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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