Scientists protest against Kremlin threat to research

Russian scientists and intellectuals mounted a rare public protest on 6 June to voice their fears that research and freedom of enquiry are under threat from the Kremlin.

Several thousand protesters gathered in Moscow on Saturday 6 June to highlight growing red tape and President Vladimir Putin's fear-driven agenda that has seen a leading private research foundation labelled a ‘foreign agent’.

Originally called in support of 82-year-old philanthropist Dmitry Zimin’s foundation, Dynasty, which has been added to a government list of so-called ‘foreign agents’ because it finances Russian scientific research from overseas sources, the rally grew to become the focus of fears that scientists will now be targeted as part of a wide Kremlin crackdown on the media, human rights activists, the LGBT community and opposition groups.

A group of more than 250 Russian scientists – mostly working overseas – signed an open letter in support of Zimin and criticised the move by the authorities. They said they were “outraged and extremely worried” by the action and its potential consequences. Dynasty’s 2015 budget amounts to nearly £6 million (US$9.3 million), the loss of which will be sorely felt in Russia’s scientific community.

The foundation funds schools, teachers and helps PhD students who could not otherwise complete doctoral studies on tiny stipends.

Zimin, who says Dynasty is funded by his own money kept in foreign accounts, has vehemently objected to being added by the justice ministry to a list of ‘foreign agents’ under a 2012 law. The philanthropist, who made his fortune in telecoms, says he will close down the foundation rather than register it as a ‘foreign agent’.

“Certainly, I will not spend my own money acting under the trademark of some unknown foreign state,” Zimin told Russian news agency Interfax on May 26. “I will stop funding Dynasty.”

Zimin contests that the foundation is foreign funded. It is funded by his own money, which he has “never concealed”, is kept abroad.

"I keep my money abroad. I have never concealed it. But Russia keeps some of its money abroad as well,” he says.

Following a meeting called to consider the future of the foundation on Monday 8 June, Dynasty’s board said in a statement on the foundation’s website that to come to “a final decision on the fate of Dynasty… more information of a legal and financial character” was required. The board agreed to meet again when such information had been received.

In the meantime the fund would “continue to work and fulfil its obligations”, the statement added. However, observers agree that without Zimin’s continued support the foundation is unlikely to survive.

Several thousand protesters

The 6 June rally, on Moscow's famous Pushkin Square – in the heart of the Russian capital a few minutes' walk from Red Square and the Kremlin – drew several thousand protesters.

The concerns that the closure of Dynasty would seriously harm scientific research grew to encompass a wide sense of threat.

"I would say in the sense of efficiency and the quality of organisation, Dynasty was the best I ever met," Andrei Saturin, a head research scientist at Moscow University, told Radio France Internationale. "I was a lecturer at the schools that were supported by the Dynasty foundation and I’ve seen what kind of young people they put together… I do realise the scale of the disaster."

Antonina Aleksandrova, a biologist at a cancer treatment centre, said the attack on Zimin's foundation sent out a very bad signal.

"For the country to develop, it needs education," Aleksandrova told AFP. "The Dynasty is an egregious example of how an organisation that played a huge role in this education has been crushed. It is a significant loss for us all."

Others at the rally, which was also addressed by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and opposition leader who has frequently clashed with the Kremlin, spoke of wider fears.

"Alas, science is slowly dying," astrophysicist Boris Shtern said. "The massive advance of ignorance is being supported by the media and authorities."

Russian scientists are no strangers to controversy. In recent years there have been several high profile cases of researchers being accused – and imprisoned – on charges of espionage for producing papers based on public sources and declassified documents. But such cases have been isolated and brought under long-standing laws on state secrets and defence security.

New measures adopted in recent years as Russian foreign and domestic policy has taken on an increasingly isolationist, if not xenophobic, approach have left many people worried, particularly those in science which today is international in its scope as never before.

The provisions used against Zimin's foundation date back to 2012, but in early May another new law allowing authorities to dub any foreign organisation or company, or those working for them, as "undesirable" prompted diplomatic protests throughout the world.