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Russia is imposing new restrictions on communication with foreign researchers. Here's what we know about those rules so far.

Source: Meduza
Valery Melnikov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Russia’s Science and Education Ministry sent its institutes an order outlining harsh recommendationson contact with foreign colleagues.

In July 2019, Russia’s Science and Education Ministry sent a list of what it later said were “recommendations” to the institutions it controls, which deal predominantly with the natural sciences but span a range of other fields as well. The ministry’s recommendations placed new limits on communication between Russian scholars and colleagues or organizations from outside the country. They also included new rules for Russian scholars who receive foreign visitors. The popular science publication Troitsky Variant published scans of the order on August 13.

The document, which was signed in February of 2019 by Science and Education Minister Mikhail Kotyukov, indicates that all research organizations should notify the ministry about any planned meetings with colleagues from abroad and provide the names of all participants. At least two Russian researchers must be present at any meeting with foreigners, and contact with colleagues from abroad outside work hours is only allowed under the new rules with a supervisor’s permission. After any such meeting, Russian scientists will now be asked to file a report that summarizes the conversation and includes copies of all participants’ passports.

Additionally, foreign citizens who visit any institution subordinate to the Science and Education Ministry are forbidden under the guidelines from using any recording or copying devices, except “in cases stipulated by Russia’s international treaties.” The regulations do not explain which devices this might affect or which treaties might provide exemptions.

Communication with Russian citizens who represent foreign organizations, such as Russian-born scholars who work at universities abroad, falls under a similar set of guidelines under the new order.

Different kinds of organizations will be asked to enforce the new recommendations to varying degrees. Any organization that is subordinate to the Science and Education Ministry and carries a license to work with state secrets must now “provide for the use” of the new rules in its own internal guidelines for employees. Institutions that do not have that security clearance, on the other hand, have simply been instructed to take the ministry’s recommendations into account.

Russian scholars have demanded that the order be annulled, calling it harmful and unenforceable.

On August 13, Troitsky Variant published an open letter written by Alexander Fradkov, who leads the Control of Complex Systems Laboratory in the Institute for Problems of Mechanical Engineering of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The letter argues that the Science and Education Ministry’s recommendations “include a number of limitations and absurd regulations that interfere with scholarly contacts between ourselves and our colleagues abroad.” Fradkov added that the regulations “are rife with measures that cause damage to our country’s prestige and its scientific and technological development.”

According to Fradkov’s letter, enforcing the recommendations would practically mean banning all personal communication between Russian and foreign scholars as well as putting a stop to all international conferences hosted in Russia. The engineer asserted that following the new rules to the letter would require Russian researchers to “take watches, cell phones, and other devices” away from all foreign scholars who do attend their conferences.

The letter goes on to argue that the ministry’s order violates Russian scholars’ rights and civil liberties. “In the age of the Internet, email, and other forms of wireless communication, documents and measures like these are simply senseless anachronisms,” Fradkov wrote. “Am I now required to receive permission from my superiors before communicating with my foreign colleagues through email or Skype?”

In his letter, the engineer asked Minister Mikhail Kotyukov to annul or make significant changes to the order while punishing the ministry employees who drafted it. Fradkov explained in an interview with Meduza that he wrote and published the letter independently and did not speak for his colleagues at the Institute for Problems of Mechanical Engineering. “I received this order through the institute’s internal mailing list for employees, became very frustrated, and decided to send in a letter,” he said, adding that no one from the Science and Education Ministry has yet reached out to him about the document.

“This order is practically impossible to enforce in full. Of course, any added limits would not elicit a positive response, but here, [the limits] are also strange and often downright stupid in their execution. And that is quite shameful,” Fradkov told Meduza.

Other scientists also indicated that they believed enforcing all of the ministry’s recommendations would be unrealistic, particularly given the fact that publications in international journals are a major component of the formal evaluation process for Russian researchers.

“This order would be very easy to put into practice. You could just undress all of the foreigners who come to your institute, put their clothes in a special box, and give them all robes — preferably striped ones so they know where they’ve landed,” joked bioinformatician Mikhail Gelfand.

Some believe the order was triggered in part by recent treason cases against Russian scientists.

Gelfand believes that the new recommendations are part of a broader trend toward limiting contacts between Russian scholars and their colleagues abroad. “I think this order rode the wave of criminal cases against scientists who supposedly leaked so-called state secrets. My hypothesis is that this is how the ministry is trying to cover its ass. It shows that they’ve done everything they can, so they can’t be at fault if somebody does something wrong,” the scientist reasoned.

Alexander Fradkov also mentioned those cases in his open letter. He called on Minister Mikhail Kotyukov to bring up the issue during a cabinet meeting and ask for 75-year-old scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev, who has been in jail awaiting trial for a year, to receive a more humane form of confinement such as house arrest or a curfew.

The new limits on scholarly communication recall similar regulations from the Soviet era.

Simon Shnol, a biophysicist and historian of science studying Russia and the USSR, told Meduza that the Science and Education Ministry’s recommendations repeat Soviet limits on international communication almost point by point. “It’s a total copy,” he said.

Shnol recalled that before finalizing a new publication, Soviet researchers were required to undergo a special inspection to determine whether their work would reveal any state secrets. “It was total idiocy because at the end of the certificate for the publication, they had to write that the article in question did not contain any new scientific discoveries,” he explained.

Soviet scholars also had very limited contacts with their colleagues abroad, and those contacts were regulated by special offices at their research institutions called First Divisions. First Division employees controlled access to confidential information as well as the contents of new publications, and they could approve or reject international business trips and other day-to-day aspects of Soviet research. “Scientists also had to write up reports on their personal communication with colleagues if their superiors asked them to,” Shnol said.

Konstantin Tomilin, a senior scholar at the Institute for the History of Science and Technology, added in a conversation with Meduza that First Divisions also had the authority to decide which foreign researchers would be permitted to visit Soviet academic institutions.

Human rights advocate Lev Ponomarev, who holds the most advanced mathematical physics degree available in Russia, also said the order reminded him of the Soviet era. Before the collapse of the USSR, Ponomarev worked in the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics and taught at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. “Scientists [from abroad] did visit us, but they all went through the First Division’s sieve. Not every foreigner made it through to our institute. They [the First Division’s employees] upheld that regimen for a while, but in the late Soviet era, they practically didn’t do anything anymore. It feels as though back then, there were more freedoms than there are now, and limitations like these just became ritual formalities,” he noted.

Restrictive regulations are already in place at some scientific organizations, but their enforcement is far from universal.

Meduza spoke with one source who is familiar with the operations of a Russian scientific organization that is subordinate to the Science and Education Ministry and carries a license to work with state secrets. The source said guidelines for international communication that mirror those released this month are already in place at that institution. For example, some of the organization’s employees face limits on their ability to travel abroad.

Even the First Divisions still exist in organizations that work with confidential information, internal documents from scientific institutions confirmed. For example, paperwork from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology indicates that the First Division there is responsible for controlling access to state secrets. The division must also receive a schedule for any visits by foreign scientists at least five days before the scientist sets foot on the Institute’s grounds. At the conclusion of such a visit, institute employees must send the First Division a written report.

Meduza’s source also indicated that First Division procedures are only a formality in the vast majority of Russian institutions that work with confidential information, meaning that scientists currently experience little to no serious limitations on their work in practice. Restrictive regulations do exist, but only on paper.

In organizations that do not work with state secrets, things are even simpler. Alexander Fradkov told Meduza that most academics are only required to notify their superiors when a foreign colleague comes to visit, and receiving written permission in return is a formality that scholars currently take for granted.

Following press reports and a response from the Kremlin, the Science and Education Ministry expressed willingness to relax its guidelines.

Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on August 14 that the Kremlin had not yet seen the text of the ministry’s order. However, Peskov also admitted that the new rules “seem like overkill.”

“Of course, you have to maintain a certain vigilance because foreign intelligence agencies never sleep. Let’s just say that nobody has canceled scientific and industrial espionage. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, [that espionage] is up and running against our scientists, especially our younger scientists, and so on. But that doesn’t mean that we should chain ourselves to a bunch of regulations that ultimately won’t lead to anything good,” Peskov remarked.

Representatives of the Russian Academy of Sciences did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment. Science and Education Ministry employees, meanwhile, said that the new order only provides recommendations that “reflect current international norms, tendencies, and approaches in collaboration with foreign state institutions as well as other international and foreign organizations.”

“The recommendations in question are directed primarily toward tracking the growth of our international ties, including progress made within the “Science” national project. This order is in no way intended to impose control over the organizations subordinate to the Science and Education Ministry. We must also note that Russian scientists and scholars do encounter certain limits and heightened control when they visit agencies and organizations abroad,” a ministry spokesperson said.

Minister Mikhail Kotyukov himself called the recommendations a step toward “the systematization of [Russian academic] work on international projects,” saying such an effort will be necessary for the ministry to identify shortcomings in its own operations. Kotyukov also denied that the recommendations would create harsher rules for contacts between Russian and foreign researchers.

“If this order were real, I would have to report myself or jail myself because I’m a dual citizen,” said biologist Konstantin Severinov, who works both at Moscow’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology and at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Nonetheless, Severinov asserted, the Science and Education Ministry’s new rules are unlikely to have any significant impact on Russian researchers, and “everything will be like it was before.”

Some Russian scientific institutes are already developing new guidelines for their employees based on the ministry’s order, said Anatoly Petrukovich, who directs the Space Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. However, Petrukovich also believes that enforcing those regulations would cause difficulties for Russian researchers. “The demands put forward [in the order] are quite harsh, and it would be rather difficult for academic institutions to meet them,” he told the wire service TASS.

The bioinformatician Mikhail Gelfand, meanwhile, argued that the directors of some scientific organizations may begin using the ministry’s recommendations to push back against researchers they don’t like. “Good institutes will be able to brush off this order, but at bad institutes, things will just get a little bit worse. Of course, they won’t formally overturn [the order]. We have loads of laws just like it here that aren’t enforced, but they pop up right away when somebody has to be put in their place. Russian science was fucked already, and it’s going to stay that way,” Gelfand concluded.

Report by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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