Russian centre for gender research faces uncertain future

2017-11-16 15:13

Russian authorities have suspended the operating licence of the European University at St Petersburg. The decision was made for unclear reasons and poses a serious threat to one of the country’s most important centres for gender studies.

In connection with the suspension of the licence in August, the city of St Petersburg evicted the University from the old palace that it moved into 20 years ago. When hooks up with the researchers at the University’s centre for gender studies, they have just moved into new facilities. The students have had to abruptly end their studies as the University no longer is authorised to provide education.

‘It’s really sad. They would of course like to complete their studies and get their degrees,’ says

Professor Elena Zdravomyslova, coordinator of the gender studies programme.

Attacked by conservatives

Ekaterina Borozdina, gender researcher and deputy dean of the Political science and sociology faculty department, is troubled by the fact that the authorities have not been able to explain why they wanted to close the University. Last year, a series of inspections were suddenly carried out and found problems with everything from fire safety to the kitchen and the windows. Coincidentally, the University has been criticised in recent years on political grounds, and the gender research in particular has been attacked by conservatives. Duma member Vitalij Milonov from Putin’s political party United Russia continues to be a leading critic. Among other things, Milonov has publically complained about the University’s research on the rights of sexual minorities.

‘That’s what started the authorities’ process,’ says Ekaterina Borozdina.

She points out that the suspension of the operating licence should not be seen as an attack only on the gender research but also on the entire university. The European University at St Petersburg offers education in the humanities at master’s and doctoral level. It is privately funded by Russian sources.

‘Maybe the authorities think we stand out too much compared with other universities,’ says Ekaterina Borozdina.

Elena Zdravomyslova shares her suspicion:

‘Our autonomy makes us vulnerable, because the state wants to be in control,’ she says.

‘Some gender researchers are leaving the field’

Gender research is not as well established and institutionalised in Russia as in for example Sweden. Duma member Vitalij Milonov’s criticism is extreme, but his views are not unique,’ says Ekaterina Borozdina.

‘The word gender makes some conservative politicians hit the roof. The concept is perceived as a threat to traditional values, the nuclear family and the clear division between men and women,’ she says.
Elena Zdravomyslova describes it as a ‘gender panic’ among Russian conservatives, but after 20 years in the field, she is well seasoned.

We have endured these attacks for many years. The difficulties have made some researchers move away from gender studies to other fields, but those of us who have been doing this for a long time can’t just stop,’ she says.

The vulnerability of individual gender researchers depends on their field of specialisation. Queer researchers meet the most resistance, while research on for example gender mainstreaming or women’s health is not as controversial, according to Ekaterina Borozdina. Research on LGBTQ rights is hampered by the law against so-called homosexual propaganda targeted to minors. In theory, it is still possible to study the life conditions of LGBTQ persons as long as the material is labelled with an 18-year age limit, but in practice she believes it is very difficult, if not impossible, to operate as a queer researcher in Russia. Queer and other critical research is also obstructed by a national law prohibiting funding from abroad, she adds.

‘I really don’t think it is possible to find a university where you can write a PhD thesis on queer issues. Most of those who want to study those things probably move to a different country,’ she says.

Hoping for a new license

The European University at St Petersburg is one of Russia’s most respected higher education institutions. Since its operating license was suspended, it no longer serves as a university but instead as a research institute. The research can be carried out as usual, despite the suspension. The centre for gender studies is also continuing to organise its gender research seminars, which are attracting gender researchers from a variety of universities.

‘Nobody knows the end of this story,’ says Elena Zdravomyslova.

Ekaterina Borozdina describes the atmosphere at the University as hopeful, although not as hopeful as it used to be. The University management applied for a new license but was turned down, and now a second application has been submitted.

‘We hope to soon be able to go back to work as usual, but unfortunately we may have to get used to the idea of not teaching any students for a few years,’ she says.

Author Charlie Olofsson
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