History Universities

Desnitsky-gate. Working on mistakes of the past and present

Is it possible to say that the USSR annexed Lithuania? Why was the contract with the emigrant professor officially terminated? What do other teachers and students of Vilnius University, as well as Andrey Desnitsky himself, think about this? T-invariant  tried to understand how such issues should be resolved from the point of view of the norms of the academic community.

Doctor of Philology, biblical scholar and publicist Andrei Desnitsky has worked at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1994. In February 2022, he opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was among the first to sign Letter from scientists against war. Then he emigrated to Lithuania and last November received a place at Vilnius University.

Everything was going well until this spring, when activist Daiva Kucinskaite began a public campaign against the professor. Daiva, half Lithuanian and Russian citizen. After the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, she left for Lithuania.

Daiva told T-Invariant that she followed Desnitsky on Facebook when he arrived in Vilnius. But then I tripped over two of his posts. One was about the announcement of a children’s Orthodox camp with the blessing of Metropolitan Mark of Berlin, who belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. The second is a link to Desnitsky’s column in The Moscow Times, where the scientist discussed what positive program the West should offer Russia.

I thought that he was one of the people who believed that until 2022 everything was not bad, and it would be nice to have everything back. And only Putin is to blame for what happened, and not the imperial approach itself, — says Daiva. — The question arose: “where have you been for eight years,” and I decided to check what Desnitsky wrote about Crimea and Donbass.

Andrei Desnitsky then, nine years ago, signing appeal of the Russian intelligentsia against this event. Although on social networks he spoke out about Crimea much more controversially, in the spirit that everything was done wrong, but Crimea is Russian and should be with Russia. He was also accused of traveling to the already annexed peninsula. Desnitsky denied these accusations. Daiva started picking up and publishing all these old posts on social networks.

Andrey Desnitsky

It was not immediately possible for her to reach a wide audience. For example, back in early June, the Lithuanian public radio station LRT released a completely positive material about the scientist under the title “Without compromise with conscience. The story of immigrants Asya Stein and Andrei Desnitsky“. But two weeks later the same publication published a text in a completely different spirit: “There is a Russian professor at Vilnius University who supported the referendum on the annexation of Crimea“. A few days later, the teacher admitted that in those early thoughts of his “relapses of imperial consciousness” appeared, and that they should not have been carried out at all.

The next blow to Desnitsky’s reputation in Lithuania was the August publication of LRT. This time it turned out that the professor managed to speak out not only about the annexation of Crimea, but also about the forced annexation of the three Baltic countries to the USSR.

This was the column “Soviet Baltics: what was it?” in the publication Pravmir, and as often happens with columns on historical topics, it’s quite provocative. In it, the publicist (Desnitsky does not have an academic degree or specialized education in history) offered to look at the events of 1940 from an unexpected angle. The main message was that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were at that time unfree countries (Desnitsky calls them right-wing dictatorships), and joining the USSR became for their residents a transition not from freedom to unfreedom, but from one unfreedom to another.

It was precisely because of the lack of democracy that the inhabitants of these countries did not actually resist the Soviet invasion, the author argued, citing democratic Finland as an opposite example. The article made all the necessary reservations about Stalinist repressions, lack of freedom in the USSR and violation of international law, but many Lithuanian residents were outraged by this text. And in retelling of Lithuanian media hit already the most selected fragments.

That LRT publication included biased quotes from my 2012 article. In fact, it was a completely passable column, of which I have written hundreds. Now it attracts such attention as if it were my life’s work, like Dante’s Divine Comedy. Over the past month, more people have read it than in the previous eleven years, — explains Andrey Desnitsky. — Of course, now I would write it completely differently. Or I wouldn’t write at all. There are painful themes in history, but we don’t know to what extent they are painful until we touch on them.

The teacher issued an apology on the day of publication. He explained that he had changed his views over the past 11 years. However, on the same day the university announced his dismissal.

In fact, the contract, already extended for the next academic year, was terminated. I strongly disagree with the publications of Radio LRT. But I insist that the university has the unconditional right not to conclude an agreement with me, and the Republic of Lithuania the right to decide whether to accept me on your territory or not, — emphasizes Desnitsky .

At first glance, everything is logical: a university employee made a number of incorrect and potentially offensive statements. A public campaign began against him, the scientist repented, but was fired. We have seen something like this many times before within cancel culture. But the current situation differs from others in one fundamental point.

The fact is that Vilnius University itself categorically denies the connection between the dismissal of the professor and the scandalous publications. In response to a request from T-Invariant, the head of the university communications department, Grete Gerulaite, said that “the decision not to renew contact with the teacher was made due to a decrease in the number of students enrolled in the program, within which temporary lecturer A. Desnitsky taught his course. Unfortunately, we cannot discuss this in more detail due to information protection requirements. However, in Lithuania and Vilnius University, any topic in which society and scientists are interested can be discussed without any restrictions. And freedom of expression is a constitutional right.”

“The level of empathy for Russians has dropped significantly”

Desnitsky quite correctly built his defense, trying to explain that a person should have the right change. But from a communication point of view, he chose the wrong strategy because he did not even try to reach the Lithuanian-speaking audience. Everything happened in the Russian-language information space, which is very insignificant, explains Dr. Viktor Denisenko, who teaches media communications at Vilnius University.

Denisenko admits that if the emigrant scientist himself initiated a conversation about his old articles and posts on social networks immediately after moving to Lithuania, this would remove many questions.

On the other hand, why would a person who looked so disdainfully at the Baltic countries go exactly here? — Denisenko argues.

He associates such a sharp reaction to the old texts of the Russian scientist with the current war and unprecedented support for Ukraine in Lithuania.

The level of empathy for Russians has dropped significantly, regardless of their position,  Denisenko states. Condemn the war This is good, but the Russians did not stop their leadership. I don’t want to get into a debate about whether this is possible or not under the current repressive system, but the general context is this. Everyone who comes from there is looked at through a magnifying glass and wonders: why this place was not given to a Ukrainian scientist who cannot now work due to the Russian invasion.

It must be noted that Desnitsky did not occupy anyone’s place at the university. His work was funded by a private philanthropic foundation. The position was research related to modern Russian poetry. As a teacher, the emigrant taught only two courses. Firstly, I taught students a course on modern Russian poetry. Secondly, he replaced a teacher who was seriously ill and gave her an introduction to literary theory.

Moreover, since March 2022, European, British, Canadian and American, Israeli universities began to offer temporary positions for their Ukrainian colleagues. Academic support programs for scientists from Ukraine have been launched. However, it quickly became clear that supply exceeded demand: many scientists and teachers who wanted to go abroad did so even before the outbreak of hostilities. And of those who would like to do this during the war, very few have the right to leave, mostly women, since men with a scientific degree in Ukraine are not exempt from mobilization. Therefore, it can hardly be said that fugitive Russian scientists compete with their Ukrainian colleagues. In any case, not a single university in the world has yet declared that a Ukrainian and a Russian were considered for the same position, but they preferred the Russian, and there was no place for the Ukrainian.

In addition, Desnitsky’s courses were taught in Russian. This is not a common thing for Vilnius University, but it is allowed at the Department of Slavic Studies.

He began his first lecture by saying that he is an opponent of the war in Ukraine, — recalls Vilnius University student Anastasia Stankevichene. — He said that he was forced to leave Russia because of his political views. In other words, he clearly and specifically outlined his position, while personally expressing support for each student from Ukraine, of which there were several in the audience. It is curious and significant that some students with a relatively low overall attendance always came to Desnitsky’s lectures. Therefore, of course, we came to the professor’s defense when mass bullying began on the social network Facebook.

Anastasia and her colleagues wrote a letter to the dean’s office of the Faculty of Philology at the beginning of summer because they were worried about the teacher. There they were reassured and told that the scientist was not in danger. In August, the dean of the faculty was replaced, and students learned from the news that Andrei Desnitsky was fired.

We wrote a letter to the new dean asking if something could be changed, — says Stankevičienė. — They also called for focusing on a person’s political views in 2023, and not looking for accusations and reasons for dismissal in texts ten years ago. We were told that the reduction in staff at the Department of Slavic Studies is due to the unpopularity of this direction in today’s context, so our support does not change anything the thread cannot.

In general, the university version is the same for both journalists and employees. According to Anastasia, among the students and teachers of the faculty no one believes that the scientist was just laid off.

Everyone understands perfectly why A.S. was fired, she says. Faculty members were divided into two camps. Some strongly support the professor, are worried and indignant, others completely agree with the decision to dismiss and consider this fair “retribution” for thoughts once expressed.

Of course, Desnitsky’s dismissal is directly related to his statements, — admits Daiwa. — Of course, I would be more satisfied if the university officially fired him, citing the university charter and the inadmissibility of such statements. I think the dismissal was framed this way because the university simply didn’t quite understand what to do with him. And one of the reasons for this is that Desnitsky was hired without competition and without a transparent procedure. Simply relying on recommendations.

Inappropriate ethics

As a lawyer, it would be very interesting for me to see the documents on the basis of which Andrei Desnitsky was fired. And it’s hard to believe that he was fired precisely for his old publications, — admits Vaidotas Vaichaitis from the Faculty of Law of Vilnius University.

Dr. Vaichaitis is a specialist in Lithuanian constitutionalism and legal history. From 2016 to 2021, he was first vice-chairman and then chairman of the central university commission on academic ethics. It is through this body that, in theory, all complex disputes about whether a person is worthy of remaining a teacher should take place.

Seven sit on the commission: four teachers and three students. It is usually headed by someone from the law department, because every consideration of issues of violation of ethics entails a quasi-legal procedure. At least a comprehensive analysis of any incident is expected.

The chairmanship of Vaidotas Vaichaitis coincided with the MeToo public campaign. During this time, the commission examined several appeals from women who complained of harassment and inappropriate behavior on the part of teachers.

The solutions were different, Vaichaitis recalls. — In a couple of cases, we came to the conclusion that professors are accused of actions that took place 7-10 years ago, which cannot be proven in any way. In other cases, there was evidence, for example, email correspondence. Over the past 10 years, I can remember only one case when a commission examined the political statements of a university employee. Students complained against one of the professors for using anti-European rhetoric during lectures. And as far as I know, he was not fired. His course underwent changes, and the teacher himself was transferred to another department, but remained working.

Difficult moments of history

To what extent does everything that Desnitsky wrote about the events of 1940 correspond to the concepts of academic ethics accepted in Lithuania? Perhaps the greatest indignation in Lithuanian society was caused by the fact that the author of the article called what happened to the Baltic countries not occupation, but annexation. What is the unforgivable mistake here?

This is not a question of discussion, but of knowledge: first there was an occupation, in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were invaded by Soviet troops in June 1940. Then in August all three republics were annexed. Of course, there were many sensitive moments in the history of our country, but I don’t see the point in dismissing a scientist for calling the occupation annexation — says Vaidotas Vaichaitis.

Lithuanian historiography has adopted the concept of three cupations: Soviet in 1940, German in 1941, and then Soviet again. But the word “annexation” is also present. On pages 228 and subsequent pages of the official textbook “History of Lithuania” the progress of the annexation is described in great detail. You can get acquainted with it on the website of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Is it possible to raise the topic of the undemocratic nature of the government in Lithuania before the USSR invasion, or even the fact that some of the country’s residents could support joining the USSR? Vaidotas Vaichaitis is confident that if this is a scientific work based on facts and historical documents, then such a topic may well be raised:

Yes, some people will probably show their dissatisfaction on social networks, but it’s unlikely this will ruin the scientist’s academic career.

The Lithuanian history of the last century is full of painful questions. Among them are the Holocaust and the participation of some Lithuanians in it. Including a number of heroes of the anti-Bolshevik resistance. And now, explains Vaichaitis, their role is being revised.

In the first years after independence, people found it very difficult to accept this. They are accustomed to the role of victims, having been under occupation for 50 years. And it was difficult for them to admit that among the Lithuanian people there were people who participated in the murder of Jews, — the scientist notes. —But a revision of the role of some historical characters is already taking place.

A case in point is Kazys Shkirpa, who for many years was a hero and freedom fighter in the eyes of Lithuanians. He did not personally participate in the murders, since he was under house arrest in Germany, but his followers did. And Shkirpa himself did not hide his anti-Semitic views.

His name was recently borne by an alley in the center of Vilnius. But four years ago, the city council decided by a majority vote to rename it precisely because of the anti-Semitism of the fighter for Lithuanian independence. Now it is called Tricolor Alley. This is partly a compromise solution, because Shkirpa was one of those who first raised the tricolor national flag in 1919.

Now in Lithuania we must speak very carefully about the Holocaust. Victor Denisenko gives the following example: historian and politician, member of the conservative faction of the Seimas of Lithuania, Valdas Rakutis, who wrote that some Jews helped destroy their fellow tribesmen in during the Holocaust, has been widely criticized in 2021. 

He was even fired from the post of chairman of the parliamentary commission responsible for issues of historical memory. But Rakutis remained in the Seimas. He is one of those deputies who are now promoting strict restrictions on the entry into the country of citizens of Russia and Belarus, such as Andrei Desnitsky.

Another recent Lithuanian story of dismissal for posts and comments occurred in 2017. Darius Udris was fired from his position the head of the municipal organization Go Vilnius, which promoted the Lithuanian capital in the international arena. He is not a scientist, but for several years he served as Vice-Rector for Development and Communication at the European Humanities University.

On Facebook, Udris commented on a photo of a leaflet by Lithuanian partisans calling for the killing of collective farm organizers. “By what definition was the organization of collective farms equated to a crime against humanity, for which ethical standards allow threatening death? Is it simply because the end justifies the means? Is it a moral act to kill or threaten collective farm organizers with death? By what ethical standards?” — Udris wrote.

This was followed by such a wave of criticism that the mayor of Vilnius immediately ordered the ethics commission to consider the subordinate’s case. But in the end he fired him quietly, without waiting for the commission’s verdict. Formally — for unsatisfactory work results. According to Udris, the boss never explained what exactly he was dissatisfied with.

This story is very similar to Desnitsky’s case. With the difference that Udris is not a Moscow emigrant professor, but Lithuanian and citizen of Lithuania. It follows from this that the practice of dismissal for statements in the Baltic republic is devoid of national preferences.

Probably, if Desnitsky and Udris were historians of the 20th century, specialists in the field of international law or political science, their statements would have been received more calmly. After all, disobedience to authority and a willingness to question even the most deeply held views lie at the very core of scientific knowledge.

But does this mean that non-experts should refrain from speaking out on difficult and sensitive topics? That a philologist has no right to publicly judge the history of international relations? Of course not, it’s not for nothing that freedom of speech in Lithuania and other civilized countries is a constitutionally guaranteed right for everyone. But what to do if the exercise of this right offends, incites hatred or causes pain, or conflicts with the interests of other people? To resolve this kind of conflict, a mature society develops special institutions: platforms for discussion, courts, and in borderline cases where there cannot be a direct legal violation — ethical commissions.

In academic communities of countries with authoritarian traditions, such conflicts are usually resolved dishonestly and clumsily. The official or teacher who provoked the scandal is either shielded or dismissed under some far-fetched pretext, and sometimes even retroactively. Therefore, in Russia or any other authoritarian country, the dismissal of a politically unacceptable professor “due to a decrease in the number of students” would not surprise anyone. In a European country with democratic traditions, there are procedures for this, compliance with which is the key to a healthy academic community. This is how scientists understand what and what responsibility they bear in case of neglect of historical facts or their dubious interpretation.

Text Nikita ARONOV


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