Which space agency is hiring foreigners?

"A foreigner? Put your watch off!"

Russian scientists are resisting increasing political influence

The shock was great when the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation presented new "Recommendations on cooperation with authorities of foreign states, international and foreign organizations and on welcoming foreign citizens" on February 11, 2019. According to this, Russian universities should only receive foreign guests in "specially designed and equipped rooms". In addition, an information letter must be submitted to the ministry at least five days before the visit, stating the place, date, time, topics of conversation, central questions and all the details of all participants - including ranks, telephone numbers and copies of passports.

Foreigners should also be accompanied at all times during the visit, and conversations should always be manned by at least two Russian representatives. Private conversations outside of working hours also require the approval of the supervisor. If communication with foreign guests is allowed at all - the universities and institutes should maintain lists of selected employees who are "allowed to be involved in working with foreigners". The guests are only allowed to use technical devices they have brought with them - smartphones, notebooks and so on - if this is explicitly provided for in "international contracts".

German translation of the recommendations of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation, provided by the German Rectors' Conference

679 signatures against planned science surveillance

In July 2019, the Minister of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation, Mikhail Kotyukov, signed the document and had it distributed to all universities. Many scientific organizations immediately lodged a protest with the responsible government officials. In mid-August, the Council of the Interregional Society of Scientists (Soveta Mezhregional'nogo obshchestva nauchnykh rabotnikov) started a signature campaign. The 679 signatories, including numerous high-ranking officials such as the director of the Institute for Space Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Lev Zeleny, called for the recommendations to be withdrawn immediately.

The scientists not only criticized the impending obstruction of their daily work by a bureaucratic monster, but also considered the recommendations to be completely unfeasible. Nowadays communication takes place mainly electronically, every e-mail to a foreign cooperation partner has to be checked by a Russian colleague or having to ask a colleague for every video chat is completely impractical. The regulation regarding electronic devices brought along also raises many questions. After all, there are wristwatches and ballpoint pens with built-in spy cameras, according to Professor Alexander Frankov in an article entitled "A foreigner? Put your watch down!" for the Russian science news portal "Troitskiy Variant". Does he have to stand at the door of every international conference and collect all electronic devices?

And what about Russian citizens who come to the institutes on behalf of foreign institutions or are at least partially paid by foreign companies or institutions? Are they to be treated like Russians or like foreigners?

The biggest point of criticism, however, was that many considered the recommendations unconstitutional. The Ministry used the existing laws on the protection of state secrets, in particular Law 5485-1 of July 21, 1993, to justify it. According to Article 29, Paragraph 4 of the Russian Constitution, scientific research results are not generally considered state secrets: "Everyone has the right to freely obtain, receive, pass on, produce and disseminate information in a lawful legal manner. A list of the messages that constitute a state secret , is determined by federal law. "

Politically motivated harassment or just rules for dealing with state secrets?

The introductory text of the recommendations presented in February can also be interpreted as if it were merely intended to clarify the rules that already exist for dealing with state secrets. The previous behavior of the Russian government would also suggest an interpretation in this direction. As recently as May 2018, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree declaring science to be one of a total of twelve "national projects" and emphasizing the desire to secure Russia's attractiveness for young researchers from abroad in particular. If the recommendations really applied across the board to all researchers, this goal would hardly be achievable.

After the protests and the signature campaign, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education no longer argued with state secrets, but continued to insist on sending the requested data. This is needed for an alleged "recording of growth indicators in international relations". The researchers countered that the ministry received detailed annual reports with lists of all publications written together with foreign authors and therefore already had the required information.

Putin's press spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, finally promised on August 14, 2019 to have the situation examined. Although he assumed "an exaggeration", he also reminded people that "one must not lose vigilance because foreign secret services are not sleeping and scientific and industrial espionage is still an issue". Only one day later, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education surprisingly announced that the recommendations had not been registered with the Ministry of Justice and thus had never been legally valid anyway.

So all just an unfortunate misunderstanding? From the strong resistance - you don't just collect signatures from hundreds of high-ranking scientists - you can already guess that the feelings of those affected are likely to be completely different. Too many still remember everyday life in the Soviet Union, when every formulation had to be weighed in gold and "recommendations" could quickly become legal. Since the arrest of Viktor Kudryavtsev, formerly a senior scientist at the Central Institute for Mechanical Engineering (TsNIIMash for short) in Korolyov near Moscow, the researchers have had every reason to remember the old days.

Bad memories of Soviet times

Kudryavtsev, now 75 years old, worked from 2010 to 2013 together with other Russian representatives in an EU research project called "TransHyBeriAN", which was carried out jointly with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Belgian Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics . The aim of the project was the simulation of flows in hypersonic engines for space travel. The results were released by the Russian authorities at the end of the project period and were allowed to be published without restrictions.

In July 2018, Kudryavtsev was arrested on suspicion of high treason. He is accused of hiding state secrets in his communications with the Von Karman Institute. Russia is currently in tough competition with the USA and China in military missile technology and is considered to be the leader in hypersonic missiles. If secret information had actually leaked, Germany and Belgium would probably have actually passed it on to their NATO partner, the USA.

The Russian secret service FSB does not deny that the permits for publication of the results were in place. However, he assumes that Kudryavtsev has used his leading position at the Central Research Institute for Mechanical Engineering (TsNIIMash) to force the authorities to issue the permits. Kudryavtsev's lawyers denied this, stating that their client had not had any access to the state secrets in question for the past 20 years. The Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics confirmed in a report submitted at the end of October 2019 that it had not found "any traces of secret information" in the data provided by the Russian partners.

Even so, in June 2019, the investigation was expanded to include Kudryatsev's former colleagues Roman Kovalyov and Sergei Meshcheryakov. Both are currently in custody or house arrest.

Kudryatsev was released from prison in September 2019 because of cancer, but is not allowed to leave Moscow. One and a half years after his arrest, a trial is still pending. Those familiar with Russian history may see parallels with the fate of Andrei Tupolev, the famous Soviet aircraft designer. Tupolev was arrested in 1937 during the "Great Terror" under Stalin and shipped to a gulag, among other things because he is alleged to have handed over original construction plans for bombers and fighter planes to France. Only after Stalin's death, 16 years later, was he rehabilitated.

The case of Viktor Kudryavtsev described is just one of many from recent years. At the beginning of November, hooded and heavily armed police officers even broke into the traditional Lebedev Institute for Physics in Moscow and interrogated the managing director for hours. Allegedly the illegal export of bulletproof glass for military purposes was supposed to be prevented, but ultimately it was only about an insignificant private company located in the premises of the institute, which imports glass from China and exports the finished end products abroad. No trace of state secrets.

Russia is damaging its international reputation

The immediate fear among Russian scientists that they might soon be faced with the ruins of their own careers is therefore not unfounded. In the meantime, it doesn't really matter what the Ministry of Science and Higher Education actually wanted with its recommendations, for whom they would have applied and when, and whether it was a misunderstanding or not. In any case, the ministry's conduct has not only increased distrust in its own country, but has also further damaged Russia's reputation abroad. After all, the country maintains scientific partnerships with more than 90 countries, among other things is a partner of the European nuclear research center CERN and the European space agency ESA. Many Russian institutes cooperate with German institutes, Russian scientists work in Germany - and vice versa.

The German Rectors' Conference has therefore been trying to clarify the situation for months, but was only able to report in a circular dated October 22, 2019 (PDF) that "efforts by German authorities to clarify the binding nature of the instruction have so far not been clear [Have] brought knowledge ". How are you supposed to cooperate with someone who either does not know or does not seem to want to disclose the rules of conduct of their own employees?

Because of the sanctions imposed in March 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, everyday life has already become difficult for many Russian scientists. Equipment and materials can no longer be imported from abroad as easily as they used to be, and the fall in value of the ruble has made these goods significantly more expensive. Russian contributions to conferences and publications are said to be rejected more often than before, and entry visas for conferences abroad are given less frequently. Internet blockades by American cloud providers and the Russian censorship authority Roskomnadzor have repeatedly affected online services that are important for science, such as GitHub.

Domestic politics, money and plagiarism as reasons for the current development

The consequences of Russian foreign policy are making it difficult enough for their own researchers. But why then proceed openly against people or institutions? In addition to very banal theories - individual officials might want to make a name for themselves, the authorities want or may have to fulfill a certain target in the investigation process, et cetera - there are three main reasons in the room: domestic politics, money and plagiarism.

Human rights organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Human Rights Center Memorial in Moscow assume that the actions of the FSB and other security agencies are politically motivated. Fear of alleged enemies from the outside is to be stoked in the population and a "war atmosphere" is to be created so that individual functionaries can benefit from it domestically. We are currently not only seeing in Russia that this strategy of foreclosure can work well for quite a while and ensure political success. Through their daily work, scientists are ideal victims for such political games. In the natural sciences in particular, cutting-edge research is hardly possible today without high technology and international contacts - an allegation of espionage can be constructed in no time.

Reason number two: money. Russia is struggling to get away from its economic dependence on its natural resources, but at the same time it has many excellent scientists. For some time now, Putin has therefore been calling on the research institutes to pay more attention to the possibilities of economic exploitation of the developed technologies. Time and again there are disagreements between those involved about how knowledge should be commercialized and who should benefit. Power struggles are taking place in the institutes, and those who found a start-up are often confronted with the less technically advanced competition. The right political contacts can then quickly ensure that an unpleasant competitor is targeted by the authorities.

As in the case of the start-up Tion: The managing director of the Siberian manufacturer of air filter systems, Dmitri Trubitsyn, was arrested in 2017 for alleged violations of health regulations and only released more than a year later. In fact, it was more likely that the air filters designed by his company, thanks to modern research, consume significantly less energy than those of the competition.

The third aspect that should definitely not be underestimated in Russia is plagiarism. The wearing of ill-gotten academic degrees is widespread not only among celebrities and politicians, but also among ordinary employees. In 2010, for example, it became known that 70 engineers from the well-known aircraft manufacturer and armaments company Sukhoi had bought their degrees from a university in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The really remarkable thing about this scandal, however, was that an investigation had taken place at all. According to a former Interior Ministry employee, almost a third of the country's police officers have a fake diploma. A third of undergraduate students reportedly have their theses written by third parties. Even President Putin is accused of copying 16 pages of a Russian translation of an American economics textbook in his dissertation.

Plagiarism exacerbates the problem

The collaborative online platform dissernet.org, organized along the lines of the German platform VroniPlag, has uncovered falsifications in the work of several thousand people in just a few years. These include, for example, the former governor of St. Petersburg, Georgi Poltavtschenko, Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky and Putin's former child rights commissioner Pavel Astachow. It looks particularly bad for the business universities, which account for the majority of the dissertations classified as problematic.

In the "Disserpedia" operated by Dissernet you can see the current ranking of the universities with the most reported cases of plagiarism. The Russian Academy of Economics and the Plekhanov University of Economics come out on top with more than 450 cases each. The rector of the State University of Economics and Finance Saint Petersburg is said to have used citations from more than 100 sources on 175 pages in his dissertation, but not labeled them. Because of this, the media unceremoniously named him "Russia's worst rector".

It was only a matter of time before the accused would strike back. For a few months now, the media have been targeting Dissernet and trying to discredit the platform. Even the Russian Academy of Sciences is coming under increasing criticism in this context. The accusation: Their "Commission to Combat Counterfeiting in Science" took over claims from Dissernet and presented them as scientific facts, although their truthfulness was not guaranteed.

Anonymous laypeople are ultimately not in a position to compare two scientific texts with one another. This requires at least two experts in the respective field. The head of the commission, Prof. Viktor Wassiljew, sees it a little differently - in a reply he stated that, in his opinion, one only needs a basic knowledge of the Russian language for such a comparison. In addition, the allegations have by no means been accepted unchecked, but have been verified. However, this reply has not yet been published by the media.


The currently observable maneuvering of science in Russia awakens unpleasant memories of Soviet times, which were believed to be long gone, not only in foreigners. Not only Russian scientists are affected, their foreign colleagues are also increasingly coming into conflict with the state. The French sociologist Carine Clément - who has lived in Russia for at least two decades despite increasing attacks - was refused entry to her adopted home on November 27, 2019. She was suddenly banned from entering the country for ten years, apparently because two days later she was supposed to give a lecture in Moscow on the yellow vests movement, which Putin hated. Academic freedom looks different.

Not only this example shows that the window for academic freedom, which opened in Russia after the end of the Cold War, threatens to close again, at least in part. This would mean a relapse into bygone times and not only damage the Russian research and science industry. The urgently needed international cooperation, which can contribute to understanding and peace, and the urgently needed diversification of the Russian economy would also fall by the wayside. It is to be feared that this is exactly what those who advocate increased scrutiny may intend or at least accept.

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