The issue of academic boycott against Russia and the risk of friendly fire

May 27, 2022
Dmitry Dubrovskiy

Research fellow at the Center for Independent Social Research (St Petersburg, Russia), formerly an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). He currently works at Charles University, Prague.

Dmitry Dubrovskiy on the ethical challenges and effectiveness of an academic boycott of Russia and the attendant risk of making Russian scientists collateral damage in the war.
Moscow State University, 2006. Source: Wiki Commons
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.
Protest in Yekaterinburg on 24 February 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Robert Quinn, head of the academic human rights organization Scholars at Risk, notes that such a measure as an academic boycott, despite the obvious moral considerations in support of restrictions against an aggressor country, must be applied very carefully to avoid “collateral damage.” In his view, boycotts or sanctions sometimes are launched to “punish people who are not involved in the violations or aggression” or to deliberately damage research in the country – first and foremost, in the military-technical sphere.

The biggest problem, however, seems to be, as Quinn puts it, the “super-elastic application of the concept of complicity.” This deals with the question what the goals of a boycott really are and to what extent a boycott hits those who bear – primarily moral – responsibility for actively supporting and propagandizing the war.

A letter by Ukrainian scientists published in THE argues for a total academic boycott; in other words, all representatives of Russian science and education should be considered co-responsible for the war.

Their starting position is the assertion that “Russian universities are a weapon of the state… spreading toxic propaganda messages.” Indeed, not only official representatives of state universities, but also some teachers have been quite active in supporting the war, including on social media. To blunt Russian aggression, the letter demands: blocking access to all scientometric databases and materials of scientific publishers for scholars from Russia and Belarus; making collaboration impossible for researchers affiliated with institutions in Russia and Belarus; and prohibiting Russian and Belarusian citizens from participating in international publications and scientific projects.

Clearly, in a number of cases institutional cooperation with Russian state institutions has become toxic. However, a total ban on personal contact seems to run counter to the general logic of previous academic boycotts, which lay in restricting institutional cooperation. Still, this would affect the humanities and social sciences less than the natural sciences and medicine, where serious research is hard to imagine if official cooperation becomes impossible.

The letter provides for certain exceptions. In particular, the academic boycott proposed in THE should not apply to those who can document their anti-war activism. According to the letter’s authors, this should lead to more active anti-war steps by the scientific community. In essence, the point is that to avoid the academic boycott, a representative of the scientific or educational community in Russia must publicly state his or her anti-war position. Such a proposal seems based on the belief that such an action – besides the obvious goals behind a boycott of punishing the aggressor and limiting its military-technical potential – might help stop the war. This belief is not something unique: for example, Czech politicians, explaining their decision to halt granting visas to Russian citizens, argue that this will contribute to the anti-war movement in Russia.

Unfortunately, this approach hardly makes sense in Russia’s current conditions of severe military censorship and hastily adopted laws that qualify calls for peace as “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” In addition, it seems that behind the calls to keep all Russian scientists and students out of the world science community is a general ignorance of how things worked before the war.

First of all, the academic boycott would punish the very part of the Russian academic community that has been most active internationally – frankly speaking, the minority. Moreover, this minority, judging by the work of Russian sociologists, generally holds democratic views and does not support the war, unlike others who believe in the advantages of “sovereign” science and generally take a conservative-protectionist position. In other words, it is those who are most actively involved in international exchange that support Russia’s military aggression the least (though there are supporters of the war among them) but would suffer the most from a total boycott. Meanwhile, supporters of Putin and the war are generally oriented toward the “domestic market” and would come out practically unscathed.
"Those who are most actively involved in international exchange that support Russia’s military aggression the least (though there are supporters of the war among them) but would suffer the most from a total boycott. Meanwhile, supporters of Putin and the war are generally oriented toward the 'domestic market' and would come out practically unscathed."
Finally, the beginning of the war witnessed a mass departure of students and teachers from Russia, partly for fear of persecution over their anti-war stance and partly to avoid the unenviable fate that could befall Russian science and education in the near future amid a political, economic and academic boycott. Thus, those who left Russia are beginning to experience the restrictions on cooperation, which, as the supporters of the boycott believe, should help Russians alter the political trajectory of an authoritarian regime that is rapidly turning into a military dictatorship.

The real stories that I am currently collecting as a researcher show that the threat of a total boycott is quite real: the institutions of some countries, for instance Finland, Belgium, and Germany, are refusing both Russian students and scientists. What I have described above encompasses at least two dozen cases in which already arranged internships for Russian students and graduate students in these three countries were cancelled. Most of these cases represent an attempt on the part of young researchers to leave a warring country, survive as scientists and often escape political persecution.

Thus, the logic of an academic boycott of Russia, even in a time of war, should remain the same: no institutional cooperation with state scientific and educational organizations in Russia while at the same time preserving such personal cooperation when and where it is in no way connected with military-technical issues.
"The logic of an academic boycott of Russia, even in a time of war, should remain the same: no institutional cooperation with state scientific and educational organizations in Russia while at the same time preserving such personal cooperation when and where it is in no way connected with military-technical issues."
Otherwise, the very collateral damage from a total boycott of which Robert Quinn warns, accompanied as it is by the absence of any realistic goal, can become friendly fire on anti-war scientists and students.
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