Putin’s War on Ukraine Is a War on Academic Freedom and an Occasion for Solidarity in its Defense


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March 24, 2022

Putin’s War on Ukraine Is a War on Academic Freedom and an Occasion for Solidarity in its Defense

  • academic freedom
  • propaganda
  • Russia
  • Solidarity
  • Ukraine
  • war
Rally in solidarity with Ukraine, Time Square, New York, March 5th, 2022. Photo by Emmanuel Guerisoli.
Rally in solidarity with Ukraine, Time Square, New York, March 5th, 2022. Photo by Emmanuel Guerisoli.

As I observed in a recent commentary, Russian teachers are at the center of whatever debate is still possible in Russia about Putin’s bloody war on Ukraine. The regime is doing its best to use public schools as vehicles of its propaganda, because it is only through propaganda and disinformation that its war can be sustained in the face of the Russian military’s incompetence and the extraordinary Ukrainian resistance. Many brave Russian teachers are resisting, and thus placing themselves at odds with the authorities.

A similar dynamic is unfolding within Russian higher education. 

On March 4 the Russian Union of Rectors issued a statement, signed by over 180 university leaders,  supporting Putin’s war and declaring that “it is important not to forget our fundamental duty, which is to teach out students to be patriotic, and to help the homeland,” and that “universities are a pillar of the State.”

The statement, an offense to both human decency and academic freedom, met with much outrage, and raised serious questions about how Western academics should respond to the increasingly grave situation on Russian campuses.

On March 7, the European University Association—which represents over 850 European universities in 48 countries, including Russia—suspended the membership of 12 Russian universities whose leaders signed the statement. This followed an earlier statement, on March 2, that denounced the invasion of Ukraine as a violation of “the core values of the EUA;” reminded all members of the Association, including Russian institutions, of these core values, and of the need to uphold them; and expressed “solidarity with the university students and staff of Ukraine as well as with the entire population of the country.”

In a recent openDemocracy piece, Russian sociologist Mikhail Sokolov of the European University in St. Petersburg makes a strong case that Western sanctioning of those Russian universities associated with the Rectors’ Letter is both counterproductive and morally wrong, and for two reasons: (1) because there is a very important distinction between politically-appointed Rectors and high-level university administrators, and the faculty and staff who work at universities, and (2) because however illiberal Russian university administrators may be, sanctions and boycotts of their institutions will mainly harm the liberals who work in these institutions, and will only “further strengthen Putin’s isolationist supporters.”

Whether and how Western universities and higher educational institutions and associations should treat the Russian institutions associated with the Rectors’ Letter is a topic for legitimate debate. But at least two things seem clear.

The first is that, at least as far as those Rectors are concerned, their universities are not independent institutions but “pillars of the State” and indeed instruments of the state’s military agenda and war propaganda.

The second is that in Russia, as in every authoritarian society where universities exist, higher education is the site of intense normative contention and political conflict about pedagogy, freedom of expression and association, and the nature of a free society itself.

And, as Sokolov points out, if politically-connected university leaders are in fact agents of the state who seek to “help the homeland” by following Putin, this does not mean that most of the students, teachers, and staff at these institutions also share this agenda. Indeed, many clearly do not, and are not afraid to say so.

Back on February 25, the day after Putin’s invasion began, over 600 Russian scientists, many associated with the Russian Academy of Sciences, signed an Open Letter that denounced the invasion as “cynical,” “unfair,” and “senseless,” an assault on Ukrainians that also furthers “the isolation of Russia from the world” and represents the “cultural and technological degradation of our country.” The Letter now appears to have over 7000 signatures.

And last week over 4000 teachers, staff, students, and graduates of Moscow State University signed an open letter denouncing the war. The letter is worth quoting in full:

“We, students, graduate students, teachers, staff and graduates of the oldest university in Russia, Moscow State University named after M.V. Lomonosov, we categorically condemn the war that our country unleashed in Ukraine. 

Russia and our parents gave us a strong education, the true value of which lies in being able to critically evaluate what is happening around, weigh arguments, hear each other and be faithful to the truth – scientific and humanistic. We know how to call a spade a spade, and we cannot stand aside.

Acting on behalf of the Russian Federation, which its leadership calls a “special military operation,” is war, and in this situation there is no room for euphemisms or excuses. War is violence, cruelty, death, loss of loved ones, powerlessness and fear that cannot be justified by any goal. War is the most cruel act of dehumanization, which, as we studied within the walls of schools and the University, should never be repeated. The values ​​of the absolute human life, humanism, diplomacy and peaceful resolution of contradictions, which we absorbed at the University, were trampled upon and thrown away in an instant, when Russia treacherously invaded the territory of Ukraine. The lives of millions of Ukrainians have been threatened every hour since the invasion of the military forces of the Russian Federation into Ukraine.

We express our support to the people of Ukraine and categorically condemn the war that Russia unleashed against the Ukrainians. As graduates of the oldest university in Russia, we know that the losses inflicted during the six days of a bloody war – first of all, human, but also social, economic, cultural – are irreparable. We also know that war is a humanitarian catastrophe, but we cannot imagine the depth of the wound that we, as the people of Russia, are inflicting on the people of Ukraine and ourselves right now. We demand that the leadership of Russia immediately cease fire, leave the territory of the sovereign state of Ukraine and end this shameful war.”

Of course, this letter does not speak for most Russian university teachers, students, and alumni or even for most of those connected to Moscow State. But it no doubt says what a great many might well say if they felt free to say what they actually think, and it surely says what more would say if they were actually exposed to truths about the situation by an independent media.

We can be sure that many academics and students are among the participants and leaders of the wave of anti-war demonstrations that have swept across Russian cities in recent weeks. These protests have been widely covered by Western media. OVD-info, an independent Russian human rights organization, has recently published a forty-page report entitled “No To War: How Russian authorities are suppressing anti-war protests.” The report documents the range of repressive strategies employed by Putin’s government, including efforts to limit “anti-social” discussion and activities on campuses. It claims that since February 24, over 14,000 Russians have been arrested for protest activity.

Putin’s most recent speech, last Wednesday night (March 16), is an ominous sign that much more repression is in the offing. These words, in particular, should send chills down the spine of anyone who cares about freedom and especially those Russian journalists, writers, teachers and students with ties to the West or to anywhere outside Russia:

The West will try to rely on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors, on those who earn money here with us but live there. And I mean ‘live there’ not even in the geographical sense of the word, but according to their thoughts, their slavish consciousness. Such people who by their very nature, are mentally located there, and not here, are not with our people, not with Russia. But any people, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths, spit them out on the pavement.” 

As Putin has made crystal clear, in words and in deeds, the fate of freedom in Ukraine and the fate of freedom in Russia are inextricably linked. By opposing Putin’s war, Russian academics are speaking out for the freedom and the very lives of Ukrainians, at the same time that they defend their own dignity as academics and as citizens.

It is imperative that Western scholars and their academic institutions—universities, disciplinary and professional associations, scholarly journals, institutes, and teachers’ unions—speak out in support of Russian teachers, students, scholars, and writers who are doing their best to oppose Putin’s brutal war, and to uphold the values of a free civil society in their country. The fates of Ukraine, Russia, and academic freedom and liberal democracy itself are at stake.

At the same time, it must never be forgotten that it is Ukraine, and not Russia, that is currently being literally destroyed by Putin’s brutal war. While academic freedom is being suppressed at Russian universities, Ukrainian universities are being bombed and burned. While Russian academics and students who protest Putin’s war are being harassed, beaten, and arrested, Ukrainian academics and students are being bombed, killed, wounded, and forced to flee their homes and their country for no reason other than the fact that they are Ukrainian.

And so it is important that as we provide support and solidarity to our Russian colleagues protesting the war, we never lose focus on our Ukrainian colleagues, who are facing a crisis that is both political and existential, and whose very lives are at risk.

Since Putin’s invasion commenced, universities across Europe have been scrambling to assist Ukrainian teachers, researchers, and students fleeing their country or in hiding. A range of efforts have sprung up online to link Ukrainian refugees with opportunities across the world. A petition drive has also been organized calling for “remote positions for Ukrainian refugee scholars.”

One particularly impressive effort is Science for Ukraine, “a community group of volunteer scholars and students around the world to help scholars and students affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine.” As a recent report at The Verge indicates, the group began as a hashtag (#ScienceForUkraine) and Twitter feed initiated by Sanita Reinsone, a scholar at University of Latvia, along with a handful of colleagues at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Institute, and Leiden University. Within days it snowballed into a world-wide network involving volunteer coordinators in over 30 countries and support from roughly 850 academic institutions around the world.

Science for Ukraine has a Twitter feed posting links to positions and fellowships across Europe, and a website with links to a range of country-based and global “partners,” opportunities across a range of academic and occupational categories, and resources to assist with transport, housing, translation services, and counseling. The website, and the Europe-wide and global network it constitutes, is extraordinary, and I strongly encourage readers to peruse its extensive list of funding programmes and support initiatives.

In a recent piece on “Why We in the U.S. Should Care About Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine,” I quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: 

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by at home and not be concerned about what happens here. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who inhabits the world can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

The academic solidarities that are being extended to Ukrainians at risk right now across borders and oceans in the face of Putin’s aggression are a beautiful enactment of King’s sentiments.

Teachers, students and academic institutions everywhere are connected in “an inescapable network of mutuality” that is being assaulted every hour of every day by the Russian state’s war on Ukraine.  At the same time, we are not all connected in the same way. Those brave and admirable Russians who are placing their own lives and careers at risk by protesting the war know this. They know that today it is Ukrainians who are in the crosshairs of Putin’s weapons, and Ukrainians who deserve the support of democrats everywhere.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.

This piece was originally published on March 23, 2022 on the Shanker Blog.


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