20 years under Putin: a timeline

In late February, Russia’s State Duma approved in the second reading the bill on regulating non-official educational activities. Introduced last November, the bill sparked sharp criticism among cultural and scientific communities over its intent to limit “undesirable foreign interference.” As the government expands its battle against domestic and international enemies, this draft law has the clear goal of stigmatizing independent educational projects and placing strict control over the entire field of educational activity.


The Сhange.org petition demanding to withdraw the bill on amending the law on education was signed by over 220,000 people. Photo: zen.yandex.ru.


Russian lawmaking tendencies of the last few years have been increasingly characterized by the overall direction of fighting enemies—domestic or international. The ranks of “foreign agents” are growing, as is the list of “undesirable organizations,” whose activities allegedly threaten the fundamentals of the Russian constitutional order and national security. Managing the activities of such organizations, or even participating in them, for a person previously subjected to an administrative penalty for this “offense” twice within a year, is a serious crime punishable by up to six years in prison. Mind that the murder of two or more persons, committed under the circumstances of irresistible impulse or “affect” (Art. 107, Part II of the Russian Criminal Code) is considered less grave and punishable by up to five years in prison. Torture without aggravating circumstances (Art.117, Part I of the Criminal Code) is a non-grave offense in the eyes of the Russian lawmakers, with a maximum punishment of three years in prison.

Article 275 of the Criminal Code (“Treason”) has now also been sharpened to deal with enemies, including domestic ones. In the original wording, the article aimed to defend the country from “malicious activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation.” Following the November 2012 amendments, “external security” was scratched in favor of the flexible, witchhunt-facilitating phrase: “activities aimed against the security of the Russian Federation.” The elimination of the “malicious” component makes the whole concept of “activities aimed against the security of the Russian Federation” applicable to practically anything. It is clear that the lawmakers intended to include both external and internal security in the new phrasing; however, the problem is that the Criminal Code does not provide a clear definition of either.

Another weapon that the Russian parliament is planning to direct at the enemy is the bill submitted to the Duma on November 18th, 2020, inconspicuously named “On making amendments to the Federal Law on Education (as regards the implementation of non-official educational activities).” The explanatory note to the bill begins by stating that the bill aims to enhance the legal regulation of Russia’s educational activities. 

The bill provides a definition of what such non-official educational activities might be: “activities performed outside the bounds of official educational programs that are aimed at dissemination of knowledge, craft, skills, values, experience, and competences with the goal of intellectual, spiritual/moral, creative, physical, and/or professional development of the individual, and the satisfaction of his/her educational needs and interests, and which correspond with the relations regulated by this federal law and other legislative acts of the Russian Federation.”

At first glance, this phrasing is completely harmless. However, by the end of the bill’s first page, it becomes clear what it truly intends to achieve: “it is forbidden to use non-official educational activities for inciting social, racial, national, or religious hatred, for campaigning for the uniqueness, supremacy, or inferiority of citizens (based on social status, race, nationality, religion, or attitude towards religion or language), including by means of communicating false facts about the historical, national, religious, or cultural traditions of the people, as well as for inciting activities that contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation.”

The bill thus transfers all non-official educational activities into the government’s gentle hands, which will control everything, including the order, terms, and forms of such activities. There’s no way we can do it without control, fellows. 

In the absence of control and the appropriate legal regulation, we are apparently risking the very events vividly described in the explanatory note, which, in full accordance with its title and with appealing sincerity, explains why this bill is so necessary: “The absence of appropriate legal regulation creates the prerequisites for the uncontrolled implementation of a wide range of propagandistic events by anti-Russian forces in schools and universities, masked as non-official educational activities, including events that are financed from abroad and aimed at the discrediting of the Russian Federation’s state policy, a revision of history, and the undermining of the constitutional order.” 

The masterminds of these restrictions cannot make peace with the fact that not only high school and university students, but also simply smart and unindifferent people want to hear alternative opinions and receive knowledge that is untainted by politics.

Revision of history is definitely a touchy issue for the Russian political elite. Today, the country’s history is inseparable from its politics, and the term “undermining of the constitutional order” is being interpreted ever more widely. For example, take a look at the recent infamous acts of Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court, wherein the judges equated a judicial appeal against the actions of state bodies and executives (that are subordinated to the president) to a direct or indirect intrusion into the activities of the head of the state. They also deemed the attempts to make an appeal or file a lawsuit against such bodies as impermissible and violating the foundations of the Russian constitutional order, as well as the principle of separation of powers.

It would seem that the country’s mighty past is effectively protected by both the Criminal Code’s Article 354.1 (“Rehabilitation of Nazism”) and Article 67.1 of the Constitution, while Russia’s constitutional order enjoys even greater protection. However, the amendments to the Federal Law on Education are not in fact aimed at defense, rather at the stigmatization of independent educational projects and the placement of non-official educational activities under the strict control of the state in order to eliminate freethinking and dissent. Their goal is to present independent educational activities as inherently malicious. Programs offered by Russian universities are being placed under growing state authority, independently thinking professors who dare to act against this status quo are either fired on farfetched grounds or forced to resign. And, obviously, the masterminds of these restrictions cannot make peace with the fact that not only high school and university students, but also simply smart and unindifferent people want to hear alternative opinions and receive knowledge that is untainted by politics.

Politicized education is typical of non-democratic regimes: students are taught ideologically important classes at the expense of those that are actually necessary for their future specialties in an attempt to make them loyal citizens first and professionals second. This is what our education was like at the Moscow State University in the 1980s. In law school, we were taught scientific atheism and scientific Communism, the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Marx-Leninist ethics and aesthetics, and other ideologically important disciplines. Future Soviet lawyers were supposed to master politics and ideology, but we did not study rhetoric, or the speeches of prominent Russian attorneys, or legal writing—ideology always came first. 

Today, ideology is back in the driving seat, despite the fact that Article 13, Part II of the Russian Constitution prohibits the establishment of any ideology as official or mandatory. It is clear that the current regime’s politics—which seeks to control non-official educational activities and is so fiercely guarding—must be a close relative of a state ideology. Non-official educational activities are absolutely necessary, and we will continue to pursue them. Even if the bill on “non-official educational activities” ends up being signed into law.


* Ekaterina Mishina, Ph.D., professor at the Free University, Moscow.