The Majesté of the Tsar

It is not everyday that a student publication gets banned. It is even rarer that a university decides to wholesale ban all student media.

But that is exactly what the students of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics have to deal with. In December 2019, the school’s Student Funding Committee stripped the Doxa student journal of its status as a student organization, terminating all school support in terms of technology, space, and funding. To add insult to injury, the school declared on January 16 that it would ban all student media, justifying its ban by quoting the practices of other leading universities, among them Harvard

The administrative line is that as “suggestions of affiliation with Harvard in connection with any organization, publication, activity, or third party are only possible with the advance permission of the Dean of Harvard College or its Provost,” so too can Russian universities quickly rescind the “misuse of [their] names” among student organizations. In the view of Valeria Kasamara, a vice rector at the HSE, some student organizations’ voices unfairly represented the student community. As a result, the university needed to become a politically neutral “safe space,” as she told the HPR.

What exactly was the incriminating act by the Doxa student journal that led to its ban? What was so dangerous about the organization’s message? And why was it necessary for the administration to crack down on the organization so harshly? In a society where apathy is the government’s greatest supporter, flashes of opinion amount to lèse-majesté, and all efforts are made to stamp out the few views dissident to the government. General apathy in Russia has allowed the government to push their agenda, to the detriment of the Russian people.

Democracy, with Russian Characteristics

In name, Russia pays homage to the democratic ideal. The elections to its largest legislature, the Duma, follow a proportional representation system, which generally enables a greater diversity of political views and political expression than the first-past-the-post system commonly used in former British colonies. There are multiple parties, and Article 32 of the current Russian Constitution states that “citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to participate in managing state affairs both directly and through their representatives.” Russia is still a part of the European Court of Human Rights, and governmental rhetoric firmly insists on Russia’s democratic identity, adding adjectives such as “sovereign” in front of the word “democracy” to silence Western claims to the contrary.

Despite its democratic facade, however, popular opinion is largely excluded from governmental circles. In the newest version of the Russian Constitution, the president has immense political powers: He is charged with guaranteeing rights and freedoms, chairing meetings within the Russian government, and directly appointing judges to many of Russia’s federal courts. This is in direct contrast to states like Canada or the United States, where the Constitution is the guarantor of rights and freedoms, where an independent speaker chairs the meetings, and where judicial appointments must also go through the legislature.

The oligarchs’ all-encompassing role also works to exclude popular opinion within the Russian government. Widely reviled by the Russian populace, the first oligarchs were bankers that struck a deal with the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, to trash his Communist opposition and to fund his campaign, in exchange for shares in the large, recently-privatized companies. While many of the original oligarchs were mostly exiled or jailed as a punishment for their overt access to power, observers note that new oligarchs have simply come to fill in the gaps of the old. In the spirit of a country that at least hopes to value democracy, this is anything but democratic: the demos, the people, are squeezed out of power in favour of the oligoi, the few. 

Even more dangerously, however, it seems that many Russians do not want to do much about this arrangement. A recent Russian election video seemed to chastise Russian political apathy with unrealistic, homophobic claims; only 3 percent of the Russian population claim to be actively supporting political parties, with 54 percent stating indifference or outright disinterest in the political arena. 

In the 2017 election, United Russia’s promotional material mostly focused on Putin rather than any political positions, and the party has long marketed itself as practical rather than ideological. As Vitaliy Zelimyansky, a student involved with Doxa, told the HPR, the second most popular party, the Communist Party of Russia, uses mostly residual feelings of Soviet nostalgia and the liberal opposition. Despite taking a major role in the protests, it does not seem to offer any real alternatives to the current regime, he continued. As people believe neither in the government nor in their own capacity to create change, the government takes a free license in its actions, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

The License to Act

President Vladimir Putin signed a pension reform bill into law on October 3 that increased the retirement age from 55 to 60 for women and 60 to 65 for men. This law for men is expected to gradually take effect by 2028 and for women, to be fully implemented by 2034. Thanks to this new hike, two-fifths of the Russian population may not live to see their retirement, as the Russian Confederation of Labour has stated that the average life expectancy of men was less than 65 in more than 60 regions of Russia. 

Austerity is tough medicine to swallow, especially amid popular discontent. That austerity was long put off by the Duma only bolstered the lack of popular trust in the Russian government. The reforms also have an asymmetric hit on the Russian population, as areas with chronic depression and unemployment see the pension as the only “ready money” for Russian families and risk increasing the number of Russian people below the poverty line in the short term. Interestingly, the new reforms do not affect members of the state security services or police officers, which spells interesting consequences for Putin’s popularity, already at a nadir from the age reform.

Relaxation of corruption legislation is also part of the reason behind popular discontent, especially given that Transparency International ranks it in the top third of most corrupt countries. In early 2019, the Russian Ministry of Justice drafted a proposal stating that corruption due to force majeure should not be an offense, despite not being more specific about what constitutes such a “circumstance of insurmountable force.”

The proposal sheds light on a phenomenon that has cast a shadow on the Russian political scene since the Russian Federation’s inception. The individualistic relationships that Russian leaders have with the other members of government breed an environment where bribery to achieve political ends is almost necessary, and in recent years, the average amount of bribe money paid has substantially increased. In a globalizing economy where competition grows in intensity, the sluggish muster of the Russian economy has taken a toll on the Russian people, prompting more malcontent in a system that does not seem to take them into account.

The Protests

For many Russians, protest offers one of the rare avenues for their voices to be heard. A wave of protests in the current cycle began en masse in July 2019, when 20,000 protestors gathered together at a rally in Moscow. This initial rally stemmed from the government’s reluctance in allowing opposition candidates to run in the Moscow City Duma elections. While the City Duma is merely a symbolic organ of the government, the governmental refusal to even allow opposition candidates to stand for election added insult to injury, and from that point on, five weeks of protests ensued in Moscow. To add extra fuel to the flames, opposition candidates such as Alexey Navalny joined the protestors in solidarity, and the police response, which was initially mild, reached dangerous proportions.

In the five weeks of protest, the authorities only authorized two protests, the July 20 one and another in early August. Many citizens were arrested despite those authorizations, including some who left the protest for other places. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow characterized violent police responses as “use of unnecessary police force”: Russian police beat protesters with truncheons, and footage from the protests often shows police pinning people to the ground, kicking them as they continued to resist. Police even threatened to “cut off” the fingers of some citizens who refused to be fingerprinted. One report notes that Konstantin Konovalov, a designer of the Moscow underground map, had his leg broken by the police — for the crime of continuing his routine morning job on the day of a protest. Navalny was taken into custody for 30 days and reportedly poisoned by Russian authorities. 

The Importance of Having an Opinion

Despite the protests, the City Duma elections still took place, with United Russia winning a majority of the votes. A perspective on the government’s side of those elections comes from Kasamara, a candidate who ran for the elections as a pro-governmental independent but lost to a candidate of the liberal opposition.  She told the HPR that her desire to run stemmed from wanting to “find efficient ways to cooperate with officials who make decisions and [are] helpful” in addressing the concerns of the common people rather than “some kind of power obsession,” and she ascribed her loss to the Electoral Committee, which prevented many opponents from participating in the election and made her seem like a governmental puppet. 

The admission of electoral corruption from a pro-governmental candidate is laudable, if not remarkable. But overall, it just served to further confirm the Russian status quo. Simply put, political opinions are not to be expressed. Candidates like Kasamara, who believe in the need to stay “far from any of the political parties presented on our political arena,” are the most acceptable precisely because they do not question the system. 

This makes the banning of Doxa all the more understandable. Rather than be apathetic, the Doxa student journal unabashedly declares itself as a left-oriented journal. Doxa writer Maria Menshikova, in an interview with the HPR, joked that while “you won’t see stars or the color red anywhere,” the journal “just criticize[s] the university from a leftist position.” The unabashedness of her political convictions translated to a recent article that criticized Rector Natalia Pochinok of the Russian State Social University for enabling corrupt submission of graduate theses.

Unfortunately, that article was released in the leadup to elections, for which Pochinok was a candidate. Pochinok proceeded to accuse Doxa of fraying the relationship between the HSE and the RSSU, and soon, the publication was terminated on grounds of not correspond[ing] to … HSE’s demands, including the principles of evidence-based research.” From Menshikova’s perspective, the initial arguments did not even touch the thesis of her article.

In name, Russian universities are “outside of politics,” said Zelimyansky. Kasamara reinforced this view. “The idea of fair balancing of academic interests and human rights and freedoms is to have the university neutral,” she said. However, this neutrality has a twist: While university officials are exempt from these neutrality rules, students with political affiliations find no outlets at the university. It is almost as if it replicates the Russian governmental system, where powerful government officials express their views at will, but the people’s voices do not seem to be heard.

Lèse-Majesté, à la Russe

The crime of Doxa lay in its criticism of individuals: the article that criticized another rector led to the journal’s interdiction, much like how the Russian government has laws that jail people for “disrespecting the government.” Both Menshikova and Zelimyansky, the two Russian students interviewed, cited the overwhelming presence of a power vertical, a term widely used to describe Putin’s management style where subordinates are unconditionally loyal and obedient. While students nominally elect rectors, rector positions are often decided between closed doors. The Russian government’s situation is similar: While the president is elected, the mostly apathetic electors choose the incumbent as they do not see an alternative posed by any of the opposition, perpetuating a vicious cycle. As students critical of a university’s administration are silenced, so, too, are the protestors on the street critical of their country’s administration.

In today’s Russia, having opinions is the ultimate form of lèse-majesté. Your opinions are not required — the government has already decided them for you; should any complaint ever exist, your mistakes are “corrected” via police brutality, threats to your family, and even poisonings. Despite Russia’s overtures to democratic norms, the state’s reliance on apathy, along with its de facto designation of opinions as “lèse-majesté,” is both cheating the international community and its own people, living in the guise of multiple parties and elections. If the people really are to rule, then Russia should wholeheartedly embrace democratic ideals. And if they are not, Russia should not sugarcoat the truth with terms such as “democracy” and further blur its true meaning.