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Russia’s Scholars Are Silenced at Home and Isolated Abroad

Larisa Deriglazova
St. Petersburg, Russia - October 11, 2016: The Pylkovsky Observatory (GAO RAS) is the main astronomical observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—October 11, 2016. A man looks through a telescope at the Pylkovsky Observatory (GAO RAS), the main astronomical observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Russia’s war in Ukraine has divided life for Russians who disagree with official policy and actions into “before” and “after.” Russia’s scholars and scientists, its most independent minded and globally integrated group, are facing the kinds of choices they have never confronted.

Older academics may remember restrictions imposed on them and their work by their own country, the Soviet Union. Foreign travel and cooperation with international academic institutions were privileges controlled by the Communist Party. Those restrictions were lifted more than 30 years ago. For most scientists active now, they are the stuff of legend.

Some domestic controls on scientific cooperation are back in Russia, but mostly it is Western academic and government institutions that are terminating joint projects with Russian academia and universities, creating a sense of growing isolation for this group. European countries have started to introduce visa restrictions, which, for Russian scholars able to travel, have added physical isolation to their financial isolation (Visa and MasterCard have stopped servicing cards issued by Russian banks). The most radical suggestions from some European politicians call for a total ban on Russian study, work, and residence in European countries.

These limitations, first and foremost, affect not Putin’s oligarchs or corrupt bureaucrats but people who could be called Russian Westernizers—those who see the development of Russia connected to the West and consider the war a tragedy not just for Ukraine but for Russia too.

The current double isolation of Russian scholars—from within and from the outside—seems to fulfill the dreams of Russia’s jingoistic patriots, who consider the intellectuals’ cooperation with the West a source of “poisonous liberalism.” Many Europeans demand that Russians who disagree with the official course openly express their discontent, as the only base for continuing dialogue and cooperation with them.

Needless to say, Russia’s political regime would not hesitate to prosecute those who raise their voices in opposition. For those, like me, who grew up and were educated in the USSR, this sounds painfully familiar.

As scholars we feel an urgent need to discuss current affairs professionally and deeply, but this need is blunted by the impossibility of speaking publicly and freely. This is not purely a scholarly matter; current affairs have an existential meaning for many educated Russians. The war directly touches about 20 million who, just like my family, have immediate relatives or ancestors in Ukraine. But being a political scientist means having to grapple with what kind of path Russia is taking and what the future is likely to look like. The feeling of shock, pain, despair, and collapse of their academic work, and the inability to influence the situation or even express their protests, is the emotional background for many Russian scholars today.

In a time of double isolation for educated Russians, numerous Russian independent journalists and political commentators moved to YouTube—the only public platform available to them—to provide a public venue for discussing and reflecting on these issues. Many of them have been stigmatized with a “foreign agent" label and have had to flee Russia for safety. They have created a public discussion space for millions of Russians worldwide who support their work with donations and subscriptions. They give a platform to Russian intellectuals, public figures, scholars, and politicians from different sides of the conflict. They often specifically address the issue of moral choice, which is so urgent for many Russians.

The first shock of February forced tens of thousands of Russians, including scholars and scientists, to leave for neighboring countries that do not require a visa for Russian citizens: Armenia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Turkey. Many who fled had to return to Russia, as savings were used up, because living entails many practical considerations: rent, everyday expenses, provision of medical care, schooling for kids, and support for dependents.

At the same time, there are millions who disagree with the regime but choose to stay because they believe that Russia is their country just as much as for those who represent it at the official level and who started the war. They want to be relevant in their country as well as in their profession. For politicians, leaving the country means losing their political cause, which is why Alexei Navalny and the recently imprisoned Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza chose to stay and go to prison rather than flee. For many professionals, leaving Russia means losing their careers, income, and status, especially considering the competitive global labor market and negative attitudes towards Russians. Many scholars such as myself choose to stay because we believe that we can still influence the next generation of Russian students.

The political scientist Ekaterina Sсhulmann gave an important perspective that helps me, and maybe other like-minded people. She recalled the case of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer who committed suicide with his wife in Brazil in February 1942 because they both thought that Nazism would stay forever, and they would never see a free Europe.

Far from giving up, many Russian intellectuals stay and keep up their work. I, personally, agree with those who stay in Russia and devote their professional efforts not to the state, but to a society that needs to be educated and informed. For those who stay, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s maxim is as relevant today as it was back in the 1970s: during the dark days of propaganda and lies, “live not by lies.”

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Larisa Deriglazova

Larisa Deriglazova

Former Fulbright Scholar;
Professor, Department of World Politics; Head, Centre for European Studies; and Head, Master Degree Program on EU Studies, Tomsk State University, Russia
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more