What 'anti-enlightenment' bill should protect Russia from and what Russian scientists fear

Leading popularisers of science are afraid of increased censorship and bureaucracy, the deputies explain that the bill is aimed at protecting Russian values

What 'anti-enlightenment' bill should protect Russia from and what Russian scientists fear
Photo: Maksim Platonov

The State Duma adopted the bill in the third reading on educational activities, the discussion of which caused a wide response in society. The bill was opposed by many scientists, authors of educational projects throughout the country, and professionals in the field of education. They believe that the bill carries the risks of censorship and repressive regulation. Scientists fear that the bill will make life easier for charlatans but will create additional difficulties for Russian science. In addition to the mass of educators throughout the country, the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and even the Accounting Chamber of Russia, which, it would seem, has little to do with the popularisation of science, said their “no”. Realnoe Vremya listened to the concerns of well-known Russian popularisers and tried to find out from politicians how the bill will actually work.

What will be the new bill on educational activities?

On March 16, the State Duma in the third and final reading adopted amendments to the Federal Law 'On Education in the Russian Federation' regarding the introduction of educational activities. It was initiated by senators of the Russian Federation and deputies from all four factions that are members of the Commission on the Investigation of Foreign Interference in Russia's Internal Affairs. Three hundred and eight deputies voted for the approval of the draft bill, 95 against it, and one deputy abstained from voting. Now the bill must be considered by the Federation Council, and after the approval of the upper house, it will be submitted to the president of the Russian Federation for signature.

The new rules are to come into force on June 1, 2021. The bill introduces the concept of “enlightenment activity”. And this is what it is from now on: “the activities carried out outside the framework of educational programmes aimed at the dissemination of knowledge, experience, the formation of skills, values, competencies for the purpose of intellectual, spiritual, moral, creative, physical and (or) professional development of a person, meeting his educational needs and interests”.

Under the new bill, this activity is now placed under the control of the state. The text of the document separately states that such activities should not be used “to incite social, racial, national or religious discord, including when communicating false information about historical, national, religious and cultural traditions to students, as well as to encourage actions contrary to the Constitution of the Russian Federation”.

The bill grants the ministry of education and science and the ministry of education the authority to license educational projects. For example, to sign an international agreement in the field of education, now the conclusion of one of these ministries will be required.

The parliamentarians explain why this bill is needed. According to the explanatory note, it is aimed to protect us from anti-Russian propaganda, which is served under the guise of educational activities. While this was not regulated by law in any way, there were prerequisites for anti-Russian propaganda in the school and student environment under the guise of educational activities. Such events, as the explanatory note says, are aimed “at discrediting the state policy carried out in the Russian Federation, revising history, and undermining the constitutional order”.

According to the explanatory note, it is aimed to protect us from anti-Russian propaganda, which is served under the guise of educational activities. Photo: duma.gov.ru

As the press service of the ministry of education and science of Tatarstan explained to Realnoe Vremya, currently educational activities are not licensed, because it is a one-time nature and does not involve the issuance of any document on education.

Who's against?

The bill has caused widespread criticism in society also among representatives of Russian science and culture. The petition against the adoption of these amendments at the time of writing was signed by 240,000 people. The bill was opposed not only by active individuals — but also by the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences (for which educational activities are statutory). Vice-president of the academy Aleksey Khokhlov was outraged that the president of the academy appealed to Speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, but “no one even thought” to contact the scientists and discuss the text of the draft bill. As a result, on March 17, in his Facebook account, Khokhlov said that the professors of the Russian Academy of Sciences appealed to the Federation Council with the proposal to organize an open discussion of the “anti-enlightenment” amendments in the Federation Council — in the Committee on Science, Education and Culture.

“All the main groups of the Russian intelligentsia united against the bill: the presidium of the Academy of Sciences appealed to the president not to sign the bill, museum workers and librarians were worried that they would have to coordinate every step with their superiors. The heads of non-profit organisations also oppose the bill— 270,000 signatures were collected against it on various platforms," said the first deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Education and Science, communist Oleg Smolin.

Astrophysicist, Professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) Sergey Popov, author of the petition against the relevant amendments to the legislation on the website Change.org pointed out that the bill on the regulation of educational activities will restrict the activities of educational organisations, in particular, will complicate the invitation of foreign specialists.

Sergey Popov believes that the bill on the regulation of educational activities will limit the activities of educational organisations, in particular, it will complicate the invitation of foreign specialists. Photo: vk.com

“This is not necessarily an invitation to professors to teach for a long time, rather, most of the contracts are short-term, people come to summer schools, to some short courses. Here it is clear that those people who invite foreign teachers will have problems," he is convinced.

Even the Accounts Chamber of Russia refused to support the bill on educational activities.

“The implementation of the bill will lead to restrictions on the activities of civil society organisations, including social non-profit organisations, discussion platforms, interest clubs, cultural centres, interest-based communities, and so on," her report says.

Put it simply, the Accounts Chamber believes that the new legislative norm is excessive, because criminal penalties are already provided for inciting various types of discord.

The ministry of education of Russia also demanded to specify the definition of enlightenment activity.

Alexander Panchin: “The term 'enlightenment activity' may well include Bitva extrasensov”

Candidate of Biological Sciences, senior researcher at the Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian biologist and populariser of science, member of the RAS Commission on Combating Pseudoscience Alexander Panchin called on all concerned to sign a petition against the bill. In an interview with the correspondent of Realnoe Vremya, one of the most active and well-known popularisers of science in Russia expressed a sharply negative attitude to the adopted bill.

“First, this bill does not imply anything positive, no positive agenda, no relief for the lives of those people who enthusiastically engage in the story of science for the general population, thereby somewhat compensating for the existing gaps in the Russian education system, attracting people to science. Instead of recognising this as a useful activity, we propose to regulate it. But how exactly this will be regulated is very vague. It may turn out that in reality it will be a typical bill — a horror story that scared everyone, but in practice it does not work. But in fact, it potentially carries high risks for the emergence of censorship. Because, in principle, almost anything falls under the concept of 'enlightenment activity'. Almost anything can be used for regulation, because the bill does not specify exactly how this activity should be regulated. There may be restrictions on the distribution of some type of information, the requirement to coordinate lectures, seminars or other public performances," he fears.

Photo: science.ironws.com

The rationale for the bill, which is dictated by the alleged desire to protect Russian citizens from anti-Russian propaganda, the interlocutor calls a rather ridiculous conspiracy theory.

“It is so arranged that science is an international phenomenon, and not a purely Russian one. Therefore, our scientists are published in international scientific journals, which are published in English. And the deputies, who are far from science, may have the impression that science is somehow politicised in the direction of 'foreignness'. But this has nothing to do with politics. It's just that English is the international language of science, and it seems strange to me to look for any intrigues in this," the scientist says.

At the same time, Punchin is surprised that the bill does not say anything about restricting the activities of people engaged in the dissemination of pseudoscientific information:

“Although the term 'enlightenment activity' may well include The Battle of Psychics (Bitva Extrasensov), oddly enough, because the concept is very broadly formulated. If we restrict the ability of people to popularize science, then in conditions where the popularization of science is the only form of vaccination against delusions, a vaccine against myths, then there will be much more uncritical areas of anti-scientific activity. And it will become easier for such charlatans to live," he is convinced.

Panchin complains: it is difficult to predict how the new legislation will be implemented.

“It is not yet clear what and how we will have to change in our activities, and whether we will have to. We'll see what they think up there — and we'll decide," says our interlocutor.

Ildar Gilmutdinov: “The state should control who comes to lectures and with what ideas”

Deputy of the State Duma from Tatarstan Ildar Gilmutdinov in an interview with the correspondent of Realnoe Vremya told about the main purpose of the adopted bill — to protect Russian schoolchildren and students from anti-Russian propaganda, presented under the guise of educational activities and funded from abroad. He says with conviction that there is no question of licensing the activities of our popularisers of science or restricting their activities in the law. According to our interlocutor, within 6 months after the adoption of the bill, a decree of the Government of the Russian Federation should be published, which will describe the procedure and forms of educational activities and mechanisms for monitoring compliance with the law.

According to Gilmutdinov, they are talking about extracurricular activities in municipal state institutions:

“The state should control what is implemented outside of educational programmes in state institutions, who comes to lectures and with what ideas. This draft bill is aimed at establishing order and defining the rules for conducting educational activities in educational institutions of higher, secondary and general education. The state should understand in its institutions what processes are taking place there.”

Photo: Maksim Platonov

Gilmutdinov says that often, under the guise of educators, “specialists” come to educational institutions who receive funding from abroad and are aimed at distorting history and anti-Russian propaganda. This was precisely the result of the lack of legislation that would define what educational activities are, and would bring order to their conduct. Now, with the adoption of the bill, this gap will be closed, the deputy is convinced.

“Unfortunately, we see that so-called 'specialists' and 'educators' who work for foreign organisations and receive funding from foreign organisations are actively trying to enter our educational institutions under the guise of various extracurricular additional programmes," Gilmutdinov says. “Accordingly, they carry out such educational activities, from which you can only get harm. There are cases of incorrect presentation of the history of the country, the role of peoples in the formation of the Russian state.”

According to the deputy, the adopted bill is necessary so that such organisations or citizens under the auspices of educational activities do not convey propaganda that is alien to us, understanding of life, historical and vital values, and family traditions:

“This draft bill is just aimed at restoring order and organising the system in educational activity. In no way will these restrictions apply to our educators in the field of various sciences, traditions, and history. On the contrary, they will have more opportunities. Our educational organisations will pay more attention to such popularisers," he is convinced.

Gilmutdinov drew attention to that many Russian organisations have existing agreements with foreign universities.

“The new bill does not prohibit such agreements. Simply, these contracts must be agreed with the founders. I do not see any problem that these agreements should be agreed with the founders at the signing stage. This does not limit the rights and opportunities of educational organisations. Through the bill, we only want to limit the role and influence of foreign foreign organisations, so that they do not come to us with their values," he once again emphasises.

Maksim Shevchenko: “The voice of deputies should be heard only after the voice of experts in this matter”

Journalist, publicist and politician Maksim Shevchenko in an interview with Realnoe Vremya opposed the adopted bill but did not rule out that the problem raised by the deputies really requires intervention. So there is some common sense in the new bill:

“There's a common sense behind it, too. Each state must somehow control the dissemination of information in educational institutions. Enlightenment is not just a conversation. People come to a meeting with someone who has a certain status. The lecturer says: 'Let me tell you how it really was. I'm a professor.' The answer is: 'Ah, well, let's listen to it, a professor cannot mistake.' Then the professor begins to say some incredibly complete nonsense. For example, 'Stalin was preparing to attack Hitler, so Hitler was one day ahead of Stalin," says Shevenko. “That is, some regulation in this matter is needed, but the main thing is that it does not interfere with really interesting and important educational activities.

Photo: kpfu.ru

According to our interlocutor, free intellectual open lectures have played an extremely important role in the history of Russia. He cites many examples: the religious and philosophical society of Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and the experience of giving public lectures by Blok, Mayakovsky, Gumilev, and Lunacharsky...

“The deputies want to solve the issue, which may exist, to take control of propaganda, but they can strike a terrible blow to the very foundation of Russian culture. After all, free public reflection, discussion, and lecture are part of Russian culture," Shevchenko fears.

The politician complains that by tradition, a socially significant bill is adopted without a broad public discussion.

“These deputies know better than us how we should think, breathe and live. I am a priori against this bill. Although there is a problem. But it is necessary to solve it widely, not behind the scenes and closed by the deputy corps, which portrays itself as defenders of the Motherland at the last ideological frontier. It is necessary to discuss the issue with professionals who understand the methodology of education. I am interested in listening to the opinions of the rectors of the Moscow State University, Kazan Federal University, Russian State University for the Humanities, Bauman Moscow State Technical University, and other leading universities. I believe that the voice of deputies should be heard only after the voice of experts in this matter," sums up Shevchenko.

Kirill Maslennikov: “The bill is aimed at the complete suppression of any uncontrolled word”

Kirill Maslennikov, a well-known Russian astrophysicist, senior researcher at the Pulkovo Observatory, and populariser of science, who often presents himself as “Astroded” in social networks and on YouTube channels, also criticised the bill in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“Possible risks for the popularisers are obvious — to run into a fine, although in the future they may be sent to jail. Who knows, they can come up with anything, different things happened in our country," says Maslennikov. “Most likely, many people will simply stop promoting science, because who wants to get involved with our wonderful bureaucracy? No one will want to get into all this unpleasant-smelling substance.”

Photo: rtvi.com

Kirill Lvovich, like the others, does not yet understand what the adopted law bill will result in in practice:

“There is a well-known expression that in Russia the cruelty of bills is compensated by the non-obligation of their execution. It may also turn out that they have adopted this police law, but there will not be enough police officers to implement it. Or the police at this time will be busy catching protesters on the streets," he expresses hope.

Maslennikov believes that the bill is aimed at the complete suppression of any uncontrolled word.

“All words, just in case, should be controlled," he argues from the point of view of the authors of the bill. “Black holes — it seems to be not a particularly critical concept, they do not cause a large public response. But this is all a matter of the degree of crackdown. There were times when it was impossible to speak out about genetics, and about nuclear physics — everything had to be politically verified. It is quite possible that the senator, Comrade Klimov, who proposed all these rules, will think with age: “Why not? Probably, bourgeois Western influences should be stopped. The West is the main source of evil in the world for us. Did they invent black holes in the West? Well, then, you probably shouldn't use this concept at all. What good can the West come up with? These are the enemies who dream of wiping us off the face of the earth day and night...”

Maslennikov says that the situation that arose after the adoption of the bill is completely stupid.

“The whole world is moving forward, but we are being pushed back again. It is desirable to push us deeper. Someone really wants everything to return to its former places. The people should think as they say. God forbid that someone says something different — then he immediately must be under the thumb. Previously, there used to be only Pravda newspaper — the only source of information. We know all this, so it's not new...” says the 71-year-old scientist.

By Kristina Ivanova
Tatarstan