ response. Senior Projects 


The student response to human rights courses was very positive; the number of students applying for the courses consistently exceeded capacity. Courses on human rights-related issues were popular among students majoring not only in International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights, but in other programs as well. Over the last few years, those students who wanted to moderate in the program invariably chose human rights-related topics for their moderation papers describing what they would like to investigate during the remainder of their college course. All students were highly motivated and willing to work with Gagarin Fellows as their advisers. No wonder that each year up to three quarters of Senior Projects in the program of “International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights” addressed the issues of human rights and civil society. 

The following were some Senior Projects’ topics in the AY 2019/2020: UN Sanctions and Sustainable Development Goal: Peace,  Justice and Strong Institutions,” “UN Policy on Cooperation with Private Military and Security Companies:  Document Analysis;” “St. Petersburg Municipal Elections 2019: Trends  and Factors of Success”, “Internet Platforms for Coordinating Voters and Electoral Strategies  of Candidates: A Case Study of Local Elections in St. Petersburg in 2019”; “Urban Activism in St. Petersburg: Factors of  Movements’ Efficiency in Opposition to Demolition of Historic Buildings in 2003–2017,”  “Platform Services: Civic Participation and Institutional Trust,” “People’s Attitudes to Digital  Technologies in Criminal Policy: The Role of Trust in the Police”, and “Representation of Sexual  Harassment in the Russian Internet Space: An Individual Deviation or a Social Problem?”. 




Students who took courses in Human Rights expressed strong interest in participating in human rights activities and learning about human rights not only in the classroom, but in the city of St. Petersburg, the Russian regions, and beyond. Traditionally, internships and volunteer programs were the primary means for students to engage in human rights- and civil society-related activities. Such internships provided an invaluable source of experience and information about the realities of civil society work. The “Human Rights Internship Project: Development of Student Work and Volunteer Capacity of St. Petersburg NGOs” was launched, with a special grant from the Gagarin Trust. The project had a dual objective: 

1) to give students experience in human rights work/ civic engagement and 

2) to develop and increase the volunteer capacity of local NGOs by integrating Smolny students, as interns, into their ongoing human rights and social projects. 


The Human Rights Internships Project sought to meet these objectives in a way that built the NGOs’ capacity and was sustainable. 


During the grant period of 2007–2011, over 30 students and 16 NGOs took part in the project. Afterwards, students continued to intern at local NGO, despite the fact that the College no longer provided reimbursement to organizations that hosted internships. Some students were hired by the organizations on a permanent basis. The Gagarin-funded project to develop student internships with a group of selected civil society organizations in St. Petersburg allowed the Human Rights Program to expand and deepen its ties with community organizations in this area. 




Another effective means of fostering direct student engagement with issues of civil society and human rights was field research integrated into courses. The research was conducted either as part of a course or as specialized short projects such as the one-week expedition to Russian regions to study “Political, Cultural, and Social Diversity in Russian Regions”. Students met local journalists, politicians, activists, museum guides, professors, and fellow students; talked to local people and participants of the World War II Victory parade; took sociological interviews and kept observation diaries. 


Student research


Results of students’ fieldwork and research were presented at:

  •  Smolny Annual Student Conference – a popular event that brought together hundreds of students from all over Russia and all over the world. The Gagarin fellows and their students usually organized three well-attended panels of the conference.
  • Get Engaged! International Student Action and Youth Leadership Conference sponsored by Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement. The Get Engaged Conference brings together students from across the Bard International Network to develop community leadership skills and collaborate on solutions to local and global challenges. Apart from discussing each other’s projects, students participate in workshops that focus on leadership, public speaking, networking, social media, community partnerships, innovation and creativity, fundraising and grant writing, and emotional intelligence. Each year, Smolny was represented by several students majoring in International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights. Their projects (e.g., on anti-bulling; teaching human rights to high school students; tutoring for inclusive schools, etc.)  received positive feedback from other conference participants. Back home, in St. Petersburg, students continued to nurture their projects under the guidance of the Gagarin Fellows and NGO representatives at annual civic engagement workshops.

Annual civic engagement workshops


Starting from 2016, Gagarin fellows organized annual civic engagement workshops that brought together NGOs representatives and students who initiated their own civic engagement projects. Students presented their projects and received valuable comments on how to improve them. Moreover, NGO practitioners shared with Smolny students their hands-on, day-to-day experience of social entrepreneurship, fundraising, leadership and sustainability, project management and promotion, etc. Annual workshops were very instrumental in giving students new ideas of how they could impact their communities.


Other students’ activities


Over the past years, in order to attract students from other major programs and promote human rights-centered reflection within the College, the Gagarin Center Fellows together with their students organized various students’ activities with a focus on human rights and civil society issues: 

  1. Debate Society: debate workshops, public debates, and debate tournaments.

The most exciting topics that attracted more than 100 participants were Marxist and liberal ideology; feminism, and harassment at Russian universities.


The discussion of feminism was one of the most memorable events both for students and faculty. It started with the attempts to understand what the word ‘woman’ means and what is the place of a woman in the modern world. For example, speakers and the audience discussed whether woman’s independent behavior is beneficial for the relationship between men and women. Later, speakers touched upon many questions, such as whether feminists have a positive program of actions that can help reaching their goals or if it can be defined as a movement. 

The question whether feminism has already reached its goals and that in modern world we do not need it anymore was also debated. However, by the end of debates, it was clear that “feminism” is a very complex term and many students agreed that they would want to learn more about it. The debates ended with a student-made video, where Smolny students answered questions related to feminism and gender roles.  


  1. Global Dialogues. The project was launched in AY 2017/2018 in collaboration with World in Conversation – Center for Public Diplomacy of Penn State University. Each year, Russian and American students had 5–8 lively and thought-provoking discussions on a broad range of topics, such as school shootings, racism and nationalism, trust in social media, global warming, cultural differences, self-care and self-understanding; youth and public politics today, hate speech and political leadership in modern societies; semester abroad: why go somewhere during the university years.
  2. Essay contests in English. Students were invited to dwell on Hanna Arendt’s legacy and articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Also, Smolny students got many awards at Galatea – the city-wide Galina Starovoitova Human Rights Essay Competition for Undergraduate and Post-Graduate Students.


  • Model United Nations club
  • Cinema Club

All those initiatives were especially relevant in view of the student community’s growing awareness of the human rights situation in Russia and beyond, as well as its interest in contemporary politics and world affairs. Activities mentioned above proved once again how important it was for faculty to engage students in profound and substantial discussion on current political and human rights issues and help them become active and responsible citizens.


Faculty development and collaboration with Bard College


Apart from developing internal horizontal connections, the human rights program faculty efficiently collaborated with their colleagues from Bard College and co-taught more than a dozen courses with colleagues from Bard and Amherst in the framework of the “Virtual Campus” Project.


“Live” interactions took place several times a year. Bard’s representatives came to St. Petersburg for several times every year for review and discussions. Bard renowned professors served as Gagarin International Fellows. Usually, they spent a week or longer in residence, gave a public talk, taught classes, and consulted with faculty on the curriculum of the Human Rights program and Social Science division. Smolny welcomed the following Gagarin International Fellows:


  • Benjamin Nathans is Ronald S. Lauder Endowed Term Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. A prize-winning author, he specializes in the history of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, modern European Jewish history, and the history of human rights. At Smolny, Nathans gave a public talk on the history of Amnesty International, attended classes, and consulted with faculty members on ways to improve the Human Rights Program curriculum.
  • Mark Danner is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College and Chancellor’s Professor of Journalism, English, and Politics at the University of California, Berkeley. An expert on Japan, he is also one of the most trenchant and important writers on war and conflict in places as diverse as Central America, Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq, and the Middle East. His writing the US War on Terror stands as perhaps the most eloquent condemnation to date of America’s use of torture.
  • Peter Rosenblum is Professor of Human Rights and International Law at Bard. Rosenblum previously taught at Columbia Law School, where co-directed the Human Rights Institute; and at Harvard Law School, where he directed the Human Rights Program. As an employee of the United Nations Human Rights Centre (now Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) in Geneva, he led missions to Rwanda, South Africa, and Zaire.

Since 2014, the Gagarin Fellows participated in annual conferences and workshops organized by Bard College and its network institutions:

  • April 2014. Retreat seminar in Berlin. Participants presented their papers or participated in panels that showcased their current research projects and ideas for the future.
  • February 1–6, 2016. New York. Conference “How to be Authoritarian”. (Following the conference a special double issue of the Russian intellectual journal “Neprekosnovennjy Zapas” on authoritarianism was published). Workshop “Rethinking of the Human Rights Canon”. The Model UN club meeting “Russia Today: A Discussion of Contemporary Russian Politics”.
  • February 2–8, 2017. New York. Conference “Contemporary Nationalism: Between Diversity, Democracy and Authoritarianism?”.
  • February 11–12, 2018. New York. Conference “Conservatism and Reaction in Contemporary Politics”.

Research. The Gagarin Fellowships. Publications

As a result of the emphasis on human rights that Smolny was able to develop with the assistance of the Gagarin Trust, Smolny has become known as a center of research on human rights-related issues. 


The Andrew Gagarin Fellowships at Smolny Collegium


Apart from the undergraduate program, the Human Rights Project also included a significant research dimension. Smolny Collegium – International Interdisciplinary Institute of Advanced Studies – with support of the Gagarin Trust has created the Andrew Gagarin Fellowships Program a key means of fostering interaction with leading Russian and international scholars and activists.  From 2005 to 2010, Smolny Collegium welcomed 22 distinguished experts in the field and young researchers, mainly from regional Russian universities. Fellows ordinarily spent a semester or two at Smolny Collegium. Apart from doing their own research on human rights- related issues, they were engaged in teaching and gave a public talk. Their research topics ranged from freedom of worship in contemporary Russia, rights of religious minorities to Africans’ problems in Russia, youth movements, Muslim women’s activism, environmental rights, etc.


The successful implementation of the Andrew Gagarin Fellowships Program allowed Smolny Collegium to attract additional resources for carrying out research on human rights education and the creation of the Ford Foundation Fellowships Program to develop a distant-learning course “Human Rights in Contemporary Russia: Theory and Practice”, the first of the kind in Russia; to further strengthen the Smolny Collegium’s standing as a center of research in the field of the Soviet Studies and the Soviet past as well as of the history education in Russia (“Bologna Process and Modernization of History Education in Russia. 2006-2009” and “The Social Sciences and Humanities in Russian Higher Education and Bologna Process. 2009 – 2012” (both projects are sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation).


The Gagarin Center Fellowships


The long-term Gagarin Center fellows (this fellowship program was launched in 2013), who constituted a core group of outstanding permanent faculty, considered research as one of their main activities, along with teaching, developing new courses, and organizing the Gagarin Center’s public programs. Since the program launch in 2013 and until 2021, the Center has appointed 12 long-term fellows. Their research topics included political subjectivization; “second-world urbanity” (visions of modern urban living that emerged in the USSR and other “second-world” countries); urban activism; expert opinions in Russian litigation; Russian social movements; photography and political disappearance; political institutions and processes in Russian regions; “resource curse”; Russian-American relations; politics of memory; Soviet and contemporary Russian cultural politics, gender studies, etc. 


Apart from doing individual research, Smolny faculty and the Gagarin Center Fellows were engaged in collective research work on several projects. Some of them are described below:


  • Research on Education in Human Rights at Russian Institutions of Higher Education in the Humanities (2007–2008)


This research was conducted in the framework of the project “Integration through Education: Human Right Activists and the Academic Community,” sponsored by the Ford Foundation. 

It examined the way and the extent to which human rights were taught at Russian institutions of higher education in the humanities. Activities included the collection and analysis of syllabi, teaching materials, and methodological materials used for courses with a human rights focus; as well as interviews with faculty offering courses on human rights and students taking those courses. Interviews with faculty sought to identify the theoretical basis and worldview on which their approach to teaching human rights is based. Interviews with students sought to understand their motivation for studying human rights and their reaction to the courses offered. 


This study has shown that human rights education at these institutions does not contribute to the dissemination of human rights ideas and values in the society at large. Teaching methods and approaches do not follow democratic principles or practice a critical, problem-oriented approach to human rights. The courses and materials currently in use do not touch upon acute human rights issues of contemporary Russia and ignore human rights organizations and activists working in the field. One reason for these weaknesses may be found in the fact that, for the most part, the teaching of human rights is located within departments of international or constitutional law or departments that prepare graduates for careers in the public prosecutor’s office. It appears abundantly clear that human rights education in Russia needs to adopt new approaches that will bring it closer to the actual issues and problems of the human rights movement. 


The research culminated in the development of methodological guidelines for integrating human rights study into the system of higher education.  

  • Can we live together? Issues of Diversity and Unity in Contemporary Russia: Historical Heritage, Modern State and Society (2016-2017)


This two-year project was funded by the Foundation for the Support of Liberal Education and the Gagarin Trust, and carried out by the Gagarin Fellows, their students, and scholars from Higher School of Economics St. Petersburg. Research results were presented at the conference “Nationalism, Empire, and State” (April 7–9, 2018). Speakers from Russia, Western Europe, and the USA discussed what it meant to be a patriot in contemporary Russia; the gap between the top-down nationalism and the nationalism from below; patriotism and state propaganda; local patriotism; patriotism and activism; ethnographic research of patriotism; as well as contemporary approaches to the theory of state, etc. 




Publications provide a vital means of intellectual exchange with a broader Russian and international audience. Articles on human rights by Andrew Gagarin Fellows at Smolny Collegium and the proceedings of the international conference “HIV/AIDS and Human Rights” were published in Collegium, the scholarly journal of Smolny Collegium. The proceedings of the international conference “Budapest ’56 and Beyond. History and Memory of the First Crisis of Communism” were published in 2008.  


The list of Gagarin Center Fellow’s publications, invited lectures, and panel presentations is long and strikingly international in reach. Together, since 2014, they have completed about two dozen book chapters, published more than 70 articles in high-ranking academic journals and 2 books. Gagarin fellows often served as guest editors and gave expert comments in mass media.


In 2018, the Gagarin Center launched its own book series consisting of widely known texts on human rights that have been previously unknown to Russian readers. The first book translated for this series was Michael Ignatieff’s “Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry”. Lynn Hunt’s “Inventing Human Rights” will be published in 2023. The book series was launched in collaboration with the publishing house New Literary Observer.

Outreach Program. Human Rights Seminar. International Conferences

The Center’s outreach activities all had the goal of fostering a dialogue between the University and society at large. Over the past years, the Andrew Gagarin Center held many important and memorable events, including seminars, conferences, roundtables, workshops, film showings, and concerts. The Center’s public program featured inspiring talks by many speakers from all over the world, representatives of leading human rights organizations, politicians, journalists, public intellectuals, artists, writers, scholars, etc.


Among distinguished speakers were Albie Sachs, a South African lawyer, activist, writer, and former judge appointed to the first Constitutional Court of South Africa by Nelson Mandela; Michael Ignatieff, professor, writer, politician; Vladimir Bukovsky, human rights activist and writer; Walter Mignolo, William H. Wannamaker Professor of Literature and Romance Studies as well as Cultural Anthropology at Duke University; Nicholas Tenzer, a French civil servant, academic, writer, and editor; Gleb Pavlovsky, political scientist and former political adviser to Vladimir Putin; Laurent Thévenot, sociologist, Professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris); representatives of Memorial Human Rights Center, etc. The events took place not only on campus, at St. Petersburg State University, but also at partner institutions in St. Petersburg and public spaces, which raised awareness about activities of the Center and opportunities it created for a wider society.  Some academic events took place at Bard College and Harriman Center of Columbia University.


NGO Forum/ Human Rights Seminar 


Since its creation, the Gagarin Center has established a well-earned reputation as a place of open dialogue where controversial issues were discussed, and debate was welcomed. The Gagarin Human Rights Seminar introduced important Russian and international speakers to an audience of experts and interested individuals from throughout the city, and to Smolny faculty and students. The seminar series served as a regular and popular site for engaging local NGO workers, faculty members and students in discussion of acute human rights issues. In developing its seminar series, the Andrew Gagarin Center sought to provide broad coverage of the current human rights movement, both by featuring specific regions (Africa, Baltic States, Belarus, Georgia, etc.) and by highlighting global themes or problems (societies in transition; migration; HIV/ AIDS; protests, food security, etc.). Each year, the program was broad in scope, regarding human rights through the prism of historical, sociological, psychological, and cultural aspects. Each year over a dozen seminars were held.


International conferences


Over the past years, the Andrew Gagarin Center held more than two dozen conferences and roundtables, which played an important role in raising awareness of such issues as the role of university; minority rights protection, hate speech, politics and arts; nationalism in contemporary Russia; Hanna Arendt’s, Walter Benjamin’s and Michel Foucault’s intellectual heritage, post-truth and fake news, historical memory, contemporary conservatism, photography as a tool of representation of political violence, etc. 


Below is a list of major conferences organized by the Gagarin fellows and staff:


  1. “HIV/AIDS and Human Rights” (November 19–21, 2005). The conference addressed the major challenges and opportunities posed by the spread of HIV/AIDS in Russia and sought to strengthen the fight against the disease in light of the double imperative to both halt the spread of the epidemic and defend the rights of those whose lives it touches.


Approximately 300 people participated in the conference, which was free of charge.  Highlights included the opening keynote address by Dr. Jim Yong Kim, director of HIV/AIDS programs of the World Health Organization and the closing keynote by Liudmila Alexeeva, head of Moscow Helsinki Group and one of Russia’s most revered human rights campaigners. Internationally known journalist Vladimir Pozner chaired two panel discussions. OSI President Aryeh Neier engaged in a lively debate with attorneys from St. Petersburg and Ukraine on the role of human rights law and legislation in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Those present felt that the tenor of the presentations and discussions was focused, serious—sometimes passionate—and creative, and it was clear that new contacts and alliances resulted. Among other things, this conference marked the first time that of people living with HIV/AIDS and the groups representing their interests were able to gain a serious hearing for their concerns from a gathering of this magnitude.  


The conference was followed up by the HIV/AIDS & Human Rights Awareness Campaign in May 2006, timed to coincide with the AIDS pandemic’s 25th anniversary and aimed at overcoming the widespread lack of information and knowledge. The highlight of the campaign was the Russian premiere of the documentary “Pills, Profits, Protest:  Chronicle of the Global AIDS Movement” by Anne-Christine d’Adesky, Shanti Avirgan and Ann. T. Rossetti (USA, 2005).


  1. “Budapest ’56 and Beyond. History and Memory of the First Crisis of Communism” (September 28–29, 2006).  The conference commemorated the tragic events of 1956 in Hungary and discussed how contemporary historiography addresses ‘56 and its role in the history of the short 20th century (particularly in Russia).


  1. “Human Rights and Social Justice: Theory, Policy, and Practices” (April 19–21, 2007). This symposium was mounted in cooperation with the Ford Foundation’s Institute for International Education Alumni. It discussed a wide range of issues related to social policy and the protection of socio-economic rights; social policy research; availability of social programs and services; and the effectiveness of governmental and non-governmental institutions in implementing social policies.


  1. Democracy between Terror and Terrorism. Historical Memory and Human Rights in Contemporary Russia” (March 13–15, 2008). The conference attracted leading Russian, European, and American intellectuals and experts in recent history, history of memory, and the sociology of mass historical consciousness and political theory, as well as representatives of the human rights community. Speakers focused on the precarious position of liberal democratic values, and first of all human rights, in Russia, and on the relation between historical memory of the Soviet past (or lack of same) and the current security discourse resulting from the global “War on Terror.”

  • “Higher education and Civil Society: A New Social Mission of the University” (October 14–15, 2010). The purpose of the conference was to foster a broad and informed discussion of current problems in the relationship of the university as an institution to society at large, and to advance the practical interaction of the university with civil society. The topic allowed speakers to address the social mission of the university; the interaction between educational institutions, research centers and third sector organizations; and ways to further cooperation. On a practical level, the conference sought to enhance the understanding and broaden contacts of academic programs in civil society and human rights, in Russia as well as in other countries represented.


  1. “Social Movements Today in Russia and the World: Issues of Human Agency and Politicization” (June 5–7, 2015). The conference discussed social mobilization of 2011–2013 in Russia that occurred in the absence of any obviously conducive structural factors in politics or culture, and of activist organizations and networks; how the politicization process was possible in an apolitical society; how “ordinary” people became activists. The conference also looked at questions of agency, the relationship between local, regional, national, and global movements; the role of social ties and individual activism; the impact of historical legacies, etc. Conference participants’ papers were published in a special issue titled “Imagining a Link Between Local Activism and Political Transformation: Inventions from Russia and Eastern Europe” (2019) of the journal “International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society.”


  1. “Hannah Arendt for the 21st Century” (March 28–29, 2016). Participants in this international conference discussed Hannah Arendt’s work in a new, analytical, and reflexive way, as a heritage of a modern classic that requires interpretation and translation. They reflected on Arendt’s analysis of the nature of totalitarianism, her idea of the “banality of evil” and revolution.



The library counts more than 1,500 volumes, including ca. 200 volumes on human rights-related subjects purchased with the support of the Gagarin Trust. Besides, the Andrew Gagarin Center for Human Rights received several donations of archival materials on human rights, including a collection on gender rights. These books are integrated into Smolny’s library collection, where they are generally available to students and faculty.


The other critical component of our definition of modern LAS education is pedagogy. [13] As Vartan Gregorian has argued, ‘At the heart of liberal education is the act of teaching.’ [14] Teachers sharpen their students’ analytic skills by exposing them to different points of view, familiarizing them with a variety of theoretical approaches to probe issues, and requiring them to read texts with a critical eye. However, it is not simply the substance of teaching that is different but the entire approach to the educational process. An interactive, student-centered pedagogy means that the classroom is not a one-way conveyor belt of knowledge from professor to student. Specifically, instruction does not simply consist of a teacher reading lectures to students, as is common throughout much of the world. Instead, learning within the classroom is an interactive process. The classroom is an environment in which students are encouraged to question assumptions and conclusions, analyze texts and derive their own interpretations, debate and role play, [15] and to learn from one another, thus democratizing the learning experience. In order to be prepared to participate in this democratized classroom, a significant amount of learning must take place outside of the classroom. Students are expected to engage in primary and/or secondary texts that analyze issues to be addressed during a class. In the natural sciences, for example, this can mean engaging students in ‘discovery-based research,’ placing them in the labs from day one of their study. As Graham Hatfull, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher from the University of Pittsburg said ‘Students should be doing science from day one, not just reading about what others have done.’ [16] Because of this students are empowered to offer informed insights and even to draw conclusions different from the teacher. The teacher provides guidance, clarifies issues, expresses her views and evaluates the performance of students. However, she does not stand alone, unquestioned: in discarding the lecture-only format, the professor must be willing to give up some authority.

Of course, specific pedagogic approaches will vary according to teacher and subject matter. A LAS system leaves room for different teaching styles. Not all teaching in LAS institutions depends on a pure Socratic method. Moreover, the degree of interactivity can vary according to the subject matter: a course in physics will offer different challenges and take a different structure from a course in history. However, regardless of the teacher and the subject matter, there are certain characteristics that must predominate in a LAS system: learning is interactive, students are encouraged to raise questions, challenge assumptions, and make their own discoveries, the teacher does not have a monopoly on knowledge, and a significant amount of learning takes place outside of the classroom.

Smolny Beyond Borders. The Gagarin Center at Bard College

The Gagarin Center for Civil Society and Human Rights ceased to exist in June 2021, when the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office recognized Bard College as an “undesirable” organization” for “threatening the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order and security.” The Ministry of Justice subsequently blacklisted the organization and banned its activities in Russia. In its turn, St. Petersburg State University officially announced that it had notified Bard of the termination of their joint agreements. Representatives of Bard College were ousted from the Board of Overseers of the Smolny’s academic program. Prior to this “finale”, several Gagarin fellows and Smolny faculty were either fired and/or ousted out of the country for political reasons. In May 2021, the Dean Alexey Kudrin decided to quit his post, and shortly thereafter, in October 2022, SPSU announced shutdown of Smolny College and other joint programs involving Bard, thus putting an end to the liberal arts approach to education. 


After February 24, 2022, many Smolny faculty and Gagarin fellows left Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine and risk of political persecution. In order to provide support to those Russian academics and students and help them continue their work and studies, in the Fall 2022 recent faculty members of Smolny and other liberal arts programs launched an education initiative titled Smolny Beyond Borders. 


It strives to understand the crisis unfolding before our eyes as well as cultural and political processes that paved the way for the start of the war. The initiative started with offering short courses and public lectures.  In Spring 2023, a number of courses was increased, they covered a broader range of topics related to the Russian politics, history, and culture. Professors offering courses are recruited mainly from Smolny and other liberal arts programs that have been under attack, especially those who believe that education should be a “joint search for truth” (Wilhelm von Humboldt) based on free discussion and critical thinking.


Smolny Beyond Borders partners with the Gagarin Center for the Study of Civil Society and Human Rights at Bard College. It allows Russian scholars to continue to pursue research and educational activities focused on contemporary social, economic, and human rights issues. Supported by the Andrew Gagarin Trust, the Center continues to offer research on vital issues, public programming, and serves as a venue for the critical exchange of ideas.