One year after Ukraine's invasion

‘Independent Russian researchers are living without hope’

Pjotr Safronov en Andronik Aroetjoenov Foto's: Pjotr Safronov en Andronik Aroetjoenov
Pjotr Safronov and Andronik Aroetjoenov. Photos: courtesy of Pjotr Safronov and Andronik Aroetjoenov

Russian scientists who do not support Putin and speak out against the war in Ukraine risk being prosecuted in their homeland. That's why a considerable number of them are fleeing the country. The vast majority of them stay, however. How has the war changed their lives and their views on science? Two researchers – one who stayed and one who fled – tell their stories.

Against the war
The large-scale attack on Ukraine by Russian forces started on February 24, 2022. That same week, the EU and several countries, including the Netherlands, put their formal collaborations with Russian universities on hold. In Russia, it was clear that neutrality was not an option. Out of “love for the fatherland”, university rectors manifested their full support to Putin’s decision to invade the neighbouring country.

At around the same time, Universitetskaya Solidarnost, the only independent union for university staff, published an open letter in which academics spoke out publicly against the war. The signatories argued that a true patriot does not unquestioningly carry out what the state demands but rather endeavours “to assert in his own country the principles of fairness, humanism and peace.

Despite the fact that anyone who voices opposition to the war risks a long prison sentence, the small union has not changed course, says Andronick Arutyunov (34), a mathematician and co-chair of the Moscow Institute for Physics and Technology. “But we do exercise caution.” The names under the open letter have since been removed and the union’s leaders think twice before making any public statements. For instance, they still refrain from using the word "war": they refer to it as "the so-called special military operation" instead. “That prevents problems,” explains Arutyunov.

Andronik Aroetjoenov copyright photo: Andronik Aroetjoenov

Andronik Aroetjoenov. Photo: courtesy of Andronik Aroetjoenov

Helping fellow academics
Even so, the union still faces plenty of problems. Over the past year, its membership has shrunk from thousands to a mere two hundred. One after the other, its remaining members are being arrested and charged. Arutyunov tries to provide them with legal assistance when that happens. “We enter into litigation, with varying degrees of success. Recently, an academic in Yekaterinburg was discriminated against for the sole reason that he was a member of our union. We won that case. But it just goes to show that, in the current polarised situation, members are taking a risk by sticking with the union. It affects their job prospects adversely too.”

Arutyunov is also helping fellow academics to flee the country because they no longer feel free to do their job or are afraid of being called up for military service. “We give them contacts in other countries and arrange for them to get across the border. That’s becoming more and more difficult because many countries have closed their borders, though it’s still possible to enter Europe via Istanbul.”  

One of these academic refugees is Pyotr Safronov (41). Since July, the philosopher has been working as a visiting researcher and lecturer at the University of Amsterdam. He is also a fellow of the NIAS institute, from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. “Until 2018, I worked at the department of Education Sciences at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, but I quit because I didn't want to work for a state university anymore.” He started working at private schools, where he spoke out against the war. “But, after I was arrested at a demonstration, I came to the conclusion that it would be better to leave.” 

Pjotr Safronov Copyright foto: Pjotr Safronov

Pjotr Safronov. Photo: courtesy of Pjotr Safronov

Academic freedom
Repression is not the only problem faced by Russian academics who dare to speak out against the war: they have to cope with an increasing number of restrictions. According to Safronov, the first signs started to appear a few years ago. “When I wrote a paper criticising the university’s dependence on state subsidies, it was ridiculed. The suggestion that educational policy should be supported by data was taboo as well. The idea that students themselves could play a role in designing their studies was a step too far for department heads. And this was at one of the best universities in Moscow, on par with Western universities. Things are even tougher in the provinces.”

As a result, academic freedom is rapidly being eroded. Historians can be prosecuted if their research is not in line with the view of Russian history propagated by the Kremlin. “Humanities scholars and social scientists are less and less able to decide what to research”, says Arutyunov. A lot has changed at technical faculties too. “Institutes want their scientists to research new war technology and weapons. Unless you work for the military, you have little chance of a grant. Mathematicians like me are lucky: nobody ever knows what we are doing!”

Since the war began, the Russian scientific community has become steadily more isolated. “International research projects have been halted by foreign universities and by Russian universities themselves”, Arutyunov confirms. But scientists have a hand in these developments as well. “I still go to conferences in Europe but many of my colleagues do that very rarely. They think their Western counterparts don’t want anything to do with them so they don’t get in touch with them anymore. That’s a real shame because there are still plenty of opportunities.”   

Safronov feels privileged that he was able to get out of Russia build a new life for himself thanks to an international network and aid organisations. “Russian scientists find it difficult to make the move because they don’t know anyone. In many cases, they simply have no choice.”

But not all of them want to leave. “In Russia, you live without hope”, Arutyunov sighs. “But I still want to stay. Although our situation cannot be compared with that of Ukrainians: they at least have the hope that the war will end. Russians who are opposed to their regime have had no prospects for over 20 years. The academic world as we used to know it is dead. You can stay and try to help others or you can flee. But, if I flee, I don’t know whether anyone will be able to take over my work at the union."

Written by Peer van Tetterode, HOP