Amid a crackdown on antiwar protests by Russian authorities, academics said they were doing what they could to oppose their country’s war on Ukraine—whether that means marching in the streets or signing petitions.
Among those marching was Efim Khazanov, a physicist and deputy director of research at the Institute of Applied Physics of the Russian Academy of Science. While it was not his first time protesting, he said the urgency of the antiwar action was clear. “There’s no comparison between this and what’s taken place until now,” he said. “It’s important that people know that there are many of us.”
Khazanov, who said he has a “fair few friends” who were recently arrested, hoped that his overseas colleagues understood that a significant number of Russians opposed the conflict, even if not all of them protest openly: “Far from everyone is to blame for this.”
While it appeared a majority of academics wanted a swift end to the conflict, many refrained from protesting due to fear of arrest and loss of livelihood. Still, they were making their voices heard in other ways.
One online petition signed by thousands of Russian researchers—including prominent scientists—which continues to garner more signatures, decries the invasion as “senseless” and calls for an “immediate” stop to the war on Ukraine.
“There is no rational justification for this war,” it reads. “War with Ukraine is a step to nowhere.”
Ekaterina Lazarevskaya, a researcher at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, was among those to sign similar petitions. While she considered taking to the city’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospect, to join protesters over the weekend, she found herself unable to leave the house.
“I spent the first day in shock and horror … I thought about going to Nevsky, but, to be honest, I was shaking so much that I ended up not going anywhere at all,” she said. “This is a complete nightmare and the collapse of the reality we know. I could not imagine that Russia would not only send troops to Ukraine but would also shell Kyiv.”
Like other academics who spoke to Times Higher Education, her fear of arrest was palpable: “I admit—it’s scary to go, because I don’t want any detention, fines or 15 days” of confinement if arrested, she said.
One professor at a leading Russian university, who asked not to be named out of fear of losing their job, said they were vocal online but would not be marching on the streets.
“I am no longer as young as I would like. I frankly am afraid to go to antiwar rallies, but I am proud that [in] Russia there are honest and fearless young people. And I believe the truth will prevail,” the professor said.
The academic added that they avoided discussing the war with colleagues at their university, where the dominant mood was “restraint and silence.”
Yet, despite the climate of fear in Russia, academics have had an “important role” in the protest movement, said Leonid Petrov, an international relations expert educated in St. Petersburg and Canberra, Australia.
“They are at the forefront of not only academic thought, but also the public forum on what is good and bad for Russia—where Russia is placed in the world,” said Petrov, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Language.
He said the recent demonstrations had been dominated by young people, including students, and that Russian academics faced “difficult personal decisions” at home and abroad. Those who expressed opposition to the invasion of Ukraine risked jeopardizing their careers—and their freedom if they returned to Russia—while those with pro-Putin views “might not be welcomed in certain fora, and their publications might be declined.”
Philipp Ivanov, former director of the University of Sydney’s Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific, said that the widespread sense of “patriotism and nationalism” that had fueled support for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was nowhere to be seen in 2022.
Educated young people had been at the forefront of all antiregime protests in Russia, he said. But Ivanov, who now heads the Asia Society of Australia, said he expected older academics to “participate quite actively.”
“There are two questions. One is how scared people are at the arrests and retributions. And also, how effectively government can control information.”