Moscow State University, one of Russia's most prestigious schools, has opened an investigation into accusations by students that teaching standards and living conditions in one of its academic departments have been severely eroded, students and university officials said in recent days.
The investigation, into the conditions in the Sociology Department, will be conducted by a special commission of faculty members and administrators that was formed last week. It follows a rare and remarkable burst of defiance and student activism on a Russian campus, a case of grass-roots organization and civic activity that private groups and critics of the Kremlin have said has been in decline in recent years.
The accusations, many of them circulated by a small group of students to Western universities in an effort to gain support, also strongly suggested that official anti-Western attitudes and creeping nationalism were undermining the quality of the teaching.
The students said, for example, that extremist views had become institutionalized and that conspiracy theories had infiltrated the teaching.
"The dean's office has distributed a brochure to all students that approvingly quotes the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' blames Freemasons and Zionists for the world wars, and claims that they control U.S. and British policy and the global financial system," the students wrote in one of their public appeals. "Studying conditions at the department are unbearable."
Vladimir I. Dobrenkov, the dean of the Sociology Department, dismissed the complaints about the curriculum in a telephone interview, saying that the student claims "are full of hints, rumors and half-truths" and that no anti-Semitism has been taught or tolerated on campus.
He conceded only that the living conditions were poor and said that they would be improved. Students have said that ventilation is inadequate and that their cafeteria has been outrageously overpriced — a suggestion of profiteering. "We should have a constructive dialogue with the students," the dean said.
Dobrenkov also said that the complaining students represented a small fraction of his department's 2,000-member student body and that their influence was exaggerated.
On this point the students disagreed, saying they had a nucleus of more than 20 core members and had signatures of support of nearly 10 percent of the department's student body — a remarkable number, they said, given a climate of surveillance and worries of retaliation.