VILNIUS — If I close my eyes for a moment, I’m transported back to a German university town somewhere along the Neckar river — Tübingen, perhaps, or Heidelberg. Hölderlin, Heidegger, Kant, Hannah Arendt are among the names that surface in my conversation with Belarusian philosopher Anatoli Mikhailov.

We aren't anywhere near the banks of the Rhine, however, but on the shores of the Neris, a tributary of the Memel River, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. This is the stomping ground of Mikhailov, 74, a recipient of the German Goethe medal, and founder and rector of the European Humanities University (EHU).

Mikhailov had been the rector of the university in his hometown of Minsk established after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But something eventually happened that Mikhailov describes as “herostratic”: The university was closed.

This erudite ancient reference is to Herostratus, a Greek shepherd who, in order to become famous, set the Temple at Ephesus — one of the Seven Wonders of the World — on fire. 

Two thousand, three hundred fifty years later, we have Alexander Lukashenko instead. Originally the boss of a Soviet agribusiness, Lukashenko became president of the new state of Belarus in 1994. The university in Minsk, opened in 1992, was at first allowed to carry on. But as Lukashenko cemented his power he zeroed in on scientific and academic freedoms — and in 2004 ordered the university closed.

That could have spelled the end. But some surprises lay in store. "Lithuania invited us," says the philosopher. "And I don’t think the Lithuanians were really clear at the time about the repercussions that invitation would have."

Mikhailov left his home town of Minsk in 2004 and has never returned — and it looks as if he’ll complete his academic career in exile.

So the European Humanities University was re-founded in Vilnius. Administration is housed in a well-restored old building downtown, while the small campus that it shares with another university lies on the outskirts of the city. The annual budget is 5 million euros, according to Mikhailov’s figures: one million from the EU; the northern countries interested in the Baltic area are "very helpful;" and various EU countries and the United States also give funding.

EHU campus in Vilnius — Photo: EHU

The money is used both for teaching and research. The EHU has some 1,800 students, 95% of them Belarusian. A third of them live in Vilnius, typically in shared housing, while the others commute. Like a number of the teaching staff they travel to and fro across the border — Belarus and the capital of this new EU country are 160 kilometers (99.5 miles) apart. This is all possible because the Belarus dictatorship allows its citizens to travel abroad.

But Mikhailov is concerned about the future. "Up to now we’ve budgeted from one year to the next, a bit hand-to-mouth. But now we’re trying to commit to teachers for two or more years and get them to live here for longer periods."

Brain drain effects

Aliaksandr Bystryk, a history student, has traveled quite a bit in Europe, and has come away with the impression that life is the West is often over-hyped. "If things change in Belarus, I’d gladly go back. If things stay the same, but I got a job, I’d go back too."

Belarus cannot be compared to the former Iron Curtain, with much more leeway to move and speak out.

What course of study to opt for if one wants to get a job in Belarus after graduation? Mikhailov says that his field — philosophy — is not exactly en vogue at the moment. Many texts by Kant and Plato, for example, have not been translated into Belarusian, a language that is still a minority language in Belarus. Hence a number of courses take place in Russian.

EHU students — Photo: EHU

Some courses are in English, and until Minsk closed, there was a political science course, supported by Paris, in French. "We’d like to strengthen German," adds the rector. 

The most popular courses of study at the EHU are law, visual design, and media studies. Most degrees are bachelor's or master's degrees. Mikhailov says his university is recognized as such by the EU, and whoever gets a degree from here can continue studies elsewhere in Europe.

This begs the inevitable brain-drain question: Isn't the EHU just educating Belarus' future émigrés? But a survey conducted by the EHU of its alumni showed encouraging results: 60% of graduates live in Belarus.

Of those, more than 90% are employed, half of them in non-governmental sectors — business, media, NGOs. Nineteen percent are self-employed, and 11% work for the state. Seventy percent say that thanks to the EHU they are active citizens and feel strengthened in their Belarusian identity.

What does that mean for their country? Anatoli Mikhailov is skeptical as to whether "Western patterns can be carried over to a post-totalitarian society. It’s a little like transplants — the body often rejects them."

But in the case of Belarus, it may help that the changes today are taking place outside the body of the state – in Vilnius and in Warsaw. From Poland, for example, an independent Belarusian TV station broadcasts to Belarus via Belsat TV.

"I don’t believe in quick change in our country," says Mikhailov. "But it is a fact that our new elite is growing. It's just that it's happening in Lithuania and Poland."