At a Moscow university focused on openness to innovation, censorship accusations roil a student-run talk show
Lyubov Sobol is an attorney for the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Russian investigative organization run by opposition politician Alexey Navalny. On May 29, Sobol said she had been invited to an interview with To the Point! Persona, a talk show run by journalism students at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE), only to have the interview cancelled two days before it was set to air. The rector of the prestigious university, which was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union to train Russian students in previously suppressed social scientific disciplines, said the student show was suspended in March. He claimed that no one had invited Sobol to the program and went so far as to say that the interview would have gone against the university’s political neutrality policy because Sobol is running for a seat in the Moscow City Duma. Sobol herself, on the other hand, has argued that the whole controversy is a result of the rector’s own City Duma campaign.
Lyubov Sobol was invited to a student talk show at the Higher School of Economics, but the show is now being shut down.
To the Point! Persona was established three years ago as an educational project under the auspices of HSE’s Media Department. Under the direction of their professors, the department’s students would invite journalists, politicians, and other prominent figures to a university studio for video interviews. Every year, the staff and the format of the show would change — students tended to work on it only in their first year of study.
This spring, the talk show was scheduled to host Lyubov Sobol, an attorney for Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. According to a written exchange between Sobol and the show’s producers that is in Meduza’s possession, Sobol’s interview was set for May 30. Two days before then, the interview was canceled, and To the Point! Persona was shut down.
“Our director [Sergey Korzun] told us that the project would be closed, but he didn’t explain why. At this point, we don’t know whether it’s been shut down for good or only for this season,” HSE student and To the Point! managing editor Violetta Poludyuk told Meduza.
Although the university’s website indicates that the talk show’s current season was set to continue until May 31, Sergey Korzun told student journalists at The Vyshka that its closing on May 28 was scheduled in advance.
Vera Sitnina, the press secretary for university rector Yaroslav Kuzminov, echoed that reasoning: “Something was just out of synch. The university leadership believes that the project is over. That’s what they believed, but the students still invited Lyubov Sobol. The leadership was unaware of the invitation. When they found out about it, they said, ‘Sorry, but the project is already over.’ This project has run for the last three school years. It has never been operational over the summer — it was tied to the academic year.”
University officials have accused Sobol of using the incident for “provocation.”
After Lyubov Sobol posted on social media about her interview’s cancellation, HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov sent a statement to the producers of To the Point! Persona. He wrote that Sobol had never been officially invited to the program because she is currently running for a seat in the Moscow City Duma, and the university’s charter prohibits political campaigning on HSE grounds.
Kuzminov also asserted that To the Point! had already been suspended in March.
HSE Senior Director of Information Policy Anton Nazarov told Meduza that the show’s team had a “creative crisis” in the spring: the students and their instructors could not agree on a vision for the talk show or on a list of guests, which is typically formulated in collaboration with the program’s curator, Sergey Korzun. “The talk show is currently frozen, so it’s surprising to hear that they could invite anyone at all,” Nazarov said. “Nobody invited Lyubov Sobol. This feels very much like a provocation that Sobol’s own campaign may have staged to build up hype around her plans for the Moscow City Duma elections.”
Darya Fomenko, an HSE student and the managing producer of To the Point! Persona, confirmed to Meduza that Lyubov Sobol was invited to the show and that Korzun knew about the invitation. Fomenko said the show took a break in February due to problems with its regular studio space but added that it went back on air in the spring. New videos were uploaded to the program’s YouTube channel as recently as May 21, when students interviewed former Meduza publisher Ilya Krasilshchik.
Sobol pinned the cancellation on the HSE rector’s own plans to run for the Moscow City Duma.
The Anti-Corruption Foundation lawyer argued that the timing of the show’s cancellation was no coincidence. “Rector Kuzminov was very much afraid that, during the interview, I would discuss the Moscow City Duma elections and the fact that they include both [HSE board member Valery] Kasamara and Kuzminov himself as ruling party candidates,” Sobol told Meduza. “Kuzminov is using his administrative resources to close down this program.”
Sobol also argued that the university rector is deploying his administrative resources in his election campaign. “As far as I know, he has brought Higher School of Economics students into his political activity as a Moscow City Duma deputy,” the attorney explained. “I wonder whether that violates the charter of the Higher School of Economics or whether Kuzminov believes that is not a violation.”
This isn’t the first time To the Point! Persona has been cancelled.
Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was interviewed on the program in March of 2018. When asked to comment on multiple sexual harassment accusations female journalists had made against State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky, Peskov compared harassment victims to prostitutes. After the on-air interview, students found themselves unable to access video recordings of the conversation. University officials later deleted them, explaining that the interview between Peskov and the students was meant to be a closed-door meeting. The students accused university administrators of censoring their work.
The Vyshka cited three students close to the editorial board of To the Point! who said the show was asked to avoid interviewing political figures after a federal regulatory agency conducted a university-wide examination in February. After the order led the show to cancel an interview with Yelena Panfilova, who leads the anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International — Russia, a number of students decided to quit the project.
HSE officials were unable to say whether To the Point! Persona will air in the coming academic year. Anton Nazarov said that decision would depend on whether students and faculty will be able to find a “new format that would allow the talk show to exist.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen