Co-authored by Ester Gallo (Associate professor at Department of Sociology and Social Research at University of Trento).

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not only Ukrainian academic circles but also Russian universities have been deeply affected by the war. While in Ukraine “dozens of universities have been bombed and hundreds of thousands of students and academics have fled their homes,” in Russia many members of university communities and public intellectuals took a critical stance against the attacks on Ukrainian citizens. By way of retaliation, the Russian government violently reacted to protests carried out by students and academicsagainst the invasion of Ukraine. According to the Moscow Times, almost 17,000 anti-war protesters were detained in one week during small rallies and demonstrations across the country, some of them were arrested and tortured, and most of academics lost their university positions. Similar to other authoritarian contexts like Turkey and Belarus, some scholars risk prolonged banning from employment in public/private universities or research institutions. According to the SAR Free to Think Report 2022, within the first six months of the war there was also a massive process of expulsion of university students.

In this interview, we discuss recent attacks against Russian university communities with Arseniy Petrov, who was a former Professor in Art History and Head of Art Department of LETOVO School in Moscow and who is currently research fellow at the Department of Literature & Philosophy of the University of Trento. Arseniy Petrov left Russia shortly after the beginning of the conflict, and arrived in Italy with his family, to be able to continue his academic research. We divided the interview in two parts. In the first part, we discuss the impact of the authoritarian regime on academic freedom in Russia, while in the second one we focus on the personal experiences and opinions about academic freedom.

We would like to thank Arseniy Petrov for kindly accepting to answer our questions.

Very unwelcome truths have emerged from the universities, and very unwelcome judgments have been handed down from the bench time and again; and these institutions, like other refuges of truth, have remained exposed to all the dangers arising from social and political power. […] And it can hardly be denied that, at least in constitutionally ruled countries, the political realm has recognized, even in the event of conflict, that it has a stake in the existence of men and institutions over which it has no power.
– Hanna Arendt, 1967

In recent years, we have witnessed different forms of attacks on academic freedom, including in formally democratic countries like Europe. In authoritarian countries such as Russia, severe attacks have increased and resulted in imprisonment, detention, torture, dismissal etc. Could you tell us about the situation of academic freedom in your country and what is the recent impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war upon freedom to research and teach?

The impact of the authoritarian regime in Russia on academic freedom cannot be defined as something that happened suddenly or that is associated exclusively with the new phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war which began in February 2022. Putin’s authoritarianism has a long history of building and strengthening the so-called verticality of power. This situation also applies to the appointment of university rectors who are loyal to the government: they, in turn, appoint loyal deans and heads of departments. In other words, this logic applies from the highest scale to that of lower positions. The influence of faculty members and of students on the selection of teacher, with the rarest exceptions, has always been negligible. The criterion of fidelity to the authorities and to their decisions was much more important than the one of professional and scientific criteria.

At the beginning of the war, we were confronted with two opposite phenomena. On the one hand, as part of a democratic initiative, thousands of university and school teachers signed open letters from their anti-war “groups” (for example, three different letters - more than 14,000 students, graduate students and teachers; more than 8,000 scholars; more than 18,000 “Russian workers of culture and art”). On the other hand, upon the invitation of authorities, rectors of all universities signed a joint letter or posted individual letters in support of the war and of Putin’s policy on the university websites. Thus, a kind of security agreement was made between the rectors, sealed by blood. This does not mean that everyone sincerely supports the war and the established power. I think many people consider themselves as a type of Mephisto from Klaus Mann’s famous novel. But, this means that the leadership of universities and research institutes is 99% pro-government. This means that in the case of a teacher condemning publicly the hostilities coming from the government, the university management will do everything to silence or fire the person.

In such circumstances, it is impossible to speak of freedom of research within the field of humanities, and not only in the present but also in a deeper historical perspective. After all, the very ideology of modern power includes the production of many historical postulates, and Putin himself publishes articles on history. It is characteristic that the former Minister of Culture and now a leading ideologue, Vladimir Medinsky, is the head of a very influential structure, the Military-Historical Society. The ideology of Putin’s Russia rests primarily on the suggestion of historical and moral superiority over other countries. The main proof advanced is the victory in the Second World War. The Military Historical Society popularises this idea and supervises the creation of military-historical monuments. Thus, the war between Russia and Ukraine for Putin is a kind of creation of history. All other ideas depend on this. And now it is obvious that all evaluations of the war, of its presuppositions, as well as of the cultural, economic, and political consequences, must correspond to the official version. In this respect, I repeat, therefore, all disciplines within social sciences and humanities - sociology, history, political science, economics, philology and so on - are under attack.

How are these attacks to academic freedom legalized? Could you mention some of legislative obstacles to academic freedom?

Separately, the most important legislative obstacles to academic freedom are as follows: Foreign agents. The “law on foreign agents” has acquired special force in Russia. This law was adopted in 2012 and initially applied only to non-profit organizations that receive funds from abroad and conduct political activities, although only charitable foundations started to suffer from it at the beginning. Gradually, it has affected an increasing number of organizations, and in the 2022 amendments it was declared that all individuals who receive support from abroad or who are “under foreign influence in other forms” – that is, for instance those who share human rights values – are foreign agents. As a result, dozens of intellectuals have been declared to be agents, and most often they are forced to leave Russia. The direct function of this law is to worsen the economic life of dissidents. But also, soon all “foreign agents” will be banned from teaching in the universities and schools. Educational institutions will no longer want to deal with these people. Now, we already have a great deal of evidence that universities do not renew contracts with those professors implicated with the law. One example: the Higher School of Economics fired the sociologist Iskander Yasaveev on October 10, 2022, immediately after being declared to be a foreign agent.

State secrets and espionage (article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“High treason”). In recent years, we have witnessed an exacerbation of attacks against all those who deal with state secrecy issues, but after the war the action of the authorities on these laws has become even tougher. Laws relating to access to state secrets are particularly frightening for those studying physics and engineering, which can then be associated with the production of weapons, or, for example, ecology when it comes to the disposal of radioactive waste or nuclear weapons and the like. At the same time, it often turns out that published information can be counted as a secret by secret services, or the very fact of its transfer to a foreigner is perceived as espionage. The most famous example, although not the only one of how such a law works is the case of Dmitry Kolker: when the scholar went to a conference in China, he coordinated the content of his lectures with the FSB (the successor to the KGB), but many years later it was discovered that some of his lecture materials fall under the definition of “secrecy”. He was arrested on June 30, 2022, while he was suffering the fourth stage of cancer. He died in prison four days later.

This applies not only exclusively to scientific research, but also to investigative journalism. For example, on September 5, 2022, the journalist Ivan Safronov, whose area of ​​expertise was the production of weapons, has just been condemned to 22 years in prison. The story of Article 275 is extremely dramatic. It was part of Stalin’s most popular article 58 to arrest those suspected of being counter-revolutionary but “the crime of ‘betrayal of the motherland’ or treason (Article 64)” first appeared in 1960. Despite the fact that in the post-Stalin years it had a political colouring, at the moment it entails the greatest risks for scientists and “scientific” journalists. Perhaps the authorities are formally trying to distance themselves from the Stalinist prehistory and do not use it for direct political repression.

What can you say about legal restrictions on making research in the field?

Restrictions in working with archives due to repression and an uncomfortable past. The new rules for working in archives are designed in such a way that, in fact, for many years most of the archives of the Soviet era, especially those relating to repression, remained inaccessible to researchers. Furthermore, there have been access difficulties both for scholars who study political repression, and for those who investigate religious repression and the so-called “new martyrs”. This is a new phenomenon of the Putin era, as the epoch of Gorbachev, his slogans Perestroika and Glasnost was a time of promulgation and open study of the crimes committed by the Soviet government. In order to ‘protect’ the secrecy of information of the past authorities in Russia, the structures of the Memorial Foundation were shattered. The Memorial Society was founded in 1989 - during the fall of the Soviet Union - with the purpose of researching, documenting, and examining human rights violations and other crimes committed under Stalin’s regime. Memorial was under the pressure after the Russian foreign agent law passed in July 2012, as I mentioned above, and as a result it was closed on 29 December 2021 by accusation of violating the foreign agent law and supporting terrorism and extremism. The reasons for the defeat are not all that important, the main thing is that the authorities have shown that the topic of repression cannot be invalidated. But in general, I agree with those who say that the struggle against the inconvenient past for the Russian government is the struggle for the only acceptable ideology, which is based on “victoriousness” and holiness of the Russian history. Monopoly on the past is a monopoly on ideology.

Comparison and Identification of the USSR and Nazi Germany. There were the laws that limited the historians in their work with the Soviet past. One cannot compare (“identify”) Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany in their complicity in the crimes of World War II. However, the law has been written in an ambiguous way that it becomes scary to touch upon this subject entirely (Federal Law No. 103-FZ of April 16, 2022).

It seems that history is difficult topic to consider as a research topic. But what about teaching, preparing course and opening a lesson?

Complete regulation of the “enlightenment activities”. There is also a law on educational activities, which has not yet entered into force. The modern authoritarian regime in Russia is often protected for the future by many laws that come into effect when necessary, and to a certain extent loom over everyone like a Damocles sword. According to this law, every open lesson, course, meeting, even outside the official training/educational programs (!) must be agreed and authorized by the state (Federal Law of April 05, 2021 No. 85-FZ “on Amendments to the Federal Law” on Education in the Russian Federation”).

Notifying the ministry about the meetings with foreign colleagues and drawing up reports based on the results of the meetings (The Ministry of Higher Education and Science sent an order of 11 February 2019). This is also a dormant rule, but at any moment it can be turned against any scholar: “did not you report meetings with foreign colleagues, but are you a spy, are you a traitor”? The press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov: “We have to show some vigilance, because the foreign intelligence services, of course, are on the alert.” (August 14, 2019)

What can you say about academic quality of research products?

Permissiveness of plagiarism for officials and loyal academic leaders. You may find it surprising to end the list of generally repressive laws and rules with a mention of plagiarism. But this is the painful point that holds together the dishonest union of university leaders and authorities. The fact is that at some point for officials, both state and university, it seemed very prestigious to have a scientific degree, perhaps this would allow for access to higher salaries. As it is now becoming clear, thousands of pseudo-dissertations were defended. Sometimes this was done in a very primitive and ridiculous way: for example, the university in a new dissertation became a farm, and students, respectively, sheep, the rest of the statistics remained unchanged. Obviously, it's hard to believe in the absurdity of the situation. The dissertation was dedicated to students and universities, when it was stolen, everything was changed to agriculture purely mechanically. The rest of the text remains the same. I came up with a funny word – “Studetsheep”. Minister of communications N. Nikiforov used a dissertation on medicine in his dissertation on civil service, his doctors became civil servants, and patients became visitors to state institutions. The scale of the catastrophe and an amazing evidence base are collected on the website of the Dissernet project. Before the war, its creators were allowed to exist by the authorities, although they did not respond to investigations. I mean, it's only in very rare cases that disclosure has led to the revocation of a degree. No one was seriously punished, and most often people kept their positions. As with other evidence against the Putin regime (the downing of a Boeing or the poisoning), the more evidence there was, the more violent the reaction to investigations.

Now project manager Andrey Zayakin has been subjected to one of the most serious repressions - a demonstrative storming of his apartment and arrest, a criminal case for supporting terrorism (sent 1,000 robles to the Navalny fund), declared a foreign agent and forced to leave the country. This means that his work turned out to be more painful for the authorities than we expected.

Part II

The issues you are discussing resonates with similar tendencies in other authoritarian contexts like Turkey, its approach to security and its treating dissenting scholars and students as traitors of the nation-state if not as terrorists. How have your work as researcher and your relation with students been affected by the situation since the beginning of the invasion?

My departure from Russia was provoked by direct participation in the demonstrations and by the subsequent pressure on my whole family. I cannot say that this has had a direct impact on my personal scientific and educational activities. Furthermore, in a sense, the repressive machine does not work well in Russia, and so far, there is no absolute consistency in the action of the police and other authorities. Hence, even being registered as participating in events does not mean that a scholar immediately loses the opportunity to work or publish in scientific publications. The more famous the case, the greater the danger. For example, the most dangerous signal is the inclusion in the lists of “foreign agents”.

What are the main consequences of being displaced in terms of profession, research, other relevant issue related to the academic work and relations?

I think the general consequences are obvious: working conditions are changing globally, wages in the first place and financial uncertainty. Likewise, another important thing is the interruption of connections which previously helped with publishing, attending conferences, and so on.

In my personal case, the circumstances of the mobility - participation in political demonstrations and, above all, the pressure of war - prompted me to tackle another scientific topic. Currently, as an art historian, I also deal with contemporary Russian art, created by anti-war artists. This allows me to analyse the profound and very interesting material of art, and at the same time to show the European cultural community that part of Russian society is opposed to war.

Regarding this point, we would like to ask what do you think about the role of intellectual – including artists, academics, writers alongside scientists – in and during this critical time?

Sincerely speaking, I would not like to talk about the special role or special tasks of intellectuals at this time. Because imposing a common framework on a variety of creative people is impossible. Those who used to write children’s books, or whose artistic language was designed to represent Peace, cannot be required to serve one political purpose or another. So, the general role of intellectuals, whatever they do, seems to me to remain the same - to be honest in their work.

At the same time, I believe that the current evil in Russia will be defeated. And then some of the artists and writers will have to creatively comprehend the tragedy that is happening now, to realize the causes and consequences of this historical catastrophe. It will be necessary to follow the path that German art took after the Second World War - Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter and so on.

Is there any reason for such faith and optimism? Probably not. Before the war, several art projects were created in Russia, warning against sliding into the new fascism (Anton Kuznetsov, Pavel Otdelnov, Andrey Kuzkin). The most powerful statement is the film by Alexei German “It’s hard to be a god” (2014). Like Picasso’s Guernica, this film was released on the eve of the war. Alexei German wanted his film to be watched by Russian politicians. It didn’t happen, just as it didn’t happen with Guernica. I would like this art to be watched and discussed all over the world. Nobody (!) is immune from what happened to Russia.

With bitterness, I must admit that the position of creative people in Russia is now very defenceless. Very few were able to escape abroad, usually those who had financial means or connections, or some kind of political experience. Those who remained in Russia must resist the challenges of propaganda while at the same time maintaining some insignificant income.

From your country of origin and research, we would like to come to Italy the so-called host country. How is your experience in Italian universities and what could be done better to be inclusive and foster your research?

It is very difficult for me to give advice to Italian universities, given that, as a foreigner, I still have little knowledge of all the circumstances of Italian life. At the same time, my wife and I have been able to receive support from two Italian universities, which indicates an open willingness to help.

We, like all immigrants, have fears about the future, about the sustainability of subsequent scholarships and jobs; there are problems with the rental of housing, since it is difficult to do this for a family with children and without permanent contracts, and so on. But we must admit that many Italian scholars are experiencing the same problems, this does not apply exclusively to us.

These are really challenging issues that Italian universities should take care to create a sustainable environment for scholars at risk who contribute to the Italian scientific community with their knowledge. We wonder about your relationship with your home university and country and your plans for the future. Could you say something about this?

Now it is difficult to talk about the future of our relations and the position of each of the scholars varies greatly. And we do not know what structure Russian power and freedom will acquire after the end of the war. Since 2013, I have worked in various institutions and roles of the Russian State Institute for the Humanities, which is slowly dying. It was once sponsored by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin’s political opponent, but after Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, the degradation of the Institution began, primarily ideologically and then professionally. He is perhaps the most deplorable example of the process that I described at the very beginning: the process of purging opponent teachers at this university is the only well-established “educational” technology.

Fortunately, communication with most other colleagues and institutions is maintained, and there is an opportunity to publish in Russian journals and speak at conferences. There is no impenetrable iron curtain yet. However, the state is already gradually imposing a ban. A sad example from my life: recently, in November, I was supposed to participate in the conference of the Academy of Arts in Russia, via Zoom conference. The conference is dedicated to Italian-Russian cultural relations. I just received a letter from the Academy with the following content: “Due to the fact that the use of the Zoom program has recently been categorically not recommended for government agencies, the Russian Academy of Arts has switched to the Trueconf program”, which has several limitations, including the number of connections. This program also blocks connections from countries which are declared “unfriendly” in Russia. Everything here shows the absurdity of the situation: Italy, studied by many scholars while at the same time considered to be “unfriendly,” created cultural dialogue of the past, but did not have any opportunity to even participate in the dialogue in the present - so the Italians were not there, unfortunately; the imposition of the Trueconf program, which is already notorious for corruption scandals in Russia, but is obviously in demand due to the fact that it is connected with the police and gives them easier listening opportunities. We have already experienced all this in the Soviet Union. I’m sure we’ll survive now. I wish strength to my friends and colleagues in Russia.

Our last question is what you think of the role of the international community to defend academic freedom rights.

Unfortunately, external influence on the internal situation in Russia is impossible. I would like to see programs for Russian scholars in European universities. It is also important that being a Russian citizenship must/should not prevent young people - masters, doctoral students etc. from getting further education in Europe. Very often in Russia they find themselves under pressure from the authorities. Therefore, it is important that they be accepted here.

Currently, many of them are losing their jobs and are forced to move. At the same time, there are many Russian-speaking students in Europe. Many schools for children have been opened. So far, this is not happening in relation to universities, with one exception: The Faculty of Liberal Arts, one of the most democratic universities in Moscow “Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka)” is now opening in Montenegro. Is it possible to help opening a program like this in a European university or context?

[The interview was in Italian and later translated in English.]

Cover photo by Dikaseva on Unsplash (CC).