Andronick A Arutyunov, a Russian scientist and academic, is among the dissidents who are against his country’s war on Ukraine.
An associated professor at the prestigious Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), a school that has produced several Nobel Prize winners, and a professor at Free University, he co-chairs University Solidarity – a trade union of higher education staff that has publicly called for peace.
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Al Jazeera spoke to Arutyunov, a mathematician who remains in Russia despite an exodus of critics amid a growing crackdown, about trade unions in the context of the Ukrainian conflict, the working conditions for higher education professionals and the isolation of Russian academia.
Al Jazeera: On March 22, the labour union you are a member of, University Solidarity Russia, made an anti-war statement. It said: “Today, when the barracks-style propaganda of military patriotism is being imposed on us, it is important to underline: genuine patriotism consists not in obliging the state authorities and endorsing everything they do, but in striving to assert in one’s country the principles of justice, humanism and peace.” Has the entire Russian labour movement taken the same side?
Andronick A Arutyunov: With regards to the Ukrainian situation, our union wants to see peace in Russia and Ukraine.
Real independent unions in Russia didn’t take concrete positions, because they didn’t want to start a conflict with the Russian government, especially with the risk of harsh prison sentences looming over their heads.
The leaders of our unions, as well as students, university workers and scientists personally signed open letters saying, “We are against the war”. There are thousands of signatures on those letters.
On the other side, members of Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) mentioned that the “conflict was started by Ukraine.” They openly supported the invasion.
Al Jazeera: What’s behind this kind of division among unions?
Arutyunov: In Russia there are two types of labour unions: unions that side with the government and those that represent the workers. FNPR is a “yellow union” in reality. They do not work in the interest of workers, but actually for government or employers.
There is another structure, Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR), which represents another type of labour union. They work a lot, they go on strike, they do a lot for the people they represent and they have connections also with the employers. This is a typical professional union. They do not have as many members as the federation, but those are real unions who exist and work.
Al Jazeera: What kind of challenges are trade unions dealing with at the moment, especially those related to teachers and higher education staff?
Arutyunov: We have got serious problems with remuneration. Prior to the conflict, my salary in university was around 1,000 euros ($1,097), but now because of the economic crisis, it is less than 750 euros ($823). I am privileged, since I have a tenured position, but most people working in higher education or in schools have a salary of around 300 euros ($330).
Most months, some of my colleagues have enough money just to eat, not to buy books or to have holidays somewhere.
Al Jazeera: For higher education workers, how has the war affected their jobs? Has Russia been isolated from the world academic community?
Arutyunov: After the war, a process began – separating Russian higher education from the rest of the world. This is problematic, especially because the government is arguing for a certain national science, national history or national maths.
A lot of collaborations are finished. The collaboration between Russian medics and COVID researchers is finished. Collaboration projects with foreign scientists are finished and I fear they will not come here any more.
A very important part of my work is attending conferences, talking to scholars, exchanging ideas and witnessing what was published in the field.
I can still try to visit an international conference, but that will be very difficult, because there are no planes to Europe and this will require me to plan an expensive trip in advance.
There are only buses and I might have to take one to Riga, then a plane to a conference in London. Not only might it take days, but it will be a great financial burden.
Most Russian academics will not have the possibility to attend those conferences, both because of the money and because of the separation from global sciences. The divide between Russian sciences and global sciences is happening.
Al Jazeera: You do not appear afraid of criticising Russia’s war in Ukraine, despite mass arrests following anti-war protests …
Arutyunov: I do not want to go to jail. If you go to central Moscow with a sheet of paper on which you say that you are against the war, that you like peace, you will be arrested, you will get 30 days of detention easily.
People from Europe and America who think that we are sitting that we are clapping our hands for [President Vladimir] Putin, ignore that there are lots of Russians who do not like war, who do not like Putin, who want to live in peace.
Al Jazeera: The International Trade Union Confederation, ILO and other organised labour-related groups have condemned Russian unions for supporting the war in Ukraine. What do you want your foreign colleagues to know?
Arutyunov: I’d like our foreign colleagues to understand that … a lot of people will try to help Ukrainians and I am one of those people. We all try to do what little we can while our academics are being destroyed from within.
Remember one thing. Russians and especially Russian scientists, we do not have hope and we do not see a future within the current political regime. Lots of us tried to change it and to find a better and peaceful future for Russia, but our actions were pointless in face of the government apparatus.
Note: This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.