Free university cannot be deemed «undesirable»

Machine trans­la­tion

The Free University was found­ed in the sum­mer of 2020 at the ini­tia­tive of HSE pro­fes­sors with whom the admin­is­tra­tion refused to sign a con­tract. As a response to the gov­ern­men­t’s repres­sive inter­fer­ence in the affairs of high­er edu­ca­tion, a mod­el of inde­pen­dent pub­lic edu­ca­tion was devel­oped that is open and free to all who wish to receive it. This mod­el proved to be suc­cess­ful, and at the moment the FU has many cours­es taught by the best Russian pro­fes­sors, many of whom were forced to leave Russia and resign from Russian universities.

On March 31, 2023, the General Prosecutor’s Office announced that FU had been declared an unde­sir­able orga­ni­za­tion. It was the sec­ond edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion, after Bard College, to receive this sta­tus. On April 1, the FU Academic Council issued a state­ment say­ing, in part, «We affirm that inde­pen­dent edu­ca­tion is not a crime. Universities only become “unde­sir­able” in a state built on igno­rance. We believe that the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office, which essen­tial­ly makes the idea of a uni­ver­si­ty ille­gal, are uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. The Free University is an idea of extrater­ri­to­r­i­al edu­ca­tion with­out cen­sor­ship. This idea can­not be deemed “unde­sir­able.”»

T-invari­ant spoke with Kirill Martynov, co-founder of The Free University, about how the new sta­tus will affect the prospects for the devel­op­ment of the project.

KM: First of all, it should be not­ed that we became the sec­ond edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion on this list after Bard College, but also ─ the first edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion of Russian ori­gin found­ed by Russian teach­ers for, for the most part, Russian stu­dents. Although, con­sid­er­ing that knowl­edge and edu­ca­tion are inter­na­tion­al things, we nev­er tried to stay in one lan­guage or one coun­try. On the con­trary, we tried to make sure that our teach­ers and our stu­dents could com­mu­ni­cate across bor­ders, as is sup­posed to hap­pen in the nor­mal aca­d­e­m­ic process. I think that giv­ing us the sta­tus of an unde­sir­able orga­ni­za­tion is a very wor­ri­some thing. It means, in gen­er­al, that a course has been tak­en towards the total iso­la­tion of Russian edu­ca­tion and now it is impos­si­ble to do any seri­ous inde­pen­dent projects in Russia. They fired us from the uni­ver­si­ties, say­ing that we teach the wrong things. We con­tin­ued our work on our own, with­out help from the state, we cre­at­ed our own edu­ca­tion­al project — not even three years lat­er we were put on the pro — skrip list. I believe that this is an act of intim­i­da­tion, of state ter­ror, which is sup­posed to urge teach­ers to be loy­al and obe­di­ent, and to force stu­dents to look the state in the mouth and rely only on it. And unless this ten­den­cy toward total con­trol and total iso­la­tion is reversed, a ten­den­cy toward accus­tom­ing the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty to total help­less­ness — the high­er school in Russia will be destroyed. The Russian author­i­ties will estab­lish their own bar­racks in the uni­ver­si­ties, if they have not already done so.

In this case we sim­ply found our­selves on the front line of these events, because we showed in prin­ci­ple that, on the whole and in gen­er­al, we have no respect for the entire Russian sys­tem of edu­ca­tion­al licens­ing. It became clear that it was impos­si­ble to cre­ate a new pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty in Russia: they would not let you do that, not only for eco­nom­ic rea­sons, but sim­ply because they would nev­er reg­is­ter you. This meant that projects in this field had to be based on some new prin­ci­ples. And now the state is show­ing that these new prin­ci­ples are also impos­si­ble. And when I call this ter­ror, I am not so much refer­ring to teach­ers, a notice­able part of whom left Russia dur­ing the last year (though by no means all of them), but to stu­dents. It is ter­ror against stu­dents, against their par­ents, against their fam­i­lies: «This is who you are mixed up with, look? Those ultra-lib­er­als, » as they called us in that weird press release.

T-i: What about perspective?

KM: We were ready for that to a cer­tain extent. Because we under­stood that grant­i­ng unde­sir­able sta­tus was the only thing the gov­ern­ment could seri­ous­ly do against us. What else can they do to us? We are not ask­ing them for mon­ey, we are not ask­ing them for a license. You can declare us crim­i­nals and some­how pros­e­cute those peo­ple who coop­er­ate with us.

Right now we are con­sult­ing with lawyers — we are try­ing to fig­ure out what to do about this. It is clear that we will have to reduce the pub­lic use of the Free University brand. We won’t be able to do any projects inside Russia under that name, because that would be a direct route to admin­is­tra­tive and crim­i­nal lia­bil­i­ty for all those involved.

We will sur­vive at the expense of even more decen­tral­iza­tion: we already have a fair­ly decen­tral­ized project. The guys who per­se­cute us have a poor under­stand­ing of the real­i­ty they are fac­ing. They think that there is some group of con­spir­a­tors who are sit­ting, for exam­ple, in Latvia and are dis­turb­ing their lives: teach­ing stu­dents bad things. This is extreme­ly far from real­i­ty. And instead of one uni­ver­si­ty, at least pub­licly, there may well be a chain of com­mu­ni­ca­tion… When teach­ers, well, say, some­how mirac­u­lous­ly find good stu­dents for them­selves, and they study online when it suits them, with­out call­ing it a «The Free University» for any­one at all. That’s all the Attorney General’s Office will end up with on the way out.

It will be a lit­tle bit dif­fi­cult for us to adapt to this, because we’re used to talk­ing about our work and, in gen­er­al, involv­ing peo­ple who want to help us, includ­ing in Russia. But this means that we will have to do it in a dif­fer­ent way.

T-i: This can lead to a num­ber of dif­fi­cul­ties. Normal PR for any edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion requires pre­sent­ing open infor­ma­tion about the cours­es and teachers…What will you do about it, so as not to hurt any­one and at the same time recruit students?

KM: It is clear that we have put the prob­lem of stu­dent and fac­ul­ty safe­ty in Russia at the top of the list. And all oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions like pro­mo­tion in the mar­ket­place take sec­ond place. It’s just the way the pri­or­i­ties are set: we don’t want our col­leagues to be harassed.

Obviously, we will have to do our recruit­ment dif­fer­ent­ly. We are still dis­cussing this because the next recruit­ment will prob­a­bly be in September. I’m sure it will hap­pen, and I under­stand that it won’t look the same as we’ve been used to for the last three years.

But I think our cen­sors and the peo­ple who are try­ing to hound us ─ they’re too late. Because we are pret­ty well known, we are cit­ed as an exam­ple of an edu­ca­tion­al project that you can do on your own. Conventionally speak­ing, in the world of edu­ca­tion, we are such a «Medusa» right now. And just as «Medusa» was deemed unde­sir­able, but it con­tin­ued to work, so, too, «The Free University», while unde­sir­able, will con­tin­ue to work, using oth­er mech­a­nisms to inform peo­ple about what we do, and oth­er mod­els of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and oth­er mod­els of social­iza­tion. It will be a lot of lit­tle projects with dif­fer­ent names. You can catch each of them indi­vid­u­al­ly, chase them down, but it won’t get you any­where, because there will be more of these projects.

And there are two argu­ments why unde­sir­abil­i­ty is to some extent even a plus. Although, of course, I would pre­fer to do with­out it and, for that mat­ter, just work nor­mal­ly at home in Russia in nor­mal human con­di­tions, as it was before the recent events.

The plus side is that now it’s very easy for us to nego­ti­ate with our col­leagues in the West, with uni­ver­si­ties in the first place. We can now count on the help and sol­i­dar­i­ty of the Western sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty because we are tak­en seri­ous­ly. And I think we will get that solidarity.

Besides, for­bid­den fruit is sweet. Free high­er edu­ca­tion has nev­er been as attrac­tive as it is now that it is for­bid­den and criminalized.

T-i: And how much does this com­pli­cate your plans to get a license?

KM: Being active abroad with the sta­tus of an unde­sir­able orga­ni­za­tion clear­ly makes it eas­i­er. Now it is hard to do Russian projects abroad, even inde­pen­dent ones. Because every­one is a lit­tle sus­pi­cious of you, they think you are some kind of dou­ble agent. Now we have a cer­tifi­cate that we are, in gen­er­al, nor­mal peo­ple, that we did not sup­port the war, that the Russian author­i­ties per­se­cute us as much as pos­si­ble. And in Europe, I think we’ll be fine, as far as it’s even possible.

Of course, this makes it very dif­fi­cult to work with Russian stu­dents. If we have accred­i­ta­tion, Russians have to be very care­ful not to show their affil­i­a­tions, not to get any offi­cial doc­u­ments from us, and so on. But I think this prac­tice will be developed.

And I also have a feel­ing that such an infla­tion of this unde­sir­abil­i­ty awaits us, that in the end they will begin to con­sid­er every­one who does not ful­ly agree with the gen­er­al line of the par­ty unde­sir­able. As hap­pened with the sta­tus of a for­eign agent. Almost all pro­fes­sion­als, it seems to me, can either turn out to be agents, or unde­sir­able, or some oth­er kind of ene­my of the peo­ple — this is an inevitable process to some extent.

Questions asked by Evgeniya VEZHLYAN