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 Academia.edu, 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.)
— Joseph Kellner (@Joseph_Kellner) April 1, 2015
Hours later, Kellner issued a clarification:
To clarify re:@CarlSchreck- the article is anecdotal and damaging to scholars working here, VAST majority of whom are treated with respect.
— Joseph Kellner (@Joseph_Kellner) April 1, 2015
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.