Science exchange with Russia: In the basement with the censor

As an exchange scientist, I experienced Soviet university life. Well, in war, such experiences are unfortunately hardly possible anymore.

Facade of a historical building

Main Building of St. Petersburg State University (formerly Leningrad State University) Photo: ddp

A snake gave me the idea that the end of the USSR was imminent. That was in 1976, I was an exchange scientist at the Free University of Berlin as part of a research project on the industrialization of the Soviet Union Leningrad State University. In Moscow I once had the privilege of working in the first reading room of the Lenin Library. I shared it with bearded professors from all over the Soviet Union, some of them international luminaries. I then met them again in the basement of the building, where they had to queue for up to half an hour to get the censor’s permission to xerocopy a book page or two. I thought: A country that was so impeding the spread of information, its days must be numbered.

Back in Leningrad I sat with my Viennese buddy Josef in his room under the roof of our dormitory in the evening and whispered my experiences in Moscow to him. We were considerate of his Siberian roommate who was snoring in a corner. After almost 10 months in the dormitory we got used to cockroaches and dirt and also to the feeling that we were constantly being bugged or spied on. I scribbled the sentence about the impending end of the USSR on a piece of toilet paper. To my surprise, Josef scribbled: “I think so too”. “How many more years?” I scribbled. We gave the Soviet Union 20 more years, five too many.

Despite everything, this dormitory was a wonderful place to discuss and celebrate with Russian colleagues from all disciplines. the Helsinki Conference on security and cooperation in Europe was a year ago. A Russian colleague named Yuri, a member of the Communist Party Youth League, always talked about it with shining eyes. He promised improvements in the field of human rights and, in the long term, freedom of the press from their final act. Indeed, over the next ten years, his country steered into the glasnost era. We didn’t know it at the time, but over time, we, around two dozen exchange scientists from Germany, and our Soviet colleagues, who were getting to know our homeland, became more and more people. “We have to write everything down,” said my Canadian colleague Deborah. “We are the only ones who experience something like this and later nobody will believe us.”

At the beginning of this year, the German Rectors’ Conference documented 887 exchange projects Russia. Since the start of the Ukraine war, the German Academic Exchange Service, the German Research Foundation and most universities and colleges have suspended their contacts with Russia in this regard. Their statements reflect a certain helplessness in dealing with the Russian partners. Some assert that the measure is not directed against partner organizations, students and scientists in Russia, but only against the warring government. As if the German research facilities had a Jedi lightsaber that pierced its closer targets, leaving them unharmed and hitting the real enemies behind them.

Russian science is divided

At the moment, there is unprecedented terror in Russian universities. Against this background, over 700 rectors of Russian universities have signed an open letter supporting their government and calling Western-sympathetic citizens “scum” that must be removed from Russia. Numerous professors have already resigned and left the country. Maria Rakhmaninova, who taught social sciences and political science at a St. Petersburg university, also resigned, but decided to stay for the time being. In the Moscow Times she describes how she informed her students about the war in Ukraine right from the start and how they were asked to denounce her. In her last lecture there was applause and tears.

Russian science is deeply divided. Thousands of academics have written open letters protesting the war. This includes a lion’s courage, as up to 15 years in prison threaten. The ones published by the University of Bremen, among others Russia Analysis report that since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, funding for science in Russia has plummeted. Since 2019 there have only been 800 foreign researchers in Russia, compared to 13,000 in the USA. The Putin regime does not appear to be interested in an intensive international research exchange. Social scientists who remain in the country will face major obstacles if they want to conduct research according to international standards.

However, by being the first to slam the door to Russian scientific institutions, our side scored an own goal, similar to making tourist visas more difficult. It is understandable that Russian scientists should be kept away from arms-related research and that the Federal Republic should be protected from industrial espionage. But German research institutions should have taken the time to examine individual cases.

Some have expressly done so, eight institutes dealing with Eastern European research reserve the right to continue to cooperate with selected colleagues from Russia and Belarus in the future. This is a viable path for the time being: German scientists could certainly experience things when dealing with colleagues from Putin’s Russia that nobody would want to believe afterwards.

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