As Russia heads into the seventh month of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the attacks on civilians, residential areas, and public establishments such as universities and hospitals have increased. When a war or conflict erupts, educational institutions are often primary military targets. Attacking schools and universities spreads fear and intimidation. During the Russian attacks, many Ukrainian universities were destroyed, while several students, scholars, and academic staff were killed during missile attacks on residential areas, on the road as they were trying to flee the country, or in combat defending their families and city. According to estimates from the United Nations, as of August 11, 2022, more than 10 million people who were living in Ukraine have been internally displaced or have fled to other countries. Those who remain in the country face a daily struggle for survival, as cities under siege run low on food, lack clean water, have no access to medical care, and mostly operate without heat and electricity.
Despite widespread international pressure on Russia to end this immoral war, which poses a massive threat to global peace and security, the Russian government has increased its clamp down on domestic opposition to the war and in March 2022, new legislation was introduced to punish the spread of ‘intentionally fake information’ about the government’s ‘special military operation in Ukraine’ with up to 15 years in prison. In his televised speech on March 16, 2022, President Putin declared his commitment to cleanse Russia of pro-Western traitors signaling a severe domestic crackdown on the opposition.
The domestic crackdown has targeted Russian scholars and students, threatening them with employment termination, fines, and jail sentences. Saint Petersburg University, which is Russia’s oldest higher education institution, has already expelled a significant number of students who were detained at anti-war rallies. With Russian academia increasingly isolated from the global academic network, student dissidents are finding themselves targeted by the very institutions designed to encourage and protect critical thinking. Nearly 14,000 anti-war protesters have been detained since the invasion started in February.
As state-funded and state-regulated institutions, Russian universities have never had a chance to become fully autonomous. However, today’s situation is dissolving the last bits of critical thinking and freedom of speech left in Russian academia. Following the invasion, more than 700 government- appointed university presidents issued a statement of support for the “special military operation” in Ukraine. In response, almost 8,000 Russian scholars have signed and circulated an open letter condemning the war on the website Troitsky Variant, an independent science publication in Russia. “Having unleashed the war, Russia doomed itself to international isolation, to the position of a pariah country,” the letter noted. “This means that we, scientists, will no longer be able to do our job normally: After all, conducting scientific research is unthinkable without full cooperation with colleagues from other countries.”1 After the Russian parliament made the condemnation of the war in Ukraine a criminal offense, the letter disappeared from the website.
The letter highlights the twofold dire situation that the Russian dissident academics have been facing: On the one hand they are facing persecution and prosecution in Russia, while on the other hand, they are being excluded from global scientific community as a part of the worldwide anti-war action to condemn the Russian state, which drastically limits their chances of finding refuge and condemns them to civil death.
We at the Endangered Scholars Worldwide condemn Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine and stand in solidarity with those who strive for freedom, justice, and safety in Russia. We call upon all international organizations and academic and professional associations devoted to the promotion and defense of human rights to join us in urging the Russian government to end this illegitimate and immoral war. We demand the international community’s full attention to make all efforts to urge these governments to honor their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights treaties, including to ensure free and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need of assistance and protection, open borders for the safe movement of students, faculty, artists, human rights activists, and journalists; and to honor the right to education and free expression.