Are Caucasians Stealing Russian University Places? The Data Says, “Probably Not.”

In one of the recent posts on corruption, commentator AP wrote:

Kids from Moscow are having trouble getting into universities now because entrance, based on exam results, skews the chances of acceptance in favor of those students from corrupt regions where they can buy better results. Moscow is less corrupt than, say, Dagestan so Dagestani students perform much better on entrance exams.

Is this true? Seeing as how the Russian state doesn’t release Unified State Exam (USE) results by region, probably due to PC considerations, at first this assertion might appear to be unanswerable. However, there is a way to get round the problem.

(1) We know the PISA-derived IQ’s of some 43 Russian regions (which account for about 75% of its school-age population).

(2) The Russian government DOES release the the numbers of maximum scores in the USE tests by region. In this post we will consider the data for 2012. Furthermore, we know that at least at the federal level, these results tend to form bell curves.

(3) One of the primary “proofs” of electoral fraud in the Russian elections was the presence of spikes at convenient increments of 5%. In the case of USE fraud, we only have access to data for 100% scores and measuring the fatness of that tail should give us a clue as to its relative magnitude. (While it is possible and even likely that school administrators and regions would take care not to create too many maximum marks on the notoriously hard USE tests, far from everybody will follow said precautions. After all, if many regions didn’t even bother to smoothen the spikes to conceal fraud in the elections, is it realistic to posit that they’d take greater care around trifles like exams?).

(4) We know the number of 16 year old’s per Russian region from the 2010 Census, who would have participated in the 2012 exam season.

(5) We know the normal distribution.

The blue bars below show the number of top-scoring exams per region as a multiple of Russian 18 year olds there with an expected IQ of 130 or more, based on the region’s average PISA scores and a standard deviation of 15. The red bars show the same thing, with the major exception that an average IQ of 96 – that is, the national average – is assumed for ALL Russian regions.


As we can see above, the most suspicious results are mostly from ethnic Russian oblasts such as Stavropol, Kaluga, Rostov, Perm, and Vladimir, with the two big exceptions being Mari El and Chuvashia. To the contrary, Dagestan – the biggest Caucasian Muslim republic – has very few top scores relative to the number of very bright people we can expect to find there relative to most other Russian regions.

Finally, the reason that the red bar is a lot higher than the blue bar in Moscow, and to a lesser extent Saint-Petersburg, probably doesn’t have anything to do with foul play, but with the fact that their average IQ’s are about 106.6 and 102.6, respectively (i.e. considerably higher than the national average of 96). So while they generate a relatively disproportionate number of top USE scores, that is presumably because they attract the bulk of Russia’s most intellectual families (the so-called “cognitive clustering” effect).

Of course one problem is that we don’t have PISA data for all Russian regions. Maybe the Chechens do all the cheating then?

Probably not. Chechnya only had a total of five top scored USE results (for comparison, Moscow had 654 top results). In the graph below I produced results for all Russian regions, but with an unavoidable concession: In the case of those regions with no results from PISA, I had to make do with assuming a regional IQ of 96 (as per the Russian national average).


In so doing, yet another major region of likely fraud crops up: Bryansk. This oblast, along with Vladimir, produces as many top USE results as a percentage of its 18 year old population as does the intellectual capital, Moscow. Kalmykia, Kirov, and Lipetsk also join the list of Russian regions with suspiciously good USE results (probably not entirely coincidentally, Lipetsk and Kalmykia – along with Ingushetia – were the three regions whose USE results raised suspicions to the extent that they were rechecked).

He also makes the comment:

The schools with the top math students in the country stopped winning Olympiads, while private schools with politically connected kids started to win them…

No obvious way to statistically analyze this, but what we can say with some confidence is that there is no major ethnic angle to this:


As we can see above, the Central and North-West regions of Russia, which contain the cognitive hotbeds of the two capitals, massively surpass the number of people from the North Caucasus in the share of “Olympians” (basically students who did really well and get benefits) in the annual university cohort.

This is pretty much what we can expect on the basis of the average IQ differentials between these regions.


  1. I am grateful for your analysis. I think you have really debunked the idea of “Dagestanis” taking up university spots in Moscow based on fake entranc exam scores. You seem to have shown that the phenomenon of corrupt provinces benefiting from corrupt locally administered tests does exist, but it’s people from certain corrupt ethnic Russian provincial regions as well as Chuvash and Kalmyks, rather than non-ethnic Russian Dagestanis, who are geting an unfair advantage. I will bring this up next time it’s mentioned when I am in Moscow. The main culprits are not people from Dagestan but those from Chuvashia or Vladimir. It’s still pretty bad – imagine if in the United States SAT results for Alabama or Nebraska were the same or even higher than those for Boston or Silicon Valley! It would be a massive scandal…

    About the Olympiads, I should have been clearer in my comment. In this case it was certain schools for politically connected rich kids suddenly winning the Olympiads, at the expense of traditional math-oriented schools who had won them before. The rich kids were probably from Moscow-area schools. Essentially, Olympiads that had been won by the top math schools were no longer won by the top math schools after winning meant automatic or easier entrance into the top universities. So, either all of a suden the top math school quality declined and rich kids suddenly became very smart, or (more likely) these Olympiads ceased being actual competitions and degenerated into vehicles for getting unqualified connected people into universities through the “back door.” I’m not sure which Olympiads these are, specifically, but will ask next time I speak to people. I apologize for being vague; I was reporting what I heard from people involved but didn’t write down details.

    • Little Pig says:

      Maybe fact that some regions have too many good results in USE than their average IQ can be explained by the fact that their population is heterogeneous. I am pretty sure that this is the reason for Kaluga oblast: it is generally rural and not very well developed with the first naukograd of Russia in it that has been gathering clever people for a long time. The best schools claim that their pupils have results similar to the best Moscow schools. And it is true that nearly all children from those schools enter the best universities.
      And as far as private schools are concerned… Very often teachers are much better paid there than anywhere else, and as a result they can attract the best teachers. Maybe even those who have scientific degrees. I believe that children in these schools are average, but still there are some talented children, and they are more likely to win because their teachers are probably better in many cases and the school is motivated to win to have pupils who would pay even more. An owner of a private school with relatively good results in my town used to be my grandmother’s friend, and I know for sure that they invite talented children from the town to study for free in order to improve the results of the school and create very good opportunities for them. These children receive good connections and good education – isn’t it a reason to tolerate those terrible rich children (most of them are really horrible in that school, their parents send them there because they don’t want to see them anymore, and it’s a board school, which means that the parents can stay free for a really long time).
      My cousin used to study in a different type of private schools. They take only really clever children with money and create every opportunity for them to study and have good results. It’s not easy to enter that school, and when the children finish it, they usually enter good universities for free, with no bribes.
      So i think that in some cases children from private schools really have better education, because there is much more money there and they can afford everything that is the best

      • The ethnic Russian provinces who outscore Moscow and St. Petersburg are mostly provincial backwaters whose largest cities have less than 500,000 people and without major universities or research centers (unlike the legitimate scientific center of Novosibirsk, which is actually outscored by all of these places). Briansk’s results are ridiculous. Chuvashia is populated by 2/3 ethnic Chuvash, a Turkic people similar toTatars althoguh they are traditionally Orthodox Christian rather than Muslims. It has 1.25 million people and its capital Cheboksary has 450,000 people. I find it very hard to believe that per capita the people in these oblasts are smarter than those in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It seems more like some sort of corruption on the local level, giving unfair advantage to local kids at the expense of kids from less corrupt regions such as Moscow (or probably Novosibirsk). As I mentioned earlier, it would as if in tghe USA SATs were administered at the state level and somehow kids from Alabama or South Dakota had the highest SAT scores in the country.

        I think it’s possible that in some of the private schools that have surpassed traditional ones they’ve recruited a few smart kids to do the work for the rich ones. I don’t know all the mechanisms involved in the process, I just know non-corrupt parents of kids in the traditonal top math schools who complained that after winning meant easy university entrance previously-unknown schools with politicaly connected students started winning. I’ll try to get more details when I go to Moscow this summer.

        • Little Pig says:

          If you can buy an Olimpiad – why not just pay for studying? Olimpiads are not going to be cheap because there are a lot of levels. First you should win in your town, than in your region, than in whole Russia… You are going to need a lot of connections to buy everyone, and then there is no guarantee that your child is not going to be excluded from the university while those who have a contract and pay officially really hardly ever get excluded. You’ll have to pay again and again if you entered a university thanks to a bribe but without any connections inside this university. It is cheaper to buy an Olimpiad only if you want to send your child to a very prestigious and expensive university such as MGIMO. With the USE system, bribes became really high in universities, so high that I don’t understand those who don’t want to pay legally.

          A private school doesn’t need to produce a lot of talented pupils to win an Olimpiad, one is going to be enough. The same for USE if you count only those who receive the maximum score.
          As you might have guessed, I am from Obninsk myself, and I used to participate in Olimpiads (without any good result, but still I know the system) and I met kids both with horribly low results and surprisingly high results. The ones with very good results are very often those whose parents work in one of our numerous scientific institutions (mainly connected with nuclear energy, high technology and medicine: we have the first nuclear power plant in the world and the covering for Buran spacecraft was developed here). These parents are too poor to pay for their education, so the kids really have to do their best. There are a couple of schools where the quality of education is very high, but these kids aren’t really numerous. The majority of kids have nothing to do with science, and their results are quite poor, which correlates with poor results in different international tests for the region. Therefore, I think that it is not surprising that Kaluga has a lot of maximum scores in USE. I believe that many other regions can have the same reason. Particularly such as Chuvashia. You have mentioned it yourself – its population is ethnically mixed, therefore, it is probable than different groups have different results.