This paper explores integrity dilemmas experienced by Russian academics in the context of building a world-class university. Interviews with professors and managers of major research universities in Moscow provide critical insights into the organisational and attitudinal incongruities generated by a coercive state—a challenge that Russia has been unable to rise above following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Scepticism as to the “master model” of competitive performance is evident in relation to the Russian 5-100-2020 excellence scheme, the overseers of which prioritise “reputation management” over integrity in governance and performance. In addition to exposing the consequences of deficient institutional autonomy, which prevail in the context of a post-totalitarian society, this paper calls for enhanced critical inquiry into university excellence programmes imposed by performativist and vanity-driven governments. Copyright © 2021 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.