Many Russian liberals still despise Ukraine

The Higher School of Economics (HSE) is one of the most prestigious universities in Russia. Although a state-funded institution, it had been known since its founding in 1992 as an island of political liberalism in an increasingly authoritarian country. Since February 24 and the invasion of Ukraine, he has quickly squandered that reputation. In March, HSE Rector Nikita Anisimov signed an open letter alongside more than 300 other university leaders who have argued that universities should support the Russian state in its attack on Ukraine. Later that month, students were officially warned not to participate in anti-war demonstrations. And, more recently, HSE promised in June to allocate 10% of state-funded university places to children of soldiers participating in the Russian invasion.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is little choice. Serious consequences await those who denounce the so-called special operation in Ukraine. In March, Russia enacted two laws criminalizing independent war reporting and anti-war protests, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison. The State Duma subsequently “passed amendments effectively extending the ban on criticizing the armed forces to the ban on criticizing all actions of the Russian government abroad”, according to Human Rights Watch.

And yet, the HSE’s descent into chauvinism testifies to the inherent limits of Russian liberalism. HSE was the first university to be newly established in post-Soviet Russia, a symbol of the brief window of hope for the democratic transition that Western powers assumed was coming. Founder Yaroslav Kuzminov—initiator of the Bologna process that brought Russian education systems into line with those across Europe —sent future HSE teachers to France and the Netherlands to learn Western teaching methods.

The Higher School of Economics (HSE) is one of the most prestigious universities in Russia. Although a state-funded institution, it had been known since its founding in 1992 as an island of political liberalism in an increasingly authoritarian country. Since February 24 and the invasion of Ukraine, he has quickly squandered that reputation. In March, HSE Rector Nikita Anisimov signed an open letter alongside more than 300 other university leaders who have argued that universities should support the Russian state in its attack on Ukraine. Later that month, students were officially warned not to participate in anti-war demonstrations. And, more recently, HSE promised in June for allocate 10% of state-funded places at university to the children of soldiers who took part in the Russian invasion.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is little choice. Serious consequences await those who denounce the so-called special operation in Ukraine. In March, Russia enacted two laws criminalizing independent war reporting and anti-war protests, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison. The State Duma later ” adopted amendments effectively extending the ban on criticizing the armed forces to the ban on criticizing all actions of the Russian government abroad,” according to Human Rights Watch.

And yet, the HSE’s descent into chauvinism testifies to the inherent limits of Russian liberalism. HSE was the first university to be newly established in post-Soviet Russia, a symbol of the brief window of hope for the democratic transition that Western powers assumed was coming. Founder Yaroslav Kuzminov—initiator of the Bologna process that brought Russian education systems into line with those across Europe —sent future HSE teachers to France and the Netherlands to learn Western teaching methods.

Since then, it has ranked among the top Russian universities and sought to climb international rankings, rising from the top 500 to the top 300 between 2012 and 2021 in the QS World University Rankings. Last year he tied for 24th place in the Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies University Rankings. Highly qualified faculty, rigorous admission requirements, and an emphasis on research have been among the pillars of its success. The creation of the independent news site in 2017 by some of its students exemplifies the space HSE once gave to political free thought. Nevertheless, the seeds of the university’s later decline existed from the start. Signed by Yegor Gaidar, a leading economic reformer in Yeltsin’s government, the HSE existed under the auspices of the state, a fact that Putin’s regime later exploited. While insisting on academic freedom and the HSE’s independence from politics, Kuzminov, the rector of the HSE from its founding until 2021, has also had to make concessions, such as joining the All-Russian People’s Front pro-Kremlin— to ensure the sustainability of his idea.

I attended the HSE as a Masters student in 2018-2019, when on the one hand it was possible to criticize Putin and his buddies in class without facing any censorship. I received no rejections when I said I wanted my thesis to focus on anti-regime protests since 2008.

And yet, the US-Russian relations course I took was a masterclass in Putin-era narratives. In the account of Professor, Lecturer in International Affairs Dmitry Suslov, the West – especially the United States – betrayed Russia when it expanded NATO, and Moscow’s earnest attempts at respectful engagement and equal were consistently rejected by the self-proclaimed victors of the Cold War.

Suslov is now a talking head on Russian state television, hosting a political talk show on Channel One, the Kremlin’s flagship propaganda channel. “Russia has made it clear that it is ready to negotiate a peace,” he told viewers the day the invasion began. “Today, President Biden categorically rejected these demands for security guarantees, called them false, and claimed that Russia was aiming to restore the Soviet Union. … the United States will no doubt seek to mobilize the international community against Russia, but is it capable of mobilizing people against anyone but itself? Here is the same story we heard in class: Russia is the victim of the United States, whose hegemonic arrogance prevents any concession to the eminently reasonable demands of the former.

Of course, Suslov is just a man, and he was never a political dissident. But his presence at the HSE is emblematic of the uncomfortable affinity between Russian liberalism and Kremlin imperialism, underscoring the former’s limitations as a force for political transformation. Just as the decline of the HSE is the result of the structures and principles on which it was founded, the limits of Russian liberalism – now painfully exposed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – are the result of assumptions that have been inherent in this intellectual ideology. and the political trend of the past 200 years. As the authors like Susanna Rabow-Edling argued, liberalism in the Russian Empire was deeply tied to nationalism and the imperial project, with supporters of the movement believing that liberalizing the empire was the only way to preserve its existence. In this sense, it was no different from liberalism in other colonial metropolises which posited Western Europe as the embodiment of modernity and its imperial possessions as the passive recipients of its supposedly progressive policies.

Prior to 1905, mainstream liberal movements “generally took paternalistic or imperialist point of view of non-Russian national groups,” according to Rabow-Edling. The same is true of prominent figures of the late Soviet intelligentsia. A notable example is the poet Joseph Brodsky, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972 for failing to conform to Kremlin expectations in his work. In his poem – never published, but which he read at a public event – entitled “On Ukrainian independence”, he uses the insult khokhli to refer to the Ukrainians, and he concludes by asserting that they will come to regret never having separated from Russia: “when it is your turn to be dragged into the cemeteries, / You will whisper and hiss, your deathbed mattress will grow, / Not Shevchenko’s bullshit but Pushkin’s verses.

In a series of articles for Open Democracy, historian Kirill Kobrin wrote that, while believing in the need to restore the “great Russian culture”, this group also believed that only the “civilized” West – “where everything was much better than in the Soviet Union” – could facilitate this revival. This condescending attitude towards Ukrainians, national minorities and people outside Russia who were once part of its empire continues in much of modern Russian liberalism.

In February 2014, while the embers of the Maidan were still smoldering in Kyiv, Ukraine, five authors, three of whom were lecturers or research fellows at HSE, published a report entitled “National identity and the future of Russiafull of generalizations and clichés about the “Russian character”. “In Russia, the historically dominant culture has been Russian culture,” they wrote. “Russia has its minorities and they will always be there, but the trauma of the 20th century, with its criminal policy towards other ethnic groups…must not be carried over to the 21st century. Russian national identity should be built on the principle of a common cultural space with bright ethnic additions that serve to enrich the main culture. In the report’s desire to avoid talking about the past and its notion that non-ethnic Russians only exist as adornments for this “historically dominant” culture, a far-reaching colonialist legacy was still clear.

I have encountered these limitations in my own work. I originally planned to research the links between civil society groups in Ukraine and Russia, as well as analyze the impact of the Dignity Revolution on the former. In a colorfully worded email, the program coordinator made his derogatory attitudes towards Ukraine clear, suggesting that Ukraine had done nothing but tear itself apart.

Russian liberals played a powerful role in opposing Putin, but the full-scale invasion of Ukraine exposed a deep-rooted sense of imperial superiority over the peoples of their country’s former imperial possessions. As the world realizes the true magnitude of Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions, Russian liberals must do the difficult but long-awaited job of shedding their historical biases and learning to engage meaningfully and respectful with the burgeoning anti-colonial movements inside and outside Russia. These include groups like Free Idel-Urals— which represents the interests of the indigenous ethnic groups of the Russian republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Udmurtia, Mordovia, Chuvashia and Mari El — and Free Buryatia, a recently founded anti-war organization in the republic of the same name. Only then can Russian liberalism become a true democratic force.

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