Relocation Universities

Undesirable two years: how the Fulbright program for Russian scientists ends

Even before the war with Ukraine, about 150 young Russian scientists became scholarship recipients of the prestigious Fulbright Program and got the opportunity to study at prestigious American universities. March 7, 2024 organizations IIE and Cultural Vistas sponsoring the program were considered undesirable in Russia. On March 29, IIE suspended the program in Russia to avoid persecution of Fulbrighters. However, at least 100 people are still in the United States, continuing to cooperate with these organizations, and will have to return to Russia in the near future. T-invariant figured out what awaits them in their homeland and what alternatives young scientists see for themselves.

— Selection for the Fulbright program lasts about a year, includes five stages, at each of which you you can fly out. So the result was long-awaited and, of course, inspiring,” recalls Irina Perfilova, who today studies at the University of Tennessee.

Irina has an unusual direction for the Fulbright program. And she is one of the first to win participation in a sports theme — sports for people with disabilities.

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Irina Perfilova

“I had a clear plan of how and what I would do on my topic in Moscow, and an understanding of why the American experience was important for my plans,” she says.

Perfilova planned to return to Russia and implement the knowledge acquired in the USA. But during my studies in the USA, a lot has changed in Russia.

From a prestigious program to an undesirable organization

1On April 1, 1972, the USA and the USSR signed an “Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Science, Technology, Education , culture and other areas.” As part of the agreement in 1973, six Soviet and six American scientists became the first participants in an exchange program between the countries. Bilateral cooperation continued uninterrupted throughout the Cold War and after its end. Today the Fulbright program operates in 160 countries. But in Russia its half-century history was recently interrupted.

“For me, the first bell was the adoption of the law on foreign agents,” says Irina. — More precisely, about prohibit foreign agents from participating in educational activities. Foreign agent status can be obtained through foreign funding. Through the Fulbright program we receive a scholarship — and this is foreign funding. For now, “foreign influence” is enough. But what is it? For example, we study here — is this foreign influence?

Irina says that the official contract that participants sign states that after participating in the program they become cultural and educational representatives of the American Fulbright program in Russia.

This is a potential threat to be included in the register of foreign agents. And since educational activities are prohibited for foreign agents, Fulbrighters will not be able to transfer the knowledge they have acquired, and for many of them the projects planned before the trip will become unrealistic.

The next milestone in the lives of Fulbright scholars was January statement Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin that this and a number of other American programs are “trying to replace the non-systemic opposition that fled en masse to the West” and are preparing their students to become “the core of the fifth column.” And on March 7, the Russian Foreign Ministry presented Head of Americathe Kan diplomatic mission received an official note demanding that any assistance to the activities of three NGOs, including IIE (Institute of International Education) be stopped. On the same day, the institute was recognized as an undesirable organization in Russia. On March 29, IIE suspended the Fulbright program in Russia to avoid prosecution of Russian applicants. However, more than 100 participants are currently in the United States, continuing cooperation with IIE and Cultural Vistas, and according to the signed agreements and received J1 visa will have to return to Russia in the near future: approx. 30 — within 2-3 months, the rest — in the next few years.

It cannot be said that the story of the Fulbright program is unique. Daniil Kirsanov, another fellow of the program, believes that the Russian government is putting pressure on participants in other exchange programs — not only Russian-American, but also Russian-European. This is precisely why Daniel explains the fear and reluctance to give comments among many Fulbrighters to whom we contacted. Those who see no way not to return to Russia are simply afraid of drawing attention to themselves once again.

How the homeland can greet you

A Russian lawyer, who advised us on condition of anonymity, immediately made a reservation that law enforcement practice in modern Russia is poorly predictable: maybe law enforcement agencies will not pay attention to Fulbrighters at all, or maybe everything will go according to an unpleasant scenario. At the same time, the lawyer confirmed that the likelihood of the program’s fellows being recognized as foreign agents is high. At the same time, the punishment for collaborating with an undesirable organization IIE, which finances the Fulbright program, may not seem very strict: an administrative fine from 5 to 15 thousand rubles. As the lawyer noted, cases relating exclusively to cooperation with an undesirable organization rarely appear: there is a lot of paperwork, and the fine is meager.

But an administrative case for cooperation with IIE could easily become the beginning of a larger persecution. For a foreign agent, two administrative cases are enough for a criminal case to be opened against him, and this is already fraught with a prison term. Did you reprint materials from Dozhd, Radio Liberty or Meduza? Have you transferred money to these or other undesirable organizations? Have you ever spoken out in support of Ukraine or donated money to Ukrainian organizations? Many of our heroes who are in the United States today confirm that they did just that. And this is all the prospect of a criminal case.

There are already similar precedents in Russia. For example, the case of activist Anastasia Shevchenko: she received her first “administrative letter” for participating as a coordinator in political debates in Taganrog, and the second, which escalated into a criminal case, for publishing an announcement of an Open Russia lecture.

“While there are few criminal cases, people are more afraid of them,” explains the Russian lawyer consulting us. — There are not even administrative protocols for cooperation specifically with IIE yet. Therefore, with a minimum of caution, program participants — at least for now — will likely be able to return home without consequences.

“We know of cases where Fulbright program participants were denied employment precisely because of their participation in it,” says Daniil Kirsanov. — Fulbrighters also had difficulties obtaining additional funding in Russia. But so far, fortunately, we do not know any examples of administrative or criminal cases.

Daniil Kirsanov

Both our expert lawyer and Fulbright program curators in private correspondence with scholarship recipients do not recommend mentioning participation in this prestigious program anywhere. As well as talking about it at an interview, even to adequate employers. Apparently, current Fulbrighters returning home will have to erase these years from their lives.

We could see how participation in the Fulbright program could turn out in the example of the now former director of the Institute of the USA and Canada Valeria Garbuzova: Russian journalists and pro-government bloggers they say about “colonization of the brain”, about “the growth of talent and American breeders”, etc.

Some of the stories told to us cause concern for the future of some Fubrightites. For example, Violetta Soboleva, currently studying for a doctorate in Educational Psychology at the City University of New YorkLGBT community. And Kirill Shabalin told us that his return is eagerly awaited by representatives of the FSB, who, during Kirill’s studies in foreign regional studies at the Far Eastern Federal University, more than once offered him cooperation.

Kirill Shabalin

“They offered it very persistently, and when they repeated their offer in March 2022, I refused quite sharply,” recalls Shabalin. — Before leaving for the USA, I had an unpleasant conversation on the phone, including an invitation to talk in person. I think I was able to leave without any problems only because I went through electronic control.

The Russian lawyer, who agreed to advise us, gave some advice for Fulbrighters (and not only) who decided to cross the Russian border:

1) You need to clearly understand what they can see in correspondence and social networks on your phone. But at the same time, the phone should not be pristinely clean. There may be some photographs, correspondence. But there should be nothing directly linking you to an undesirable organization or foreign agent.

2) It is worth deleting the mobile applications of American banks so that you will not be able to see that American organizations have transferred money to you. It is worth thinking in advance about the answers to the question of what exactly you did in the USA and what you studied there. Social sciences are more stressful for examiners than, say, the Roman Empire or any branch of mathematics.

3) It is better to check in your certificate of education in your luggage (hand luggage may be subject to a personal search during border crossing).

4) You can guess in advance whether FSB officers or border guards will be interested in you. Firstly, a denunciation could have been written against you already before this. If there was no such denunciation and no case was brought against you, then the average inspector simply enters your name into a search engine and looks at the search results. If you made anti-Russian comments, spoke out in support of Ukraine, or advertised your cooperation with undesirable organizations, they will most likely be interested in you. And then, as practice shows they can be detained on a far-fetched basis pretext.

Exceptions to the two-year rule

According to the J1 visa rules and the concluded agreement, after completing their studies, all Russian exchange program participants are required to return to Russia for at least two years (the so-called two-year rule). Daniil Kirsanov explains that now their active group is not trying to get additional funding or any special benefits. They ask to reconsider their obligations to return to their homeland and the possibility of changing their legal status. In short, Russian Fulbrighters who are in America want to have the opportunity to stay in the United States and work there legally.

“It seems to me that when one party to a contract, due to circumstances beyond its control, cannot fulfill its part without a threat to life and freedom, this contract is worth reconsidering,” he believes. — The main goal of the project is to establish cooperation. But in the current situation, taking into account Russia’s attitude to this issue, to establish aMining is possible only with people — but not with Russia as a state.

The two-year rule did not appear by chance. Typically, exchange programs are funded equally by the United States and the second exchange country. The two-year rule is a kind of guarantee that the exchange participant will return to his homeland and pass on the acquired knowledge to others. But Russia did not participate financially in this program; the education of students was shared by the US budget and specific universities.

We asked immigration lawyer Yulia Pashkova (company Lux Law). She confirmed that Fulbright participants are required to return to their home country for at least two years.

— Migration services treat this rule strictly, and it is very difficult to get any relaxations, she noted.

Yulia Pashkova named several possible ways to circumvent the two-year rule.

  1. Receive a letter from the partner country (in this case, the Russian government) stating that the exchange program participant is not required to return for a two-year period. The request must be certified by the Department of State and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration.

As Daniil Kirsanov told T-invariant, Russian Fulbrighters tried to receive such a letter.

— In response to this request, they wrote to us that there was no financial participation of Russia in this project, which means that the project cannot be considered a full-fledged exchange program. — he explains. — From their point of view, the participation of Russian students and scientists in Fulbright programs is a private initiative, and the Russian government, not being a party to the deal, cannot issue a refusal. Theoretically, the refusal could be signed by the Russian branch of Fulbright — as an organization signing the agreement on the Russian side. But it is now closed as a project of an undesirable organization IIE.

  1. Receive invitations from any US federal agency. That is, participation in a project that is interesting to the American government. Which, as Yulia Pashkova admits, is unlikely for young specialists.

“If all the attacks of the Russian media about “spies” were true, it would not be difficult for us to get a visa on this point,” Kirsanov jokes bitterly. — But in reality this is almost impossible. At least, I don’t know of a single case where a Fulbrighter took advantage of this exception.

  1. Documenting extreme hardship in the life of a wife or child who is a U.S. citizen (merely being married to or having children with a U.S. citizen is not a sufficient reason to waive the two-year rule ).

— “Extreme difficulties are, for example, when your American spouse or child is very ill and urgently needs your help, and Russia will not be able to provide the proper level of medical care,” explains Yulia Pashkova.

  1. If we are talking about a health care worker, get an invitation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
  2. Ask for political asylum. Yulia Pashkova notes that to use this clause, you must prove to the US Migration Service that you are truly at risk of persecution based on your race, religion, social status or political views. This process is not quick: you first need to provide evidence of persecution to the migration service, and then the migration service will transfer your case to the State Department, which will make the final decision. It is this fifth option that seems most likely to Pashkova’s lawyer. But she notes that hypothetical threats are not suitable for this — you need to prove that returning to Russia is dangerous for you.

Shelter is not for everyone

Violetta Soboleva, another Fulbright program participant, clarifies that there are two ways to get away from the two-year rule: persecution waiver (fear of persecution at home) and asylum processes (request for asylum) . Each of them has its own pros and cons.

Violetta Soboleva

—The first option does not provide any legal status for staying in the country,” she says. “At the same time, the average waiting time for a result is now about 17 months. Accordingly, if you apply for this reason and your visa expires, you must leave the country With the second option, you can legally stay in the country while your application is being considered, and even 150 days after submission, you have the right to submit documents for a work permit. Now the waiting time for an interview is 3-5 years (but it can be 10). during this time you do not have the right to leave the country (with rare exceptions).

“Our choice is simple: either return home, where they can put you in prison or initiate a case, or a study visa,” says Daniil Kirsanov. — The problem is that, firstly, at the moment when the new status of IIE became known, the deadline for accepting applications for PhDs had already ended. In addition, a study visa does not completely solve the problem; it only puts the two-year rule on hold. We have people who tried to get a work visa but were unsuccessful. Even those who got married while living in America are now faced with a dilemma about what to do — marriage does not cancel the obligation to return to Russia for two years.

Most of the Fulbrighters with whom we were able to talk are now considering options for either studying for a doctorate (this is only relevant for those who were planning to study there anyway) or for a new master’s program , or post academic training — practice after training. They all agree that such decisions are temporary, but provide an opportunity to apply for asylum and wait for a decision in the United States.

We asked the Institute of International Education itself to comment on the situation. We were assured that “they are trying to maintain constant contact and advise project participants from Russia in as much detail as possible. Devon Butzin, Public Affairs and Strategic Communications Specialist at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US State Department, believes that the Bureau informs about all the opportunities and prospects for Fulbrighters upon completion of the exchange program, including options to stay in the United States, return home, or go to a third country as a private individual.

Program experience Chevening, the international scholarship program of the UK government, shows that the abolition of the two-year rule is possible: there it was completely abolished for Russian participants. To IIE’s credit, it must be admitted that they also tried to do something with this rule. For example, they announced that they were ready to pay for program participants to move to a third country and not insist on returning to Russia.

“Moving to a third country is not only a ticket to it,” Irina Perfilova points out. — This is also a visa, looking for a job, renting a house, this is money at least for the first time. Of course, we had a scholarship in America, but not so big that we could save. None of us have savings, and we can’t count on help from our relatives in a situation where all Russian cards are blocked. I can’t say that this is a real solution.

One ​​Fulbrighter admits that he feels that IIE, Cultural Vistas and the State Department are trying to avoid Fulbright participants and the problem itself:

—They tell us that if they make concessions to us, it will completely change the legislation around the J1 visa, which currently allows students to participate in exchange programs. But it seems to me that they do not realize the risks that we are exposed to by returning to Russia. Now they only provide information support, but this is not enough, agrees Kirill Shabalin.

—We can’t say that they don’t believe us. But I see that when you start talking about various criminal trials or completely unexpected practices in the application of laws, it is always a big shock for them. People really have no idea what is happening in Russia, says Daniil Kirsanov.

Some relatives of Fulbrighters also view the reality of the danger of returning home with some distrust.

“My parents live in some kind of their own world,” says Irina Perfilova. “When I show them specific laws and explain that this concerns me directly, they continue to believe that this is all a conspiracy of the American intelligence services, and has nothing to do with our lives with them. They watch TV and support Putin. My dad’s ancestors are from Ukraine. But he, as one who is still under mobilization, is ready, if he is called up, to go to fight in UkRaina. He believes that this is his duty to his Motherland.

“My dad believes that something bad can happen to bad people, but not to me,” says Violetta Soboleva. “He believes that Russia is safe and you can safely return.” He jokes that I just need to remove the Fuck Putin sticker from my computer. But with a “Fuck Biden” sticker, if I want, I can go to Russia.

Text: Julia Chernaya


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