Against academic sanctions

Editors of international academic journals are currently discussing banning contributions from academics affiliated with Russian institutions. I don’t normally talk about my war experiences, but my ex-Yugoslav perspective might be valuable here because I presume it is close to what many Russian colleagues in academia are going through right now.

I will assume that the reader has a long-term goal of seeing Putin removed from office. The TL;DR version is that people in education and arts are often opponents to dictators. What they need from us is support. If we punish them instead, some of their political energy that could be directed against Putin, will become redirected towards resenting the West. This will help Putin grow stronger.

A bit about me. I’m from Serbia, the part of ex-Yugoslavia that waged war on the rest of its country. I was 10 years old when Milošević came into power in 1989. We had recently returned from Boston where my dad, a researcher in visual perception, did a postdoc. It was clear to some that this new president was bad news, but nobody really believed a war could break out. Then Milošević set tanks on other parts of then-Yugoslavia in 1991, and chaos ensued. I was 21 when he was eventually removed from office.

In those early years, my parents would go to public protests in Belgrade and Milošević would answer them by bringing tanks out to the streets. My mom wanted to do something more, so she started working in an anti-war NGO. We were hungry for information about regions that our army was attacking, but local media couldn’t be trusted. Journalists would disappear overnight. To me, still a child, it looked like the entire world was dripping with violence.

My parents voted for the opposition from the start. The opposition got assassinated. My dad’s salary shrivelled to about £5 in today’s money. We were poor. Everyone was poor. Despite all this, by the time I was 16, I was leading an anti-war youth group that organised meetings with like-minded young people from Croatia and Bosnia, the countries we were at war with. So many people around us – so many of my parents’ colleagues and friends, many of them academics – felt the same, that none of this seemed heroic or even unusual. But outside our bubble, the roiling hatred swelled and swelled. Nothing could curb the monstrosity of war compounded by the guilt that atrocities were performed by my people. In my name.

At the same time, the West closed its doors to us. We tried to get out. My dad got a professorship at the University of Virginia, but when it came to leaving the country, sanctions got broadened to encompass education, and our visas got cancelled. We lost access to academic journals. Knowledge exchange became a thing of the past. But what was most deflating was the realisation that we were in this alone. We were Serbs in Serbia, and to everyone else that meant we were the bad guys.

There was, for a long time, this burning hope in many that the West would somehow become our allies in trying to stop Milošević. Academics always felt connected to the more liberal western world and many naively thought that the West feels a similar kinship with us. Instead, we were left with the feeling that it turned its back on us completely. And slowly, as the anguish and poverty and killing went on and on, a resentment towards the West began to build up. It continues to fester to this day. Luckily, lots of resentment among educated people from a depleted little country like Serbia has few practical consequences for anyone.

The problem with wars is that they draw stark national boundaries immediately and unapologetically. You are either Ukrainian or Russian, victim or warmonger. But the only nuance that should go out the window concerns victims. Right now, Ukrainians need immediate protection, no questions asked. Beyond that, if you don’t want to play Putin’s game of dividing people into worthy and unworthy nations, then an altogether different criterion is what matters: whether you are making moves that help him stay in power, or moves that work against him.

From the outside it can look like there is a pivotal moment to internal political change, but in reality, it is the downstream result of many smaller effects that, with luck, eventually come together in resonance. But small acts of resistance have their place, and they keep the energy going for larger acts. Some of these acts are happening right now in Russia. This is where some outside support could make a difference.

The West has placed broad sanctions on Russia without promise of revoking them if Putin pulls out of Ukraine, and this tells me that the end goal is not just stopping this war but also removing him from power. He can no longer be trusted to be even semi-reasonable.

There are various ways in which he might stop being in office. In principle, it could come through outside or inside efforts. From the outside, for instance, he could lose a war against a greater force such as NATO, but for now it seems that this sort of confrontation will not happen (thank goodness). Or he might stay in power until he is internally removed, or maybe he will die a peaceful death one day and only then will a successor will be chosen. Currently, our countries chose the path of using sanctions to create a pressure cooker situation with the hope that he will then be removed from office internally. The question is, who will be this force of change on the inside?

I feel compelled to note here that for the West, a situation where Putin is removed swiftly might be preferable, but a scenario where it takes many years during which Russia’s military and economic power completely dwindles… is not politically undesirable either. If the current situation doesn’t resolve soon, western sanctions could continue for a long time.

This is the context in which academic sanctions come into play, and in which their role and their duration should be considered. Change might come through creating broad powerlessness in everyone, but it is more likely to happen faster if Putin’s sources of strength are weakened while his opponents are empowered. Are Russian academics more likely to oppose him or to support him? There is no reason to think they are any different from our local colleagues in likelihood of supporting extreme right-wingers. Is it better if they feel they have the powerful West on their side, or if they feel that they are alone against Putin? Will Putin be harmed if fewer papers by Russian scientists get published in the Journal of Molecular Structure? Or will he be harmed more if a group of smart people get to keep their ties to the West? My opinions on this are clear: academic sanctions will harm those who have the potential to play a role in positive political change, and should not be applied to Russian scholars. We shouldn’t turn our backs on our colleagues.

To journal editors who are still wavering, I would suggest this: make sure you know what your end goal is, and try to operationalise it and then make a projection of how long that could reasonably take. If you decide to apply sanctions, declare at the outset under which conditions you will lift them. And consider carefully what this will do to fellow academics and science as a whole if these conditions are not fulfilled in the coming years or possibly even decades.


  1. Maria Ivanova

    So well put. Thank you for sharing your experience. I think the time perspective is very important. Given the publish or perish rule in science, having no access to western journals/conferences/joint projects over the course of several years, will be detrimental to scientists working in Russia. And if anything will steer them more in favor of the current regime. Science should aim to build bridges, not borders.

  2. Maryna Polyakova

    While you think about detrimental effects on Russian scientists’ careers, I want to remind you that none of Russian scientists lost their home, none of their children were killed or displaced. The effects on Russian and Ukrainian people are not even closely comparable.

    Yes more than 4000 Russian scientists have signed the open letter, but many others did not. Are Russian scientist better than sportsmen or artists? The whole world needs them to stay and keep anti-putin protests inside the country and not leave for professorship in the US. Otherwise the madmen continue invasion into Ukraine and will go beyond it. Right now russians discuss using chemical weapons in Ukraine, which they successfully did in Syria. If putin and Co are not removed swiftly this will continue and continue.

    At the same time I agree that the measures should be temporary and the distinction must be made between those who put his signature under the letter and those who did not.

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