(Bloomberg) — Professors who say they were dismissed from one of Russia’s most prestigious universities for refusing to curtail criticism of President Vladimir Putin have set up a new institution to counter what they argue is an assault on academic freedom.
The controversy over the departure of several dozen staff at the state-run Higher School of Economics, a one-time symbol of Russia’s post-Communist transformation, comes amid fears of a widening crackdown on dissent fueled by the near-fatal poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
One of the acedemics, Elena Lukyanova, who has co-founded the new “Free University,” accused the Kremlin of reining in the HSE. The constitutional law professor’s contract was terminated after she criticized changes to Russia’s basic law that allow Putin to remain president potentially to 2036.
“The state has started to intervene in academic rights and freedoms,” Lukyanova said. “Every new year of normal-thinking graduates is a threat to the authorities.”
Some 5,500 people have applied for places at the Free University, which began offering online classes to around 500 students last month. It hopes to be able to offer degrees in the future.
Established in 1992 after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the HSE has expanded well beyond economics and now has around 47,000 students. It offers dual degrees with 36 foreign universities, including the London School of Economics and Germany’s Humboldt.
HSE officials deny any political motive for the job cuts. It barred students and faculty this year from expressing political views that could reflect a public affiliation with the university, following the 2019 prosecution of Yegor Zhukov, an opposition blogger and HSE student who received a three-year suspended sentence for “extremism” after attending Moscow protests.
Some critical voices remain at HSE and other prominent institutions, though their number has been shrinking in recent years.