A New Iron Curtain at Saint Petersburg State University?

Recently, the Petersburg-based social issues website Cogita.Ru published a copy of what it alleged was a decree signed by Nikolai Kropachev, the rector of Saint Petersburg State University, and dated October 1, 2009. According to the text of the decree, henceforth all university employees will be obliged to submit grant applications to foreign-based funders, texts of lectures or papers to be delivered abroad, and articles intended for publication in foreign journals to an “export commission” for preliminary vetting. As Cogita.Ru points out, although the decree states that what will be vetted is information that might harm Russia’s defense, is otherwise confidential or top-secret, or harms the university’s “business reputation,” the decree apparently applies to all departments and specializations at the university, whether nuclear physics or Slavic linguistics. 

In a follow-up article, Cogita.Ru asked university researchers and teachers to comment on the decree. One researcher is quoted as saying that he would not be giving the administration information in any case and that the worst that he feared, if caught, was a scolding. Another researcher said, “If they enforce the decree, then I will leave the university for sure. But I have already thought about doing this twice before – one time, for example, when they wanted to cut the pay of employees who got research grants. But they didn’t do this, so maybe things will sort themselves out this time, too.” The article’s author thus concludes: “As strange as it sounds, all that remains is to hope for traditional Russian inconsistency and the mismatch between rules on paper and rules in life. However, the presence of these formal obstacles and the necessity of getting approval for all foreign grants and publications will make it possible to delay or forbid projects that for some reason are regarded unfavorably by the university administration.”

We have received the following commentary on the decree from a source who wishes to remain anonymous:

Although it has tremendous intellectual resources that include longstanding, serious traditions and a multitude of outstanding specialists, the Russian higher education system now finds itself in the midst of a profound crisis. This crisis has been provoked by a number of factors, but one of the most serious is the continuing isolation of Russian scientific and scholarly research, especially in the social sciences and the humanities. On the whole, Russian scholars are poorly acquainted with foreign-language publications in their respective fields (in part because this literature cannot be accessed in Russian libraries), and they have little motivation to publish their own work in leading western journals since, from the viewpoint of the Higher Attestation Commission (VAK), the Bulletin of Saratov State University has the same weight in assessing a scholar’s accomplishments as American Political Science Review, Philosophie or History and Theory.

Unfortunately, Russia’s leading universities are not among the top one hundred world universities in any of the seriously regarded ratings.

This is what President Dmitry Medvedev said during his election campaign:

“It is simply a shame for our country that [our] leading universities – for example, Moscow State and Saint Petersburg State (not to mention Tomsk, Omsk, Ekaterinburg, and Nizhny Novgorod) – are not among the top one hundred or top one thousand universities [in the ratings].”

He emphasized that the quality of Russia’s education system suffered because of the way it positioned itself in the world.

“Is it that our education system is poor? We had a great education system and today it is still quite respectable. But often we don’t know how not only to defend our positions, but also how to present the results [of the work of our scholars].”

As reported by RIA Novosti, Medvedev argued that in the wider world the quality of a university education was not determined by the number of square meters per student, a pleasant campus or dorm, or the salaries of instructors.

“These are all important, of course, but [this quality] is also connected with whether the publications of students and professors are cited [by other scholars]. If their works are published in the leading journals, if they are frequently cited, then a university’s rating immediately grows. And that means more money and more specialists coming to work there.”

Thus the position of the country’s leadership is clear. It is the only correct position: Russian scholarship and science have to be modernized and made part of the international context, and this is done by informing colleagues at home and abroad of the results of one’s research and having access to their research as well. However, at the ground level, in the universities themselves, many deans and rectors are in the process of sabotaging this project of modernization. As a rule, this is not the result of ill will, but of bureaucratic inertia. The consummation of this bureaucratic authoritarian tendency is the decree recently signed by Nikolai Kropachev, rector of Saint Petersburg State University. According to the text of this decree, all foreign publications by university employees and all applications for foreign grants must undergo preliminary vetting, which will establish whether they contain information that might harm the country’s defense capabilities.

That is, on the one hand the country’s leaders call for the universities to provide incentives to stimulate international publications and contacts on the part of their researchers and scholars. On the other hand, the leadership of one of the country’s top two universities decides to make this as difficult as possible and thus rob its researchers of the motivation to publish their works abroad. The reasoning of the rector and his allies is, moreover, absurd: it is obvious that, except for a small number of specialists in nuclear physics and other defense-related disciplines, all other Saint Petersburg State employees are incapable of publishing anything that would harm the country’s safety even if they wished to do so. As it is, there are already laws on the books that limit the export of research information in the “top-secret” disciplines. Publication of top-secret data is a criminally punishable offense.

There is only one explanation: a rage for bureaucracy reminiscent of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s characters that, whether conscious or not, will end up doing more harm than good. If Kropachev’s decree is carried out, then the most professionally minded scholars will quit their jobs at Saint Petersburg State or they will lose their professional edge and end up trapped in the narrow confines of parochial Russian scholarship. By vetting each article submitted for publicaton abroad (and thus delaying publication and, possibly, censoring it altogether), the university will make it much harder for its scholars to work in the international framework, something that is in any case already complicated.

Given that an assistant professor or lecturer at Saint Petersburg State makes on average 500–700 dollars a month (that is, less than the minimum living standard), it is absurd to make it more difficult for her or him to receive international grants. If this decree is ignored by university employees, it will make it possible to fire or arrest them for publishing an article in an international journal on Akhmatova’s poems or the values of contemporary Russians.

This story is doubly strange given that Rector Kropachev is himself in a tough situation in which a large number of students and instructors have begun to protest his policies. What use does he have for this delayed-action bomb? Why issue such a decree at the precise moment when a large group of Russian scientists who now work abroad have written an open letter to the Russian Federation President with their recommendations for reforming Russian science, which has fallen pitifully behind world standards?

Whether they are internationally recognized or would like to be able to attain this recognition for their work someday, the scholars of Saint Petersburg State University are forced to sound the alarm and call on the university to rescind this harmful decree.

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Filed under censorship, open letters, manifestos, appeals, political repression, Russian society, student movements

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