The Free University was founded in the summer of 2020 at the initiative of HSE professors with whom the administration refused to sign a contract. As a response to the government’s repressive interference in the affairs of higher education, a model of independent public education was developed that is open and free to all who wish to receive it. This model proved to be successful, and at the moment the FU has many courses taught by the best Russian professors, many of whom were forced to leave Russia and resign from Russian universities.
On March 31, 2023, the General Prosecutor’s Office announced that FU had been declared an undesirable organization. It was the second educational institution, after Bard College, to receive this status. On April 1, the FU Academic Council issued a statement saying, in part, «We affirm that independent education is not a crime. Universities only become “undesirable” in a state built on ignorance. We believe that the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office, which essentially makes the idea of a university illegal, are unconstitutional. The Free University is an idea of extraterritorial education without censorship. This idea cannot be deemed “undesirable.”»
T-invariant spoke with Kirill Martynov, co-founder of The Free University, about how the new status will affect the prospects for the development of the project.
KM: First of all, it should be noted that we became the second educational institution on this list after Bard College, but also ─ the first educational institution of Russian origin founded by Russian teachers for, for the most part, Russian students. Although, considering that knowledge and education are international things, we never tried to stay in one language or one country. On the contrary, we tried to make sure that our teachers and our students could communicate across borders, as is supposed to happen in the normal academic process. I think that giving us the status of an undesirable organization is a very worrisome thing. It means, in general, that a course has been taken towards the total isolation of Russian education and now it is impossible to do any serious independent projects in Russia. They fired us from the universities, saying that we teach the wrong things. We continued our work on our own, without help from the state, we created our own educational project — not even three years later we were put on the pro — skrip list. I believe that this is an act of intimidation, of state terror, which is supposed to urge teachers to be loyal and obedient, and to force students to look the state in the mouth and rely only on it. And unless this tendency toward total control and total isolation is reversed, a tendency toward accustoming the scientific community to total helplessness — the higher school in Russia will be destroyed. The Russian authorities will establish their own barracks in the universities, if they have not already done so.
In this case we simply found ourselves on the front line of these events, because we showed in principle that, on the whole and in general, we have no respect for the entire Russian system of educational licensing. It became clear that it was impossible to create a new private university in Russia: they would not let you do that, not only for economic reasons, but simply because they would never register you. This meant that projects in this field had to be based on some new principles. And now the state is showing that these new principles are also impossible. And when I call this terror, I am not so much referring to teachers, a noticeable part of whom left Russia during the last year (though by no means all of them), but to students. It is terror against students, against their parents, against their families: «This is who you are mixed up with, look? Those ultra-liberals, » as they called us in that weird press release.
T-i: What about perspective?
KM: We were ready for that to a certain extent. Because we understood that granting undesirable status was the only thing the government could seriously do against us. What else can they do to us? We are not asking them for money, we are not asking them for a license. You can declare us criminals and somehow prosecute those people who cooperate with us.
Right now we are consulting with lawyers — we are trying to figure out what to do about this. It is clear that we will have to reduce the public use of the Free University brand. We won’t be able to do any projects inside Russia under that name, because that would be a direct route to administrative and criminal liability for all those involved.
We will survive at the expense of even more decentralization: we already have a fairly decentralized project. The guys who persecute us have a poor understanding of the reality they are facing. They think that there is some group of conspirators who are sitting, for example, in Latvia and are disturbing their lives: teaching students bad things. This is extremely far from reality. And instead of one university, at least publicly, there may well be a chain of communication… When teachers, well, say, somehow miraculously find good students for themselves, and they study online when it suits them, without calling it a «The Free University» for anyone at all. That’s all the Attorney General’s Office will end up with on the way out.
It will be a little bit difficult for us to adapt to this, because we’re used to talking about our work and, in general, involving people who want to help us, including in Russia. But this means that we will have to do it in a different way.
T-i: This can lead to a number of difficulties. Normal PR for any educational institution requires presenting open information about the courses and teachers…What will you do about it, so as not to hurt anyone and at the same time recruit students?
KM: It is clear that we have put the problem of student and faculty safety in Russia at the top of the list. And all other considerations like promotion in the marketplace take second place. It’s just the way the priorities are set: we don’t want our colleagues to be harassed.
Obviously, we will have to do our recruitment differently. We are still discussing this because the next recruitment will probably be in September. I’m sure it will happen, and I understand that it won’t look the same as we’ve been used to for the last three years.
But I think our censors and the people who are trying to hound us ─ they’re too late. Because we are pretty well known, we are cited as an example of an educational project that you can do on your own. Conventionally speaking, in the world of education, we are such a «Medusa» right now. And just as «Medusa» was deemed undesirable, but it continued to work, so, too, «The Free University», while undesirable, will continue to work, using other mechanisms to inform people about what we do, and other models of communication, and other models of socialization. It will be a lot of little projects with different names. You can catch each of them individually, chase them down, but it won’t get you anywhere, because there will be more of these projects.
And there are two arguments why undesirability is to some extent even a plus. Although, of course, I would prefer to do without it and, for that matter, just work normally at home in Russia in normal human conditions, as it was before the recent events.
The plus side is that now it’s very easy for us to negotiate with our colleagues in the West, with universities in the first place. We can now count on the help and solidarity of the Western scientific community because we are taken seriously. And I think we will get that solidarity.
Besides, forbidden fruit is sweet. Free higher education has never been as attractive as it is now that it is forbidden and criminalized.
T-i: And how much does this complicate your plans to get a license?
KM: Being active abroad with the status of an undesirable organization clearly makes it easier. Now it is hard to do Russian projects abroad, even independent ones. Because everyone is a little suspicious of you, they think you are some kind of double agent. Now we have a certificate that we are, in general, normal people, that we did not support the war, that the Russian authorities persecute us as much as possible. And in Europe, I think we’ll be fine, as far as it’s even possible.
Of course, this makes it very difficult to work with Russian students. If we have accreditation, Russians have to be very careful not to show their affiliations, not to get any official documents from us, and so on. But I think this practice will be developed.
And I also have a feeling that such an inflation of this undesirability awaits us, that in the end they will begin to consider everyone who does not fully agree with the general line of the party undesirable. As happened with the status of a foreign agent. Almost all professionals, it seems to me, can either turn out to be agents, or undesirable, or some other kind of enemy of the people — this is an inevitable process to some extent.
Questions asked by Evgeniya VEZHLYAN
Evgeniya Vezhlyan 3.04.2023