Interviews “I was not prepared to censor myself” Interview with Russian university professor Gleb Yarovoy

Gleb Yarovoy is a professor of political science and is currently based at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu. His dealings over the years with his former main employer, Petrozavodsk State University, says something about the situation for Russian academics of today.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2018:4 Vol XI, pages 12-13
Published on on March 5, 2019

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Gleb Yarovoy is a professor of political science and is currently based at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu. His dealings over the years with his former main employer, Petrozavodsk State University, says something about the situation for Russian academics of today. I reached him on the phone from Joensuu in December.

His problems started several years ago. In Petrozavodsk, the University has a special deputy rector for security issues, a former FSB (Federal Security Service) officer. This person has a direct link to the regional branch of the FSB. Yarovoy believes that some students are part of this FSB network and report teachers to the secret police.

The FSB never came up to him criticizing the way he taught or the subjects he chose. But it happened several times that the FSB had heard what he had discussed with the students after class, when they often talked about current events and Russian foreign policy.

“I would guess that in every group of students, there is at least one who is in touch with the secret police. Working at the FSB is well paid, and many students want to go and serve there.”

The FSB person would tell him that “we can’t stop you from talking to the students in this way, but you have to know that it’s not good for your future here at the University if you continue to speak like this”. Yarovoy says it’s a decision a professor has to make, whether one is prepared to censor oneself in this way.

“The University and the FSB do not directly stop you from stretching the limits, but if you do stretch them, there will be consequences. Well, I was not prepared to censor myself, which led to problems.”

When the students wanted to discuss sensitive issues, he did not remain quiet: they could talk about Mr Putin’s autocratic leadership, the power of the Orthodox church, gay rights, and even the annexation of Crimea.

“Criticizing the annexation is probably the most sensitive issue of all, but if the students asked me about my opinion I was prepared to discuss the matter with them and express my opinion.”

Four years ago he came to the conclusion that working in academia is difficult when you also want to freely express your opinions about current national and international affairs. Therefore he started a parallel career in journalism.

“It is easier to find independent media organizations than independent universities. I was tired of struggling at the University and continuously being reported by the students. I wanted to find other ways to express myself”.

But he didn’t want to break ties completely with the University because he enjoyed the teaching.

“They didn’t let me teach the general courses in political science, so I focused on my speciality, the Arctic region. And they gave me only master courses. I think they were afraid to let me teach the youngest students since I could influence their thinking on current affairs”.

Yarovoy was fine with the arrangement, and through his freelance journalism he could still express his views. But the real problems started when he became the regional coordinator for Golos, the main and most well known election watchdog active in Russia that is independent of the Russian government. In the winter of 2016, it was decided that he would be responsible for coordinating the Duma parliamentary elections in Karelia.

In the summer of 2016, a couple of months before the elections, he was warned by friends who have contacts in the FSB:

“They had heard, they told me, that if I continue my work at Golos I will be sacked.”

Officially, the University wasn’t able to dismiss him on these grounds, so they needed another excuse. That summer Yarovoy wanted to attend a conference on the Arctic region in Helsinki. He tried to get a permit to go from the head of the department, and he needed additional signatures from other people. But he never got them — and went to the conference anyway.

“So eventually they found a reason to criticize me for not following the rules of the University. And fired me.”

But he could not accept the decision, so he went to court. And the court gave him right: it stated that he had made a mistake by going to the conference without permission, but the offence was however so minor that it didn’t justify dismissal.

“The judge told me that the whole story was stupid! I am happy that our courts still can convey such an independence.”

But the whole tiresome affair contributed to his decision to accept the offer to do research work at the University of Eastern Finland from August 2018.

“Over the years, I had developed several contacts with colleagues there, people who study boarder issues, which is another field of interest for me. And Joensuu is only 400 kilometers away from Petrozavodsk, so it is easy to go back and forth.”

The biggest difference teaching in Finland compared to Russia?

“It is of course nice that I don’t face the risk that students will report me to the secret police. Or that the University would warn me not to mention sensitive issues. But the main difference is that Finnish universities give us more time to do research, in Russia we only have time to teach!”

He sees this as one of the major problems in higher education in Russia: the research is done in cthe Russian Academy of Science, and almost none is carried out at the ordinary universities.

”Putin has said that all university professors should multiply the number of articles that we write for academic journals, we even get better paid if we do — but when does he think we could find the time to write them?”

In Finland he has also agreed to become manager for a cross border project, so for the moment he does not have much time for teaching or research. He will stay in Finland for at least three years; his children get great schooling there and his journalist wife can continue her work. But he has not totally given up on his old University in Petrozavodsk.

“In the spring I have accepted to come and teach a course; I love seeing my Russian students! We will see how long the University accepts having me onboard.”

Russia has great interests in the arctic region. Has it never been sensitive when you write and teach on the subject?

“I have made critical statements on Russian arctic policy, but I have never had any problems. No, it’s accepted to question this policy.”

To sum up: in general terms, how free or unfree are Russian universities?

Gleb Yarovoy says that it is impossible to give a clear answer to that question.

“It depends on the size of the university. And it depends where it is located. Generally speaking, the freedom for academics is somewhat greater at bigger universities and in bigger cities.

  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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