Wearing Putin's Insult as the Badge of Honor

Vladimir Putin meets with United Russia officials, 3 October 2013, Kremlin press service, public domain.

Vladimir Putin meets with United Russia officials, 3 October 2013, Kremlin press service, public domain.

The Greenpeace activists locked up in Murmansk may be suffering the worst luck of anyone in the ongoing scandal surrounding Russia's offshore drilling in the Arctic, but they aren't the only ones hurting. Sergei Medvedev, a decorated professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, recently attracted the scorn of several Russian politicians (including Vladimir Putin), when he suggested in a discussion on Facebook that Russia should allow the international community to control the region.

At an October 3, 2013, public meeting with United Russia party officials, an attendee addressing Putin began explaining that “a certain Russian professor” had proposed that Russia relinquish its sovereignty over the Arctic. Before the man could finish, Putin whispered audibly [ru], “Moron!” The audience applauded Putin's remark. (Curiously, the official transcript [ru] on the Kremlin's website records Putin uttering the gentler phrase: “someone [must have been] joking.”) In a response on Facebook that he later deleted [ru], Sergei Medvedev declared, “I take a personal insult from Putin as a badge of honor.”

Whether or not Putin knew at the time that his insult was directed at Professor Medvedev is unclear, but his comment nonetheless fueled a new round of public discussion about the fate of the Russian Arctic, which Twitter users labeled using the hashtag “#придурокизвшэ” (#MoronFromHSE).

The Higher School of Economics, where Sergei Medvedev works, is known as one of Russia's most liberal and independent institutions, and is held in high regard by Western scholars. Medvedev's work as a professor is closely related to his bold ideas about the Arctic. Indeed, his recent academic publications include work on “knowledge and education as global public goods,” the tension between sovereignty and interdependency, and “security as a global public good.” He also hosts an educational program on the television network “Kultura,” and comments regularly in the Russian press. On Facebook, he has nearly 2,000 followers.

Andrey Gorbunov, one of Medvedev's followers, heckled [ru] him with the following comment:

То, что тебя Путин назвал придурком, это не оскорбление, это твоя суть….

That Putin called you a moron is not an insult, it’s just what you are…

Another Facebook user, Sergey Demidov, implied [ru] that Medvedev should have realized the risks of such political commentary:

сук на котором сидят, даже дурак сомневается рубить… АРКТИКА – это в первую очередь ПОЛИТИКА […].

even a fool knows not to bite the hand that feeds him… The ARCTIC is first and foremost POLITICS […].

Katya Bychkova, whose Facebook profile indicates that she is an alumna of the Higher School of Economics, offered [ru] words of support for what may have been her former teacher:

Сергей, если после всего этого придется уйти из вышки, это будет полный для нее провал.

Sergei, if you have to leave Vyshka [HSE's nickname] after all this, it will be the university's great failure.

Sergei Medvedev, explains his Arctic comments to Russia's Public Chamber, 5 October 2013, YouTube screenshot.

Sergei Medvedev, explains his Arctic comments to Russia's Public Chamber, 5 October 2013, YouTube screenshot.

Writing on LiveJournal, popular Russian blogger Andrei Malgin mocked Putin's claim that the Arctic is “an integral part of the Russian Federation.” (While Putin's comments may sound like a territorial claim on the entirety of the area, they mask an ongoing, unsettled international debate about the exact outer limits of Russia's continental shelf.) Malgin, showing little patience for the subtleties of the Arctic dispute, posted a map of the Arctic Circle that emphasized the region's overlap with Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States. He attached [ru] the following snarky request:

“Расскажите кто-нибудь Путину, что Арктика выглядит следующим образом:”

“Someone please tell Putin that the Arctic actually looks like this.”

Is drilling in the Arctic—long an environmental issue and a flashpoint for debates about sovereignty—poised to change Russia's university culture? The strong reactions to Putin's insulting remark about Sergei Medvedev's idea were presumably motivated by concerns about academic freedom. Could Arctic oil be fueling a new patriotic campaign to muffle Russia's centers of independent analysis?

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