Russian education clampdown ‘threatens international links’

Railing against ‘anti-Russian forces’, lawmakers are proposing state control over ‘educational activities’

January 25, 2021
Security officers stand guard outside the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg
Source: Getty

Russian academics have raised the alarm about sweeping legal amendments that propose government regulation over “educational activities”, fearing that the change could hit international collaboration, stop scholars making public lectures and podcasts and place the humanities under “ideological control”.

The country has grand plans to rebuild its university system after decades of stagnation and to launch five institutions into the world top 100.

But latest amendments to the country’s education law aim explicitly to stamp out what a group of lawmakers claims is “negative foreign interference” in Russia by banning “false information” about the nation’s history and its cultural and religious traditions.

“The climate of suspicion towards academics and their international contacts stands in stark contrast to Russia’s official aims to internationalise its higher education sector,” said Kasia Kaczmarska, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh. Changing the regulations “further stifles free exchange of views within academia” and will likely increase self-censorship by scholars and researchers, she warned.

The amendments would give the government power to regulate and monitor “educational activities” – defined very broadly as “disseminating knowledge” outside of formal programmes.

Exactly how the government would regulate educational activities is so far unclear – critics say this vagueness is deliberate, giving the state arbitrary power – and the amendments could change before they come into force. They are currently awaiting a second reading in Russia’s parliament.

But the legislators behind the changes, who come largely from the ruling United Russia party, have made it no secret that they are seeking tighter state control.

“Anti-Russian forces” are fomenting a “wide range of propaganda activities” among pupils and students, they write in an explanatory note to the amendments. The aim of those activities, they continue, is “discrediting the state policy pursued in the Russian Federation” as well as “revising history” and “undermining the constitutional order”. Their proposed changes would empower the government to “coordinate” international educational cooperation, the legislators say, and realise the “potential” of educational organisations to disseminate “the achievements of national science and culture”.

“This law is attacking not only independent educational projects and all NGO education activities, but the universities as well,” said Dmitry Dubrovsky, a researcher on academic freedom in Russia at the St Petersburg-based Centre for Independent Social Research. “All international cooperation and exchange programmes, following this law, have to be approved by [a] special body of the government.”

Academic groups in Russia have reacted with horror to the proposals. The July 1 Club, an association of scholars, has warned that the changes would put academia, and the humanities in particular, under the “strict ideological control” of the government.

A prohibition on “revising history” would make advances in the discipline impossible, they argue. Such blanket regulation risks shutting down scientists who want to explain their work to the public, they also warn.

Members of another group of academics and science communicators have already declared that they will not comply with the law, and will refuse to apply for licences to speak publicly about academic work.

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