Russian academic boycotts, bans, and the global production of knowledge

circa 1955: American broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow (1908 – 1965) sits behind a console in a CBS television control room, holding a pen in the air, 1950s. There is a microphone in the foreground. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Guest post: Letter from a concerned scholar

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already provoked a serious humanitarian crisis, with an unprecedented number of refugees and displaced persons next to civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure. The Western academic community is correctly focusing its resources on supporting the victims of the invasion – Ukrainian and Ukraine-resident scholars and students among them. These are the people that deserve unconditional solidarity now and maximum support, both material and moral.

On the other hand, however, short-term initiatives and reactions – however decisive and crucial they are – have to an extent overshadowed the understanding of long-term issues. The war is likely to increase dramatically the share of people living in poverty in Ukraine, an already poor country – this would require more significant initiatives to strategically ramp up humanitarian aid and write off the country’s foreign debt, that have been raised by Ukrainian activists themselves.

The other aspect is that the disruptive effects of the war are likely to have a significant impact on other vulnerable populations. For example, the poorest African countries will probably be drastically affected by the drastic reduction of wheat imports from both Ukraine and Russia. Another issue close to many – in terms of the contradictions it implies, and the way in which they are handled – relates to the attitude towards Russian people and the Russian academic community in particular.

The invasion has already provoked an increase of repression within the country, accelerating a decade-long trend. At the very least, any kind of dissent about the war is now criminalized / punished in some form – but explicit large-scale repression is likely to be the reality on the ground of the Russian state even after the conclusion of hostilities. The ‘economic war’ with the EU, NATO and allied countries is likely to lead to an economic depression that may equal the one that took place in the 1990s. Overall, ordinary Russian people are likely to suffer for a long time from the consequences of the war. Many Russian academics living abroad are vocally opposing their government’s war of aggression; some have at least temporarily left the country in the last weeks, with an uncertain future ahead; many others have remained – either due to personal choice, or for lack of resources and connections.

The Western academic world is not fully unaware of the situation. However, the (more or less) open letters that I read in these days look dramatically inadequate. Some basically consist of calls for an overall ban on Russian scholars just because of their citizenship, sometimes in favor of (token) Ukrainian representatives. They also ignore the understandable desire for many Ukrainians to stay in Ukraine. This zero-sum game logic is sometimes reflected in actual academic policies, with explicitly anti-war scholars and cultural activists being de-platformed, or, with the same logic of collective punishment, students being barred from enrolling in universities. However, no states have expelled current students.  

Other documents acknowledge the plight of many Russian colleagues and formally declare solidarity with them but look somehow disingenuous in their stance and extremely ambiguous in terms of their actual implications. An example of the former: in an open letter addressed to Russian scholars, the (real) issue of de-platforming and collective punishment is sidestepped by the author who wonders whether such extreme positions aren’t’ just part of Russian ‘regime propaganda’. The implications of political hygiene tests for scholars are chilling, but they are regularly discussed with no reflexivity. With a few laudable exceptions, solidarity is almost always conditional to ‘actively’ stating opposition to the invasion. This hold many scholars – those who have remained in Russia in particular – to impossible standards: one thing is to voice opposition from abroad and being affiliated with a foreign institution, another is to do it while living and being employed in Russia; it is laudable that associations like European Association of Social Anthropologists and BASEES/ASEEES have been clear that they will not discriminate on nationality grounds.

These attitudes, in my view, raise serious issues about the approach and mindset of many Western academics. Here are a few points for debate.

1. Most Russian universities remain peripheral in the global production of knowledge even in the context of area studies – how is this power asymmetry acknowledged by such calls coming from richer Western institutions? Do they have the right to set moral standards for precarious researchers with little to no resources, at risk of being fired, fined, arrested? Does the often-imperialist attitude of Russian cultural institutions (and among many academics, to be sure) towards Ukrainian culture make this issue irrelevant?

2. To what extent are open letters writers and signatories aware of the characteristics of the political system, consensus dynamics, societal attitudes, opinion polls in Russia? Did the ‘national’ focus of much post-socialist studies research – often justified by de-orientalizing reasons – actually compartmentalize/provincialize the understanding of the post-socialist condition and its various outcomes? This can be seen from the surprised reaction of scholars from all kinds of states at the lack of an uprising or greater protest in Russia.

3. Are some terms – that to a large extent describe real issues – being abused to the point of being distorted to the opposite? Talking about Ukraine by silencing Ukrainian voices is indeed a very bad case of ‘westsplaining’, but isn’t it conceptually the same to discuss about Russian state ideology, politics, society without the contribution of informed and critical Russian scholars? Is it ‘whataboutism’ to ask about the position of ‘cancellers’ regarding BDS – or what their position would have been about scholars from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries (including Euro states) being not sufficiently vocal against the unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003? Should they have been de-platformed?

Any comparison with BDS is usually dismissed as ‘not relevant’ by those defending banning Russian scholars or ignored completely. The academic boycott of Israel is in reality not a unified position. For example, some support boycott initiatives in occupied territories but not BDS. However, many voices are advocating a more extreme position than most BDS organizations in relation to Russian academia. This deserves discussion and debate.

My thoughts return to Ukraine and Ukrainians at this time of their struggle. What scholars can do is maximize informed, analytical and critical voices from within Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

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