Vladimir Mau was re-elected to Gazprom’s board of directors last week. The liberal economist’s seat at the Russian gas monopoly, one of the state’s prize assets, suggested Mau still held favour with the Kremlin.
The suggestion was wrong.
A few hours later on Thursday, police in Moscow said they had arrested Mau on suspicion of fraud, in a sign that Russia’s wartime crackdown now extends even to its loyal servants.
Mau, who denies the charges and is under house arrest until August, is no dissident. As the rector of Russia’s largest university, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Ranepa), he signed an open letter from the heads of 260 universities pledging to “rally around the president” after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Instead, Mau, 62, tried to reform the system from within. A special Ranepa programme overseen by the Kremlin has trained 46 regional governors since it was set up in 2017.
The university also hosts an annual talking shop for Russia’s technocrats to grumble about the country’s economic stagnation.
Mau’s arrest means even constructive, closed-doors criticism is out of bounds, according to Kirill Rogov, a political scientist who previously advised him on an economic programme for the Kremlin.
“This shows how merciless the regime is,” said Rogov, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. “Mau had a good personal relationship with Putin, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Many in Russia’s technocratic elite oppose the war privately but are reluctant to speak about it in public, according to former officials and senior businessmen. Some have quietly quit their jobs. A few prominent liberal figures have faced reprisals.
Anatoly Chubais, who quit as Putin’s climate adviser after the invasion and is a fellow veteran of president Boris Yeltsin’s economic team in the 1990s, is now reportedly under criminal investigation.
“For the first few months, they put inter-elite repression on pause,” political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann said. “Clearly the main task was to show a united front and elite unity — that they haven’t run off or started chewing at each other.”
Now, Mau “is the first major figure to be arrested [in several years]”, said Schulmann, who left her post at Ranepa in the spring for a year-long fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
“And what’s symbolic is they weren’t afraid of a major public outcry.”
Mau’s fall from grace is a further indication of how far the economic order has shifted in Russia since the invasion and retaliatory western sanctions that have frozen half of the country’s central bank reserves, cut it off from the US-led global financial system and devastated imports and foreign investment.
Instead of the market reforms Mau advocated, the Kremlin is set to take an even greater role in Russia’s already state-dominated economy. On Thursday, Putin nationalised Sakhalin-2, a Gazprom joint venture in the Pacific with Shell and two Japanese groups that is the first major business to come under state control since the war began.
The same day, Russia’s cabinet submitted a draft law that would allow the government to force businesses to take on military contracts and make their employees work outside normal hours to “temporarily concentrate efforts” in support of the state.
“They’re putting the economy on a mobilisation track,” Schulmann said. “The president said we don’t want to isolate ourselves and switch to a planned economy, because that’s humiliating. Now that’s started to crack,” she added. “They’re institutionalising a non-market economy.”
In the first decade of Putin’s rule, “systemic liberals” such as Mau were equally at home as the siloviki strongmen with roots in the Soviet security services, even though Putin portrayed the “shock therapy” reforms in the 1990s as a traumatic lost decade.
The “systemic liberals” held prominent jobs in his cabinet and ran critical state corporations, allowing him to balance out the statist tendencies of his former KGB colleagues.
“There were a lot more people in the Putin establishment 10 years ago and more who were entirely progressive — not so much liberals in the classical sense as people focused on modernisation,” said Viktor Vakhshtayn, former head of Ranepa’s sociology faculty.
In 2011, while Putin spent a four-year stint as prime minister, Mau together with Yaroslav Kuzminov, head of the Higher School of Economics, led a large research programme that aimed to define a 10-year path for Russian economic policy.
“In every single policy meeting where you needed an economic opinion, most likely Mau or Kuzminov would be present. It was very clear that he was one of the two leaders of economic policy in Russia,” said Sergei Guriev, who advised Putin’s stand-in president Dmitry Medvedev while running Russia’s New Economic School.
Their influence, however, only went so far. Mau and Kuzminov’s core proposal was to move spending away from Russia’s army and police into its chronically underfunded education and healthcare sectors.
Instead, Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and orchestrated a separatist proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, beginning a gradual process of repression, militarisation and economic isolation that culminated in this year’s full-blown invasion.
The war put Mau, who still sought to find a modus vivendi with the Kremlin, at odds with its more ardent critics among his friends.
“You needed to be a liberal, but not too much. He would hire some people, but not others. He was very cautious and scared after 2014,” said Rogov, who quit Ranepa in 2014.
“I said some pretty strongly worded things, and Volodya was scared to do that in public. He thought it’d come back to hurt him.”
Nor were academics the only target for pressure.
When students joined protests led by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition activist, in large numbers in 2019, the Kremlin began cracking down on dissent at universities. Some student protesters were expelled. Some faculty staff lost their jobs.
In the ever-narrowing window for criticism of Putin, Ranepa still appeared to many like an oasis of free thought — especially as crackdowns began at other universities, like Kuzminov’s Higher School of Economics.
The Kremlin and the FSB, Russia’s main security service, summoned him several times to grill him about professors they did not like, according to current and former Ranepa faculty members.
But despite the pressure, Mau “wouldn’t fire controversial professors”, Vakhstayn said. “At most universities in Russia, you’d get fired for writing the wrong thing on Facebook, no matter what a good teacher you are or how many English-language publications you have. We didn’t have that.”
Prosecutors demanded Mau compile a list of protest-minded students. Ranepa eventually complied, but nothing eventually came of it, the faculty members said. Mau also did not sign the pro-war petition until a week after it was published, when Russian media noticed one of his deputies had signed it instead of him.
Mau’s arrest may mark the death knell for freethinking education in Russia.
Kuzminov resigned from the Higher School of Economics last summer. Sergei Zuev, head of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, was arrested a few months later on fraud charges linked to the accusations against Mau.
Many academics have left Russia since the war began, fearful of reprisals for criticising the war. The government is replacing the standardised European higher education system with something it says will reflect its “national interests”.
But the greatest repercussions may be for the “systemic liberals” still working in state institutions, according to Guriev.
Threatened by the liberals, Russia’s siloviki “come to Putin and say, ‘Look, these people are against you, and they are working in government institutions’”, said Guriev, who left Russia in 2013 to escape possible prosecution.
“If I were in their shoes, I would run now. But it will be much more difficult to run,” he said.