Know-Nothings

Putin’s Witch Hunt Targets ‘Foreign Agents’ and Intellectuals

The Russian president’s effort to stamp out Western influences is full of dangerous contradictions for scientists, students, and the future of Russia.

07.09.15 5:13 AM ET

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the attack again, this time against “foreign agents”: Russian NGOs and non-governmental organizations, supposedly serving the interests of foreign states. But his offensive—some are calling it a witch hunt—goes deeper than that. Many intellectuals here see it as little more than the coming of new-generation thought police.

One of the persecuted institutions, the Moscow-based nonprofit Dynasty Foundation, a group financing many scientific projects in Russia, had to stop its activities last month and announced on Wednesday it was shutting down altogether. Meanwhile, Putin complained at the Council on Science that too many Russian specialists were leaving to work abroad. He blamed foreign funds that were “sucking up like vacuum cleaners” many talented Russian graduates, when in fact Dynasty, among others, helped Russians stay in Russia to do their research.

Making the official line sound even more confusing, the president admitted that Russian scientists should not be limited to the concept of doing everything themselves, without foreign help; Putin stressed that “intellectual isolation could lead to degradation.”

“Psychologists would call such behavior sublimation,” says Dr. Igor Bunin, president of the Moscow-based think tank the Center for Political Technologies. “Putin hates and loves the West at the same time.”

To hundreds of Russian academics, scientists, postgraduate and undergraduate students who came out to protest on Moscow’s Suvorov Square last month, Putin’s campaign against “foreign agents” meant the de facto end of scientific research, but, again, the pressure on them and their jobs goes beyond that.

Last month at a rally convened “For Science and Education,” participants expressed their concerns about the Kremlin’s crackdown on non-government foundations sponsoring educational and cultural programs. Banners called for authorities to love science and culture, instead of war, invest more money in Russia’s academic research, and put an end to the persecution of independent foundations. “Scientists are not agents!” they chanted.

But the pressure on their research and jobs did not end there. “This is it, the Kremlin is cutting the Russian Academy of Science staff by two-thirds—this is the critical red line, after crossing it, Russia will lose its science,” Igor Streltsov, a microbiologist with a silver-gray beard told The Daily Beast.

Maria Savelyeva, a Moscow University Ph.D. student in physics, said she “needed education and science in Russia, but all the authorities do is think of how to slow down the development of Russian scientific programs. I want to study in Russia, not abroad; but the state salary for scientists is about 15,000 rubles [$265] a month, and besides many academics are threatened with losing even that job.” Savelyeva said she was looking for a position abroad.

Scientific organizations are not the only ones under fire. On Monday, the Russian Federation Council asked prosecutors to ban 12 foreign organizations, including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and the Eurasia Foundation. The Soros Foundation, which for many years has supported education and given out grants to talented Russian schoolteachers, is also under pressure.

“Historically the Russian rulers Peter the Great and Catherine the Great opened Russia to the influence of the West,” Moscow historian Aleksey Sokolov told The Daily Beast as we toured an exhibit about Palladio’s architecture in Tsarina Catherine’s beloved Tsaritsyno Palace. “But today Russia closes up to everything foreign.”

Following the trend for witch-hunting outside influences, Russia’s champion anti-Western TV host, Dmitry Kiselyov, condemned an American professor named Kendrick White, the vice-rector for innovation at Nizhny Novgorod’s Lobachevsky State University, for playing a “harmful” role in Russia. Since 1992 professor White, 51, has invested his energy and talent into bringing up several generations of young Russian entrepreneurs, but as a result of Kiselyov’s show, the university fired its American vice-rector. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, expressed his view on the news in one of those remarks that seemed to reprove people who were only taking their lead from his boss, thus eschewing responsibility: “I hope things will change at some point. The trend of mixing politics and education is a dangerous one,” Peskov said.

The net result of all this is that Russia had been losing some of its best intellectuals.

The Foreign Agents Law was introduced in 2012. It specifies that all Russian NGOs receiving funding from abroad, especially those engaged in political activities, must register as “foreign agents.” So a stigma is attached from the start. Then, last May, Putin signed a bill banning foreign groups seen as a threat to Russia’s national security, a nebulous definition to say the least.

As a result of the accusations made against him, the 82-year-old founder of Dynasty, Dmitry Zimin, left the country. Established in 2002, the foundation had financed dozens of projects in fundamental science as well as the educational and cultural spheres. This year Zimin had planned to spend about $7.7 million on such programs.

Universities also have pushed the Kremlin’s critics out. Until recently, Dmitry Dubrovsky was a lecturer and director of the human rights program at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Smolny College) of St. Petersburg State University. Dubrovsky told The Daily Beast that on March 16 he was informed via email that he had been fired and his position was eliminated.

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The academic believed that he had suffered for his political views and activism in civil society. “The university management asked me several times to stop giving comments to the media, and even pressured me to sign a statement with a special clause forbidding comments without direct permission by the university’s rector,” Dubrovsky told The Daily Beast in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., where he is now on a Reagan-Fascell Fellowship with the National Endowment for Democracy.

Smolny College was originally founded upon the principles of liberal education in close collaboration with Bard College in the United States. Among very few Russian institutions of higher education, Smolny graduates received two diplomas, one Russian and one American—a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bard College and a Bachelor of Arts and Humanitarian Sciences from St. Petersburg State University.

In late March, Smolny students and graduates protested outside the university’s campus with signs that said: “Give us our professor back!” That did not help. The university replaced Dubrovsky anyway.

“In general, the current regime does not trust the Russian intelligentsia and tries to reduce its numbers and influence,” Dubrovsky told The Daily Beast.

Some negative comments by officials “reminded me of Stalinism,” Irina Prokhorova told The Daily Beast this month. She is the founder of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, funded by her billionaire brother’s fortune. (Reportedly the third-richest man in Russia, he also owns the Brooklyn Nets basketball team.) She noted that First Deputy Minister of Culture Vladimir Aristarkhov, talking about supposedly foreign-funded groups, said they helped the “disintegration of our traditional values.” Among such groups the official mentioned the George Soros Open Society Foundation, the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, and the New Institute of Culturology.

Irina Prokhorova explained that every year the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation invested about $20 million of her brother’s personal money in cultural programs, theatrical projects, youth festivals, and children’s art contests around Russian regions, including Siberia and the Ural Mountains. “The problem is not some hunt that a few individuals declared against private foundations, but the trend, the monopolization of private life—obviously aiming to return us to Soviet times, to a totalitarian regime,” she said.

One of the most-read Russian newspapers, MK, published a letter last Thursday addressed to Putin, in reaction to his anti-Western statements: “You said ‘vacuum cleaner’? Do you think the youth are dust, garbage without intellect, without their own will? But they grew up in your times, they have a right to vote at elections. And all of a sudden it turns out that they have no right to choose a place for their studies,” the letter said.