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Bad education A mathematician, astrophysicist, publisher, and Wikipedia director respond to Russia’s draft law on ‘educational activity’ that could force new regulations on popular science and more

Source: Meduza
Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

On Tuesday, March 16, the State Duma adopted the third and final reading of reforms to Russia’s education regulations, adding new restrictions to the “dissemination of knowledge outside formal academic programs,” such as popular-science initiatives and probably even Wikipedia and the mass media. Deputies from the country’s ruling political party, United Russia, used their supermajority in Parliament to force through the legislation without the support of any other faction. If the Federation Council and President Putin support the law, it will enter force on June 1, 2021. Meduza spoke to several educators and popular science communicators about the new reforms and how these restrictions will likely affect their fields. 

The new law, in a nutshell

In a monument to officialese, the Russian legislation defines “educational activity” as follows: “Activities carried out outside formal academic programs with the intention of disseminating knowledge, experience, the formation of skills, value systems, or competence for the purpose of a person’s intellectual, spiritual and moral, creative, physical, and (or) professional development, in order to satisfy a person’s educational needs and interests.”

The law would require any educators whose actions meet the description above to coordinate their activities with state officials in accordance with statutes and procedures the government will determine later. The legislation’s authors argue that these limitations are necessary to protect the public (especially schoolchildren and college students) from “anti-Russian propaganda disguised as educational activities.” The deputies who drafted the bill accuse “anti-Russian forces” of using educational activities “to discredit Russian state policy uncontrollably.” The new law would prohibit educational activities that “incite actions contrary to Russia’s Constitution.”

Members of Russia’s scientific and academic communities warn that the reforms would hinder the country’s popularization of science, and a petition against the legislation now has almost 240,000 signatures.

Stanislav Kozlovsky

executive director of Wikimedia-Russia

The new regulations will apparently apply to any educational content posted on blogs or social media, says Kozlovsky, warning that this could mean restrictions on everything ranging from cooking recipes to a random Wikipedia edit. The very concept of “anti-Russian propaganda” is subjective, he says, arguing that it would be both intolerable and unfeasible to subject updates on Wikipedia to government review. “I expect the law to fail, or it will work [like all the other laws]: randomly and selectively,” Kozlovsky told Meduza. “Honestly, I don’t see any advantages in the law. The whole thing is strange — like something out of Orwell: ‘Ignorance is strength.’”

Andrey Konyaev

publisher of the Russian popular scientific website N+1 (not to be confused with the American literary magazine)

Konyaev expects the government to exempt websites like N+1 from the new education requirements, at least initially, though he says officials will eventually turn their attention to the media, as well. The law’s first targets will be people who organize lectures in their spare time, Konyaev guesses, but the bill itself was written so “monstrously” that its actual impact remains largely unknown until regulators draft the bylaws that will guide enforcement.

Konyaev says ideological panic, not scientific concerns, motivates the lawmakers. “The people behind this [bill] believe sincerely that there’s a war happening — a serious hybrid-information war,” he told Meduza, saying this perspective is “antithetical to scientific thinking,” “preoccupied with conflict,” and “rooted in mysticism.” The new limits on educational activities reflect “the deep confrontation of thought paradigms” in Russia today, says Konyaev.

Evgeny Razumny / Vedomosti / TASS

Alexey Savvateev

mathematician and math educator on YouTube

Savvateev says he’ll comply with the new requirements, but only if the paperwork is limited to a single application for “educator” status. If he needs a separate permit for each new YouTube video, he says he’ll close down his channel and do something else with his time. 

“I can imagine that there are people getting money from Western countries to do things that benefit Western countries. I can imagine this, unlike many of my fellow educators, who deny it on principle, but I’m sure that such people [who take Western money] will land on their feet more easily than everyone else,” Savvateev told Meduza. “Even if there were a real enemy, and maybe he exists, the people trying to catch him now aren’t up to it. They’ll end up scapegoating someone else, instead, as always.”

Sergey Popov

astrophysicist, popular science communicator, and author of the petition against the reforms on educational activity

Popov says he created the petition in response to concerns from his own listeners who worry that the new legislation will make it harder to keep learning about science through lectures, podcasts, and YouTube channels. It’s been difficult to mobilize a public outcry, however, because the law itself is so vague and state officials won’t determine the actual restrictions until after the legislation is passed, when the bylaws are written. 

An underlying problem with the bill, says Popov, is that its authors “simply do not consider educational activity to be something important, essential, or useful.” “That’s why they want to regulate it as much as possible,” he told Meduza, pointing out that there are already myriad rules and regulations affecting educators, including laws against extremism, defamation, and hate speech, not to mention tax laws. “There’s no need [for new legislation] that focuses specifically on educational activities,” says Popov. “It’s irrational from a legal point of view.”

The legislation’s critics now hope to stop the bill in the Parliament’s upper chamber by mobilizing scientists, educators, and the general public during the Senate’s committee review process. “The Federation Council can do the right and reasonable thing, at least, by inviting the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences for a face-to-face discussion about this problem. This seems realistic and we’ll see what happens from there,” Popov says.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Interviews by Aleksandra Sivtsova

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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