Moscow university becomes ground zero for political free speech debate

Feb 5, 2020 by

What’s more important for universities: that they protect their students – and themselves – from getting involved in hot-button politics, or that they empower academic freedom of speech, regardless of the controversy?

By Fred Weir Correspondent

Russia’s second-largest and most progressive state-funded university is facing a dilemma.

On one hand, the Higher School of Economics (HSE), which has openly modeled itself on Western university traditions, generally espouses freedom of speech, and its spacious, modern downtown Moscow campuses are a known bastion of liberal moods. But as Russia heads into a period of potential political turmoil with a constitutional shake-up in the works, anything that looks like destabilizing political activity could bring the wrath of officialdom down upon the school.

So HSE has just enacted a controversial set of new rules to separate itself from the political arena. That includes banning explicit political activities on campus, defunding student media, demanding that students and faculty who do engage in off-campus political activity disassociate themselves from the university, and requiring faculty not to “exceed their expertise” in public statements as professors of the university.

It’s not as draconian as it could be. Indeed, by most accounts the crackdown on open political speech in many schools across Russia is far harsher. But HSE has become a flashpoint for debate on the subject. Ironically, it’s also partly because the university administration has been relatively transparent about the new rules.

“We absolutely have not imposed any repressive measures,” says Andrey Lavrov, Director of Public Relations for HSE. “The goal of these measures is to make the university a politically neutral place. In order for our students and staff to be fully involved in the search for scientific and academic truth, they must be free from any and all political pressures. Any student or staff member may be involved in outside political activities, but they must not identify with the university and must separate their political opinions from their academic views.

“We do not want any partisan political activities taking place in the university space,” he says, “that is all.”

A politically active campus

Although Mr. Lavrov denies any connection, the new rules come in the wake of serious political turbulence, which brought the activism of some HSE students and staff to the attention of the public – and the Kremlin. Mass protests against electoral manipulations by city authorities raged throughout downtown Moscow last summer, with some of the university’s students and faculty prominent among the demonstrators. Among those arrested amid the brutal police crackdown was a young HSE student, Yegor Zhukov, who had already gained some fame as an outspoken liberal vlogger on YouTube.

At his trial in December, Mr. Zhukov riveted politically minded Russians with a thoughtful but defiantly anti-Kremlin speech that went viral and was even reported by mainstream Russian media. He avoided jail time and returned to his studies in the political science department of HSE. But there had been on-campus protests in his defense that attracted a lot of attention, as well as open letters and petitions that gathered signatures of students and faculty.

“The HSE was one of the few universities in Russia where big protests occurred – including professors – and that presented the university administration with a dilemma,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Point & Counterpoint, a journal of Russian affairs published by George Washington University. “Do they protect the rights of students and faculty, or do they look after the university’s interests?

“The HSE has an international reputation. It attracts foreign students and faculty, encourages its staff to publish abroad, and they are different from other schools in that respect. But they are state-funded, and draw a lot of income from doing research for government bodies. So, the rector [Yaroslav Kuzminov] is basically caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Mr. Lavrov says there are no plans to expel Mr. Zhukov or punish him in any way for his off-campus political activities.

“Actually, we regard [Mr. Zhukov] as a good model for the policy we are trying to implement,” he says. “He is a student who carefully separates his political activities from his studies in the university. He does that wonderfully. The university supports him. Not because we agree with his views, but because he is our student and therefore is eligible for financial and legal support from the university.”

“Students are not happy”

Some students say the new rules are an acceptable compromise, while others remain opposed.

“On one hand I understand this decision as a necessary one by the university heads, but as a member of the student council I need to defend the rights of students,” says Nikita Bratukhin, a student council member. “And students are not happy about these new rules. People are particularly unhappy that student media might be shut down, and that human rights activities will no longer be allowed on campus. We used to be able to gather signatures in defense of political prisoners, for example, but that is forbidden now.”

One student publication, Doxa, was stripped of its status and defunded in December, after it published a critical article about the rector of another university. Doxa continues to publish a running commentary on its Facebook page but it is reportedly deprived of any right to use school space or facilities.

There are about seven active student media outlets at HSE, all of which have now been stripped of official status and deprived of funding, but it is unknown whether they will be denied the use of school premises and facilities. Some say the funding, about $250 annually, was never a very big deal. More important, they say, is the ability to involve students – particularly journalism students – in reporting and production, and not to suffer any interference or censorship from the administration.

“We have been stripped of our status as a student organization, but nobody knows what this really means,” says Anastasia Larionova, editor of the HSE’s oldest newspaper, The Vyshka. “At this point we really don’t know what’s in store for us. There is no pressure on us to change our content, even when it’s controversial. I think we’ll go on with our journalistic activity, and we’ll raise some money if we need to.”

“Politics is life”

Maria Matskevich, an expert with the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, says there is no way of knowing how many students in schools around Russia may suffer more severe punishments, even expulsion, as a result of their political activities.

“Many higher educational institutes will regard the fact that a student has been detained by police, or fined by a court, as a violation of the university’s charter,” she says. “We may come to know about these cases when they happen in big centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg, but maybe not when it’s some lesser-known regional establishment.”

The HSE is trying to walk a very difficult and contradictory line, says Nikolai Svanidze, a professor of journalism at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow and a well-known Russian historian and commentator.

“When students and professors defended Yegor Zhukov, they could not hide the fact that they were his colleagues at the HSE,” he says. “I understand that the administration wants to protect the university from accusations of politicization – which are particularly dangerous these days. But, from a moral and educational point of view, how do you wean students from taking a position of civic responsibility? How do you prevent them from engaging in politics? Politics is life.”

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