ZOiS Spotlight 11/2018

Russia’s independent sociology under pressure

by Viktor Voronkov 28/03/2018
The foreign-agent law severely limited the activities of non-commercial organisations, including those that focus on social research. Gary Waters / Alamy Stock Foto

The notion of sociology as a science in servitude of the state dominates in Russia. The state strives to control not only higher education in universities but also research programmes in academia. Even by the admissions of ‘generals of sociology’ such as Mikhail Gorshkov, director of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, it is considered normal when ‘sociology helps the state perform state functions [and] elevate the culture and effectiveness of governing’.

Because of the dominance of state-oriented sociology, researchers who find themselves outside the box face serious problems. Since sociologists have to compete with the state for political capital in this field, they often have to adhere to rules imposed by government officials. At the very least, they are bound by these rules when working in state universities and academic institutions.

However, unlike in Soviet times, so-called ‘independent sociology’ also has a significant presence. On the one hand, this includes scientists who, while working in universities and academic institutions, are interested in research topics that have not been approved by the state. On the other hand, it comprises researchers who work within ‘grants economics’ and try to avoid government control whenever they can.

Independent research under dire conditions

The ever-shrinking field of truly independent sociological studies is plagued by Soviet-style rules. To publish results or attend a conference outside Russia, a researcher needs the permission of security services that seek out ‘subversive data’. Scientists can be fired for dissent, even by criticising the state on social media.

Research institutions outside government control face the direst conditions. There are a few such institutions, and most are registered as non-commercial organisations. They are funded by research grants from various foundations, and some of them have to raise money through commercial surveys. These institutions are constantly harassed by all sorts of state inspections, from fire inspectors to district attorney offices.

The notorious foreign-agent law enacted in 2012 severely limited the activities of non-commercial organisations, including those that focus on social research. According to the law, any non-commercial organisation can be categorised as a foreign agent if it accepts money from outside Russia and is implicated in ‘political activities’. These activities include any criticism of the state and its foreign and domestic policies.

Because the foreign-agent law spells out that research organisations are outside its scope, it would have seemed that such organisations would be out of danger. However, it was clarified that ‘political activities’ also include ‘mass surveys and other sociological research’. Thus, sociology in Russia can be called a science no longer.

Non-governmental research centres have been targeted since the law was passed. Severe fines of up to €10,000 have been levied against these centres for breaking the new law. Being a ‘foreign agent’ has become unbearably expensive. As a result, some research centres, such as the Centre for Gender Research in Saratov, have ceased to exist, while others have refused money from international foundations in the hope of being excluded from prosecution.

Non-governmental research centres are targeted

For example, since receiving threats and harassment by state, the well-known Levada Center has turned down all non-Russian money, resulting in cuts to several research projects. Still the state labels the Levada Center a foreign agent. Being blacklisted like this de facto resulted in a ban on the centre reporting any data on polls for Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. Thus, civil society has lost access to data that is alternative to numbers provided by pollsters that are close to the state.

It is especially sad to watch the state going after the European University in St Petersburg, which has also dropped its international donors. While narrowly escaping being officially listed as a foreign agent, the university nevertheless became a target of destructive repression. Despite the fact that the university was Russia’s best educational institution for social studies, it was evicted from its building under false pretences and shortly afterwards lost its licence to teach.

The European University experienced its first wave of repression ten years ago, when authorities forced its administration to turn down a €700,000 grant from the EU to monitor Russian elections. Today, apart from everything else, the state is waging an assault on gender studies, a field where the university’s scientific expertise is undeniable. Currently, the European University continues to exist as a research institution only and hopes to have its teaching licence back.

The Centre for Independent Social Research, founded in 1991, is one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent research institutions, publishing the internationally well-known journal Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research. It is also in a difficult situation. Having been labelled a foreign agent for three years, the centre has lost any chance of receiving Russian research grant money. More issues have arisen with field research as the sociologists have lost access to government officials and public services. Representatives of the business community are also avoiding interactions with independent researchers for fear of repercussions from the state. For lay people, the phrase ‘foreign agent’ has strong historical connotations of being a spy and an enemy of the state.

In recent years, the state has been systematically decimating civil freedoms in Russia. The critical function of sociology is incompatible with the state’s demands for loyalty, and it now appears that independent social research cannot exist in the authoritarian Russian state. Like in Soviet times, only sociologists who serve the state’s interests will stay afloat. Those sociologists who once hoped to be independent face a de facto ban on their profession.

Viktor Voronkov is the director of the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) in St Petersburg. The institute was labelled a foreign agent in 2015.