CampusForeign AffairsOpinion

How Sciences Po’s Administration Lied to its Students and Gave in to Intimidation from the Russian State

By February 24, 2017 No Comments

By Mark Narusov

Part I: The Lie, the Cover-up

“I seem to hear the stench of appeasement. <…> A rather nauseating stench of appeasement”  — Madam Thatcher proclaimed[1] in the British parliament at some point during Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. It was the response to a call from a Labor MP to find a “negotiated solution to the Gulf Crisis”. The Iron Lady apparently had no tolerance for proposals to conduct a policy that would in part legitimize an annexation of a U.N. member state and appease a regime whose leader spared little blood for oil. And good for her.

Quite a few of observers seriously concerned with Russian imperial revanchism since the dissolution of the Soviet Union can sympathize with the sentiment expressed by Thatcher. The peculiar and distinct stench of appeasement, in this case stemming from attitudes to Russian belligerence, can be sensed across Western capitals, permeating informational spaces of the forces of both the anti-American left and the populist right. It is nonetheless surprising to discover this accommodationist attitude taking triumph over the principle of academic freedom in an institution no other than Sciences Po, specifically in its Centre de Recherches Internationales (CERI).

The American journalist David Satter was scheduled to speak at CERI on the 19th of January, to present his new book “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin”, published in 2016. Having also presented the book at Cambridge and Oxford, Satter was surprised to find out, roughly two days before the scheduled event, that his lecture was cancelled. According to David’s account[2], he did not receive apologies or explanations from CERI. He added that the person organizing the event — Thornike Gordadze, associate researcher at CERI — was told that the event had to be cancelled due to the possibility reprisals from the Russian side, namely the possible disruption of partnership relations with Russian universities.

It has to be noted that Satter was the first foreign journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War. According to the author, a statement from the Russian embassy in Ukraine, dating back to December of 2013, read as such: “The competent organs have determined that your presence on the territory of the Russian Federation is undesirable”[3]. As he explains in the already mentioned book, “The phrase ‘competent organs’ is used in Russia to refer to the Federal Security Service (FSB). The formula ‘your presence is undesirable’ is used in espionage cases. I had never before heard it applied to a journalist”. Given Satter’s prior works, however, it should have come as no surprise. He was one of the first people who, upon investigation of 1999 apartment bombings in Russia, officially blamed on the Chechen rebels, arrived at the conclusion that the FSB was the culprit. In his new work, Satter references the mysterious deaths of at least four people (Yuri Shchekochikhin, Sergei Yushenkov, Anna Politkovskaya, and of course Alexander Litvinenko) all of whom, except Litvinenko, David regarded as friends. These four people investigated the role of the FSB in the terrorist attacks. It is entirely plausible that it is only Satter’s foreign passport that saved his life.

On January 27th, Buzzfeed France published[4] a piece confidently alleging that Satter’s talk at CERI was indeed cancelled out of fear of retaliation from the Russian side. The author cited an anonymous source within Sciences Po’s staff who confirmed Satter’s version of events and added that “The most likely scenario is that they feared for the academic exchange agreements with Russia <…> I think that they also feared that their on site students might be expelled”. The employee also recalled that Satter’s is not the first incident of this sort and that it follows a trend established by a dangerous precedent: “A few months ago, the Center refused to welcome the Ukrainian Prime Minister who is not in the good books of Moscow,” they told BuzzFeed France. “After a conference on Chechnya [in May 2016], the Center received complaints from the Russian embassy [emphasis added]. This time, they have censored themselves in advance. It was brutal.”

The article also cited Jean-François Bayart, director of CERI between 1994 and 2000, as saying “I’m outraged! When I heard CERI’s justifications, I couldn’t believe it.”

It ends by pointing out the fact that the Dalai Lama’s talk was cancelled in a remarkably similar manner[5] — without explanations or an official statement — fearing the Chinese side.

Following the accusations publicized by Buzzfeed, roughly fifty[6] CERI students complained to the administration, demanding explanations and questioning the school’s commitment to open debate.

Le Figaro and Le Monde gave more publicity to the story on February 1st. The next day, I — along all others who have written to the administration about Satter —  received an official statement by the current director of CERI, Alain Dieckhoff.

Mr. Dieckhoff called the allegations “ill-founded and malicious” and contradicted Buzzfeed France’s reporting with the claim: “This event was not cancelled due to political pressure having been put on CERI. Nor was the cancellation inspired by a fear of potential interference by the Russian authorities [emphasis added]. In no way, therefore, does it correspond to any form of self-censorship.” The following is Dieckhoff’s explanation of why the conference was cancelled: “…Yet the talk planned by Thornike Gordadze, an academic advisor at IHEDN and associate researcher at CERI, which was to feature David Satter and be held on our premises, did not meet the criteria set out in our academic policy. Associate researchers are entitled to organise events at CERI but, for academic reasons, they must do so in collaboration with one of the laboratory’s permanent members. In this instance, such was not the case.” Baptiste Ledan, chief of staff of Frédéric Mion, also reassured us by saying that “You shall be sure that our institution would not cancel an event due to political pressure.” (It did — at least three times.)

Unfortunately, the claims put forward by Dieckhoff have been later exposed as flagrant lies, the statement itself turning out to be little more than a sloppy attempt at a cover-up.

On the 17th of January, Le Monde published[7] a follow-up on the story that included a leaked email written by Ewa Kulesza, executive director of CERI:

“[Translated from French[8]] In the present tension-filled context, even as there are numerous students and Ph.D. students [doctorants] of Sciences Po engaged in exchange programs in Russia, to invite to CERI an author, whatever the quality of his works, who was expelled from Russia and hence necessarily always on the radar of the ‘organs’ [FSB] seems very imprudent. We both know very well that which they are capable of, in terms of retaliation, including against the institution of Sciences Po [emphasis mine]”.

As I have demonstrated, Ms. Kulesza has solid grounds to claim that Satter most likely does occupy a few minds at the FSB. She is also right to write that in this case, the threat of retaliation needs to be taken seriously. What she got wrong is the correct course of action in this situation.

In this context, I consider it important to discuss the three main Russian universities with which Sciences Po has exchange programs — MGIMO, HSE, and MSU. Given that the Kremlin has used these partnership relations as leverage to pressure Sciences Po’s administration, it is useful to assess their fruitfulness.

Part II: The Leverage

The Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) is considered as the most prestigious Russian institution of higher education in the field of international relations. On the surface, it is similar to Sciences Po in its function — to educate the future national elite in the matters of diplomacy and policymaking. As to be expected, the difference between the nature of French and Russian political regimes is reflected in the approach these institutions apply to achieve this goal.

MGIMO is officially run by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which in practice results in a significant degree of censorship, self-imposed and not. For example, on March, 4 of 2014 the liberal-minded professor Zubov was fired from the university after he expressed his outrage at the Russian annexation of Crimea. MGIMO’s official statement accused Zubov of having “repeatedly and consciously violated MGIMO’s charter” and the norms of “corporate behavior” defined by “its affiliation with the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs]”. The institute would have been in its right to do so if Zubov had not been a member of a Moscow district’s electoral commission. He was reinstituted on April, 11, only to be finally dismissed in July.

Openly accessible[9] “exchange year reports” of students who decided to spend their 3rd year of the Sciences Po bachelor program at MGIMO damningly and clearly illustrate the nature of the institution. Almost all students whose reports are referenced on the Sciences Po website write that they did not regret having made the choice — as, I assume, one does in a formal report — but give reasons other than the academic quality of MGIMO as the cause.

Julia Friedrich claims that “The general level of the majority of the courses is well below that of Sciences Po, from the scientific requirements of some professors to the discussions and remarks of the significant portion of the students”. She explains that “In part, it is the result of the fact that one doesn’t study political science at MGIMO, one receives training to become a diplomat. As a Russian diplomat, it is evidently better not to ask too fundamental questions”.

Ioana Barbulescu remarks that one professor pushed “almost-conspiracy theories that I cannot even recall”.

Octave Nitkowsi points out that “even if the diversity of points of view is always presented to the students in an objective manner, it is usually the position of the Kremlin that is ultimately defended by the university’s professors”. He continues by saying that “…the courses, even if they are sometimes interesting, always lack significant intellectual rigor, as plans and PowerPoint seemingly don’t exist in Russia”. Octave also says that MGIMO is an institution where “the purchase of notes or even diplomas is possible by simply calling a telephone number drawn on lamps, bus stops and sidewalks next to the university”.

Karla Petrac says that she “understood that the professors are often corrupt or simply do not wish to enter into a conflict with students and their parents so that they do not lose their job (a situation completely unimaginable at Sciences Po)”. She adds that “… reflection almost does not exist among the Russian students. Moreover, it is neither demanded or required by the system”.

Moscow State University (MSU) is an educational institution that is perhaps the most prestigious in Russia. Because of its public nature, one should not be surprised to find that even professors with the most egregious and horrific views — well beyond the adjectives of “illiberal” or “anti-Enlightenment” — do not lose their jobs if they enjoy the liking of those in power. The example of Alexander Dugin stands out. The person in question is a fascist in the narrowest sense of the term[10], as well as a former professor at MSU (2008-2014) and Head of the Department of Sociology of International Relations of Moscow State University. As David Satter pointed out[11] in an interview, the first step to understanding Russia is really “accepting the unacceptable and believing the unbelievable”. Dugin was only dismissed from MSU shortly after he explicitly called for a Ukrainian genocide. Even in this case, it took an online petition to MSU’s rector Victor Sadovnichiy signed by 10,000 people to pressure him into firing Dugin.

The three student reports available on Sciences Po’s website on the year abroad at MSU are not nearly as damning as those written about experiences at MGIMO. Still, Katarína Lukačovičová recalls that “During seminars, Russian students were asked to prepare a presentation about the chosen topic. I was shocked and surprised at the same time, when they just opened a site of Wikipedia, and started to read information, step by step. Not just that it is a plagiat, therefore, complete academic dishonesty, but this kind of exercise is not really improving their skills, knowledge and critical thinking”. She bluntly adds that “To be honest, such a presentation would never obtain a sufficient number of points at SciencesPo.”

Monika Vavríková validates Katarína’s claim, writing that “…the quality of student work, such as presentations or reports, is sometimes poor. In many cases they are worthless due to inadequate information relying on inappropriate academic sources, such as blogs or Wikipedia. In addition to it, some students tend to read their presentations directly from the Wikipedia web site, which seems to be an inadequate academic performance and preparation.” She continues, saying that “… the Russian university model is mostly founded on learning of a large amount of information and facts, not promoting independent thinking, problem solving or analyzing the issues.”

The National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) is a remarkable exception to the general rule. It is widely regarded as liberal due to the beliefs of its professors and progressive because of its approach to education. As to be expected, there are quite a few influential people dissatisfied with the existence of such a university in Russia. To cite an example: one of the most popular propagandists of the Russian regime, Vladimir Soloviev  (second probably to only Dmitriy Kiselyov[12]), accused HSE’s department of political science of being a cover for “organized terrorist groups” that plot an uprising similar to the one that happened in Ukraine in 2013-2014.

According to a few of my former schoolmates now studying at HSE, there is little to no evidence of censorship in the institution. One of them, Kirill Belyaev, comments that “professors as well as students are absolutely free to express themselves in any way they like, and they do so”.

The publicly available Sciences Po student reports about exchange programs with HSE are distinctly more positive. For instance, Stilyana Tasheva writes that “… HSE is an example of the change that is little by little appearing in Russia, as well as of the reforms in Russia’s educational system. Its system is more open and liberal compared to the classical Russian model and is continuing to develop in this direction”. She adds a caveat: “despite the positive aspects, I find that there is still progress to be made. The students are not yet motivated enough to analyze and develop a critical attitude [esprit critique]”.

Alice Woda assesses her experience at HSE as such: “… student evaluation consists of tests of the lycée type, containing questions that lack personal reflection and analysis, and that do not require anything but learning by heart. On the other hand, in the field of economics and finance, the level is very high”.

To return back to the main point, these three exchange programs are the main reason why the authoritarian Russian regime has a say in the matter of who can come to speak to Sciences Po and who cannot. As can be seen from the information provided above, MGIMO and MSU are great venues to spend your 3rd year if you’re feeling tired from the emphasis on analysis of Sciences Po’s model and the overall workload, want to just lay back for a year, and spectate exactly how dumb and servile a nation can become towards its authoritarian government, or have an experience that would stop you from taking liberal democracy in the West for granted. It is only legitimate, however, to ask whether these exchange programs are worth the cost that they are de facto inflicting on the openness of debate at Sciences Po.

It is safe to say that as of now, the Russian side doesn’t have significant incentives to stop their business of intimidation. And why would they, given that apparently a single call from the embassy has led to the cancellation of two events —so far, that is to say — that would have had a negative impact on the Russian state’s soft power.

Everyone affiliated with Sciences Po needs to ask themselves: where should one draw the line? If two cancelled events are not worth getting rid of the leverage — or at least taking a more principled stance — are four sufficient? Maybe six, nine, or fifteen? How far is one willing to go to avert the possibility of conflict?

Though this may seem like a platitude, the world does not lack bad actors that do not accept common norms of behavior and who have objectives that render them unappeasable. A display of weakness only emboldens such actors to further pursue their course of action. The sooner Sciences Po’s administration realizes that, the better.









[8] This quote, as well as most of the others in this article, was translated from French by myself, with the invaluable help of Allie Chtioui, a fellow Sciences Po undergraduate studying in Reims.






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