Citizens, let the ignorance wash over you

Free University Professor Leonid Gozman explains how he became a member of an ‘undesirable organisation’

Citizens, let the ignorance wash over you

Photo: Getty Images

Considering the killings committed in Russia’s name every day in Ukraine, the announcement that the Free University is now an “undesirable organisation” could barely register — no one has even been arrested yet, they just announced it, and that’s it. You see, they announce way worse things daily.

But this little drop contains oceans within it. I can’t recall any other recent events that demonstrate with such crystal clarity what the Kremlin is preparing for the country’s future.

A word on the Free University, for those who don’t know what it is. It was created in 2020 by several professors of Russia’s Higher School of Economics who were expelled from there for their unenthusiastic way of thinking and incorrect facial expressions. The best professors, by the way. The government said that they would no longer be allowed to teach on the territory of its institutions and be paid by the state. The professors responded by saying, well, heck with you, with the government, we will continue teaching anyway — for free.

In almost three years of its existence, the Free University has grown significantly: by now it’s got about a hundred professors, dozens courses, schools, laboratories, and a big number of students. The entire community operates for free — students don’t pay for anything, professors don’t get paid. Moreover, there’s no place for the usual bureaucracy here — no one controls who is reading what, there’s no administration you have to submit reports to. For now, there are no diplomas to give out, but the students receive certificates of the courses they attended, and there are attempts to make these certificates be recognised by Western universities.

All of this, according to Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office, is undesirable. Which means that

any collaboration with the Free University — reading or listening to the lectures by its professors — leads to an offence and a corresponding administrative punishment the first time, and if you didn’t get it, then a criminal offence the second time around!

Not for anything to do with politics but for lectures.

Of course, the “undesirable organisation” status is a recognition of one’s merits, just like the “foreign agent” status. But let’s try to concretise this undesirability — come to understand what makes the bosses so angry?

First of all, it’s the professors of the Free University who are undesirable. For now, not enough to put poison on their underwear or door handles but enough to try and isolate them entirely from Russian students. These people are highly qualified. The university is organised the same way a club is: if a person wishes to join the university as a teacher, someone has to recommend them, vouch for them. The final decision is made by their colleagues. Blabbermouths, amateurs, schemers are not among the professorial staff — only the best in their fields. The bosses consider this a negative — “we don’t need smart ones, we need faithful ones!” But these undesirable professors are also guilty of another, more serious crime: they are forward thinkers, they understand their mission and the responsibility on their shoulders, they are continuing the best traditions of the Russian intelligentsia — they educate their people without asking for either money or posts in return. They can’t not share knowledge, it’s a vital necessity for them, their reason for existing. They are Teachers. It’s clear why they’re undesirable for the ugly substance that is today’s Russian government.

Secondly, the students of the Free University are also undesirable. Despite all of their differences — these are people of varying ages, with different levels of education, careers, and places of residence — they are united by their desire to learn. They came to this university not to get a diploma — they want to learn and understand what they previously did not know or understand. Yes, the university is free, but it’s not as easy as just listening to the lectures. The students spend their time and energy on the classes: they read the proposed books, write essays, pass exams. One can’t say that it’s easy studying in the Free University. But for the students the effort doesn’t seem excessive — learning new things is more important to them than the entertainment they miss out on or the money they could’ve earned instead. And really, what need would Putin’s government have for people like that? So it tries to cut these people off from knowledge, by threatening them with fines and prison time.

But there’s another undesirable thing — the knowledge itself, especially when it’s humanitarian. If you completed a course on the history of Ancient Greece or on philology, you didn’t just learn something about these topics. Your world — your entire world, in general! — has become more complicated, less straightforward; you didn’t just receive answers to certain questions but, and that’s even more important, you encountered new ones, the answers to which no one knows yet — they have to be discovered. And why would a state operating on clear and easy instructions just like a drill field have a need for a complicated world?

The government doesn’t need people who have doubts, who ask questions, who search for the truth. Why, so that a student who completed a course by a politically literate but terrible in all other aspects professor suddenly found out during a Free University class that there’s a different standard of both teaching and science that exists? Why, so that people started reflecting on the many examples of governments and leaders that were too greedy and what end they all met? The state needs its subjects not to raise questions, not to have doubts, to believe everything shown on TV. For people not to notice that whatever was black yesterday has now been pronounced white. Here, education is an enemy. Why else would our government spend so many years destroying it? And education that they cannot censor is a mortal enemy.

So, it’s all as expected. The only thing that surprises me about the Free University being proclaimed an “undesirable organisation” is that it happened now and not a year or two years ago.

What’s happening is, of course, a serious matter.

The government is destroying entire educational institutions, is pushing the people who form our science and education fields to move abroad, while leaving fewer and fewer opportunities for those who remain to be creative,

so they end up in domestic migration. The government is blocking the roads to receiving education, just like in the case of the Free University, while encouraging denunciations and seizing books written by undesirable authors from the libraries. When the regime dies, our culture will have to spend decades healing from these wounds.

But the final victory will not be theirs, just like they won’t be able to take Kyiv. Bolsheviki did all of these things, too, and on a bigger scale. Philosophers’ ships and camps seemed to have turned the country into an intellectual desert, but the moment the Soviet government fell, what apparently didn’t die but hid underground started rising again. And it turned out that, despite everything, people kept the fire going, handing it over and over from one’s hands to another’s. For example, psychoanalysis was forbidden, the books on the subject seized and destroyed, but from the end of the 1980s, when the government opened its fist, young people began searching and found psychoanalysis teachers — they were the people who were taught by Freud’s students during the darkest years, and they considered it their duty, despite all the dangers, to share their knowledge with others.

I’m certain that no Free University professor will renounce their educational mission and instead they will intensify it. The state can destroy any institution, but no dictatorship was ever able to destroy people’s desire to learn.

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