16 May 2022
by Anton Zhezmer
a translation of ‘Интеллектуальная катастрофа. Как в России сворачиваются академические свободы’, Север.Реалии, 16 May 2022
Russian higher education institutions are getting rid of disloyal teachers – many are becoming unacceptable because of their liberal views or because they have been working with organizations recognized as undesirable or foreign agents. Some teachers are themselves resigning because they are unhappy with the changed atmosphere of their institutions. A correspondent from Sever.Realii spoke with several former teachers at St. Petersburg universities about why they are no longer teaching, and what will happen to Russia’s higher education system once all those who disagree with the country’s current political course have left.
Yuliya Boyarinova, biologist, will remain teaching at St. Petersburg University until the end of June, but she has already submitted her resignation.
“It simply makes me ill when I think about how many university instructors, including our department director, have signed all these letters in support of Putin,” she says. “And one other incident had a big effect on me: our institution nearly expelled twenty students who had been arrested at an antiwar demonstration. Only thanks to an uproar, to petitions, and mainly thanks to lawyers, did they manage to remain. The lawyers dug up a phrase in the university charter to the effect that administrative violations can be an impediment to instruction only in the event they were committed on university grounds, and this was nowhere near that. And all the same they were slapped with reprimands, although they were not expelled. We were very worried about these students – it was a total horror story. My students were among those attending the demonstrations, but they were lucky – none of them got caught. Later they said that they run very fast. Fortunately, we turned out to be like-minded people, indeed, everyone around – I even think that there’s no way that 80% of ordinary people support all of this. It was with great pleasure that I wrote my notice of resignation.”
Liudmila Khut, history Ph.D., professor in the Department of General History at Adyghe State University, signed the Open letter of Russian scientists and science journalists in protest at the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine. Several days later she made a post on her Facebook page called “I AM FREE,” in which she explained why she was leaving the university where she has worked since 1979: “I am leaving of my own free will. Of my own conscious choice. It’s the price I must pay for the right to speak what I consider necessary, without getting others in trouble. I still don’t know how I will get by without my students… But on the other side of the scales, it still outweighs what I had in my earlier life.” Liudmila Khut thanked all her colleagues – including those who supported her and those who explained that it was impossible to receive money from the budget and hold an opinion that didn’t correspond to the “general party line,” and in the end she remarked that now she will not have to be ashamed to look her little granddaughter in the eye.
But departures from institutions of higher learning are by no means always voluntary.
“Dear Elena Aleksandrovna, I am sending you scans/copies of notices of dismissal. No application for a distance employment contract has been received” – that’s the sort of notification I received from the personnel management of the Higher School of Economics. After 16 years of work. That is, of course, lying. The letter of resignation was written under the condition that a distance contract would be concluded with me (with regard to teaching). And of course, I did submit an application for a distance contract. From the series ‘The more you know people, the more you like dogs [an expression of the German poet Heine that became common usage in Russia in the late 19th-early 20th century]’,” Alena Vandysheva, a Transparency International expert and employee of the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, recently wrote on her Facebook page.
“In Russia right now, the legislation on NGOs as foreign agents is being heavily revised, and, since 2010, I have been cooperating as an expert with Transparency international,” notes Vandysheva. “And when the law on individuals affiliated with foreign agents was passed, and when the war started, I decided to go to Georgia temporarily because of various concerns. I went to the director and told him I could no longer serve as academic secretary. I had fulfilled my teaching obligations by then and remote employment contracts had been in use for a while. I was told to organise a contract with the HR department. I handed in two letters, one to resign from my teaching post and the other to switch to a remote contract. The first was a condition for getting such a contract. I was sure I would continue to teach at the Higher School of Economics; I had always had a very good relationship with the students. But on the same day I arrived in Georgia, I received a phone call to tell me that I wouldn’t be getting a remote contract. I asked why and was told that my candidacy had not been approved in Moscow. It is very strange because Moscow does not approve the decisions of the St. Petersburg campus; it is a separate entity. I then asked them to send me both of my letters and to explain the reasons for the refusal in writing. I heard nothing from them for a whole month, then they sent me a copy of my resignation letter with a note saying that they had never received a letter about a remote contract. After 16 years working there, I discovered that my colleagues don’t follow the basic rules. I’m not talking about keeping promises, but it is an employer’s responsibility to send copies of work-related documents.”
– Is what happened to you a one-off or are we looking at a trend?
“I’m aware of a few cases, and the decision to give someone a remote contract or not is totally selective; there is no clear policy. My faculty colleagues would also like to understand it because I was deputy dean; we had a wonderful team. They asked those in charge why I hadn’t been given a contract, but they didn’t get a clear answer. It just depends if they want to or not. There is no general framework; there is discretion. We don’t know what’s behind it; the system is totally opaque. It seems to be guided by individual preferences rather than the interests of the university and its students.”
— Do you have any idea yourself why they chose to get rid of you?
“The only explanation is my work with an NGO-foreign agent. Well, and the war: it’s difficult for me not to express my opinion; it’s virtually impossible. That probably had something to do with it.”
— Did you express your opinion when talking with students?
“Yes. I taught international law and an introduction to law course for first-year political science students, and, before my departure, I taught a course called “The Strategy of Anti-Corruption Policy in a Comparative Perspective”. My courses involved analysing the law and information policy. When discussing them, it was impossible to avoid questions about why certain information resources are blocked or what tools are used by investigators in their work.”
– A while ago now, before the war, we heard about the virtual destruction of the humanities at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, but that didn’t happen in St. Petersburg, did it?
“No, we didn’t have any high-profile stories like the closure of the human rights programme. It’s a sign of the times: human rights have become an unwanted institution. A few unpleasant things did happen in St. Petersburg, though, such as the sacking of Dmitry Dubrovsky. He taught in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, but it was the academic council in Moscow that refused to give him a contract.”
This story is really very illustrative. On the first day of the so-called special operation, the historian, ethnologist and human rights activist Dmitry Dubrovsky‘s contract at the Higher School of Economics was not renewed. It is true that for quite some time he was still listed as an assistant professor in the department of public politics at the Moscow department of politics and management at the Higher School of Economics. It was one of his students, Verena Podolskaya, who announced on her Facebook page that he would no longer be teaching at the university, writing that he taught “as things are, without censorship and everything else that is now expected. With examples from the surrounding reality. I know that many enter or come to our university for a semester to study with him, to write a diploma with him. And I understand them perfectly, I’ve changed my own programme of studies and sacrificed a course in my programme to study with him.”
At the Higher School of Economics Dmitry Dubrovsky taught courses on “NGOs and Human Rights,” “Minority Rights in Comparative Perspective,” “Human Rights in Authoritarian Societies,” “The Human Rights Controversy: Political, Cultural and Social Challenges to Human Rights in Theory – and in Practice,” and “Introduction to Academic Rights and Freedoms.”
“My dismissal is a triumph for the closed, non-transparent system, one that is absolutely sterile in terms of the faculty member’s own participation in decision-making,” Dubrovsky says. “My contract was terminated based on a single letter from the person in charge of the department. The decision appears to have involved a long chain of approvals, at none of which was I given the right to speak. I addressed a letter to the academic council, but I was not invited to it, I was deprived of the right to speak there, too. Some members of the council refused to vote, because all this is an unheard of violation of procedure.”
According to Dmitry Dubrovsky, he was told he had left the country and therefore would not be able to give lectures offline, although he was not going anywhere at the time and, before the restrictions related to the pandemic, he had come to Moscow every week to give lectures and communicate with students.
– All of my online courses arose after the decision of the former rector Kuzminov. They can only be online because they are for students from different campuses. That is, I was blamed for lectures I gave online that it was impossible to give offline, and they did not let me explain anything to the academic council. In addition, they didn’t offer me a contract to work at a distance, lying that they don’t do that, even though I know that is not the case. All of this I will later tell the court. But it was not only with me that this happened but also, for example, with Ilya Shablinsky, a respected lecturer at the law faculty. He is someone with 28 years’ teaching experience at the Higher School of Economics, yet he was kept on annual contracts. This was very bad treatment. It means that the Higher School of Economics simply cannot be trusted as an employer.
– What do you think is the reason for such an attitude towards you and your colleagues?
– I believe that Ilya Shablinsky suffered for his criticism of the situation from a the human rights perspective and for his criticism of the amendments to the Constitution. I could have suffered for any reason, as they say, I don’t really fit in anywhere. I used to send my students on internships with foreign agents, in other words, to human rights organizations which were later declared foreign agents. Literally all of them were declared foreign agents, except for the Moscow Helsinki Group. And the Higher School of Economics stated that it was not recommended to send students there. Not recommended in the current situation – that means categorically forbidden. I have in the past had contact with Bard College, which was declared an undesirable organization. And I was a fellow at another undesirable organization and received grants from the Soros Foundation. Remember when Švejk was accused of a bunch of crimes, including treason, and when the prosecutor asked him whether that was enough, he replied: thank you, excess is harmful. Well, of course I have publicly criticized the Higher School of Economics for previous dismissals, for example that of Gasan Guseinov, and for closing down DOXA. In a certain sense, I understand them – I am a pain for them and they don’t really need me. Why do students need a teacher now who only gives lectures in English, who was the best teacher in 2021? It’s all nonsense. They don’t need foreign students now, they simply won’t be coming any more, unless it is from China or Vietnam. I had a student from Singapore who said: ‘I left because I don’t want to have anything more to do with an aggressor country.’ Well, as for me I condemned the war, as well as the preparations for it.”
Alena Vandysheva believes that the atmosphere in the Higher School of Economics started to change as early as two years ago, after professors and students were banned from expressing their political positions, even on social media.
“Such a ban is now in effect; it is even included in employment contracts. Everyone has it written that they may not express their political position if they have a a connection with the university,” notes Vandysheva. “At the same time, we understand that in some cases sanctions may not be imposed on someone, while at some convenient moment the expression of a position can become a reason for dismissal or non-extension of a contract. From the beginning of the war, with the adoption of the law on fake news, this whole swell of legislative innovation, the teaching of the social and political sciences and humanities took a blow – many topics that we broach were banned. Some still discuss them, and some embrace self-censorship, not wanting to take risks, understanding that in some cases students can inform the administration – and there are already such cases. There is a very difficult ethical choice in this situation: either you teach as before and take serious risks, or you change the content of your courses so that they do not contain dangerous topics. For me this is an entirely unacceptable situation. If we cannot call a spade a spade, then it is strange that you are teaching someone something. Before, the topic of Crimea was unequivocally washed out for us; no alternative positions were to be taken, otherwise they would lead to criminal liability. And now we see what criminal cases are given rise to: for simply distributing copies of Orwell’s 1984, for standing in the street with quotes from Lev Tolstoy or for wearing ribbon. Or, for example, as part of a course on international law, I may talk about the provision of humanitarian aid during military conflicts – this is a difficult, borderline topic. Sometimes such actions can be interpreted as assistance to terrorist groups, but, of course, one wants students to know about this. Or here is another of my topics – anti-corruption policy. Aleksei Navalny and the Anti-Corruption Foundation have been recognized as extremists in our country, Team 29 have been recognized as an undesirable organization, and it turns out that many investigations and monitoring efforts simply cannot be mentioned. In my estimation, the contributions of these organizations can be positive, but such an assessment is no longer possible.”
– And this probably applies to all undesirable organizations?
“Yes, and to a large extent to those that are recognized as foreign agents. Students take different views, but if there is a general line that excludes alternative opinions, then deviation from it can be perceived by someone as a violation, and denunciations are possible. Some people will see them exactly as denunciations, but others will see them as reports of violations. It’s hard for me to condemn students – after all, such behavior is encouraged, and then someone really believes that what is happening today is necessary for Russia. But all of this will have a very significant impact on the content of courses, especially those related to international law and international relations. Even now any interaction with foreign partners can be perceived as suspicious.”
– We know of many examples when brilliant professors are expelled from universities, and the entire Free University is made up of them. How, from your point of view, does this process affect Russian higher education?
“If we take the example of Higher School of Economics, it is losing its reputation as a university that has always held on to its teachers and created conditions for their development. But I would say that the initiative here does not come from the Higher School; unpleasant changes of this kind are the result of the general context of political events. It turns out that freedom of thought and having your own opinion can bring you problems. Government universities have few sources of funding except the budget, and officials have begun to emphasize that if you get money from the state budget, you must not criticize the current system. This seems to me to be the most terrible delusion. The same applies to patriotism – for me it is not what people at all levels are saying – that everything is fine. From my point of view, the country needs a critical assessment of the situation and proposals to fix what is not working. And if faculty selection is based on loyalty, I think it will have a very negative impact. After all, loyalty will preserve stability for a short time, but will not result in any development. Russian academia has lost many foreign partners, it is already very much felt – there is no exchange of knowledge. This course towards isolation will first of all hit the students, the country’s intellectual capital. We have already been through all this, it definitely does not work, and I find it strange that someone is calling for a return to it. We are proud of the Victory and of Gagarin, but then what? Innovation requires an environment, exchange of knowledge and joint projects, otherwise the results will not be very good, but average at best. If the people who remain in academia are the ones who are ready to keep silent, who have no opinion, it will be a real intellectual catastrophe.”
The Sever.Realia correspondent sent inquiries to the Department of Political Science and International Relations (St. Petersburg) and the Department of Politics and Management (Moscow) of the Higher School of Economics asking why Alena Vandysheva and Dmitry Dubrovsky were refused online teaching contracts. No answers were received.