I’ve been puzzling over a sentence in the recently-released report on Russia from the UK Parliament Committee on Intelligence and Security. The report has been attracting a lot of attention. And rightly so: while it is full of redactions and gaps, its main finding – that the UK government has shown insufficient interest in the security threat that the Russian regime poses – is disturbing.
One area that the Committee investigated was the role of Russian oligarchs, whose wealth is often tied closely to government-related contracts and licenses in Russia. Successive UK governments have courted Russian oligarchs since the mid-1990s, initially through the 1994 investor visa scheme and then through light-touch regulation and taxation. And in its own terms this was a successful strategy, in that it attracted considerable Russian money into the UK, and above all London.
The Committee, though, describes the outcome as ‘counterproductive’, with illicit funds being recycled through the ‘London laundromat’. In paragraph 50, the report adds that “money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process”.
Wait a minute – academia? If ‘academia’ really has been an active part of the process of surreptitious Russian influence, why haven’t we heard more about it? In spite of substantial media coverage of the report, the role of universities and individual academics seems to have attracted relatively little attention. Should we conclude that there isn’t much to this suggestion, even perhaps that it springs from Russophobia? Or are there questions for our universities to answer about their openness to Russian influence, and their role in ‘reputation laundering’?
It’s certainly the case that some UK universities have accepted funding from sources close to the Russian government. One obvious example is the role of the Russkiy Mir (“Russian World”) foundation, created in 2005 and formally adopted by decree by Vladimir Putin in 2007 as a government-sponsored agency to promote Russian culture globally. The foundation provides funding for Russian Centres, as well as for grants to undertake research and other projects; in 2014 it supported 100 centres around the world, many of which were in the former Soviet nations.
One red-top tabloid published a characteristically lurid attack on the foundation, claiming that it was led by a former head of the KGB anmd linking it to the Sputnik news agencyas an arm of Russian soft power. That story appeared in 2016. In 2019, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee published a report on Chinese and Russian interference which included allegations that a Russkiy Mir staff member tried to bug a seminar at Edinburgh.
At this stage, a prudent university manager or a principle academic might well have decided that it was time to cut ties with the foundation. Edinburgh University’s Princess Dashkova Centre, launched with support from Russkiy Mir, no longer accepts its grants. According to the youth newspaper The Tab, between 2010 and 2017, Russkiy Mir donated £253,939 to the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre between; in 2018, though, the University told The Tab that it had “no active agreements with the foundation”.
Judging by its website, Russkiy Mir is still associated with the Sergei Averintsev Centre at Durham, which describes its role as “a facilitator of interdisciplinary research and at the same time, as a bridge between cultures, which will communicate the riches of Russian civilisation to the general public”.
Russkiy Mir also reported that its was supporting a programme at St Anthony’s College, Oxford; I do not know whether this association continues, but I suspect not.
I am not suggesting that this handful of examples suggests anything particularly untoward. There is no evidence to my knowledge that these universities have done anything wrong, and these examples hardly suggest that Russian money has flooded into university coffers. And there was no mention of universities in Private Eye’s informative report on Russian money, Looting with Putin.
So I am left wondering what the Parliamentary Committee was referring to when it identified ‘academia’ as being among the ‘willing beneficiaries of Russian money’. Including higher education in this way implies to me that the Committee takes the issue seriously, but hasn’t provided any detail. I entirely accept that the Russian government is autocratic, homophobic, and hostile to liberal democracy, and has several times shown contempt for academic freedom at home. I’d rather like to be reassured about its influence in UK higher education.