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Citing a Soviet decree, a Russian law school restores a Stalin plaque What students and faculty are saying about the new wall art at Kutafin Moscow State Law University

Meduza
19:11, 29 june 2017

Maria Nechaeva

On June 26, law professor Henry Reznik announced that he was resigning from his position at Kutafin Moscow State Law University (MGYuA) as a sign of protest against the school’s decision to restore a memorial plaque dedicated to Joseph Stalin, who once spoke in the university’s building in 1924. The administrators, citing a 57-year-old Soviet provision as their reason for restoring the plaque, say Reznik’s departure will have “no effect on the school’s education process.” On June 28, several instructors at the Higher School of Economics announced that they, too, are refusing to work with MGYuA. Meduza spoke to several teachers and students at MGYuA to find out more about attitudes regarding the restored Stalin plaque.

Henry Reznik calls Stalin a “gravedigger of the law.” Explaining his resignation in a blog post for Ekho Moskvy, Reznik wrote, “Stalin is mass extrajudicial state agencies and repressions. He’s special meetings, ruling triumvirates and duumvirates, legalized torture, deportations of whole peoples, and the dissolution of independent courts, the two-sided adversarial legal system, and the presumption of innocence. [...] This is the edge, and so I remove myself from the faculty at MGYuA.” Reznik added that the plaque was the same one displayed more than half a century ago. “They dug it out of some basement,” he said.

MGYuA’s Stalin plaque first went up in 1949, but de-Stalinization got underway just a decade later, and the object was removed in the early 1960s. Reznik refused to discuss the matter any further with Meduza.

MGYuA’s school administrators say they restored the Stalin plaque in accordance with a resolution from 1960 by the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic’s Council of Ministers, according to a press release on June 27. The 57-year-old resolution set out measures to “improve the protection of cultural monuments significant to the Russian SFSR,” designating a hall in MGYuA’s building on Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Street as a historical monument of local importance, based on the fact that Stalin once delivered a speech in the building 36 years earlier. The resolution came a year before the Communist Party’s 22nd Congress, when it decided to dismantle monuments to Stalin across the country and rename Soviet objects (cities, streets, and so on) dedicated in his honor. MGYuA’s administrators now say they believe the RSFSR resolution still stands, and argue that the university is therefore obligated to display the Stalin plaque as instructed.

MGYuA’s school administration also says it doesn’t want to “get into polemics” with Reznik, promising students that his departure will have no effect on the university’s education process, insofar as he had just a 10-percent professor’s appointment.

There are actually more than a few laws and regulations adopted during the Soviet era that continue to operate in Russia to this day. In 2012, then Deputy Justice Minister Viktor Yevtukhov said there were 45,000 such enactments that needed to be reviewed for compliance with the Russian Constitution and modern laws. According to the newspaper Novye Izvestia, more than 400 Soviet resolutions were in force in Russia until at least 2012.

Maria Nechaeva

Henry Reznik isn’t the only one who’s spoken out against the restoration of the Stalin plaque: he’s been joined by other lawyers and university professors. On June 27, Mikhail Barshchevsky, the government’s representative in the Constitutional Court, called the decision to bring back the plaque a mistake. “As long as the plaque hangs, I of course won’t be coming [to MGYuA] for any workshops, meetings with students, or anything,” he warned, adding that some of the university’s faculty under whom he studied as a young man “endured Stalin’s camps.” That same day, Internet users launched a petition addressed to MGYuA’s president and Russia’s minister of education, demanding that the Stalin plaque be dismantled. At the time of this writing, the petition has more than 9,080 signatures.

Because of the Stalin plaque, faculty members at another university — the Higher School of Economics — have also refused to cooperate with MGYuA. On June 28, instructors in the Higher School of Economics’ Constitutional and Administrative Law Department published an open letter to Viktor Blazheev, MGYuA’s president, stating their refusal to participate in any “academic or other events held by MGYuA.” Ilya Shablinsky, a professor at the Higher School, wrote on Facebook that his colleagues in the university’s law school also installed a plaque in honor of the millions of people who suffered under Stalin.

The reactions from MGYuA’s students have been mixed. One student in her third year (who asked not to be named) told Meduza that her classmates generally fall into one of two groups: some oppose the plaque, and others don’t understand why it’s caused such a scandal. “I don’t like that this whole story is discrediting the university,” the woman said. “As far as I understand, this is all coming from the administration — not the faculty. In fact, in seminars and lectures, the teachers often speak out against Stalin’s regime and against Stalin.”

A freshman named Sergey (who asked that we not publish his surname) told Meduza that first-year students generally have no idea who Henry Reznik is, and generally aren’t discussing the Stalin plaque at all. “One girl I know — she’s a third-year — wrote in a chat, ‘So you don’t care at all? They keep putting up these things, portraits of Putin at every corner, and nobody minds??’” the young man said. Sergey also told Meduza that an MGYuA lecturer described the Stalin plaque as the university’s attempt to follow current trends. The student claims his professor said there’s a current “demand for Stalin” to which the school has decided to respond.

Most of the faculty at MGYuA whom Meduza managed to reach refused to say anything about the plaque. On June 28, the school’s press office and its president, Viktor Blazheev, were unavailable for comment.

Anna Panicheva, an associate professor in MGYuA’s Criminal Procedural Law Department, told Meduza that the administration's official explanation for restoring the Stalin plaque is “unconvincing.” “It doesn’t seem to me that history wins this way. I fully agree with Henry Reznik’s arguments on this issue,” Panicheva said, adding that she and another MGYuA colleague agreed to sign the petition demanding the plaque’s removal, supporting the students now protesting the university. Commenting on the silence by the rest of the school’s faculty, Panicheva said, “Some people need to finish their dissertations, and others are going up for review — not everyone has the chance to express [themselves] freely. And it’s not about fear, but people’s employment and academic careers. People are forced to think about this.”

Some students and professors have come out in support of the Stalin plaque. Anton Zhurkov, the chairman of the Students' Association at MGYuA, told Meduza, “Most students support the installation of the plaque. Our university isn’t training just lawyers in a narrow sense of the word, but real, full-fledged citizens. Our educational process is based on patriotic education and a knowledge of our country’s history, not just the study of the letter of the law. Installing this memorial plaque [to Stalin] says merely that we remember, we know, and we’re not ashamed of our history.”

“There’s no propaganda there. All that’s written is that Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was here. This sort of thing happens normally. People write ‘Vasya was here’ on the walls,” Ivan Klepitsky, a criminal law professor at MGYuA told Meduza. Klepitsky also speculated that it was probably one of the university’s groundskeepers who restored the plaque, arguing that President Blazheev wouldn’t “stoop” to dealing with “such trifles.”

Russian text by Sasha Sulim, translated by Kevin Rothrock