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have been a professor at one
of the best political science
departments in Saint Petersburg – a
beautiful, old, cultured city. I moved
there from Moscow and never regretted
it. But soon after Russia invaded
Ukraine, I realised it was time to move
again. And so I left, in haste, for Italy.
I am now doing my last semester at the
university that has become my home
and I do not know when I will see Saint
Petersburg – or Russia – again.
In the 1990s, political science – a
non-existent discipline in the Soviet
Union – was gradually institutionalised
in Russian universities. Saint
Petersburg in particular established
several strong departments.
Since the early 2000s they have
had to coexist with an authoritarian
regime. For years, things have hung in
a precarious balance. The European
University at St Petersburg, arguably
the best graduate school in social
sciences in Russia, was shut down by
the authorities twice – in 2008 and
in 2017-2018. However, each time it
reopened. Smolny College, a liberal arts
institution aliated with the old Saint
Petersburg University, has been attacked
by the university’s most recent rector,
an aggressive, unscrupulous Kremlin
loyalist. Smolny had long maintained
a close partnership with Bard College,
a beacon of liberal arts education
in the United States. The authorities
eventually declared Bard an “undesirable
organisation” in Russia. Smolny had to
cut all ties; after that, it was allowed to
operate again.
In eect, social and political scientists
in Saint Petersburg have been stuck
between the normal and the emergency.
The normal: intellectual excitement of
research and the pleasure of working
with colleagues. The emergency:
preparing the department’s oce for a
possible police search; signing a letter
for the release of a jailed colleague;
demanding the university’s reopening at
a street demonstration.
The regime’s long shadow actually
made teaching more meaningful. Despite
everything, we were able and willing to
tell our students the truth and we valued
this opportunity while we still had it.
In authoritarian contexts, teaching
paradoxically becomes a political act
while still being fully compatible with
Max Weber’s dictum: “Politics is out
of place in the lecture room.” Weber
dierentiated between taking a stand
and analysing political structures: for a
professor, promoting specific political
positions in the classroom would mean
exercising undue influence on their
students since the relationship between a
professor and a student is asymmetrical.
However, under constant pressure
from the authorities, a clear-eyed
analysis in itself equals taking a stand.
Classes on Russian politics (which I
have taught for several years) are the
most obvious example. The fact that
Putin’s regime is authoritarian is rather
uncontroversial in political science. To
discuss it with students means zooming
in on its building blocks: control over
political parties, elections, the media
and significant parts of the economy.
This, in turn, means creating a narrative
that is in direct contradiction with
government propaganda.
Of course, there are no facts
independent from interpretation in
social sciences. However, the two are
not identical: facts do maintain relative
autonomy, to use a Marxist term.
Insisting on this autonomy is a political
gesture in itself when the government
engages in constant demagoguery,
creating its own ‘alternative facts’;
in this, the Kremlin far surpasses any
right-wing populists across the world.
Simply put, my classes were the place
to honour the truth when truth is a
rare commodity. This is why I have
always considered teaching in Russia
to be inherently political and treated it
as such, vowing to stay for as long as
I could.
Russian academia is a peculiar
institution. Since the early 1990s,
humanities and social sciences have
been divided between the ‘nativists’
who prefer to do research (or, rather,
what they call ‘research’) more or less
in isolation from the outside world,
and the ‘globalists’ who try to join the
international academic discussion. For
Losing battle for truth in
Russian lecture halls
Being an academic in Russia has become too dangerous if you’re on the side of truth, writes ILYA MATVEEV
My classes were the place to honour the
truth when truth is a rare commodity
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CREDIT: Taylor Callery/Ikon Images
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reasons of prestige, the government
has promoted the ‘globalist’ sector. But
the massive push to improve Russian
universities’ position in the international
rankings coincided with the Kremlin’s
increasingly paranoid, hysterical
nationalism of the 2010s. This created
a schizophrenic situation in which the
authorities saw the internationalisation
of Russian science as both desirable and
deeply suspect. Russian scholars were
expected to publish in high-ranking
journals and participate in joint projects
with their foreign colleagues, and yet,
foreign-grant financing was to a large
extent criminalised and the international
research cooperation was subject to
multiple bureaucratic hurdles.
And then, of course, there was
the question of politics. Those pesky
scholars refused to do internationally
acclaimed research while remaining
safely Putinist in their views, as the
government would have preferred
them to. They engaged in political
commentary, went to street rallies and
demonstrated ‘unruly’ behaviour. Unable
to bear any criticism, the government
turned to purges, hence the attacks
on the European University, Smolny
College and others. Once again, a
schizophrenic approach: in the year
when the EUSP was closed down, it held
the top spot in the ocial Ministry of
Science ranking of research universities.
The Higher School of Economics in
Moscow, another successful post-Soviet
institution, simply lost its political
science department: the very discipline
appeared to be dangerous to the regime.
A new generation of Russian scholars
could relive the Soviet experience in
which they were fired for signing this or
that open letter.
The students are another worry for
the government. When I myself was a
student in the 2000s, my classmates,
with very few exceptions, were apolitical
and overwhelmingly focused on private
life – just like the rest of the Russian
population. In my senior year at high
school, I read Robert Merle’s novel
Behind The Glass about the student
uprising in Paris in 1968. When I began
my studies at Moscow State University,
I craved something similar to the events
described in the novel, but of course I
was disappointed.
Things have changed in recent
years, however. The new generation of
Russian students is far more politically
conscious and active. In fact, they could
teach those Paris dreamers a thing or
two. Doxa, which began as a student
publication at the Higher School of
Economics, is now a major voice against
repression and war. At some point it
was kicked out by the HSE’s fearful
administrators, but this did not stop
its young editors and authors. During
last year’s wave of protests triggered
by Alexei Navalny’s investigation
into Putin’s palace and Navalny’s
imprisonment upon return to Russia,
Doxa fought hard for students’ rights,
highlighting cases of expulsions from
the universities across the country and
providing legal advice. For that, four of
its editors spent one year under house
arrest and were eventually sentenced
to two years of public works (see our
interview with one of the Doxa Four on
p.43). And yet, Doxa is still standing
despite the constant threat of harsh
prison sentences.
The war is a watershed moment
for Russian academia. Gone are the
days of the precarious balance and
the attempts to have it both ways.
International cooperation has come to
a halt, the rankings game is essentially
abandoned, wartime repression has
made meaningful work more or less
impossible and the economic shock will
leave the already underfunded academic
institutions without any resources.
Some of the ‘nativists’ praise the victory
of the ‘indigenous’ science that will
supposedly thrive in isolation. The
‘globalists’ (namely proper scientists)
are scared and demoralised. Many have
left; many more will follow whenever
they can. The dean of my department
refused to sign a pro-war statement.
He was threatened by the university
administrators who demanded that he
withdraw his signature from an anti-
war letter. Instead, he resigned from
his position. The department is now in
shambles, just like many other social
and political science departments across
the country.
Darkness has descended upon Russia.
Military losses are compensated by
the viciousness of internal repression.
I praise those of my colleagues who
decided to stay – I know they will do
everything in their power to continue
teaching students the truth. For those
who have left, two areas of work are
of paramount importance. One is the
attempt to establish free academic
institutions outside Russia aimed at
Russian students. I strongly believe
these attempts should be supported
by Europe: they are an investment in
the future democratic Russia that will
finally have a national reckoning with
the crimes of war and empire. Another
area is flexible online education aimed at
those students who cannot leave Russia.
Once again, every opportunity to speak
the truth counts.
I do not know whether this forced
emigration will allow me to shape
Russia’s future in any way. But I will try
and I know I am not alone.
Ilya Matveev is a Russian researcher
and lecturer
Darkness has descended upon Russia.
Military losses are compensated by the
viciousness of internal repression
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