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“Storm” expected. How Kazan students are resisting the war

June 8, 2022
Farida Kurbangaleeva
Journalist
Farida Kurbangaleeva spoke with representatives of the local academic community in Kazan and the independent student media project Storm about government pressure, silent protest, and how the university administration is cooperating with law enforcement.
On June 8, the case of Denis Mokrushin, a student at a Kazan university, was heard by a court in Kazan. He is accused of “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” The reason is that he posted “no war” on his Instagram page. Recently, it also came out that another Kazan university had not renewed the contract of Professor Nail Fatkullin, who had written an open letter against the war in Ukraine. Kazan is one of the largest university cities in Russia, with several dozen higher educational institutions and 170 000 students from across the Volga region and the Urals. The universities are trying to distance themselves from “inconvenient” students and eagerly cooperate with the security agencies.

This winter and spring, Denis Mokrushin, a future architect, designed the building for a lyceum. The concept with three wings was intended for the city of Artemovsky in Sverdlovsk Region. Since February 24, progress has slowed.

“We’re architects, we work at night, we don’t sleep. When I heard the news about the war, I couldn’t do anything at all, and then for another several weeks. We’re creative people, we feel deeply. I’m designing a school building, and then they show the footage from Bucha, footage from Mariupol, and I see the same school destroyed. I had a week left before I was supposed to turn in the project, and I couldn’t concentrate on it.”

Denis is a student at the Kazan Academy of Architecture and Civil Engineering (KSUAE). He moved to Kazan from his native Yekaterinburg, where he also studied to be an architect. He said he dreamed of studying at KSUAE since his school years but didn’t think he could get in. Yekaterinburg teachers always pointed out the superior quality of the Kazan university. So Mokrushin was happy when he managed to transfer there. The Kazan teachers valued their new student too and made him an example for others: he loves learning, he gets the highest grades in all his classes.

“I’m designing a school – like the ones in Bucha and Mariupol”

Attitudes changed dramatically after February 27, when Denis stood in a solo picket in memory of the murdered politician Boris Nemtsov. He was arrested and convicted of participating in an unsanctioned protest (article 20.2). At the same time, another protester symbolically laid flowers at the city clock. They were separated by a considerable distance, and didn’t even know each other; however, the court concluded that they had staged a “performance.” Mokrushin was fined ten thousand rubles (about $170) , while the other man got 10 days in jail.

After the incident, Mokrushin was summoned three times to the dean’s office for "prophylactic” talks. Each lasted about an hour. At first they simply wanted to know what happened on the day Mokrushin was arrested, but then they “became fixated on the war:”

“I said, ‘if you want to talk about it, then I can say right now that I’m against it [the war].’” And they started: “What do you understand, let’s not get involved in it, you’re throwing us under the bus, why should we answer for your actions.” I realized that they’re worried mainly about their own reputation and what people will say about them. The rhetoric was of the sort “you’re going to spoil our ranking.”

In April, officials from the prosecutor's office visited the institution. They also wanted to “have a talk” with Mokrushin and were also interested in his view on the war. They made clear that his actions could have “consequences.”
“I realized that they’re worried mainly about their own reputation and what people will say about them."
Denis Mokrushin, 2022. Image provided by Mokrushin
In May, Mokrushin was called in by the supervisor of his dormitory and told that he was being taken to the police because he was suspected of vandalism. At the police station it turned out that a new administrative case had been launched against him, though vandalism had nothing to do with it. It was article 20.3.3, “discrediting the Russian army.” The reason was the laconic “no war” that Mokrushin had posted on his Instagram on February 25. The case was opened retroactively – article 20.3.3 had been added to the administrative code only two weeks after the post.

At the university, Mokrushin received a reprimand and was threatened with expulsion should he commit another offense. It was not limited to an oral warning: he was forced to sign a written order with the same wording.

A few days later, Mokrushin was awaiting trial. “It's all completely illegal. They might as well just expel me for crossing the road in the wrong place – it’s an administrative offense too.” In his view, the university initiated the proceeding: “It was the university that gave the go-ahead to the prosecutor’s office to do all this, they just wanted to shut me up.”
Kazan federal University, 2022. Image by Groza
Searches, seizures and broken glasses

Kazan, one of the largest educational centers in Russia, is silent today about the war and actively supporting the “special operation.” At least this is the impression at first glance.

After the start of the war in Ukraine, the high-rise buildings of the largest university – Kazan Federal University (KFU) – were lit up with the letters Z and V (symbols of support for the war) for several weeks at nightfall. Representatives of 12 Kazan universities signed a letter from the Russian Union of Rectors in support of the war. It voiced approval of the actions of Vladimir Putin, who was said to have made “perhaps, his most difficult, agonizing, but necessary decision.”

The Kazan Institute of Culture organized a flash mob in support of the Russian army – students in hoodies with the letter Z chanted "Forward, Russia!" and raised their hands in a strange way. At the same time, the KFU administration banned the university choir from performing the Soviet song “May There Always be Sunshine,” which contains the lines “war would make all of us losers” and “down with all war/we want no more/people stand up for you, children.” The leadership of the university convened student leaders, who were lectured about Ukrainian neo-Nazis and US hegemony in the world. Professor Garnik Abgaryan urged students to refrain from all sorts of parties, rallies and slogans such as “no war” and “we’re against war.” Associate professor Ravil Zeleev tore off anti-war leaflets and broke the glasses of a student who tried to stop him.

KFU is among Russia’s oldest universities. Mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky served as its rector, and its alumni include Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin). The university has found itself at the center of scandals more than once in recent years. For example, its teachers were implicated in academic plagiarism, and in a report by a Russian Academy of Sciences commission tasked with curbing falsification in scientific research, KFU was the most mentioned educational institution. In addition, rector Ilshat Gafurov was arrested last winter on suspicion of being involved in contract killings.

Senator Lenar Safin, sanctioned by the EU, is seeking to replace him. He was recommended by the KFU supervisory board and approved by the certification commission of the Russian Education Ministry. Previously, Safin was Tatarstan transport minister. He admits that in his youth he dreamed of working in the KGB and is proud that he knows the Soviet anthem by heart: “Wake me up at night – we’ll tell it and sing it. Now I think that this is just how you ought to instill a sense of patriotism: a teacher wouldn’t let you take exams [before] if you didn’t know the words to the country’s greatest song.”

Amid the official support for the Russian invasion, however, a wave of anti-war protests also took place in Kazan in late February and early March. Both students and teachers were involved. Subsequently, searches were carried out in relation to dozens of people with computers, phones and bank cards being seized.
“Amid the official support for the Russian invasion, however, a wave of anti-war protests also took place in Kazan in late February and early March."
Law enforcement officials twice visited KFU fourth-year student Vadim Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-war letter that was signed by hundreds of KFU students, teachers and graduates. Candidate of biological sciences Andrey Boyarshinov is in pretrial detention following a search, accused in a criminal case of justifying terrorism. He faces up to five years in prison.
Marina Bezmaternykh and Leonid Spirin, 2020. Image provided by Bezmaternykh
Keeping young people out of politics

Among those subjected to searches were employees of the independent student media project Storm (Groza in Russian), launched by students Marina Bezmaternykh and Leonid Spirin in 2020 as an alternative to the youth media supported by university administrations. According to Bezmaternykh, they wanted to talk about real problems of students, which were hushed up by official publications.

Marina came to Kazan from Perm Region to study Oriental and African studies at the KFU Institute of International Relations. At first, she was thrilled – there was a rich cultural life, as well as various student competitions. But then came the disappointment. She realized that in Tatarstan “you can do good, but only if you don’t criticize the authorities:”

“In Tatarstan, you can be creative: dance, sing, but not politics. Sure, there’s a Youth Parliament, which they push. Elections are periodically held for it, but it’s the same activists, and people with alternative views are simply not allowed in. For example, activist Maksim Mukhametzyanov, who was fighting to get a student travel card, wanted to run. He holds oppositionist views. Then they [the authorities] turned on the administrative resource, and he was excluded.”

In Marina’s view, both the Tatarstan Student League and local student unions take a pro-regime position. For example, the union of KFU students is headed by Yulia Vinogradova, who is also head of the KFU Youth Policy Department. “And it doesn’t bother anyone that there’s a conflict of interest,” says Bezmaternykh. “How can you be in charge of one organization that is supposed to protect undergraduate and graduate students from another organization where you work?”

Mokrushin agrees that student organizations in Kazan are tightly regulated: “If previously the student council [of KSUAE] really resolved problems for students, tried to defend the rights of those who participated in the last protest (in support of the politician Alexei Navalny), now the university has decided that the student council will only handle creative events and deal with organizational issues. That is, now there is simply no one to stand up for students.”
“She realized that in Tatarstan 'you can do good, but only if you don’t criticize the authorities.'"
In Tatarstan, the Ministry of Youth Affairs is responsible for students. Bezmaternykh believes that it sees its main task in controlling the student community. She calls the work of the various organizations “a set of measures and activities designed to keep young people out of politics:”

“In 2020, we tried to participate in the Student of the Year competition, where prizes are awarded to the best students and student organizations. The president of Tatarstan and all sorts of rectors and vice-rectors, about whom we often write unflattering things, were present at the ceremony. At that time, we were, if not the best student media, then one of the best for sure. But we were just not allowed to participate in the competition, as media should be attached to some university, so they turned us away because of a formality.”

Today, Storm is the only student media in Kazan that covers topics related to the war, monitoring the trials of students and teachers, writing about the Tatarstan natives who died during the war in Ukraine and discussing alternatives to serving in the army. Readers often help with collecting material, sending photos and videos to the editorial office. Thanks to them, it’s become clear that, fearing blowback, students are choosing forms of silent protest.

For example, they put up leaflets, draw anti-war graffiti and arrange pacifist actions in restrooms. In one KFU building, a sheet with the inscription ADOLF PUTIN was hung. Meanwhile, in the windows of a university hostel posters with anti-war statements have appeared.
Nail Fatkulin, 2019. Image: Pavel Platonov / Vechenrniaia Kazan
Fatkullin against neo-serfdom

The news of the departure of KFU professor Nail Fatkullin, who had sent an open anti-war letter to his colleagues, made a splash recently. It was titled: “They had been stealing as if there was no tomorrow, then screamed about patriotism and started a war.” Fatkullin, a professor in the Department of Physics of Molecular Systems, equates Putinism with neo-serfdom, which “will ultimately lead Russia to national catastrophe,” and called for an immediate end to the war in Ukraine.

The letter was received by thousands of teachers and graduate students. Only a handful responded. Several of Fatkullin's colleagues wrote that they fully supported his position. A few others reacted “very negatively.” The rest were silent.

After that, the certification commission of the KFU Academic Council did not recommend re-electing Fatkullin as a professor. The council stated that by distributing the letter Fatkullin had “violated ethical aspects,” and did not renew his contract. The decision was taken by secret ballot with a quorum barely assembled. Fatkullin believes that many of his colleagues did not show up on purpose, to avoid participating in a “reprisal.”

Twenty-eight voted in favor of extending the contract, while 38 were against. The professor believes that the outcome to a certain extent reflects the level of support for the war among the Russian intelligentsia. He admits that he had “underestimated the reaction:” “Well, I expressed my opinion. There is nothing there about the army, this is an opinion about the actions of the government. Is it forbidden?”

Now Fatkullin, who has been teaching for 41 years, is going to look for other employment: “I have extensive international connections, I’ve already received about five or six offers, so I can’t say that I’ve fallen off the face of the earth.” He isn’t hopeful for a broad expression of protest by his colleagues: professors are bound by contracts and the need for recertification, meaning they are overly dependent on the administration of universities. In his view, protests will be limited to “sporadic cases,” and students should hardly look to their professors for an example:

“People should rely on the moral compass within themselves, not on professors. Here I am, I’m an apolitical person, I’ve always been on my own. I can’t stand meetings, organizations. For me going into the political arena is just awful. I went to Yabloko party meetings a couple times a long time ago and got sick after 10 minutes. So it’s not about examples. People will watch how the situation evolves and draw conclusions. What is going on now will affect the future of Russia very much. The regime has every area of resistance under control, but it can’t control the course of history. It's doomed.”

A week before the Academic Council’s decision, Fatkullin received a “warning against violating the law” from the Kazan prosecutor's office. It emphasized that his open letter “could create a negative attitude toward the ‘special military operation’ and trigger protest activity among university staff and students.” At the same time, a petition appeared on Change.org in defense of the professor, appealing to the university leadership to reconsider the decision. Participants in student chats that support Fatkullin ask:

“A big loss for KFU? Well, apparently not so big, since they’re throwing out such valuable employees because of their position. If a professor only knows about this, [you think] he will want to come back to this place?”
“The council stated that by distributing the letter Fatkullin had 'violated ethical aspects', and did not renew his contract."
“So much has been given over to the security forces”

With the outbreak of the war, Marina Bezmaternykh was forced to leave the country as she “didn’t feel safe.” Still, she has continued to actively develop the media project. Recently, Storm launched a public page in Novosibirsk, another large university city, where “the demotivating influence of the state is much weaker,” and will open in Yekaterinburg in the coming days. Marina expects to return to Russia when repressive legislation is watered down. But even the current situation, in her view, is no reason to give up, and, despite the pressure on them, Kazan students “are doing quite a lot.”

Denis Mokrushin is sure that there are a lot of students in Kazan who don’t support the war. Not all of them are ready to picket, but many help those arrested. Overall, the students are very intimidated: “Kazan has gone underground, like a partisan. But it’s not silent.”
“Overall, the students are very intimidated: 'Kazan has gone underground, like a partisan. But it’s not silent'."
Still, having come from Yekaterinburg, he’s shocked by how apolitical the academic community is. And how “so much has been given over to the security forces.” In Yekaterinburg, Mokrushin has involved in protests since the age of 18 and says he’s never seen such violent arrests. And that includes the 2019 protests against an Orthodox church being built on the site of a Yekaterinburg square, when students rallied for a week together with teachers:

“The university didn’t expel anyone, but rather gave them support. If a student was arrested, instead of an unexplained absence he was given a pass. The university wrote letters that it was proud of its students. The police were with the people, they took away provocateurs – for example, those who shouted “for Navalny” or “for Putin.” But now I see the reverse process: what you find in Kazan is starting in Yekaterinburg. The authorities understand how to operate: I saw how students were forced on their knees, one girl by force. Students are the future of the country. But if their rights are violated, what can that future be?”

Original story in Russian was published in Novaya Gazeta.Europe

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