At the beginning of March last year, the Russian army launched a large-scale attack on Ukraine. That same week, the EUand several countries, including the Netherlands, froze formal cooperation with Russian universities. Meanwhile in Russia, it was clear that everyone had to choose a side. Out of ‘patriotic love’, the rectors of the universities fully supported President Putin’s decision to invade the neighbouring country.

Union has not deviated itbelaruss course

But around the same time, Universitetskaja Solidarnost, the only non-state union for university employees, published an open letter in which academics publicly spoke out against the war. According to the signatories, a true patriot does not unquestioningly carry out what the state demands, but strives ‘to assert the principles of justice, humanism and peace in their country.’

Although those who oppose the war risk spending many years in prison, the small union has not deviated from its course, says Andronick Arutyunov (1988), co-chair and mathematician at the Moscow Institute for Physics and Technology. “We are being careful, however.” The names under the online letter have since disappeared, and the union leaders think twice before making public statements. They still do not use the word ‘war’, for example, but refer to ‘the so-called special military operation’. “That avoids problems.”

Helping colleagues

Nevertheless, the union has plenty of problems. The number of members has shrunk from thousands to just 200 in a year’s time. Academics who are still affiliated are being arrested or charged one after the other. Arutyunov tries to offer legal assistance in such cases. “We file lawsuits, with varying degrees of success. Recently, someone in Yekaterinburg faced discrimination solely because he was a member of our union. We won that case. But it is still having an effect: in the current polarised situation, members are taking a risk if they remain a member, and as a result, they also have fewer job opportunities.”

Arutyunov additionally helps colleagues flee the country. They no longer feel free to do their job or are afraid they will be drafted for the army. “We help them with contacts abroad and try to arrange a border crossing. That is becoming increasingly difficult, because countries have closed their borders, although it’s still possible to enter Europe by plane via Istanbul.”


Pjotr Safronov Image credit: Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

One of these academics who fled is Pjotr Safronov (1981). Since July, the philosopher has been a guest researcher and lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and a fellow at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study. “I worked in the department of educational sciences at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow until 2018, but I stopped at the time because I no longer wanted to work for a state university.” He took jobs at several private schools and spoke out against the war. “But after I was arrested at a demonstration, I came to the conclusion that it was better to leave.”

Academic freedom

Academics do not just experience repression when they speak out against the war. They are being faced with more and more restrictions. The first signs were already noticeable a few years ago, Safronov says. “When I wrote a critical piece about the university’s dependence on state subsidies, it was ridiculed. The suggestion that education policy should be supported by data was taboo as well. And to department heads, the idea that students themselves could also play a role in shaping their education went entirely too far. This all happened while I was still working at one of the best universities in Moscow, which was similar to Western universities. In the provinces, it’s even more difficult.”

Meanwhile, academic freedom is rapidly deteriorating. Historians, for instance, can be prosecuted if their research is not in line with the Kremlin’s view of Russian history. Arutyunov: “Academics in the humanities and social sciences have less and less freedom to choose what they want to research.” But a lot has changed at the technical faculties, too. “Institutions want their scientists to conduct research into new war technology and weapons. Those who don’t work for the army have little chance of receiving a scholarship. Mathematicians like me are lucky, because no one ever knows what we’re working on!”


Since the war, Russian academia has become increasingly isolated. Arutyunov: “International research projects have been cancelled by universities abroad and by the Russian universities themselves.” But the researchers also have a role in this. “For example, I still go to conferences in Europe, but many of my colleagues hardly ever do so. They think their Western colleagues no longer want to have anything to do with them, and so they’ve stopped contacting them. That’s actually a shame, because there are still quite a lot of opportunities.”

Safronov feels privileged that he was able to flee Russia and build a new life thanks to an international network and aid organisations. “Academics from the region rarely get out because they don’t know anyone. They often have no choice at all.”


Many do not want to leave, though. “In Russia, you live without hope”, Arutyunov sighs. “And yet I want to stay. Our situation really cannot be compared to that of the Ukrainians, but at least they still have hope that the war will end. Russians who oppose their regime have had no prospect for more than 20 years now. The academic world as we knew it in Russia is dead. You can stay and try to help others, or you can flee. But if I flee, I don’t know if anyone can take over my union work.”

protest oekraine – alisa mahaletska

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