Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has set back education and science in the world’s largest country. With its war, the Russian leadership has not only forced millions of Ukrainians to flee, but also expelled hundreds of thousands of well-educated people from Russia.

“The country has never suffered such losses,” complained Alexander Ausan, Dean of the Faculty of Economics at Moscow’s Lomonosov University. At least seven to ten years are needed to compensate for the bloodletting of human capital – “and only if the brain drain doesn’t continue,” said the renowned economist.

Scholars flee the country

IT specialists, managers, journalists, but also scientists and lecturers are among the specialists who have moved abroad. The international academic network Scholars at Risk alone has taken more than 200 Russian researchers out of the country since the beginning of the war. The Humboldt Foundation made it possible for six endangered scientists to receive funding in Germany after the start of the war. In addition, thousands of well-known scholars fled on their own because they did not agree with the war or because they were afraid of being mobilized for the front.

Also gone is Maria Falikman, one of Russia’s most renowned psychologists. Until last year she taught and researched at the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE), but in the summer she packed her things and moved to the USA. “I found it difficult to stay in Russia under the increased propaganda and increasing ideological pressure,” she told the German Press Agency (dpa).

In the field of psychology alone, four of the nine laboratory heads at the HSE have emigrated. “People who have worked at an international level and their scientific staff have scattered in all directions,” says Falikman.

Financial problems, publication difficulties, persecution

There are various reasons for the exodus: the war has torn deep holes in funding, real spending on science and research has fallen by a third this year. The first professors complain about late salary payments. The acquisition of equipment and laboratory materials is more difficult. The sanctions also isolate Russian scientists, who can now neither publish in international journals nor refer to the results of their colleagues. Some therefore simply left the country because of the lack of prospects in Russia.

Others are fleeing real persecution and political oppression. The HSE is a prime example of political influence. Since it was founded in 1992, it has been considered one of the most liberal universities in Russia and has risen alongside the venerable Lomonosov University to become one of the country’s leading research institutes. The staff prided themselves on western standards and international scientific collaborations.

But in the wake of the new political course, the HSE also became increasingly conservative, a development that was accelerated in 2021 with the replacement of long-time rector Yaroslav Kuzminov by Nikita Anisimov. Anisimov was one of the first scientists to sign a letter of support for the war. When resistance arose in the university, the critics were fired.

Patriotism a must

Almost all areas of science in the country are affected. The humanities in particular, where political standpoints have to be represented, have been severely thinned out. Anyone who does not teach and write in a patriotic enough way not only has to fear for their job, but also in some cases for their freedom. Books are put on the index, entire complexes of topics are made taboo because a law “banning the propaganda of non-traditional values” is now having an effect on gender studies or works on homosexuality, for example.

Other disciplines apparently still offer the possibility of an apolitical niche existence, but here too there are priorities and dangers lurking. The natural sciences are also placed in the service of the military. The government is increasingly awarding grants for armaments-related research projects. At a reception in the Kremlin in early February, President Vladimir Putin honored an employee at a military research institute for “testing technologies for complex technical devices that ensure the country’s defense capability.”

allegation of espionage

What is also striking is the widespread fear of being suspected of being a spy because the authorities do not stop at scholars. In 2022, three lawsuits were opened against scientists for allegedly betraying secrets. The well-known physicist Dmitri Kolker was arrested at the bedside by secret agents. He is said to have revealed state secrets during lectures in China, although the lectures had previously been checked and approved by the security organs. Kolker died just days after his arrest.

Censorship and a growing atmosphere of fear are becoming obstacles to genuine scientific knowledge. Under these circumstances, only conformists and lobbyists make a career. In autumn 2022, for example, the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAdW) was newly appointed. Gennady Krasnikov, close to the Kremlin, replaced incumbent Alexander Sergeyev.

Loyalty to the line like in Soviet times

The h-index, which indicates how often a scientist was quoted by other colleagues, was 70 for Sergeyev, while Krasnikov got a rating of 7. “For the RAdW president, such a value doesn’t look solid,” said the physicist Andrei Rostovtsev.

Convictions that are loyal to the line are often more important than scientific expertise, as was the case in the Soviet Union during the communist era. The director of the Genetics Institute Alexander Kudryavtsev, who also belongs to the RAdW, recently showed what this can lead to. Speaking at a “scientific-theological conference,” he explained that before the Flood, people lived an average of 900 years. Due to the fall of mankind, genetic diseases arose and human lifespans were shortened to the current level. Kudryavtsev caused widespread horror even among Russians without higher education.