The War on Academic Free Speech in Russia

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Why Should Professors Have Free Speech?
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
November 10, 2019

The desire of certain universities to control the things the public intellectuals they employ as professors say about socially important issues teeters on the verge of censorship and can hardly benefit their reputations, demonstrating only the growing fears of their administrators.

On Friday, the Higher School of Economics made public the decision of its ethics board, which voted seven to one in favor of recommending that Gasan Gusejnov, a linguist employed in the university’s humanities faculty, apologize for his “ill-considered and irresponsible” remarks on his personal Facebook page regarding the “cesspool-like” Russian used by the Russian media. The majority of council members found the statement had caused “serious harm” to the university’s “professional reputation.”

In particular, the ethics board referred to recommendations for university staff members regarding public statements: “If the public statements of employees touch on issues that are matters of considerable public controversy […] it is recommended they refrain from mentioning the university by name.”

However, Gusejnov did not mention his position at the university in the Facebook post that sparked a witch hunt against him on social media and in pro-Kremlin media outlets. Gusejnov said he did not intend to apologize, as he had not yet received an official request to apologize from the university. This triggered a new wave of invective against him.

The persecution of university lecturers and students for political reasons cannot be called something new. In March 2014, MGIMO terminated its contract with Professor Andrey Zubov after his statements about the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In April 2015, the Smolny Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University fired political scientist and human rights expert Dmitry Dubrovsky for his public remarks. In November 2016, Alexei Petrov was fired from his post as deputy dean of the history faculty at Irkutsk State University, allegedly, for disciplinary violations, but it was actually a complaint to the prosecutor’s office by a member of the National Liberation Movement (NOD) that led to his dismissal. In March 2018, the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyarsk forced philosophy lecturer Mikhail Konstantinov to resign after he had shown students Don’t Call Him Dimon, a 2017 video exposé by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

The right to one’s opinions, even critical opinions, cannot be made dependent on a person’s job. Even with regard to civil servants, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that their official positions could not be tantamount to a total ban on the public expression of critical opinions, including in the media. It is all the more impossible to train and educate professionals without critical thinking, free discussion, and the exchange of opinions: without these things, learning turns into scholasticism. Lecturers capable of lively, unconventional thought make the reputations of universities.

There have been other such examples in the history of the Higher School of Economics. The university did not react when, in October 2013, Vladimir Putin called Professor Sergei Medvedev a “fool” for arguing that the Arctic should be administered internationally. Now, however, its administrators have probably been forced to yield to the pressure, hoping that by sacrificing individuals it can maintain control over its professors. But this is a precarious path to a questionable goal.

Image courtesy of democraticunderground.com. Translated by the Russian Reader

Weaponizing Russian: The Gasan Gusejnov Controversy

guseynovGasan Gusejnov. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Gasan Gusejnov Refuses to Apologize for Remarks About Russian Language
Radio Svoboda
November 8, 2019

Gasan Gusejnov, a lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, has refused to apologize publicly for a post on Facebook in which he called the Russian language “miserable” and “cesspool-like.” According to Gazeta.Ru, the professor believes it would not be ethical for him to respond to the decision of a university commission, which had advised him to apologize.

The ethics commission at the Higher School of Economics recommended the professor apologize for his remarks. They were “ill-considered and irresponsible,” said the commission, which also claimed they had harmed the university’s reputation.

Gusejnov, in turn, told journalists he already given university administrators all necessary explanations and had no plans to apologize to anyone. He stressed that he had written the post as a private individual and had not yet received any official demands from the university.

A lecturer in the humanities faculty and a doctor of philology, Gusejnov published his post on Facebook in late October.

“In Moscow, with its hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Chinese and Germans, it is utterly impossible to find anything in other languages, except for the miserable, cesspool-like Russian that this country now speaks and writes,” he wrote.

Gusejnov’s post sparked a controversy on social media and in the media. Facebook deleted his post for violating its rules. The professor himself later explained that he had meant the language of hatred and aggression used in the media, social networks, and opinion journalism. According to Gusejnov, it was “an extremely dangerous environment and an extremely dangerous tool.”

This week, as the public debate about Gusejnov’s remarks continued, Vladimir Putin spoke at a meeting of the Russian Language Council. According to the Russian president, war had been declared on the Russian language worldwide in order to reduce its space [sic]. As Putin said, this was being done by “boorish Russophobes,” “fringe groups,” and “aggressive nationalists.”

The president did not specify what threats he had in mind. But he did instruct the government to amend the current laws “On the State Language” and “On the Languages of the Peoples of Russia” and create a “single corpus of dictionaries and reference books” that would dictate how all government entities used the language. Putin did not mention Gusejnov in his remarks.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader