Tag Archives: Russian invasion

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.

Public opinion, disinformation and moral disengagement: social media and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Guest post by Dr Charlie Walker of Southampton University

Many thousands of Russians have protested against the war in Ukraine, and have been imprisoned for doing so. However, the available public opinion data suggest that we should not expect hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets anytime soon. This is not only because of the obvious dangers of social protest in an increasingly authoritarian state, but because a large proportion of the broad mass of the Russian population either supports the war or, at least, does not object to or condemn it. Given that Russian media has acted as a propaganda tool for Putin’s regime for more than twenty years now, and that there is very little independent media, we should not be surprised that many will be following the disinformation directed from the Kremlin, especially those who watch television, which Russians have long referred to as the ‘zombie box’.

A campaign to break through the wall of disinformation that surrounds many ordinary Russians, the CallRussia initiative, was recently launched in the UK, and involves Russian speakers randomly telephoning Russian citizens, working on the assumption that many are simply starved of alternative viewpoints to those pushed by the Kremlin. However, if we look at Russian social media such as VKontakte.ru it becomes clear that providing alternative forms of information about the war is unlikely to break down the wall of disinformation, not least because ordinary Russians themselves (sometimes bots and trolls, but often real) are busily engaged in reinforcing it.

Responses to war-related posts on social media replicate what social psychologists refer to as mechanisms of moral disengagement. As McAlister et al. (2006) argue, in order for a country to go to war, it must create conditions that enable both soldiers and publics to suspend the moral evaluations and self-sanctions they would ordinarily undergo in the face of inhumane conduct. The psychosocial manoeuvres that enable moral disengagement take a number of different forms, all of which are amply demonstrated in responses to the present conflict amongst Russian social media users…

Continue reading the full post on Charlie’s page:

Public opinion, disinformation and moral disengagement in the Russo-Ukrainian War: evidence from social media – Charlie walker (cwsociology.com)

Guest post: Subjunctive Russia: notes on discursive grammar of conservative utopia

Guest post by Ivan Gololobov

Thinking about why did we end up here, in the situation where Russian troops bombard Ukrainian cities and towns and significant part of the population in Russia either support and justify this or deny the fact that it is war following official state version of calling ‘military operation’ I couldn’t stop coming back to the concept of utopia. It seems to me that is a particular type of utopian thinking, born after the fall of the Soviet Union and installed as a mainstream discourse a decade or so ago, which can explain why for so many people in Russia it is difficult to look at the events in Ukraine in any other way than the official propaganda suggests.

What is utopia? It is a belief in a perfect society. Why is it important in politics? Because, as Laclau and Mouffe, for instance, suggest, without utopia, strictly speaking, there is no politics and no society: society as a project which links communication, institutions and practices into a common discourse.

What is particular in this period of history is that Russia seems to have fallen for a particular type of utopian thinking which I can call here ‘conservative utopia’. What is classic utopia? This is important to note to see the difference.

The French, American and October Revolution of 1917, are the typical examples of classic utopias. The perfect society they are looking at is in the future and the transition to this perfect society is seen through a radical, if not complete, break with the past. «Весть мир насилья мы разрушим до основанья, а затем, мы наш мы новый мир построим, кто был никем тот станет всем».

What is conservative utopia based upon? The perfect society here is in the past. In Russia this utopia started to grow straight after the fall of the Soviet Union. ‘The Russia We Lost’ by Stanislav Govorukhin, released in 1992 is a clear example. We, the society, need to move to re-build something which we already had but which we somehow lost. But this gaze in the past has a very interesting nuance. Mikhail Elizarov pointed it our in his ‘Librarian’. The past which is in the centre of Soviet nostalgia is not about the grief for country which was, it is a grief for the country we could have had. This utopia is a subjunctive utopia.

Why this particular nuance is interesting. Because this subjunctive mood is inherent in all conservative utopias in Russia of the last few decades. From monarchists a-la Nikita Mikhalkov, through Stalinists of USSR 2.0 project to neo-imperialism of expanding Russia recently articulated by Surkov. The perfect Russia is the Russia which we could have had if there would be no perestroika, no greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the fall of the USSR, no Washington obkom, no gay-ropa around the corner etc. This subjunctive mood sets a clear discursive grammar which is then followed by the participants of political communication.

Let me introduce few key elements of this grammar.

Boris Uspensky writes about how different perception of historical type organises discourse around it. According to him, the mode when the present is seen as the beginning of the future, which is what classic utopias are about, constitutes what he calls ‘historical’ or ‘scientific’ time.  The mode where the present is seen as first and foremost the consequence of the past is ‘cosmological’ or ‘religious’ time. Interesting here is when this time is projected to the future it is not projected historically or scientifically, not rationally, but as Uspensky puts it – ‘symbolically’ where the image of the past is transferred to represent the future passing by the present. One can clearly see the subjunctive move here.

Then, how do these modes of thinking claim their discursive validity? In theoretical tradition of Moscow-Tartu semiotic school, where Uspensky comes from symbol is isomorphic, i.e. it is not transparent, its logic is not open. It holds because of discursive authority of the speaking subject. In direct contrast with the scientific mode which holds because of its argument, logic which is open, tendentially non-hierarchical discussion.

Now think how the Russian oppositional  discourse is constructed: argument, transparency, discussion. Look what is the role of the present: the present is the beginning of the future. Russian invasion in Ukraine is looked through its consequences.

How the official governmental discourse is built. The present is not important. The future, which is a subjunctive imprint of the past which has not been, but which needs to be realised, is. What makes these claims valid? The authority of the speaking subject. This is where the laws criminalising ‘insulting the feelings of …’ become normal. That is why, in its extreme, public debate is reduced in extorted apologies from your critics.

And this is where the tacit consent, or the absence of vocal criticism and active stand against what Russia is doing in Ukraine can be found. For those who operate in ‘cosmological’ or ‘religious’ discourse (the exact names are not that important here, what is important is claims of validity and particular role of the  present) what is going on right now, the present, is numb, it is unimportant, while the subjunctive future and the past, especially the past, however illusionary and constructed it is, is what they fix their picture of the world around. Therefore anything, which hits their present, and even more – anything which may hit their future, the one that may be derived from the present, the rational one – is a foreign language. What is not foreign – who won WWII? Was Soviet Union the best country in the world? Was Russia a civilising power in 19th century? Was it a saviour in Donbass  after 2014?

In the light of these observations, it might be wrong to expect that sanctions, economic hardship, lower life standards are going to play significant role in shifting the attitudes. Or, in fact, any rational and causal argument. What would, however, is the loss of the discursive authority of those who hold symbols of subjunctive utopia together. And to shake this authority is a more difficult task. Especially, since the supreme guarantor of Russian conservative utopia seems well aware of the danger to lose it. 

Ivan Gololobov is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.