Russian academics spooked by Zubov's dismissal

Russia's academic community has been spooked by the dismissal of Professor Andrei Zubov, a renowned historian, theologian and political scientist at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, following a critical article in which he compared Russia's actions in Crimea with Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938.

There have been several student protests held near the main building of the university in downtown Moscow, and a petition in support of the professor has collected more than 5,000-signatures.

Zubov, a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, also worked at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences and remains a respected scholar in its post-Soviet manifestation. Aside from his former position at his alma mater, he heads the history of religions department at Saint John Russian Orthodox University.

He is author of five monographs and about 150 academic papers, has edited two volumes of Russian History: 20th Century and is one of the authors of Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The article and its repercussions

It is widely believed that Zubov's dismissal is the result of his article in Vedomosti, one of Russia's leading business papers, titled "This has already happened".

Writing for CNN Timothy Snyder, Housum professor of history at Yale University, described Zubov's article as "a sophisticated comparison between [President Valdimir] Putin's seizure of Crimea and Adolf Hitler's annexation of Austria, seeing both as the beginning of a chain of events with fatal consequences not just for the subjects of the aggression but for the aggressors themselves."

The point Zubov made, that Russian actions in southern Ukraine were a threat to all citizens of Ukraine and that it also had threatening implications for Russians, "was a courageous argument for him to make", wrote Snyder, who went on:

"The seizure of Crimea was meant as a challenge to the European Union. It is meant to prove that European values cannot defend themselves."

Zubov defended his analysis and, according to The Moscow Times said his position gave him the right to draw the comparison.

"Hitler and Putin - they are completely different people, they have very different goals and aspirations. But it is a fact that the foreign policy of 1930s Germany and modern Russia are similar, very similar institutionally.

"I am absolutely confident and ready to prove it as a professional," the newspaper reported him as saying.

The dismissal

But the Moscow State Institute of International Relations' management, it appears, did not agree and Zubov was fired.

According to a report published on the institute's website, Zubov "knowingly and repeatedly" violated the university charter, its internal regulations and its principals of corporate conduct, which are determined by departmental affiliation to Russia's Foreign Ministry.

But the university denied that the dismissal had anything to do with Zubov's article in Vedomosti.

For his part, Zubov claimed: "Apparently, the dismissal should be completed immediately. However the institute was not a main initiator of this. As far as I know, the university's president was against the dismissal, however due to pressure of higher authorities was forced to surrender.

"Certainly I can't prove this. No one in the institute expressed dissatisfaction with my article, but only support, which was reflected by shaking hands and words of encouragement. It is clear that they are afraid to express their opinion in public."

Zubov said after being dismissed that he had previously been "scolded" by the institute for writing controversial articles but, according to The Moscow Times, "he had never felt the need to censor himself".

Zubov plans to challenge his dismissal in court, as according to him, it was in serious violation of Russian legislation and in particular the constitution and labour laws. He has been invited to work at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, one of Ukraine's oldest and most prestigious universities - but declined.

Tightening control over universities?

Russian analysts fear that the dismissal of Zubov may signal a tightening of control over university administrations and research institutes for the social activities of their employees, and that this could negatively affect further development of Russian science.

Recently the administration of Sakhalin State University, located in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin island, decided to fire Alexander Konkov, one of Russia's leading sociologists, after he issued statements about Crimea.

Last month Russian police seized all copies of the latest issue of Modern Kalmykia, one of the leading business papers in the Republic of Kalmykia, which had published the article by Vladimir Gorbatenko, a well-known Ukranian professor, in which he said developments in Ukraine did not pose any threat to the Russian-speaking population in Crimea.

Valery Badmaev, an editor-in-chief of Modern Kalmykia, was detained on 14 March in Elista. Police entered his apartment, apparently while checking for 'extremism', seized copies of the paper and arrested Badmaev when he tried to stop the action, according to the Center for Information and Analysis, or SOVA, in Russia.

He was taken to the Ministry of Interior in Elista and charged with hooliganism. "Badmaev appealed against the police's actions - trespass, death threats, illegal detention, and seizure of a newspaper - before the city court," said SOVA in an analysis of misuses of extremism.

The reason for the seizure was Gorbatenko's article. "We did not find signs of extremism in this text." Also, SOVA argued, confiscating a print run was unjustified when just one or two copies would have sufficed.

Some Russian commentators compared the firing of Zubov to the Soviet era, when academics and journalists were frequently persecuted for straying from the official line, wrote The Moscow Times. However, Zubov believes society in Russia has changed sufficiently to ensure those days do not return. He told The New Times:

"Now it's a completely different situation: hundreds, thousands of people call and write me every day. Back then, everyone hid their heads in the sand...This means that we have great prospects, that we won't be driven back to 'Soviet silence'."

Broader reactions

The case triggered reaction from some national human rights organisations.

Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, said he had sent an official letter to Anatoly Torkunov, president of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, asking him to provide documents and explanations regarding Zubov's dismissal.

It is also expected that the case will be considered by Russia's state commission on labour rights and social partnership, which will report to Putin.

It has also sparked criticism from some Russian analysts and even public officials.

Marina Shishkina, a member of the Saint Petersburg legislative assembly and former dean of the faculty of journalism at Saint Petersburg State University, described Zubov's firing as "a sad fact".

"Science should be out of politics. Zubov has a right to express his point of view, while one of the functions of each scientist is to analyse public opinion. I was fired from St Petersburg State University for my position in the past. Maybe it's a different situation, but I understand the current situation."

Representatives of leading Crimean universities declined to comment on Zubov's case. A spokesperson of Sevastopol National Technical University, one of Crimea's top universities, said only that the university administration did not share the Russian professor's position.