“A Great City Deserves a Great Library”: Petersburg Professors Defend the Publichka

Literary scholar Dmitry Kalugin picketing the entrance to the Russian National Library (“Publichka”), February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanova/Novaya Gazeta

Professors Stand Up for Librarians
Serafim Romanov
Novaya Gazeta Sankt-Peterburg
February 9, 2017

“Have you heard they want to merge the Russian National Library with the Lenin Library in Moscow?” Boris Kolonitsky, a senior researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History (Russian Academy of Sciences) asked passerby.

On February 9, a “professors’ picket” took place outside the Russian National Library’s main building on Ostrovsky Square. Lecturers from the European University, the Higher School of Economics, and other institutions rallied to preserve the so-called Publichka and defend its former head bibliographer Tatyana Shumilova [who was summarily dismissed from her post last week for speaking publicly about the negative consequences of the merger.]

Most bystanders heard about these developments for the first time. But after a short briefing, passersby agreed it would be wrong to merge one of the country’s most important academic and cultural institutions.

“It is not so much the library, St. Isaac’s or anything else that causes people to protest, as it is the fact that no one reckons with them,” Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Reseach, explained to Novaya Gazeta. “Why is everything being centralized? To make it was easier to control. The entire country is being formed up into a [power] vertical, and it is the same way in every field.”

“It matters that people from the outside, people who don’t work at the library but understand its value, speak out,” said journalist Daniil Kotsiubinsky, who organized the rally.

“The people who came here today are not random, but one of a kind. Petersburgers should listen to them.”

As the rally was drawing to a close, the overall enthusiasm was disturbed by a police officer.

“We’ve got a solo picket here,” the guardian of order reported on his cell phone, asking the picketers to show him their papers.

“It’s an A4-sized placard,” the policeman reported. “What does it say? ‘A great city deserves a great library.'”

Historian Boris Kolonitsky shows the group’s placard to a policeman. February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanov/Novaya Gazeta

Translated by the Russian Reader

Is It Hard Being a “Foreign Agent” in Russia?

Viktor Voronkov
Viktor Voronkov

Is It Hard Being a Foreign Agent in Russia?
Vadim Shuvalov
Gorod 812
August 8, 2016

How does an organization officially declared a “foreign agent” manage? Gorod 812 asked Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) in Petersburg, what it has been like.

Did you expect to be declared a foreign agent?

On the one hand, after Bolotnaya Square, it was no surprise. On the other hand, we have never believed what we do is political activity.

Some Ph.D. in philosophy did the forensic examination on us for the Justice Ministry. I won’t repeat the stupid things he wrote. We have gone through four court trials. Recently, the Supreme Court reimbursed one of the fines we had to pay, in the amount of 300,000 rubles.

We were labeled a foreign agent, allegedly, for making recommendations on how to improve the work of magistrates, doing research on the political preferences of trade unions, and advertising a book (which we didn’t publish) on political movements in Russia.

Similar allegations have been made against us to this day.

What has changed in your work since you were declared a foreign agent?

Four times a year, instead of once a year, we write a financial disclosure report. We have to hire a specialist to help us write it. Any violation results in an “irredeemable” fine of 300,000 rubles from the Justice Ministry. But we don’t know we violated.

The Women of the Don Foundation, which deals with gender issues in the North Caucasus, has suffered because of us. It was declared a foreign agent only because we sent them 10,000 rubles out of a sense of professional solidarity, to help them pay a fine. Now we are trying to explain to the authorities the money was Russian in origin.

We cannot work with state universities and officials. We cannot do fieldwork in schools, hospitals, etc. Business is afraid to help us; it is afraid of reprisals. As for the populace, when people find out who we are, they are immediately put on their guard, and the conversation becomes stiff.

I once got a call from a major public radio station. They told me they were putting me on the air in two hours. I warned them that CISR was a foreign agent. They said it was not a problem. Half an hour later, a young woman called me and said her bosses had decided not to trouble me: they needed a cultural studies person, not a sociologist. All electronic media are now closed to us.

Recently, the Justice Ministry redefined political activity.

According to one part of the new definition, all sociological research is classified as political activity, while another part claims that scientific and scholarly research is not political activity. So sociology is no longer scientific and scholarly research.

So how do you do your work nowadays?

For example, we have been researching temporary сohabitation among migrant workers. They support each other while having families back home. Such research requires so-called participant observation. First, you help the migrant worker out. You take him or her to the doctor, get their kid into a kindergarten, and invite them over to your place. Only then will they tell you what they really think about the world they live in. It might take years to get to that point. Whose agent you are, in this case, matters not a whit.

As for working with officials and civil servants, now everything is based on off-the-record interviews.

Initially, when you opened in 1991, did you work with the state? Whose agents were you then?

We were the agents of Boris Yeltsin and his folk. We were interested in working on topics relevant to the country: grassroots movements, Russian nationalism, the new gender studies. A social revolution was underway, and values were being revised.

Did you get money from the government?

We would sometimes participate in grant competitions and get a few crumbs. The times allowed for completing the research were paltry, and the financial reporting was complicated. But we were not fundamentally opposed to taking money from the government. That became a hard and fast principle sometime in the early 2000s.

Why?

We ran up against corruption, against demands for kickbacks and rigged outcomes. The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] would send us invitations to grant competitions, but we quickly realized they had already picked the winners. Or they would ask us to do research on topics like “The Danger from Muslim Migrant Workers in Petersburg.” But we are researchers and don’t do appraisals. We are interested in how migrant workers integrate, in the issue of xenophobia. We gave up on public financing.

What is the size of the usual private grant, and how much time does a study take?

No less than a year or two, often as many as three years. The budget for a study of this sort comes to about three million rubles or more.

Do the foundations who subsidize you set conditions?

The foreign foundations set only one: the research has to be academic research, serious scholarship involving participant observation, and not just getting people to fill out surveys and quickly summarizing the results. By the way, I should note that [only] one out of fifty sociology department graduates goes on to become a serious researcher.

Russian foundations require self-censorship. We did work in Tatarstan: the republic’s president must not be disturbed by the research outcomes. We agreed to censor ourselves. We were interested in finding out why young people were leaving Tatarstan.

And why are they leaving?

It’s a nationwide problem: ours is an avuncular society. If you are outside this circle, you won’t get a good education and you will not be able to set up your own business. All this is highly developed in Tatarstan. There are confessional issues within Islam to boot. Given the circumstances, young people leave the republic or join “extremists.” We recommended an amnesty for certain religious groups that do not call for violence.

We had just finished this study when we were declared a foreign agent.

How have the foundations themselves reacted to your foreign agent status?

Some foundations, even ones with whom were on very good terms, have parted ways with us. They are afraid of being put on the list of undesirable organizations that will be cut off from all official contacts with Russia.

On the other hand, we have received offers of assistance from foundations we had never heard of before. That has been nice.

Why do western foundations finance academic research?

The conscience of the capitalists has awoken or they are unhappy with their own offspring.

What Soviet value has been forfeited in vain?

It’s a pity people have stopped reading. But this is a socialist value. Under capitalism, in new technological circumstances, it could not have survived.

Translated by the
Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of CISR

Centre for Independent Social Research: “We don’t scold or praise — we do research”

“We don’t scold or praise—we do research”: why the authorities want a research center declared a foreign agent
Viktoria Vzyatysheva
April 3, 2015
paperpaper.ru

Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) could be declared a foreign agent. Among the particulars laid against it are a video of a discussion during which someone spoke critically of the authorities, an abstract of a book with the word “politics” in the title, and a brochure containing advice for judges, which was vetted by judges themselves. CISR’s staff insists they do research and are proud of foreign financing. Paper got to the bottom of the conflict, finding out how sociological studies differ from politics, and how terrible the status of foreign agents is for sociologists.

How the work of a research center was deemed a “political action”

CISR was among the few research centers that the authorities demanded register as a foreign agent. On March 12, it received a formal written warning from the Ministry of Justice demanding that it place itself on the registry. The ministry deemed that CISR, which receives foreign funding, was engaged in political activity

As the center’s employees tell it, they had been expecting this since passage of the law on foreign agents in 2012, but had continued to hope, nevertheless, that the status of foreign agents would not be applied to research organization. In 2014, the Constitutional Court has issued a clarification to this end. Soon, however, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov was placed on the registry, and their fears arose again.

“According to the Ministry of Justice,” says Oksana Karpenko, executive director of CISR, “any form of public activity that does not involve praising Russian legislation or various government policies is a “political action” whose goal is to put pressure on the government and shape public opinion negatively. Under these circumstances, it is hard to explain that sociology is an apparatus for society to reflect on itself. When this apparatus breaks down, when society is incapable of taking a sober look at itself, taking joy in its achievements and admitting its weaknesses and imperfections, this leads to a loss of equilibrium. Without it, an upright position can be maintained only with prostheses that rigidly lock society into place. These prostheses are now being tried out on independent media, nongovernmental organizations, and dissidents.”

The Centre for Independent Sociological Research was founded by researchers from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1991 as an alternative to the Soviet academic system. It was unaffiliated with any university and from the outset worked on an interdisciplinary level with experts from different universities.

CISR’s researchers say that its main methodological difference from classical sociological institutes has been its focus on qualitative methods. Karpenko explains that while most sociology has to do with statistics, polls, and charts, CISR’s studies are based on talking to people and trying to understand what guides them in making certain decisions, how conflicts arise, and how opinions on sensitive issues are shaped.

“We focus on those issues that are relevant. We don’t make diagnoses or prescribe treatment, we don’t scold or praise—we do research. We attempt to understand how society works, and we try and tell people about the outcome of our work in an intelligible form.”

IMG_6473

Oksana Karpenko

According to Karpenko, CISR has no clear profile. The emphasis has been on the interests of specific researchers, and often their work has become an area of focus at the center. In the late 80s and early 90s, CISR’s founders were focused on social movements, including nationalist and democratic movements; they also researched the so-called brain drain, poverty, and genders. Later, CISR took up migration and ethnicity, environmental issues, the development of scientific research organizations, and the informal economy (corruption).

Three grievances: video of a discussion, the word “politics,” and advice to judges

The Ministry of Justice identified three grounds for its warning when it demanded that CISR register as a foreign agent. One of them was a video recording of a lecture by Irina Olimpieva, a Ph.D. in Economics, entitled “Russian Trade Unions in Search of Political Leverage: The Evolution of Political Strategies and New Political Ambitions.”

The lecture itself dealt with the influence trade unions have on social policy. According to Olimpieva, the role of trade unions in Russia is extremely limited, whereas in foreign practice, mechanisms for influencing social policy are often enshrined in law. However, in recent years, trade unions have been forced to become more active politically. Olimpieva’s study, launched in 2006, was funded by a grant from a Russian foundation.

However, the Ministry of Justice had no beefs with the lecture itself, but with the discussion of the lecture, which was posted on CISR’s website.

As the ministry wrote in its conclusion, “During the course of the discussion, seminar participants made statements that gave a negative assessment of current legislation.”

“Researchers are now expected only to approve current policy or, perhaps, as in Soviet times, mention ‘certain minor shortcomings.’ This is essentially a ban on criticism, at least on the part of independent research organizations,” argues Olimpieva.

Another project the ministry deemed “political activity” was a brochure entitled “Conducting Impartiality Training as a Basic Component of the Professionalism of Magistrates and Organizing Psychological Relief Rooms for Magistrates.” The brochure was intended for psychologists working in the judicial system, and was based on training workshops and interviews with judges conducted by CISR.

In its conclusion, the Ministry of Justice wrote that the brochure forms “a negative public opinion,” and “the judgments of the authors are aimed at generating a negative public response.”

The objective of the workshops was to enhance the impartiality of magistrates, an institution that has emerged relatively recently in Russia, in the early 2000s. During the sessions, the judges talked about the difficulties of making decisions and examined them with psychologists. CISR researchers said the judges themselves were enthusiastic about the training sessions.

However, they vetted the entire brochure. Otherwise, “it would simply would have been impossible to publish,” the people at CISR explain.

“Judges in all countries have problems with impartiality, so that is why similar workshops are held all over the world. And for this purpose special systems of psychological supported are developed that are aimed at helping the judge disengage from personal predilections when making decisions, and be objective and impartial,” explains Olimpieva.

IMG_6478Irina Olimpieva 

The third grounds for the warning was a presentation of a book entitled The Politics of the Apolitical: Civic Movements in Russia, 2011-2013. The Ministry of Justice determined that the book had a “political focus” and could influence “decision-making by state bodies.” CISR staff claim the book is a purely academic monograph written by professional sociologists, graduate students from various universities.

“It is not even a matter of the book’s content: the research topic and the title were sufficient. But it remains a mystery how placing information about a research publication on the website of a research center constitutes what the law describes as ‘political activity,’“ says Karpenko.;

Artemy Magun, dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at the European University in Saint Petersburg, says that by paying attention only to the word “politics,” one can go to absurd lengths and ban all political science departments at public universities, which a priori have no right to engage in politics.

“There is an element of politics in everything. The fact that you put up a road sign is also some kind of public statement. This border is quite flexible, and can be moved back and forth at will. But we believe that sociology exists as a science, and that it is not reducible to ideology or public relations. Meaning that we can arrive at more or less objective knowledge of society by examining it in the richness of its ideological affiliations.”

Why foreign funding is good for research

At CISR, they point out they have never concealed foreign funding and, on the contrary, have been proud of their research grants. Since the moment of its inception, CISR has subsisted mostly on money from foreign foundations and organizations. CISR has been supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Academy of Finland, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the German Research Society, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and European universities and institutes.

Since the law on foreign agents has been adopted, argues Olimpieva, everything the organization had considered an achievement, has now been considered a minus.

“In our view, grants from international foundations and organizations indicate the high level of professionalism of our staff. But when foreign financing is leveled as a charge, no one even wants to understand what the ‘foreign’ sources are and what they finance. The word ‘foreign’ is already grounds for accusations of hostile intentions. Paradoxically, the higher the professional achievements of an organization, the more suspicious it is from the viewpoint of the law on foreign agents.”

Magun says that, on the contrary, international foundations avoid influencing research altogether and act as impartially as impossible.

“In some cases, the Russian institutions set the agenda, while the international foundations nearly always give absolute carte blanche as to the work’s content. International foundations go out of their way to exclude the ideological influence of donors. Scientific rigor is the basis for issuing grants. It is simply a higher level of quality.”

According to Karpenko, the commonplace that the one who pays the piper calls the tune “manipulates people’s attention, causing them to see a threat in the very fact financing from abroad and closing their eyes to the content and quality of the intellectual product.”

 Why sociologists cannot be foreign agents

In the near future, CISR intends to appeal the warning and prove they are not involved in politics. They are afraid of receiving the foreign agent status not primarily because of the additional required reporting or new inspections, but because of the negative image that would arise around the organization.

According to Karpenko, CISR’s experts can find it difficult to establish contact with an interlocutor. If they are forced to introduce themselves as foreign agents, an interview might be called off, and the sociologists would risk not being admitted to certain organizations at all.

“For the research we do, it is important to establish relationships of trust with informants. When we go into schools or talk with officials, policemen or pedestrians, we are trying to understand how society works in a particular segment, why certain problems arise. We do no want people to be afraid to talk to us. The Constitutional Court ruled that the phrase ‘foreign agent’ supposedly has no negative connotations. As sociologists, we can say this is not the case.”

Thus, the people at CISR say the status of foreign agent will simply make it impossible for them to work professionally, because many areas of society will be closed to them.

You can sign this letter of support (in English) for CISR.  It has so far collected over 1,300 signatures of researchers and scholars from around the world.

Photos courtesy of paperpaper.ru

The Closing of the Russian Mind: Four Snapshots

Here are four reasons why, despite my affection for Kirill Medvedev’s work, I found his recent appeal to the “intelligentsia,” the “youth,” and all other Russians of good will a little odd. He should be honest enough to know he is appealing to what is, increasingly, thin air. Fifteen years of Putinism have decimated “public discourse” and intellectual life in Russia, and now it seems the regime wants to finish the once-mighty Russian mind off once and for all.

Which is not to say that the pro-Putin “euphoria” described in the first two snapshots is not a stage-managed affair to a huge degree, as obliquely suggested by the fourth snapshot.

1.
According to a survey published this week by the respected independent pollster Levada Centre, 82% of Russians believe MH17 was brought down by either a Ukrainian army fighter plane or missile. Just 3% thought the insurgents were to blame. Given these kind of figures, the prospect of Putin facing a backlash of public anger over suspected weapons supplies to separatist gunmen is virtually zero. Ironically, Putin probably faces more danger from Russians disappointed by his failure to provide more assistance to the rebels. “Many people feel cheated by his refusal to use military force [in east Ukraine],” Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist thinker whose ideas are reported to have influenced recent Kremlin policy, told me recently.

Western officials may be hoping economic sanctions will force Russians to rethink their support for Putin, but in reality such measures will achieve little more than an entrenchment of a growing fortress mentality. State media’s routine and increasingly vitriolic attacks on the west’s “decadent” morals mean Russians are likely to accept any economic and social hardships brought about by US and European sanctions. Tellingly, in another Levada Centre poll this week, 61% of Russians said they were unconcerned by the threat of sanctions, while 58% were similarly unfazed by the looming possibility of political isolation over the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine.

These head-in-the-sand attitudes are bolstered by what the director of Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov, calls a “patriotic and chauvinistic euphoria”rooted in the almost bloodless annexation of Crimea in March, which was popular among Russians across the political spectrum. It’s alsoworth noting that many “ordinary” Russians are uninterested in politics and have only scant knowledge of the issues at hand.

source: The Guardian

2.
MOSCOW, July 31 (RIA Novosti) – Life satisfaction and social optimism indices in Russia skyrocketed, reaching all-time highs despite political challenges according to polls conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM).

“Within the last three months, indices of social well-being have shown unprecedented growth, stabilizing at extremely high levels. In June the satisfaction index reached its all-time high of 79 points and the indices of financial self-assessment and social optimism, now at 76 and 77 points respectively, have also risen and stabilized at new highs,” says the poll.

The economic sanctions imposed by the US and EU over the crisis in Ukraine seem to have little effect on Russians. According to the polls, Russians are now far less concerned with the future of their country than they were last year.

The number of Russians who have not ruled out the possibility of a war with neighboring countries is now 23 percent of the population, up from just 10 percent last year. However, the number of those concerned about a Western military threat has held steady at 13 percent for the past eight years.

The VCIOM opinion poll was conducted in 2014, interviewing 1,600 respondents in 130 communities in 42 regions of Russia. Data are weighted by gender, age, education, working status and type of settlement. The polls have margins of error of no more than 3.4%.

source: RIA Novosti

3.
It’s bad news for Russian bloggers, then, that starting today, anyone who attracts more than 3,000 daily readers to his blog is considered a de facto journalist and must register. (In a largely symbolic gesture, LiveJournal has already stopped reporting blog subscribers beyond the 2,500 mark.) Registration entails turning over your personal details to the government—including, of course, your name, meaning anonymous blogging is now illegal for many. (By the way, the law applies to any blog written in Russian for Russians; a post you write from a Brooklyn cafe could face censorship from Moscow.) Bloggers will also be held liable for any alleged misinformation they publish, even in comments written by somebody else. And, insult to injury, bloggers aren’t even allowed to use profanity; a single naughty word would put them in violation of the law. Failure to comply results in a $280 to $1,400 fine as well as a ban on your blog.

The new legislation represents a rather obvious attempt by the Russian government to shut down all criticism of the Kremlin, particularly from the left. The government has already granted itself the authority to shut down any website and used this power to crush popular left-leaning news sites. With this next step, the Kremlin clearly hopes to scare the smaller fish into complying with the official party line. And Russia’s insane Internet crackdown won’t stop with blogs: Starting in 2016, all websites that store data on Russian citizens will have to move their servers to Russian soil—a blatant attempt to assert control over social networks and search engines.

source: Slate.com

orthofascists

4.
The application of [the new law on compulsory registration of NGOs receiving foreign funding as “foreign agents”] against scientific institutions, in fact, constitutes a professional ban on sociologists. Sociology that does not affect public opinion (directly or indirectly) is nonsense. Sociology that does not raise sensitive issues or suggest original answers that run counter to public opinion is intellectually bankrupt. Sociology that does not affect management decisions is as defective as governance that does not use the opportunities of independent social research. Sociology that is deprived of critical analysis of different “policies” loses connections with social science and turns into political technology. Sociology that does not succeed in the competitiveinternational research grant market is devoid of incentives for growth and is doomed to extinction.

In the modern world, any science that exists in isolation from the global context loses its ability to develop. All attempts to control global processes of scientific exchange only lead to the bureaucratization of science, the flourishing of pseudoscientific theories, and talented and open-minded scholars leaving the country. The persecution of independent researchers and research organizations puts an end to the development of a full-fledged scientific community and leads to the degradation of the humanities in Russia, which will ultimately result in a deficit of ideas and strategies for the future of our country.

The law on “foreign agents” is not the only sign of the long-standing crisis of the Russian administrative and political system. It is embedded in a series of decisions that aim to expand state control over various aspects of society and their submission to the bureaucratic logic of the “vertical” power. We can see this in the introduction of censorship and persecution of disloyal media, financial and administrative pressure on public (and especially human rights) organizations, the sterilization of historical memory (pressure on the “Memorial” and ”Perm 36”), criminal and administrative persecution for political reasons and independent (not controlled by the state) activism, dismissal of leading high school teachers for being disloyal touniversity superiors and many other cases. Self-censorship is booming in this society, for which survival has become the main motivation for its members. Overt or non-obvious subjection of one’s own activity to the goals of the “vertical” power is turning into the most effective model of behavior.

It is obvious for us that an independent social science is crucial for a society whose interests are not limited to maintaining stability and “unity” at any costs. An authoritarian state does not need reflection that a professional independent research can provide. It is satisfied with VCIOM polls and various ratings that allow the maintenance of “vertical” tension and promotion of “patriotism”. Such a regime will inevitably degrade and become obsolete, but during its heyday it manages to destroy much of what came before it and exists in spite of it.

We believe that the lack of interest towards the professional opinion of independent sociological community, which often oppose bureaucratic perspectives, points to the incompetence of the Russian administration. The pressure exerted on NGOs and non-governmental scientific centers indicates that the political administration of our country no longer needs feedback and has no interest in the actual state of affairs in Russia. This means it condemns our country to the harsh effects of unreasoned political and economic decisions.

source: Centre for Independent Social Research