Russia's Media Crackdown Spills into Academia

Andrei Zubov, left, confronts academic repression reminiscent of the USSR. Images mixed by author.

Andrei Zubov, left, confronts academic repression reminiscent of the USSR. Images mixed by author.

The crackdown on Russia’s free press is as old as Vladimir Putin’s presidency. In the last two years, since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third go, the process has accelerated. Media centers of opposition reporting and opinion, like,, and Kommersant, have lost leaders who could maintain those outfits’ independence. TV Rain, Russia’s only opposition television station, is all but finished, thanks a successful and coordinated campaign to bankrupt it.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its looming invasion of Eastern Ukraine has of course only exacerbated things, and the censorship so widespread in journalism is now spilling into academia.

Three days ago, on March 24, 2014, MGIMO University in Moscow fired Professor Andrei Zubov for so-called academic misconduct. His unspecified crime was a March 1 op-ed published in Vedomosti newspaper, where he compared the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine to Hitler’s land grab in the Sudetenland. MGIMO’s management claimed that Zubov’s political activism (he has spoken out about Ukraine on several other occasions in recent weeks) harms the university, so they let him go.

In interviews, Zubov has not shied from likening his termination to the political firings that occurred in Soviet academia. “Yes, you can compare it with the Soviet Union, when it was the same thing,” he told The New Times earlier this month. Zubov added, however, that Russians have become a “different people” since communism, as evidenced by the outpouring of public and private support he’s received since rumors first started flying about his position at MGIMO. Indeed, back on March 4, a professors’ union published an open letter of support for Zubov within hours of the news that he was being fired. Now that his employment at MGIMO is officially over, Zubov says he is fielding multiple job offers from universities both in Moscow and abroad.

While the interviews with journalists and invitations from other schools certainly suggest that Russia today is much changed from the Soviet Union, it’s harder to judge how accurate Zubov is when he says the Russian people are so different.

Former MGIMO faculty member Ela Kolesnikowa doesn't disguise her political beliefs. Here is her Facebook profile picture, showing her against a Ukrainian flag background.

Consider the experience of another MGIMO faculty member, lecturer Ela Kolesnikowa, who quit her job in protest against Zubov’s firing. On March 25, Kolesnikowa posted a long message to her Facebook account, describing her final day on campus. Kolesnikowa says students gave her a farewell standing ovation, but colleagues in the linguistics department refused even to speak to her. “I never thought I’d become a ghost,” she wrote.

On Facebook, where she has catalogued the experience of resigning from MGIMO, Kolesnikowa has no shortage of supporters. The post mentioned above has almost seven thousand “likes” and nearly six thousand “shares.” Prominent liberal journalists like Ilya Klishin and Filipp Dzyadko have registered their sympathy, as well.

In both cases, people’s public and professional attitudes differ drastically. But which reactions are more significant? The applauding students? The encouraging Facebook users? Or the people who turned a cold shoulder to a colleague of several years? For Zubov, whose prominence grants him ample career alternatives, the public reaction is enough to suggest the emergence a new nation that’s shaken off the worst of the Soviet legacy. Kolesnikowa’s far less certain future, however, is perhaps the better test of how much life in Russia has and has not changed.


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