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Ionov strikes again Russia blacklisted Bard College as ‘undesirable’ following a complaint from the same man who denounced Meduza

Source: Meduza
Jeremy Yoder / Flickr

On June 21, the Russian Attorney General’s Office declared the American liberal arts university Bard College an “undesirable organization.” Bard has collaborated with St. Petersburg State University and Russia’s Accounts Chamber Chairman Alexey Kudrin for many years, but the Attorney General’s Office maintains that its “activity poses a threat to the basic constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation.” Meduza digs into why Bard College was blacklisted as “undesirable” and uncovers what Alexander Ionov — the same man who demanded that Russia declare our media outlet a “foreign agent” — had to do with it.

A decades-long partnership

Founded in 1860, Bard College is a well-known private university in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. It’s considered one of the top 200 universities in the world in the field of art and design. It’s notable alumni include journalist Ronan Farrow, Beastie Boys co-founder Adam Yauch, and BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg.

In Russia, Bard College has a long-standing relationship with St. Petersburg State University (SPbU). More than 20 years ago, in 1999, the university’s president Leon Botstein and SPbU rector Lyudmila Verbitskaya began developing Russia’s first “Arts and Humanities” program (Botstein was later awarded an honorary doctorate from SPbU). This program served as the basis for creating the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which opened in 2011. Russia’s Accounts Chamber Chairman Alexey Kudrin serves as the college’s dean. 

Smolny College became the first institution in Russia to offer a “liberal arts education.” Though it’s listed as a “faculty” of St. Petersburg State University (based on a cooperation agreement signed in 2011), it’s actually a separate university within the institution. It’s graduates are awarded two diplomas — one from SPbU and another from Bard College.

The cooperation between the two universities has continued to deepen over the years. In 2019, Bard College opened a representative office for the St. Petersburg-based institution. By 2021, Smolny College had more than 700 students, who made regular trips to the United States for internships.

Earlier this year, Alexey Kudrin initiated Smolny College’s separation from SPbU, in order to create a separate University of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The faculty underscored that this would accelerate the institution’s development. The new university planned to continue its partnership with Bard College and increase enrollment two to three fold.

The influence of Soros

In March 2021, the Russian Attorney General’s Office received a request for an inquiry into the St. Petersburg-based University of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which was still in the process of being created, over its alleged connections “with foreign NGOs under the control of George Soros and conducting destructive activities on Russia’s territory.” The request also called for recognizing Bard College as an “undesirable organization.”

Back in 2015, Russia’s Attorney General declared two foundations created by billionaire George Soros “undesirable organizations” — the Open Society Foundations and OSI Assistance Foundation. They were involved in supporting Russian education, sciences, and culture, but according to the Russian authorities, this threatened the country’s “constitutional order.” The “undesirable” designation made involvement in these groups a felony. Financing an “undesirable organization” — by making a donation, for example — is punishable by up to five years in prison; the heads of “undesirable” groups can face up to six years behind bars.

The appeal to the Attorney General’s Office was sent by the Coordination Council of Nonprofit Organizations of Russia (KS NKO, for short). It’s head, Anton Tsvetkov, is the former chairman of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission — an organization tasked with overseeing the observance of prisoners’ rights — and the former leader of the pro-government organization Officers of Russia. Established in 2018, the KS NKO is officially intended to facilitate NGOs’ work with government agencies. Tsvetkov also leads the All-Russian Census of Effective NGOs and holds roundtables and conferences on a range of topics (like Latin American foreign policy, for example)

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In April 2021, nearly a month after Tsvetkov’s organization appealed to the Attorney General, he organized a roundtable in Moscow, titled “The Influence of G. Soros and his Affiliated Entities on Higher Education in Russia and the CIS.” At the opening of the event, Tsvetkov said he called the meeting due to “the creation of an institution that could potentially be financed by one of Soros’s entities.”

The roundtable was attended by former State Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov, as well as writer and politician Zakhar Prilepin, who compared organizations supported by George Soros to Islamic State terrorists. 

In conversation with Meduza, however, Tsvetkov said the appeal to the Attorney General wasn’t his initiative. “A number of experts reached out to us. This wasn’t our initiative, we are responding to appeals from experts, we sent information from experts to the relevant agencies, but we don’t make the decision to recognize someone as an agent or not.”

Among the “initiators” of the appeal, Tsvetkov named Alexander Ionov — the founder of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (and former Moscow Public Monitoring Commission member) who became widely known earlier this year after he filed a complaint with the Russian authorities that led to Meduza being recognized as a “foreign agent” with record speed.

Read more about Alexander Ionov

Mr. Anti-Globalization Meet Alexander Ionov, the self-described ‘human rights defender’ who demanded that Russia label Meduza a ‘foreign agent’

Read more about Alexander Ionov

Mr. Anti-Globalization Meet Alexander Ionov, the self-described ‘human rights defender’ who demanded that Russia label Meduza a ‘foreign agent’

In conversation with Meduza, Ionov confirmed what Tsvetkov said: “There’s Soros’s funding and ideology. Whether or not the ideology reached the kids, we don’t know. Yes, they have the right to hold any political view, this is afforded to them under the Constitution. But if the formation of these views occurs through foreign organizations, then it lays the basis for people early on that with the existing economic and political system, their development won’t be found in Russia and they have to look to those countries that donate grants.”

George Soros’s involvement in financing Bard College is publicly available information. For example, his Open Society Foundation announced a $500-million investment in the university in April 2021. In addition, Soros’s foundation, Bard College, and the Vienna-based Central European University (founded by Soros in Budapest in 1991) work together on the Open Society University Network — a project that aims to “strengthen the foundations of open society amid the current authoritarian resurgence.” Bard College president Leon Botstein is the chairman of Central European University’s board of trustees.

In the past, the Russian side also made no secret of receiving funding from George Soros. When SPbU and Bard College renewed their cooperation agreement in 2011, the Russian university’s website stated that “well-known American financier George Soros is prepared to allocate an addition $5 million to the portion of Bard College’s endowment fund that’s intended for the development of the Arts and Humanities program at SPbU.” This announcement has since been deleted.

Unanswered questions

St. Petersburg State University actively cooperated with the Attorney General’s Office during the inquiry into Bard College, but it denied claims circulated on social media that the university’s rector, Nikolai Kropachev, was the first to call for the American university to be recognized as an “undesirable organization.” SPbU insists that Kropachev found out about the appeal to the Attorney General’s Office from the media, when journalists began sending queries about the institution’s alleged cooperation with “undesirables” en masse. 

After that, SPbU’s deputy rector for international affairs, Sergey Andryushin, wrote a letter to Bard College asking whether or not donations from organizations recognized as “undesirable” in Russia are used to finance Bard and the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Smolny College, which had yet to complete its separation from SPbU). St. Petersburg State claimed that the response it received from Bard didn’t answer this question. SPbU then proceeded to send an official appeal to the Russian Attorney General’s Office, asking it to “assess” further cooperation between the liberal arts faculty and Bard College.

Neither St. Petersburg State University nor Bard College had responded to Meduza’s queries at the time of publication. Denis Yesaulov, the spokesman for Accounts Chamber Chairman Alexey Kudrin (who serves as dean of Smolny College) told Meduza that the liberal arts faculty no longer plans to cooperate with Bard.

‘Individual borders are being closed’

According to Kudrin’s press secretary, the fact that Bard College was recognized as “undesirable” won’t disrupt the process of creating a new university on the basis of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In conversation with Meduza, Yesaulov underscored that work on the project is ongoing and that the “new university will cooperate with leading Russian and foreign universities.”

At the same time, Yesaulov didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about whether or not Smolny College students will still receive a second diploma from Bard. Students asked the same question during a recent meeting with lecturers, but didn’t receive a clear answer. “The teacher said the position of the rector’s wing in this regard is that the university initially ‘did not promise’ a second diploma,” they wrote on Telegram.

When an organization is added to Russia’s list of “undesirables,” both the group and its employees are legally prohibited from working in the country. In other words, Russian citizens may face criminal prosecution for cooperating with Bard College — in theory, this could apply to both students who receive Bard diplomas and lecturers who teach there.

In conversation with Meduza, Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen, who teaches at Bard College, noted that during a May meeting, professors at the university discussed the Russian Attorney General’s inquiry alongside pressure on the college’s projects in Myanmar and the burning of a Palestinian university campus in Jerusalem. 

“Perhaps someone wanted to take Kudrin to task, or perhaps someone was trying to curry favor: ‘Look, we caught enemies of the people too.’ But what’s the difference? This is all a series of meaningless actions that will lead to fewer people having access to a good education; individual borders are being closed,” Gessen said.

Gessen believes that Bard College being declared an “undesirable organization” will affect both her personally and her daughter, who is studying at Bard. “I worry that, apparently, I [should] either quit my favorite job or no longer come home [to Russia]. This isn’t a unique situation at all, but it’s a difficult one for me.”

In conversation with Meduza, Alexander Ionov called the Attorney General’s decision “predictable.” “The general attitude towards Russia is formed by the opinions of those people who go abroad for internships and studies. We all know that those foundations constantly encourage and subsidize all of our [Russia’s] activists, whose activities are aimed directly at undermining the constitutional order.” 

Ionov added that he’s continuing to fight “destructive organizations with foreign financing,” but declined to specify which groups he was referring to. In his opinion, the campaign to uncover “undesirable organizations” and “foreign agents” in Russia must continue: “Otherwise we’ll lose the country, just as we lost the great Union in 1991,” Ionov said.

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Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart