Every year the Russian Embassy in Estonia invites hundreds of young Estonians to study at universities in Russia for free. However, the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) said the purpose of these invitations is to recruit people into the Russian intelligence service.
ETV's investigative show "Impulss" wanted to understand how young Estonians find opportunities to study in Russia. Editor Sofia Sukhareva pretended to be a young woman who wanted to study in Moscow. She joined a Telegram app group called "I study in Russia" which is advertised on the Russian embassy's website. The channel has around 300 members, mostly from Estonia.
"The interest continues to be very high. It was high last year and this year as well. There is actually very little political discussion there, in fact, the political situation is not discussed at all," Suhhareva said.
One prominent member of the group is 24-year-old Maria Zvonova, an Estonian born in Tallinn. In 2018, she graduated from the Sakala Private High School with such good grades she was invited to the president's annual reception for high-achieving students.
Estonian universities and those in Europe and beyond are clamoring for such bright sparks, but Zvonova decided to continue her education in Russia instead.
Zvonova agreed to speak to "Impulss" about her experience in Russia. While she speaks Estonian, she was interviewed in Russian as she feels more comfortable speaking the language.
"I knew that education in Russia is very fundamental, I was very keen to get a strong education, I was not wrong. Secondly, I am a combination of two cultures, Estonian and Russian. I have already studied in Estonia, I successfully graduated school, I wanted to feel what life is like in my second home culture, so I chose Russia," Zvonova explained.
After graduating, she moved to Moscow and began studying public administration at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
She is currently studying for a master's degree at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), an academic institution run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, which is known as a breeding ground for Russian diplomats.
Zvonova said her life and studies have not been affected by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
"At the time, I was still an undergraduate at another university. Our studies continued as they were, there were no changes in that respect. No one left, no one dropped out, everyone graduated and is now in postgraduate studies and working," said Zvonova. The student said she had no intention of returning to Estonia when the war started: "I feel quite safe here."
But not everyone sees life in Russia through such rose-tinted glasses.
Estonian Mark Dorfmann was also studying in Moscow in February 2022. But unlike Zvonova, the 24-year-old stopped his studies after Russia launched its full-scale vision and returned to Estonia as soon as possible.
Dorfmann studied journalism at the Higher School of Economics, considered to be Russia's most liberal university.
He remembers February 24 in detail.
"I took a taxi to the university and then I had journalism for first class, 150 people... silence. And then our teacher, the professor, came. And he said he didn't want to do the lesson at all and said if you want to go home, then go home,'" Dorfmann told "Impulss".
He packed his things and was back in Estonia a week after the start of the war. At the same time, his friends in Ukraine were not so lucky. "My friend said they left Kyiv. And there were three cars. And one car didn't come to Lviv or didn't arrive at all. And then we realized that they had died," Dorfmann said.
The student said he did not receive a diploma from the university because he was expelled for comments he made on social media and in the press.
"In my university, the current situation was that they can't talk about politics. University classmates went to war. Some were mobilized and then they took our university flag to Ukraine. That's the kind of university it is now," said Dorfmann.
Zvonova said she does not see any changes at her university.
"I don't feel any difference between what happened before [the war] and what is happening now. There is no strict handbook on what can and cannot be said, especially in the educational environment. Here, there is a sense of freedom in your choice and your opinion, and if it is not forbidden by the criminal code, no one will pressure you," she said.
Dorfmann disagreed: "When Maria says there is free speech and that they can express their opinions and everything is free, then of course she's lying to your face."
From this autumn, a new subject about the foundations of the Russian state has become mandatory in all universities across the country. To put it simply, students are being taught propaganda, "Impulss" said.
ISS: Russan Intelligence interested in students
In September, the ISS told Estonians that studying in Russia is not worth it because the intelligence service is interested in recruiting students. Propastop, an organization that fights anti-Estonian propaganda, agrees.
"There are a number of situations where people contact the police themselves to say that they were approached and the contact was suspicious," said Jürgen Klemm, an ISS analyst.
"But you may not realize what the aims of the person who contacted you actually are. This may only become clear after a very long time," he added.
Propastop's Andres Lember said: "The consequences could be recruitment somewhere using some compromising material, which could be the worst possible consequence. But it could also just be that they are quietly cultivating their representatives here."
Klemm explained these tactics in more detail: "If I've been following you for 10 years since you were at university, I'll soon understand what you like – do you like expensive things, do you like adventures, do you like attention, do you like respect or recognition? If it is possible to profile this person, once you've taken them on as a project, so to speak, and find out how they can be manipulated, then that's certainly what you do."
Even before moving to Russia, Maria Zvonova often participated in events at the Russian Embassy in Tallinn's Old Town. This spring, she visited and posed for photographs in the Russian State Duma and organized Estonian culture days at her university in Moscow. The student also actively posts on several social media channels which publish Russian propaganda.
"Impulss" said this begs the question as to whether Zvonova is simply taking the opportunity to study abroad for free, or if she is consciously acting in the interests of Russian propaganda.
In one post, she promotes the youth festival in Sochi next year and traveling there and back at the government's expense. The event is billed as the world's largest youth event and President Vladimir Putin participates.
"Environments that talk about learning opportunities reek of propaganda, they reek of incitement to hatred," Klemm, from the ISS, said.
Propastop's Lember said: "Social media is, I would say, a weapons system and one that the Kremlin has been very, very diligently practicing and, one could say, that is gaining momentum. And, of course, these young people can also be very easily caught there."
"Impulss" asked Maria Zvonova directly if she is a Russian agent.
"No, only our men [the ISS] spoke to me," Zvonova said, laughing.
"The Estonian side tried to persuade me, but it sounded like a suggestion to look at Estonian universities because I got good grades, I did well in school, I was quite active in Estonia. But I was very attracted to studying in my second homeland," she said.
Klemm said it is becoming harder and harder for Russia to conduct intelligence activities across the border.
"They need to be brought to Russia so that they can then be influenced if necessary, or simply to observe, to map. And then, if necessary, at some point in time, a year or several years later, to transform this initially friendly contact into a working contact in their understanding," he said.
Russia is increasing the number of free university places it offers to students. In 2021, approximately 18,000 places were available, 23,000 last year, and 30,000 this year.
Every year, approximately 100 places are reserved for young Estonians. Enrollment is already open for the 2023/2024 academic year. Fees are waived and additional scholarships are available.
The ISS said high school students are more cautious after Russia launched its full-scale invasion.
"We could say that every year there are about a couple of dozen, a few dozen, who want to and do go to study at universities in Russia, but fortunately there are fewer [now]," said Klemm.
Zvonova said Russian culture is still important to Russian-speaking young people.
"Russian culture cannot be taken away from Russian-speaking young people, we are born with it, it's our culture too, and to choose between [your] mother or father, you can't, you have to love and respect all the cultures you were born into and belong to. And I don't agree with our officials here that there is no need to go and there is no need to investigate. It is necessary to go and draw your own conclusions," she said.
Editor: Merili Nael, Helen Wright