The situation in Russian science and higher education after the outbreak of the war has raised serious questions related to both academic ethics and the logic of the academic boycott that has followed the war that Russia unleashed. Of course, the difficulties in scientific and educational cooperation, or even a full boycott of Russian teachers and students, cannot be compared with the horrors that are currently playing out in Ukraine, including the death of Ukrainian scientists. This all makes discussing the academic boycott of Russia (and Belarus) an incredibly difficult task from a moral and ethical point of view. This is especially difficult for a Russian scholar like myself. Nevertheless, it seems important to understand the reasoning and logic of those who are weighing the principles and goals of an academic boycott.
The current push for an academic boycott of Russia is based on the assumption that Russian institutions and universities are extensions of the aggressive Russian state. Official statements by representatives of Russian science and education have worked to cement this view. For example, the Russian Rectors’ Union released a statement
announcing their full support of “Russia’s decision... to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine,” thus reproducing state propaganda. The Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies responded
that “these representatives of Russian higher education have betrayed their responsibility to their educational purpose and to ethical leadership and brought shame upon their institutions.” Even those countries and institutions that had hesitated about an academic boycott early on agreed to it after the rectors’ statement.
At the same time, the active anti-war movement among students and teachers that had unfolded immediately after the start of the war has become less noticeable, due to increased government pressure on Russian science and higher education and laws against “discrediting the Russian army” and “fakes” (punishable by dismissal from work and a large fine, as well as criminal prosecution and imprisonment for up to 15 years). Though the penalty in most cases has been limited to large fines and administrative detention, the policy is aimed at forcing those who disagree to leave Russia rather than throwing them in prison. There have already been cases launched against signatories of letters and petitions.
Still, an anti-war declaration
by Russian scholars and science journalists has already collected over 8,000 signatures, and the number continues to rise. Meanwhile, another petition
is circulating calling on rectors to withdraw their signature from the Rectors’ Union statement. It notes that the signatories had not asked for the opinion of students and teachers despite the fact that “… it is us who will reap the fruits of their decision, as Russian education will become isolated and Russian society will grow archaic, with free science – and no other science is possible – soon becoming impossible.”
Indeed, in none of the cases did the academic councils of the university whose rector signed the Rectors’ Union statement convene to discuss the decision; on the other hand, overall the times when rectors were interested in hearing the opinions of university professors in Russia are long gone.
Yet the ongoing war makes a discussion of the goals and objectives, as well as ethics, of the boycott of Russian (and Belarusian) science important.
Obviously, this is not the first time European higher education has been faced with the issue of how and why to boycott foreign universities. The most obvious examples are the boycott of South African universities in protest against apartheid and the BDS movement to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. In the latter case, the movement advocated
halting all cooperation with Israeli universities, cutting off funding and joint research and educational projects with Israel, and seeking the adoption of relevant resolutions by various academic and cultural associations and unions.
It should be noted that though a personal boycott of Israeli scientists was not called for, in reality there were cases
of scientists being excluded from projects explicitly for political reasons. However, the focus of the boycott was freezing institutional cooperation rather than personal ties, but even that drew serious criticism from human rights activists and academics. Miriam Schlesinger, then-chairperson of Amnesty International in Israel, stated that “Ariel Sharon isn’t going suddenly to withdraw from the West Bank because she is no longer on the board of one obscure journal.” In other words, it is not only about how much an academic boycott might violate the principle of the free exchange of scientific information, but also how effective it is in general.