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‘Harmony,’ not censorship Students and faculty at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics have been told to cease ‘divisive’ political activism or find another university 

Source: Meduza
Irina Ovchinnikova / Shutterstock.com

On January 17, the administration at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics — one of the best universities in Russia — published amendments to its internal regulations on students and instructors. Following the changes, individuals affiliated with the university are now prohibited from mentioning their connection to the school when discussing political issues or taking part in “socially divisive” activities. Apparently in response to students’ involvement in Moscow’s summer opposition protests, the university has also ceased all support for the student press (one outlet, Doxa, lost its status as a student organization even earlier). Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova takes a closer look at the crisis inside the Higher School of Economics.

“The university is tightening the screws”

The Higher School of Economics (HSE) published amendments to its internal student rules and labor regulations on January 17, but rumors about the changes were already swirling a day earlier. Before the school’s administration made an official announcement, the student publication Doxa summarized the new policy.

The controversial changes aren’t the only thing mentioned in HSE’s official statement. The text published on the school’s website begins with a message about innovations at the university and how the new internal rules are part of “the expansion of employees’ social rights and labor-reward system.” The new policy, says the administration, is meant to protect students’ intellectual rights, clarify the principles of student-staff interaction, and also ties into new hours of operation at university buildings. The preamble ends with a note that amendments to HSE’s internal rules feature “other innovations,” as well.

Some of the new policies are fairly neutral, like a ban against rude or derogatory speech addressed to HSE students and staff. The university also raised its anti-corruption standards. Less anodyne are new restrictions on students and instructors that limit their right to “make political statements not only on behalf of the entire university but also on behalf of any group of students or staff at HSE (for example, students in a department, residents in a dormitory, and so on).” There’s also an amendment that says, “in case of participation in political activity or some other activity that is socially divisive, the student or employee will be required to take measures to end their affiliation with the university.” And that’s not all. School staff are now barred from “going beyond the bounds of their expertise or analytical position” when speaking or writing in public, and all student publications have been stripped of their official status as student organizations. 

The student journal Doxa (which already lost its official school status last year for promoting opposition rallies) says the new amendments mean “the university is tightening the screws.” Doxa editors think the administration is responding to a series of open letters in recent months from students and instructors at HSE that have raised public awareness and concerns about issues ranging from the arrest of student Egor Zhukov, the public defamation campaign against philologist Gasan Gusejnov, and Higher School of Economics Vice-Rector Valeria Kasamara’s run for a seat on the Moscow City Duma (demanding that she weigh in on election officials’ refusal to register opposition candidates). 

Doxa says it’s also learned from sources in HSE’s leadership that the university is pressuring school staff who have signed some of these open letters, despite the fact that several deans and professors emeritus published their own open letter last August (at the height of Moscow’s summer protests) advocating HSE’s political neutrality as one of the school’s core values. Administrators have never complained about this letter.

Spokespeople for the Higher School of Economics told Meduza that the new policy is needed to prevent one student’s or instructor’s position “from being perceived as the position of the entire university, which is outside politics.” “The university believes it’s necessary to articulate this more clearly because it leads to a lot of [different] interpretations and improprieties keep happening,” said HSE’s press service. “The amendments do not limit political activity. If a student or employee wishes to make some political statement, then of course they have the right to do this as Russian citizens, on their own behalf, but not on behalf of the entire university.”

“We’re thinking about harmony, first and foremost”

On January 17, 2020, at 4 p.m., about 300 students gathered at HSE’s building on Pokrovsky Boulevard in Moscow. The night before, several angry students used their accounts on social media to call on others to attend the meeting and speak out against censorship, which is how they view the school’s new restrictions. 

Representatives from the university’s administration, including Vice-Rector Valeria Kasamara, came out to talk to the students. Meduza’s correspondent was unable to attend the meeting (spokespeople for the school said it was “an internal event”), but sources who were present described the exchange and provided video footage and audio recordings.

One of the most outspoken students at the meeting was Egor Zhukov, the popular libertarian YouTuber who was famously prosecuted last summer for supposedly inciting extremism online. “We gathered here with you today thinking that HSE belongs to us, at least a little tiny bit, because it’s a state university that relies on our taxes and our parents’ taxes,” said Zhukov, turning to the school administrators, many of whom were buried in their smartphones. “We hired you, after all. You’re our workers right now and you’re standing there, looking at your phones.”

Zhukov accused the school’s administration of interfering in successful advocacy work. “Where did this language about cutting affiliations come from? It’s from all these open letters that are actually working. They want to ban us from doing more. And do you know why? Because in reality our money doesn’t belong to us in this country and a state university isn’t ours — it belongs to those on top. When we tell the truth, we tarnish the reputations of the people who control this country.”

Taking the microphone, Valeria Kasamara announced, “Dear students, you chose the university built by [HSE Rector] Yaroslav Kuzminov. You chose the university built by the Higher School of Economics faculty. If you don’t like what the university’s leadership and the faculty are doing for its reputation, then private universities are wide open. You’re free to choose.”

“If you don’t like living in Russia, then leave,” Zhukov interjected, but Kasamara was unfazed. “If you chose a state university under the government of the Russian Federation,” she continued, “then you must recognize that there is a founder who sets the university’s goals and objectives. You’ve come here with demands, not for a discussion, and that says it all.”

The entire meeting lasted about four hours and it admittedly never became a real discussion. Students insisted that the administration drop its new policy, while Kasamara encouraged her audience to think of a compromise. Toward the end of the exchange, she asked students and university staff “to work with the document and prepare their own amendments and suggestions” by January 21, when the next meeting of the HSE Student Council was scheduled. Administrators will make a final decision on amendments to the school’s internal rules on January 24, as planned.

Later that evening, when asked if the university’s new restrictions on political activity are a response to Moscow’s summer protests, Kasamara told Meduza that “the amendments are not directly related to any events.” “We planned this work because we’d accumulated a number of cases. Nothing happened and there’s nothing that would provoke a harsh reaction,” she explained. 

Kasamara says it's regrettable that the university’s new policies contain “a whole range of measures” to improve the school “and the media is interested in only two subsections.” She argues that HSE’s size (the university has roughly 45,000 students and a large faculty) necessitates a clear delineation between the school’s official position and the positions of private groups and individuals. “First and foremost, we’re thinking about the harmony that should exist at the Higher School of Economics. We want to make a clear distinction: if you’re acting as citizens, then please speak on your own behalf and not on behalf of the university. The university will determine its own position and articulate it to the media,” says HSE’s vice-rector.

Kasamara believes the changes to the school’s support for student publications won’t interfere with the development of university media. “On the contrary,” she argues, “it will allow students and student organizations to have and defend their own views, but just separately from the university’s position.” “We’re not forbidding them from having their own opinions,” she says. 

“An instructor at a certain university that must not be named”

Roman Kiselyov, a graduate of HSE’s social science department and the coordinator of the movement to free Egor Zhukov (when the latter was prosecuted for inciting extremism), managed to attend the January 17 meeting on campus. Kisleyov told Meduza, “Although it might seem at first glance that an institution of higher learning can set whatever rules and everyone has to dance to its tune, that is not so.”

“Any limits on rights should meet three criteria: legality (in our case, federal laws don’t establish these additional requirements [drafted by HSE]); a legitimate purpose (but these amendments in fact restrict a whole range of students’ activity simply for the sake of the administration’s peace of mind); and proportionality (the measures implemented to achieve the goal shouldn’t contradict the goal itself). On all three criteria, I believe the answer is ‘no.’ There are no legal grounds, there’s no legitimate aim, and the [enforcement] measures aren’t proportional,” Kiselyov insists.

Viktor Gorbatov, a philosophy instructor at HSE, didn’t attend the meeting on January 17, but he says he, too, is unhappy about the school’s new policies. He thinks it’s clear “with the naked eye” whom the restrictions are meant to target: “those who sign open letters, the authors of uncomfortable statements [an apparent reference to Gasan Gusejnov], and Doxa and similar student media that have committed to writing truths that are inconvenient for HSE’s administration.”

“Suppose I disagree with something or, conversely, I want to express my support for someone. I’d sign a joint letter. But now how am I supposed to sign? ‘Viktor Gorbatov, an instructor at a certain university that must not be named’? Or, let’s say, another respected representative of the school’s administration runs again for a seat in the Moscow City Duma [a reference to Valeria Kasamara’s 2019 campaign] — will they be required to avoid all affiliations with the university, like us mere mortals? If so, then why didn’t they do that before, to put it mildly? Who decides the fixed group that owns my signature? Who will wisely judge exactly what kind of activity ‘is socially divisive,’ in order to make it taboo and rein in troublemakers? How is scholarly activity, especially socio-humanities work, even possible under the conditions of such censorship?” Gorbatov asks.

Beginning in mid-autumn last year, says Gorbatov, “some of the faculty at HSE with active civic views started receiving signals from the leadership that it’d be better if they kept a lower profile.” Then, in December, “several talented teachers” left the university. “They left voluntarily, without publicly explaining why. But it’s hardly a coincidence that they were the ones who actively defended Zhukov, Gusejnov, and Doxa. For all my political herbivority, I’ve personally gotten repeated hints about the undesirability of open letters and public statements,” says Gorbatov, adding that he doesn’t know where these warnings originate. “Good people” have passed them along, he says. “Since the source and content of these messages was so vague, I didn’t attach much importance to them for a long time and didn’t write about it publicly. But now I’m reading these new [university] rules and everything is literally word for word,” Gorbatov says.

Read Doxa's “Call for International Solidarity” (in English) here.

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Story by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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