Your Russian History Professor Is Basically James Bond

The name's Bond, Professor Bond. And he's studiously reading Stephen Kotkin's new biography about Stalin. Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

The name's Bond, Professor Bond. And he's studiously reading Stephen Kotkin's new biography about Stalin. Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Western academics have spy mania this week, after an RFE/RL article about the growing number of deportations of scholars trying to conduct archival work in Russia. This story was followed the next day by news of another expulsion of a British graduate student who dared to research—wait for it—working conditions and their ties to the revolutions of early-20th-century Tsarist Russia.

RuNet Echo takes a look at how people in Russia and in the West reacted on social media to these two stories. Was it all booing abroad at the crackdown on scholars and cheering inside Russia for foiling the dastardly archival snoops? Not exactly.

Carl Schreck’s article for RFE/RL, titled “Western Scholars Alarmed By Russian Deportations, Fines,” provoked a small scandal in the Western academic community because he cited public Facebook posts by a PhD student in the UK about her run-in with police and immigration officials at an archive in Arkhangelsk. The graduate student later deleted her accounts on Twitter and, and the Facebook group where she originally shared some of her stories hid its conversations behind a privacy wall. RFE/RL later redacted from its piece the name of the graduate student, who never responded to emails before the article was published asking for a comment about her public Facebook posts.

In his piece, Schreck cited several renown scholars who work on Russia, including Stephen Cohen, who stressed the necessity of archival work for academics in the field, and Arch Getty and Sam Greene, who confirmed that pressure on researchers working in Russian archives is rising.

Not everyone welcomed Schreck’s handling of the story, however, such as Joseph Kellner, a Russian history PhD student at UC Berkeley. Kellner also recently authored an opinion piece, titled “Why US Is Addicted to Russophobia,” published on the website Russia Insider, a crowdfunded project by a Moscow-based American, Charles Bausman. (Profiled last year by the pro-Kremlin media outlet RT, Russia Insider has now collected $26,000 of its $20,000 Kickstarter goal.)

Hours later, Kellner issued a clarification:

As scholars in the West debated the ethics of Schreck’s decision to write about their troubles in Russian archives, yet another graduate student working at an archive, this time in in Nizhny Novgorod, was ordered to leave the country for “illegally researching” ties between Tsarist working conditions and the revolutions of the early 20th century.

On April 1, Laura Sumner, a 25-year-old Russian history PhD student at Nottingham University, was convicted of violating the terms of her business visa by working at an archive, and given ten days to leave Russia. LifeNews, a popular pro-Kremlin news outlet, drew attention to Sumner’s interest in revolutions, implying that her work could be used to help the West stage a “color revolution” inside Russia, and calling Sumner “yet another spy.”

Following the scandal, Sumner deleted her Twitter account, which she’d used since June 2009.

LifeNews’ story about the “English spy” apparently failed to resonate very deeply with its Russian audience. On VKontakte, the country’s most popular social network, where the media outlet has more than 300,000 subscribers, just 268 people “liked” the article. Some readers mocked the notion that a history grad student could threaten the nation, while others expressed anger that the authorities weren’t doing more to curb the foreign menace.

Andrei Kokorin joked:

украла секрет валенок и балалайки

She stole the secret of valenki [traditional Russian winter footwear] and balalaikas [a Russian stringed musical instrument].

Yelena Sokolova noticed the discrepancy between Sumner’s actual conviction (violating the terms of her visa) and LifeNews’ accusation that she is a spy, appearing to blame police for failing to appreciate the danger:

Не поняла… она работала в архивах и изучала наши революции. То есть, если бы виза была не деловая, а какая нибудь студенческая( или как там), то миграционное законодательство не нарушила бы, и могла бы дальше шпионить? Так что ли? ФСБ совсем заняться нечем?

I don’t get it … she worked in the archives and studied our revolutions. Meaning, if her visa hadn’t been a business visa, and had instead been a student visa (or something else), then she’d not have broken any travel laws, and she could have continued spying some more? Is that it? Does the Federal Security Service do nothing at all?

On Facebook, where the Russian userbase is generally more liberal and Western-leaning, LifeNews has only 75,000 followers. The outlet’s Facebook post about Sumner’s deportation attracted only 92 “likes,” and several unfriendly comments.

Oleg Sobchuk, for example, wrote:

правильно! Все кто ходят в библиотеку – шпионы! Кому нужны думающие люди? быдломасса – достояние роССии

Wonderful! Everyone who goes into a library is a spy! Who needs thinking people, after all? A mass of sheep is Rasha’s great legacy.

How to interpret the rising number of cases involving Western scholars expelled from Russian archives? Remembering the many sanctions currently levied against Russia (not to mention Moscow’s retaliatory boycotts against the West), the pressure on academics seems to be a political shenanigan. While it may be more than a little laughable to label these individuals spies, there’s nothing funny about the damage done to scholars’ careers, when they’re barred from Russian archives.

Writing about the phenomenon, however, is also tricky business. Scholars in the West are reluctant to publicize their names, presumably for fear of getting themselves further blacklisted. (And then there are those who say the incidents are isolated, denying any trend or “chill.”) In Russia, meanwhile, the threat of Western graduate students huddled in dusty archives, reading about the October Revolution, doesn’t seem to disturb or excite many people.

With that recipe for silence, there’s little reason to expect much to change.


  • Wilbur Wright

    It’s not such a new problem.

    Russian restrictions on field research have been happening for a while now, and documented in scholarly literature. See for example:

    Goode P. Eyes Wide Shut: Democratic Reversals, Scientific Closure, and Post-Soviet Eurasia. APSA-CD APSA Comp Democr Newsl Forthcom. 2011;

    Gentile M. Meeting the “organs”: the tacit dilemma of field research in authoritarian states. Area. 2013;

    Koch N. Introduction–Field methods in “closed contexts”: undertaking research in authoritarian states and places. Area. 2013;

  • Joseph Kellner

    Kevin –

    I’m sure you’re aware that writers do not choose headlines. If you had read my article (first paragraph: “I have been absorbing Russian television daily since August, and no honest commentator could pretend it is anything but propaganda”) before broadcasting that I was a troll or somehow compromised by the Kremlin, and then implying it here, I would be perfectly willing to participate in this conversation. In fact I still am, I think this story is important, you are most welcome to write me for comment. But please recognize my right to criticize Schreck’s article, and completely disagree that there is any significant ‘crackdown’ going on, without you and your many followers then discounting me as somehow illegitimate or “in the other camp”. I’m not a journalist and I’m not looking to be in either camp of the information war; I am here to research and write about religious movements in the 1980s. Being in Russia, of course I’m observing what’s going on, and I wrote an essay that I stand by and which, any reader will see, is historical, reasonable and I think fair. I am politely requesting that you remove the “troll” posts from twitter and facebook.

    Thank you,
    Joey Kellner

    • Wilbur Wright

      Well Mr. Kellner, being something of a student of things Russian and Ukrainian, I’d have to say that the website looks an awful lot like an “independent” English language shopfront, designed purely for for Russia Today, and pro-Kremlin putinbots to link to.

      Today we are at war, Mr Kellner. You chose the Russian side. You have been outed. Go home to the United States before you get into trouble in Russia. This is a piece of honest advice.

      • Joseph Kellner

        Russia Insider is in large part an aggregator, and clearly it has an agenda, I don’t deny that. I don’t know where its money comes from, it ultimately doesn’t matter to me, I am not on their payroll. I absolutely, wholeheartedly reject the idea that I “chose the Russian side” by writing an essay about America’s views towards Russia, and publishing it where I could – this is part of my job as a historian, and anybody is welcome to disagree with me and write essays of their own. The idea that I’ve been “outed” is absurd. Anybody is welcome to read my article, to read my twitter, or (god forbid) to read my actual scholarship, and only the most extreme ideologue could conclude that I’m some Putin partisan.

        • Wilbur Wright

          I can only reiterate that if you genuinely believe what you have written that you are naive in the extreme. Your naivety does not strongly recommend you as someone who has engaged in serious scholarly fashion either with Soviet history, or with recent Russian events. I can only hope that your advocacy for the the current Russian government goes unnoticed by the selection panel reviewing your resume in 5 years time. Perhaps you can put your flirtation with Russian Insider down to a youthful indiscretion?

          • r m reddicks

            Sounds much like a threat in the vein of Stalinism. Certainly similar to McCarthyism.

          • Wilbur Wright

            Putinism is indeed a threat like Stalinism.

            And we should be thankful indeed, that today Google provides us with the capacity to record current events in such detail, in perpetuity.

            Because it is this transparency that will ultimately disinfectant Putinism.

            Those that take choose to commit their thoughts to via partisan channels do so as free agents. And must thus also assume personal responsibility for their actions.

            History alone shall judge whether their actions were noble and prescient, or they were merely useful idiots.

          • r m reddicks

            Actually I meant your comment prior to my first reply was in the vein of Stalinism and very most certainly worth of McCarthyism at it’s finest.

          • Wilbur Wright

            What a tangled web you weave Mr Reddicks.

          • Here’s the problem with this constant invocation of “McCarthyism”. Nobody ever gets to criticize the Kremlin then because people like you claim that it will “lead to McCarthyism.”

            Nonsense. The Cold War was exactly the right response to Stalin’s mass crimes against humanity in which tens of millions of people were jailed, tortured and killed. Entire countries were taken over in Eastern Europe. And we’re back to that trend with the capture of the Crimea and parts of the Donbass.

            I think it’s more than fine for any university peer review to ask themselves whether they have pluralism in their faculty and to decide how their scarce resources should be spent. That’s democracy and academic freedom. That’s not witch-hunting people with pro-Kremlin views — of which there is surely no shortage all over academia.

            I don’t believe people should be fired for their views. But I also think we have to have a climate of academic freedom with pluralism of views where no one pro-Kremlin view can be hegemonic and bully others away by invoking “McCarthyism.”

          • r m reddicks

            Simply read the implied threat in Wilbur Wright’s post. I dont accuse without fact.

            “I can only hope that your advocacy for the the current Russian
            government goes unnoticed by the selection panel reviewing your resume
            in 5 years time. Perhaps you can put your flirtation with Russian
            Insider down to a youthful indiscretion?” – Wilbur Wright

            Perhaps I missed the sardonic/sarcasm? In that case, I’ll apologize.

          • r m reddicks

            Not the point. It was the threat bespoken by the fellow, Other that that your comment is foolish and full of whatever is supposed to pass as academic intelligences.

    • Joseph Kellner

      A bit more on Schreck’s article. My first tweet was overstated, but there’s a reason scholars have reacted so strongly to the article – I think you understand that, and touch on it here. Basically, we feel that the article can do nothing but stoke tensions between the government and researchers here, tensions that for all intents and purposes did not previously exist. Visa violations happen, and people get punished, disproportionately at times, but usually this is happening on local levels or elsewhere in a very complex bureaucracy. There’s absolutely no reason to think that Russia has become a hostile place to research; if it does you’ll hear it from us first, not from distant observers. We follow these things closely in our own networks. Further, the previously-named-then-redacted researcher, after the run-in with authorities, was allowed back in the archive to finish working. So when I say that the article is ‘propaganda,’ I mean that it seems to leverage its story line – Russia is cracking down on Westerners – over any real concern for the researchers involved, or the overwhelming number of researchers (including the one whose facebook posts he used) who do not feel this ‘chill’ descending over us. It paints a picture that most here ‘on the ground’ simply do not recognize, many who read it felt that we were being used towards an unrelated political end.

  • Evaldas Pocius

    At present most of Russia’s media and some organizations started a
    paranoid stories
    about spies from West. This helps forwards to demonize Europe and USA.
    This case with Laura Sumner mostly influenced by Fedorov’s
    organization NOD. An organization does hard PR on personality cult in
    Russia – a Putin’s cult including nationalism development. Fedorov’s
    organization acts like a Putin’jugend (like a youth organization of the
    Nazi Partyin Germany). I watched many conferences by Fedorov and found
    no positive view to Europe or USA. European values especially liberal
    views are called as enemy to Russia. It is a long discussion.

    just need to understand that Moscow have activated and supporting a
    program of mental downgrade of it’s nation, fulfilled with lie and hard
    propaganda, as it was in Soviet Union. Russian government has interest
    to do that because of huge amount of black money, they have stolen from
    public and kept offshore. Putin’s surrounding need a nation support as a
    granted power to threaten West governments keep silence of their money.
    I hope that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
    Mr. Philip Hammond will disclose a financial activity by Putin’s guys.

    you know that Putin was suspected of theft of thousand tones of
    aluminum and other material, while he had a job in Petersburg’s
    municipality in 1992? And beside that he has a good skills from KGB
    school. I just wonder is it a honor to shake a hand with Russia’s
    criminal faces to EU diplomats?

  • John H Newcomb

    Stephen Velychenko has negative view of academics who emerge from Russian archives to write about Ukraine:
    “Ukraine specialists are quite aware of what some have called the Ukrainophobic ranting of Stephen Cohen. However, this historian who before 2014 never wrote as much as one scholarly article about Ukraine, yet suddenly felt obliged to pontificate about the country, is not an isolated voice. He is but the tip of an iceberg of distinctly anti- Ukraine and pro-Kremlin liberal and leftist publicists, journalists, commentators, and academics who, although ignorant of Ukraine, its history, and its language, as of 2014 began defending the foreign policy interests of Russia’s ruling class in its former de facto colony.”

    • Historian

      Those historians are paid by Poo-Tin to bash Ukraine; if Mr Poroshenko would pay them a bit more to bash Poo-Tin, they would surely do it.

  • John H Newcomb

    Russia research visa Info just posted by ASEEES in response to RFE/RL story:

  • John H Newcomb

    Looks like British news prefers the LifeNews interpretation that Sumner a spy?

    Laura Marie Sumner: Nottingham University student ‘expelled from Russia for being a spy’:

    “British woman thrown out of Russia for being a ‘spy’: Nottingham University student accused of gathering information about coups and revolutions”:

  • Wilbur Wright

    It seems the The Guardian has now picked up the story of Laura Sumner’s expulsion.

    The Guardian article includes some delightfully unhinged quotes from LifeNews. For example: “The topics that (Sumners’ academic supervisor) Professor Badcock works on are important in light of the west’s work to create conditions for a ‘colour revolution’ in Russia.”

    Here is the article:
    British student ordered to leave Russia as media speculate she was spying.

  • What a skewed treatment of this story!!

    The expulsion of American academics and students has been going on for quite some time now, and Rothrock doesn’t even cover some of the recent ones I’ve covered in recent months:
    4 American students expelled from Chuvashia
    2 American professors of journalism detained and forced to leave

    4 American exchange program participants

    In this las incident, Yevgeny Velikhov, prominent science advisor to Russian presidents, himself had to fly to St. Petersburg to intervne since he is the founder of a sister organization.

    The hallmark of the Soviet regime was not only that they persecuted people, but if they tried to describe that persecution, they would be accused of lying, or some official would try to spin it as not what it seems.

    Why Rothrock has to engage in that dubious practice is beyond me. Russia is expelling students and professors because it is oppressive — because oppression is growing and taking over every field of civic life — science, the arts — everything. This is manifested by things like the firing of the opera director Boris Mezdrich. You can hardly blame this increasing oppression “on the sanctions” or imply there is a legitimate “tit for tat” involved in them because the sanctions were started over the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.

    I fail to see why Joseph Kellner can get away with calling these incidents “anecdotal” — I’ve just listed three from the last year and there are more — at this point, we have to call it as not mere isolated instances but a policy. Like kicking out US foundations and USAID was a policy which came in response to the Magnitsky Act — which itself was a legitimate piece of legislature designed to deal with Russian impunity in the murder of journalists and parliamentarians and specifically Magnitsky death in custody.

    A key reason why the Soviet studies/ Russian studies field is so tainted with pro-Kremlin apologists is because of the fear of losing access or fear of seeming like a “Cold Warrior” or a “neo-con” for telling the truth.

    But until this cooptation and collusion stops, the field has little credibility and those constantly excusing and dumbing down and distracting only call more attention to the problem of Kremlin control. If all the academics in the world banded together and showed some solidarity here, and stopped pretending this is about isolated incidents or about some objectionable behavior of this or that victim, it might concentrate the Russians’ minds wonderfully and they might be forced to relent if they want the same access for their own scholars and students — which remains considerable in the west.

    Combine that with much stricter tit-for-tat with expulsions, and we might get somewhere. Only deterrence and only this kind of sturdy response is going to work on this regime.

  • […] Your Russian History Professor Is Basically James Bond Western academics have spy mania this week, after an RFE/RL article about the growing number of deportations of scholars trying to conduct archival work in Russia. … As scholars in the West debated the ethics of Schreck's decision to write about … Read more on Global Voices Online […]

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