Monday, September 2, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Defending Academic Freedom in an Increasingly Unfree Russia

Paul Goble

                Staunton, September 2 -- It was often said at the end of Soviet times that the most dangerous time for a sick society is when it tries to begin to reform itself because any efforts at reform inevitably provoke opposition and are exploited by the reformers not for the benefit of that which is to be reformed but for themselves.

Tragically, a similar observation can be made with equal force about what is going on with regard to the Russian government’s effort to “reform” the Academy of Sciences, a process that has generated near unanimous opposition in the Academy itself and is being exploited by some in the Russian government for their own political ends and personal enrichment.

Consequently, while few doubt that the Academy itself needs to change given the transformation of the world about it and its loss of many of the most talented Russians to other employers at home and abroad if Russian scholarship is to recover, one can only share the fears of Russian academicians that the government’s proposed cure is much worse than the disease.

            In some respects, the Academy by resisting change so successfully over the last two decades has made itself into a tempting target for change from the outside, but the sweeping nature of the changes the government has proposed represent real threats to academic freedom, perhaps no surprise in what is an increasingly unfree Russia.

            The stakes are high – as Natalya Solzhenitsyna said, “the destruction of science is state suicide” (, the outcome is far from certain, but, perhaps most immediately, this case provides a metonym for the problems of reform as such.

            That is precisely the argument Moscow commentator Aleksey Makarkin, first vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, made last week in “Vedomosti” in an article entitled “The Science of Reforming” (

            How to carry out reforms, Makarkin says, is a key issue for state policy. “When initiating changes, the authorities clash with the inertia of public opinion, the intensification of political struggle and the resistance of interest groups, including those with large amounts of resources at their disposal.”

            Failure to recognize this reality and badly timing the introduction of reforms often has the effect of “closing ‘the window of opportunities’” for any real progress.  That is what happened at the level of the country as a whole in the closing years of the Soviet Union, Makarkin says; it is what appears to be happening now in the case of the Academy of Sciences.

            And now as then, “reformations undertaken under conditions of a systemic political-economic crisis cannot prevent and in some cases will accelerate a collapse.”

            The promotion of reforms, Makarkin writes, inevitably create “anti-reform coalitions, which not uncommonly bear an externally contradictory character. The lefts unite with the rights, the ideological opponents of a given reform with opposition figures who in principle are not against it but consider unpopular measures as the latest argument against the authorities.”

            The government’s proposed “reform” of the Academy of Sciences, which would reduce its status to a branch office of the government and unite it with the other academies – has led to “the formation of a broad front of opponents, ranging from those who are nostalgic about the Soviet system to supporters of present-day political democracy, for whom the Russian Academy of Sciences has suddenly been transformed from an archaic institute into a bastion of academic freedom.”

            That is “not surprising,” Makarkin says, given that the government when it seeks to impose its will is “a priori conceived by society with suspicion regardless of whether it is promoting reactionary measures or reforms.”

            In the case of the Academy of Sciences, the situation is complicated by the fact that it involves some 45,000 highly educated scholars as well as 50,000 support personnel and by the reality that “the corporate interests of its leadership do not always correspond with the priorities of the development of contemporary scholarship.”

            That hierarchy has resisted reforms in recent years, and this very resistance made it inevitable that when reforms came they would be from the outside and far harsher than would otherwise be the case, reforms that may in fact destroy much of the very values they claim to represent.

            That makes the way in which the government should try to promote any reform critical, Makarkin says.  First of all, the authorities must present a clear explanation of what it is doing and why and be prepared for “a serious conversation” about it rather than issue a diktat and expect everyone to go along.

            Second, these same authorities must view the views of those who oppose them as completely legitimate and worthy of discussion rather than occasion for scorn or attack.  Third, the government needs to carefully assemble a reform coalition consisting of those who will benefit from reform rather than assume that because it can impose its will, support will follow.

             And fourth, Makarkin concludes, the reform policy of the government must be consistent rather than tacking now in one direction and now in another, something that is only a simulacrum of dialogue and not the real thing and that has the effect of increasing resistance rather than overcoming it.

            In recent months, the Russian government has violated all those principles in dealing with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and consequently, it is no surprise that at an extraordinary meeting of the Academy at the end of last week, the opponents of reform won the day, dug in, and called for the resignation of key ministers.

            That is not the end of this story by any means, but if the Putin regime keeps up its attempts to “reform” Russian science in the ways that it is trying to do at present, Moscow will destroy not only the possibility of reform but also one of the most important sources for the intellectual and hence political development of the country in the future.

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