July 12, 2015

Unlikely Targets in Cross Hairs as Russia Aims to Expose Foreign Influence

Dmitry Zimin, the telecommunications billionaire and benefactor of a foundation known as the Dynasty Fund, was not calling for revolution or election monitors. His efforts were elsewhere: awarding grants to young Russian researchers and financing high school science camps.

Dmitry Zimin, the telecommunications billionaire and benefactor of a foundation known as the Dynasty Fund, was not calling for revolution or election monitors. His efforts were elsewhere: awarding grants to young Russian researchers and financing high school science camps.

But after a monthlong battle to remove the foundation from a list of “foreign agents,” the Dynasty Fund’s board announced this past week that the organization would close. The foundation has given around $7 million annually for more than a decade to programs dedicated to the sciences.

Mr. Zimin became an unlikely casualty of Russia’s campaign to expose foreign influences that President Vladimir V. Putin has deemed threatening. While some targets have been predictable, Russia’s new foreign agents include an organization that supports the mothers of soldiers and Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organization, founded to research repression under the Soviet Union.

Even with anti-Western sentiment at a fever pitch, the labeling of Dynasty as a foreign agent struck Russian scientists as bizarre. Founded by Mr. Zimin in 2002, Dynasty sought to reinvigorate Russian science after a devastating decade of post-Soviet budget cuts.

“In short, this man gave two billion rubles of his own money and they decided to abuse him,” said Mikhail Gelfand, a Russian biologist who had taught courses for Dynasty. “Dynasty formed around itself a community of successful and respectable people. Apparently that was seen by the government as something suspicious and dangerous.”

Officially, the cause was Dynasty’s support for the organization Liberal Mission, which held lectures on modern politics last year in Moscow, and the foreign money was Mr. Zimin’s own, from offshore banks. But Mr. Zimin, who has been cautiously critical of the government, has also been criticized on state television, which aired what was described as an exposé accusing his son of financing political parties opposed to Mr. Putin. Mr. Zimin’s social media accounts were hacked in late May.

Dynasty has provided a lifeline for many scientists in Russia for the past 13 years.

Sergey Popov, an astrophysicist, was finishing a postdoctoral degree in Italy in 2003 and considering his next step. He was hesitant to return to Russia, where scientists’ salaries were low and the political situation uncertain. Dynasty offered Mr. Popov a fellowship that he said persuaded him to return. “It wasn’t enough to live on,” he said recently in a telephone interview. “But just enough to get by, to rent an apartment in Moscow for instance.”

For one month, Dynasty’s board wrestled with a question pondered by many organizations now: Should it continue to work despite the foreign-agent label? Even as consultations with lawyers continued, the Justice Ministry fined Dynasty more than $5,000 for having failed to voluntarily register as a foreign agent.

Finally, at a meeting last Sunday in Montenegro, the board voted unanimously to close.

“In principle, yes, an organization can continue to function as a foreign agent,” said Sergei Guriev, a Russian economist and Dynasty board member who led that meeting. “But it is clear that the organization cannot continue to function without problems for our stakeholders.” Mr. Guriev left Russia in 2013, fearing he would be persecuted because of his liberal political views.

Under Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former president who is now prime minister, Russia touted its modernization initiatives and a new private research university called Skolkovo that has partnerships with the West. In recent months, however, Mr. Putin has expressed concerns that Westerners are seeking to steal Russian talent.

“So-called foreign funds work in schools, networks move about schools in Russia for many years under the cover of supporting talented youth,” Mr. Putin said in a speech at his council on science and education last month. “Actually they are just sucking them up like a vacuum cleaner.”

On Wednesday, Russian lawmakers released a preliminary list of 12 nongovernment organizations that could be banned under a “patriotic stop-list” signed into law by Mr. Putin in May. It includes large organizations like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, as well as smaller groups that seem unlikely targets.

Martyna Bogaczyk, vice president of the board of the Education for Democracy Foundation, based in Warsaw, said in a telephone interview that her group was taken aback to be put on such a list after 15 years in Russia holding teacher seminars, promoting volunteerism and working with local schools on civic initiatives. Noting the much larger organizations on the list, like Open Society and the MacArthur Foundation, Ms. Bogaczyk said: “We are not these kind of players.”

The campaign appears to have had a chilling effect. When Dmitry K. Kiselyov, an outspoken Russian television host, last month singled out an American administrator at a university in Russia, his biography vanished from the university website and he was reported to have been dismissed.

The administrator, Kendrick White, a vice rector at Lobachevsky University in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, had been vacationing with his children near Orlando, Fla., when colleagues and friends in Russia flooded him with emails about the TV host’s assertions, accusing him of indoctrinating students with anti-Russian values and of replacing portraits of Russian scientists at the university with that of Americans. “I’ve never seen anything in my life that was so obviously a lie,” Mr. White said in a Skype interview on Wednesday.

Against the advice of some friends, Mr. White returned to Russia, where he had lived for 22 years, founding a venture capital firm and, more recently, a university initiative for commercializing scientific developments by students. He retained his duties as head of that program, but lost his title as vice rector.

“There’s some real serious dialogue going on now and maybe I am the poster child for it,” Mr. White said, referring to the scandal over his position.

Mr. White said the Russian government was giving mixed messages. He received a public award for his work this year. But foreign academics were coming under greater scrutiny.

“Do they want all collaboration to stop?” he said. “To become isolated in science is death and that would mean that all the graduate students would try to find a way out.”


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