Russia-Ukraine War: Critical thought is 'No Longer Possible' at Russian universities, says Professor fired for opposing Ukraine invasion

The firing of Denis Skopin, an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University (SPSU), for his opposition to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest instance of a deepening crackdown on academic freedom inside Russia.
Denis Skopin says goodbye to his students at St. Petersburg State University after being fired for his anti-war views.
Denis Skopin says goodbye to his students at St. Petersburg State University after being fired for his anti-war views.RFE-RL

The firing of Denis Skopin, an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University (SPSU), for his opposition to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest instance of a deepening crackdown on academic freedom inside Russia.

Skopin -- who taught philosophy in the university’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences -- was fired on October 26 for his participation in a protest against Moscow’s mobilization of military-age men to fight in Ukraine, where he was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail. While detained, Skopin and other protesters were also allegedly pressured by authorities to submit summonses to their local military enlistment office.

According to the dismissal order issued by the university, Skopin was fired for his opposition to Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and for protesting against the mobilization drive that began on September 21: “The act committed by the employee is immoral and incompatible with the implementation of educational functions and the continuation of this work,” the order stated.

“A university is a place where people should think, where qualities such as critical thinking and independent thought should be encouraged,” Skopin told RFE/RL’s North.Realities during an interview. “Unfortunately, this is no longer possible in today's Russia.”

Russia has worked over the past two decades to make its universities more prestigious and aligned with European standards -- building up exchange programs and partnerships with international institutions and trying to attract foreign talent. But as geopolitical tensions have grown with the West, Russian authorities have become increasingly apprehensive about alleged Western influence through its higher education system and have targeted students and staff who have expressed opposition views or engaged in peaceful protests.

Denis Skopin says goodbye to his students at St. Petersburg State University after being fired for his anti-war views.
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This political pressure appears to have reached its zenith following the Kremlin’s war with Ukraine, which has led to strict laws on public gatherings and freedom of expression and a more blatant approach to censoring academic institutions in Russia.

“Everything happening now in Russian universities will lead to -- if not the complete destruction of the educational system in the country -- then to a deep crisis,” Skopin said.

SPSU’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, known informally as Smolny College, earned a reputation in Russia as an open and forward-leaning institution. Home to the country’s first liberal arts curriculum, it had a joint agreement with Bard College in the U.S. state of New York and hosted hundreds of Russian and American students in its academic exchange program, where they received diplomas from both universities.

This had long made it a target by the Russian authorities. In June 2021, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office declared Bard an “undesirable organization” representing “a threat to the foundations of Russia's constitutional order.” Russia’s Justice Ministry formalized the designation nine days later, making Bard's involvement a potential crime and effectively ending its partnership with SPSU.

“The faculty was the flagship for education in Russia,” Skopin said. “But there is a strong bureaucratic and political pressure on the entire academic environment in today's Russia.”

Academia Under Pressure

Beyond the firing of Skopin, interference into SPSU and other prestigious higher education institutions in Russia is on the rise.

At Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE), students have been pressured with threats of expulsion for participating in anti-war rallies. The university has also seen the closure of several academic programs, the politically motivated dismissals of professors who expressed anti-Kremlin views, and a general crackdown on any public criticism of the government.

In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, HSE rector Nikita Anisimov signed an open letter from more than 300 university heads in support of Russia’s invasion.

“Universities have always been a pillar of the state,” the letter read. “It’s very important at this time to support our country, our army…[and] our president.”

Denis Skopin poses with his students at St. Petersburg State University after being dismissed.
Denis Skopin poses with his students at St. Petersburg State University after being dismissed.RFE-RL

At SPSU, Smolny College continues to be targeted. While the faculty is still officially running, it has been hollowed out by program changes and the firings of several leading professors.

Students enrolled in the university also report that expulsion orders have been issued to some students who were known to have joined protests against the war in Ukraine. In September, two faculty members -- Zhanna Chernova and Viktor Kaplun -- were fired without explanation.

In the face of such challenges, Skopin says he considers the decision to fire him illegal and plans to dispute the decision.

On his last day of teaching, students came out to applaud for their professor in support, and a group of staff at the university wrote a collective letter to the administration to reconsider the move.

“I would like justice to prevail,” Skopin said.

(KB/RFE-RL)

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