Since Russia launched its “special military operation” on 24 February 2022 to demilitarize Ukraine, there have been 8,000 deaths and more than 13,000 injuries in Ukraine. Furthermore, the armed conflicts have forced 13 million Ukrainians to leave their homes, including 8 million refugees around the world and 5 million internally displaced people. This is an unprecedented refugee crisis since the end of World War II. University communities around the world have mobilized their efforts to help displaced Ukrainian scholars and students. For those who died in the war, the SUSK — Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union ‒ organized a worldwide exhibition called “Unissued Diplomas” to commemorate the lost lives of Ukrainian students and remind the world that the full-scale war continues. The Russian-Ukrainian war affected not only Ukrainian individuals, but also Ukrainian universities, which are now in a very complicated situation.
When Russia launched its offensive, many speculated about what might stop President Vladimir Putin waging war and, in the long term, put an end to his authoritarian regime. Mikhail Kokorich, a Swiss engineer and entrepreneur of Russian origin, published an article entitled “to hurt Putin, steal his top students”. Kokorich discussed how the West could undermine Russia’s long-term ability to wage war: by attracting Russia’s brightest minds, particularly young engineers, to pursue their education in the West. Actually, that wasn’t a fake expectation. Hundreds of thousands of people left Russia after the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014, an unprecedented number since the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. These exiled Russians are not only well-educated ‒ many come from the IT sector ‒ but have a strong anti-war position and are politically active.
It is obvious that any kind of foreign educational initiative is literally condemned to death in Russia. The case of Smolny College is exemplar. The latter is an international Russian-American project that began in 1997 between the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St Petersburg State University and the Bard College in New York. The Smolny College paved the path for the growth of liberal arts education across Russia and became the most robust Russian-American partnership in the higher education sphere. In the summer of 2021, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation declared that Bard College is an “undesirable organization”, the first college or university in Russia to be so named. The Russian authorities considered that the program with a suspect name was carried out by Smolny with the help of foreign NGOs affiliated with the businessman and philanthropist George Soros and was conducting destructive activities on the territory of the Russian Federation. The dismantling of Smolny, Russian academic emigration of 2022 and support by Bard College allowed a group of Smolny faculty members, who were forced to leave Russia due to the war, to launch the Smolny Beyond Borders (SBB) educational initiative, which is running as a Russian university in exile.
As regards the educational initiatives implemented abroad for Russians, a free online platform was launched in 2016 by the exiled Russian businessman and opposition activist, Mikhail Khodorovsky. The aim of the Open University is to “equip young Russians with the tools needed to critically analyze the propaganda disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media outlets” as well as to develop “a variety of skills, which will be necessary to the formation and maintenance of a democratic Russia”. Online video lecture series attempt to improve the participants’ critical thinking skills, formulate their logical and rational political opinions, and learn to defend their civil and constitutional rights, while providing basic legal, historical, and economic structure of Russia.
Khodorovsky also co-founded the Anti-War Committee with well-known exiled Russians, such as Mikhail Kokorich, to hold Putin accountable for launching the invasion of Ukraine. The Anti-War Committee also supports the Kovcheg initiative to help Russian exiles through housing, legal advice, psychological advice, or education, including scholarships and internships. According to Kovcheg founder Anastasiya Burakova, the aim of her initiative is to enable newly exiled Russians to bring democratic changes to Russia: “We try to get them to do what they can from abroad to stop the war and speed up the collapse of the Putin regime. We hope they’ll go back and become the backbone of a democratic Russia.”
Russian political emigration is divided while Russian emigrants have historically been unwilling to form communities in exile and have attempted to assimilate. Although the new emigrees are more homogeneous and politically active, socio-cultural factors make it difficult to create a liberal democratic Russian mindset in exile. For this reason, Russian journalist and educator Boris Grozovski laid out the plan for a School of Democracy for Russian Refugees. The latter would provide Russian-language educational programs with two components: the first part “would focus on national specifics, on mastering the culture, literature, history, traditions, and customs of the host country” while “the second part would be more universal and would provide an introduction to political theory, philosophy, and social sciences, civic education, critical thinking, women’s rights, environmental and media literacy”.
The initiatives mentioned so far are all non-state, non-governmental actions. I believe that in the future attention should be given to an emerging set of state-led initiatives in favour of Russian exiles, namely in Germany. Last September, German ministers already indicated that people fleeing Russia could apply for asylum in Germany after the announcement of partial military mobilization by President Putin. Recently, the Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock gave an address on February 10 ‒ two weeks before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ‒ at the annual Foreign Policy Conference of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The latter is a political foundation affiliated to the German Green party whose co-leader was Baerbock from 2018 to 2022.
Baerbock based her speech on security, international cooperation, international law, and climate protection. After quoting the writer Heinrich Böll ‒ „Freedom is not a gift; it is something that is earned.” ‒ she outlined the German foreign policy for 2023. It consists in “enhancing international cooperation and strengthening international law; also in countries that, on account of their history or their geographic location, have particularly close connections with Russia”. As part of this policy, the German Government decided to coordinate intersocietal cooperation with the Southern Caucasus, the Republic of Moldova, and Central Asia. As regards Russia and Belarus, Baerbock stated to support democratic forces in these countries and in exile:
“Many courageous Russians who have expressed their opposition to this war are still there. Some of them have been locked up. However, they are there and they need dialogue more than ever. In Belarus, there are still more than 1500 political prisoners because Lukashenko is oppressing his own people. We’re creating specially tailored channels of communication and projects for these people, which neither Putin nor Lukashenko can destroy. The German Government is launching a round table with Russian civil society in exile to bring together exiled democratic Russian stakeholders so that they can actively campaign for a free, democratic Russia. We need to offer them something new these days. It’s more important than ever in this situation to offer them visas, scholarships and the opportunity to network online. At the same time, we also want to talk about how we can continue to support civil society in Russia. This year alone, we’re implementing more than 50 projects involving Russian NGOs and activists – not despite but because of Russia’s war of aggression. The political foundations are playing an important role in this. »
Veronika Durin-Hornyik PhD
Illustration: Open University