Professor Blames Article for Lost Job

For MTSokolov says university officials pressured him to resign his post in August.
A professor at one of the city's more respected universities claims that he was pressured to resign from his teaching position because he criticized the government in an article he wrote in the newspaper Gazeta.

Boris Sokolov, formerly an anthropology professor at the Russian State Social University, said it was his criticism of the government's handling of the August military conflict with Georgia in an article published in the newspaper Gazeta on Aug. 19 that ultimately cost him his job.

"The current Russian-Georgian war, with all its exterior lightning speed and success for Russia, in the long term is rather a military, political and diplomatic failure for Moscow," he wrote in the article titled "The Results of the War in Georgia Are Not As Clear-Cut as Official Propaganda Portrays Them."

In late August, Sokolov said, the university's administration told him that if he didn't resign, the dean himself would be forced to go.

"I was told that the presidential administration had demanded my firing," Sokolov said, adding that someone from the Kremlin was said to have phoned the rector. He did add that it was possible the university administration might have overreacted and overstated the threat — perhaps the caller had not insisted on his resignation but simply complained about his article.

"They might have just gotten frightened," Sokolov said.

Sokolov, 51, holds a Ph.D. in History and is a prominent historian and author. He has written more than 50 books on Soviet and Russian history and literature, and many of the hundreds of research articles he has published have been translated into English, German, French and Italian, among other languages.

The piece about the war with Georgia was the third he has had published in Gazeta this year, the others being about World War II.

Sokolov said he has since found a new job at a commercial polling agency and has no further plans to teach.

"I'm afraid that no state organization would hire me," Sokolov said. "I have no wish to experiment."

Sokolov said sources in "journalistic circles" told him that Gazeta's owner, Vladimir Lisin, had also received a warning call from the Kremlin.

"They called Lisin, and he temporarily dismissed Gazeta editor [Pyotr Fadeyev] but then reinstated him," Sokolov said.

The professor said Fadeyev first asked him not to write stories for Gazeta until at least the end of the year, "until everything calmed down." After a few days, Fadeyev said the paper could take Sokolov's stories anytime, Sokolov said.

Fadeyev and Lisin did not reply to faxed requests for comment. A Kremlin spokeswoman declined to comment on Sokolov's allegations.

University spokeswoman Inga Guseva dismissed Sokolov's claim that he was forced to resign, saying the resignation he wrote and submitted said he was leaving "of his own accord."

Guseva said she had "no information" about calls from the Kremlin. "Many of our professors write for news outlets and have the right to express their opinions," she said.

The university spokeswoman said it was impossible to set up an interview with the school's rector, Vasily Zhukov, saying she was the one "responsible" for comments about Sokolov's resignation.

Russian laws on education do not forbid university staff to speak publicly on any subject.

Prominent professors at top universities asked about Sokolov's case said it was not necessarily an example of the authorities trying to censor the writings of academics in universities, but it may be a sign that the administrations of some universities are carrying out self-censorship, fearing punishment by the authorities. Academics interviewed for this report said they hadn't heard of censorship at the universities where they taught.

Anna Kachkayeva, a prominent media analyst with Radio Free Europe, said Sokolov's case might just have been an "overzealous" reaction on the part of the Russian State Social University administration.

"The general situation in the country breeds such cases," said Kachkayeva, who heads the television and radio department of Moscow State University's journalism faculty. "In these times, everyone is overcautious."

Alexander Logunov, dean of the Faculty of History, Political Science and Law at the Russian State University for the Humanities, said that if Sokolov's case reflected a trend, it was one of self-censorship on the part of universities looking not to anger the Kremlin.

"There could be such a case, but it would stem from the wish of some people to please the country's leadership rather than from the pressure coming from the country's leadership," Logunov said.

Yasen Zasursky, dean of the Faculty of Journalism at Moscow State University, and Vladimir Mekhontsev, head of the Journalism and Public Relations Department at Moscow State Linguistic University, said Sokolov had a right to criticize the authorities publicly as a private individual but raised ethical questions about him doing it in his capacity as a professor at a state university.

"I believe that a state university must primarily reflect the official point of view," Mekhontsev said.

Sokolov isn't the only one to have charged the government with pressuring them for negative reporting about the war with Georgia.

Ekho Moskvy editor Alexei Venediktov was reprimanded by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "on a range of editorial and factual points" in August for the radio station's coverage of the conflict, The New Yorker reported in September.

Putin voiced his criticism during a meeting with 35 of the country's leading media executives at his Sochi residence on Aug. 29.

"When Venediktov returned to Moscow, he made clear to his staff that they had to 'pay careful attention' to their coverage, be sure of their facts and get sufficient government views," said David Remnick, the author of The New Yorker article, citing a personal interview with Venediktov.

In another public example of self-censorship, the host of a talk show on state television in September ordered a participant in the program to remove Putin's name from his story when it was mentioned in negative circumstances.

In a live broadcast of the show "Phenomenon" on Rossia television on Sep. 5, the host, Denis Seminikhin, rushed to interrupt the appearance by a self-proclaimed telepath, who tried to plant facts about a fictional murder story in the minds of the audience.

Seminikhin told the telepath, Alexander Char, that the inclusion of Putin as the supposed criminal was "unacceptable."