The Year of Aggravation, “Manhunt,” Politicization, and Prohibition

December 18 | 2020

Academic Rights and Freedoms 2020: Wrapping Up Our Blog’s First Year

Dmitry Dubrovsky


Photo: Complicated results of 2020. Academic rights and freedoms are no exception. (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)


The Year of Intensified Isolation

Reciprocal sanctions. The sphere of international cooperation continues to be plagued by adverse trends of immediate relevance to academic rights and freedoms—specifically, reciprocal sanctions and their consequences.

As our authors note, the level of trust among academics has diminished, while censorship that directly affects the quality of international exchange and dialogue, as well as science diplomacy, has intensified. Especially illustrative is the case of a study by Russian physicists that was denied publication in the United States. The journal that rejected the study later apologized to the authors and rescinded its decision. Uncertainty and mutual suspicion do a disservice to the development of normal scientific dialogue.

Spy mania. Russia has been making its own contribution to the demolition of the shared space for scientific dialogue, due first and foremost to its perpetual spy mania and search for foreign agents in science and education. The outcomes of this spy mania are apparent: Russian researchers who engage in important work in the field of emerging technologies are simply afraid of ending up in prison.

This is precisely what happened to physicist Valentin Danilov, in whose case the European Court of Human Rights handed down a judgement on December 1. The court found that the criminal prosecution of Danilov violated Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to a fair trial). Throughout the investigation, Russia refused to provide documents relevant to the case on the grounds that they were classified.

Foreign professors. This line of politics gives birth to a fear of both convening new international scientific projects and attracting new professors from abroad who are supposed to accelerate Russia’s integration into the international education space.

The Crimea Problem. The issue of the occupied Crimean Peninsula and the associated difficulties of adhering to academic ethics remain a special problem in the international sphere of academic rights and freedoms. In practice, the annexation of Crimea cut off almost all scientific and educational ties between Russia and Ukraine. Archaeological excavations in Crimea have posed the challenging question of how one can conduct archeological research on occupied territory, if this is possible at all.


The Year of a “Manhunt” for Foreign Agents

The legislation on so-called “foreign agents” is a serious blow to academic rights and freedoms.

It became apparent as early as 2019 that the Russian authorities had set out to establish control over dissidents of any kind, who are now referred to as “foreign agents.”

The emergence of legislation demanding that not only legal entities, but also individuals register as foreign agents poses a direct threat to public science. Any commentary (including our blog) written by a scientist or university professor can be interpreted as “political activity” and its author therefore deemed a “foreign agent.”

“Additional countermeasures to address national security threats.”  A new draft bill in this area removes practically all limits from the concept of “foreign agent.” Any person can be labeled a foreign agent if s/he receives funding from foreign organizations and engages in political activism in “their interest” or conducts “data collection on Russia’s military and military-technical activities.”

Amendments to the Education Act. Another bill recently introduced in the Federation Council is motivated by the same need to counter the “noxious influence of the West.” If it passes, awareness-raising will become mandatory for registration with state agencies, further complicating universities’ international communication.

The demands of the Nikulinskaya Inter-District Attorney’s Office. The full list of what state agencies consider a threat to national security was unexpectedly made public in the controversial demand of the Nikulinskaya Inter-District Attorney’s Office to the rector of the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Vladimir Mau. The DA’s Office required Mau to provide, among other things (a more detailed list is available on our blog):

  • instances of students’ opposition activities;
  • contacts with “undesirable” international organizations;
  • information about international conferences and roundtables “discrediting the country’s leadership and its policies;” and
  • detection of “pro-American influence groups.”

The above list details just a few of the signs that the government is obviously attempting to reinstate to some degree the Soviet practice of control over science and education.


The Year of Politicizing History

An obvious return to the Soviet practice of control over science and education, with its characteristic “ideological wars,” is also happening outside the security sphere. It is taking place in history and mnemopolitics in general.

The adoption of new constitutional amendments has led, among other things, to the appearance of the following article:

 “diminishing the significance of the people’s heroism in defending the Fatherland is not permitted.”

Thus, the freedom to engage in professional criticism and professional commentary on a variety of historical issues—primarily those of the twentieth century—is under serious threat. The instruments of memory politics increasingly resemble the instruments of official ideological control:

  • A former minister who is now an aide to the President calls history “an applied discipline for relations between states.”
  • The President himself published an article about the start of World War II in which he sought to bring comparisons between the USSR and Nazi Germany to an end.

Historians are facing the threat of a new “History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course.” The securitization of and conservative control over historical knowledge have seriously undermined academic rights and freedoms in Russia in 2020.


The Year of Non-Incentive Bonuses

The financial shape of educational and research institutions continues to deteriorate. Although there are exhilarating reports about rising faculty salaries, the real numbers remain very different from the declared ones.

Furthermore, this has been accompanied by serious increases in workload—from requiring faculty to teach a rising number of courses (with an increasing number of students in each course) to compulsory grant awards and compelling the publication of a larger number of articles.

The academic community is subject to intense precarity and instability. The adoption of an incentive bonus system, which was intended to motivate university staff, has only aggravated this instability.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated this process. The abrupt transition to online education—especially in places that lacked the necessary technical and practical capacity—put many professors in an untenable position and complicated their work.


The Year of a Prohibition on Criticism

At the same time, objections to or criticisms of these decisions are unfortunately perceived in the Russian academy as a violation of academic ethics and are therefore punished.

A direct or implicit ban on criticism, whether of the government’s actions or of university leadership, can be found in a number of documents adopted this year.

The observers fired from the Higher School of Economics in the past year connect these restrictions on criticism to the constitutional amendments, as well as to the actions of the HSE administration itself. There were some important reasons to criticize the latter, including:

  • for their lack of transparency in personnel-related decisions; and
  • for pressuring openly critical faculty members.

The commentary of a former professor ordinarius at HSE (a post from which, theoretically, one cannot be fired) led to a loss of a post at a university once famous for its liberalism.

As a result of intense discussions, HSE adopted The Code of Ethical Faculty Conduct, central to which is a reaffirmation of the university’s “political neutrality.”

Furthermore, it looks as though HSE has become the first Russian university whose Code explicitly prohibits harassment within its walls. In this sense, 2020 has also been marked by a wave of #MeToo at universities.

We will certainly dedicate one of our first pieces in the upcoming year to this topic.


We wish all our readers a healthy, happy, and more successful New Year!


Dmitry Dubrovsky, PhD (History), is an Associate Professor at the Higher School of Economics; an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Independent Social Research, St. Petersburg; and a member of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council.


School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Almaty Management University

Almaty, 31 October 2 November 2024


Academic freedom is a cornerstone of scholarly and research activities worldwide. The globalization of higher education and science necessitates a shared understanding of academic freedom principles globally, particularly in Eurasian countries. Despite the universality of academic freedom, the commitment to its protection and promotion varies and is shaped by the intricate interplay of legal, socio-political, and cultural contexts. A country’s legal regulations and policy frameworks significantly impact how the protection and promotion of academic freedom are understood and implemented.

The quality of democracy and freedom protection in a country also affects the level of academic freedom there. This effect is evident in the rapid challenges all political systems face, such as managerialism and consumerism in higher education. It is even more pronounced in undemocratic regimes with breaches of institutional autonomy and ideologization of higher education.

Equally striking is how the global academy interprets academic freedom when it encounters local traditions that are not universally democratic. In this regard, the operation of campuses of leading universities in authoritarian countries and the debates about the principles and conditions of their operation deserve additional interest.

These observable diversities raise the question of whether global academic freedom can be discussed as a universal concept and how to distinguish the diversity of academic freedom manifestations from aberrations. It also raises the question of how to protect and promote academic freedom as a principle while considering the legal, socio-economic, and cultural contexts in which it is practiced.

For a conference exploring the complexities of academic freedom in a global context, with a particular focus on Eurasian countries, here are some potential topics that could be addressed:

  • The cultural and social context of academic freedom in practice, the contextualization of academic freedom, its cultural and political interpretations, and the universality of academic freedom.
  • Academic freedom in democratic vs. authoritarian regimes, the balance between the social-economic dimension of academic freedom and political rights’ dimension,
  • Legal framework of academic freedom, comparative analyses of legislation, the impact of legal tradition on the application of academic freedom in different countries,
  • Globalization and academic freedom, including academic freedom on international campuses, academic exchange, and academic freedom strategies for maintaining academic standards and freedom in diverse political landscapes.
  • Managerialism and academic freedom, balance between financial sustainability and scholarly independence. Academic integrity and academic freedom
  • Effect of the social and political crises for the academic freedom, academic freedom for persecuted scholars: issues and supports of the scholars in exile
  • Ethnic and moral considerations in upholding academic freedom, including ethical dilemmas scholars faced due to the conflict between national and international academic standards.

The conference is organized by CISRus (Center for Independent Social Research) with generous support of Almaty Management University (AlmaU) and in information partnership with Ghent University.

The conference will be conducted in English. We welcome applications for individual contributions, which should include the title, a brief description (up to 200 words), and a short academic biography of the presenter (approximately 100 words). Presentations will be organized in either thematic panels or roundtable discussions. The organizing committee reserves the right to determine the presentation format (panel or round table) for each selected participant.

Please send your applications to the email:


Application Deadline: July 25, 2024

The Conference Committee is ready to provide accommodation for all participants for the days of the conference and has some capacity to contribute to the ticket costs as well. Please indicate your need for accommodation and travel expenses with your application.


The conference committee:

Dmitry Dubrovsky (Research Scholar, Department of Social Science, Charles University; Professor, Free University)

 Aleksandr Vileikis (Professor, School of entrepreneurship and innovation, AlmaU)

Elizaveta Potapova (Senior Researcher, Public Policy and Management Institute, Lithuania)

Irina Olimpieva (Director CISRus, Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University)


About AlmaU:

Almaty Management University – is a world-class, entrepreneurial, socially responsible university. More than 35 years in the education market, the oldest private university in the country, the 1st business school of the Republic of Kazakhstan, a pioneer of business education in the CIS.

The School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (SEI) is a leading and internationally accredited (BGA&AMBA) entrepreneurship school with a commitment to excellence, innovation, and global perspective. SEI AlmaU offers a range of cutting-edge entrepreneurship programs designed to prepare students for successful careers in diverse fields.


Information for traveling:

Kazakhstan has adopted a policy allowing dozens of countries to enter without a visa. Please contact your local Kazakhstani embassy for further details. For guests who may require a visa, AlmaU will issue a letter of invitation confirming their participation in the conference. Participants will also receive information about housing and traveling to Almaty.


Біз сіздермен Алматыда кездесуді асыға күтеміз !

We are looking forward to meeting you in Almaty!

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