Russian science outcry as Kremlin targets major funder
One of Russia’s largest scientific benefactors has after the government branded his foundation a “foreign agent”, seen as hostile to the state.
The move to alienate 82-year-old Dmitry Zimin has stirred Russia’s scientific community, which has watched with despair as mismanagement, dwindling budgets and a “brain drain” have eroded their capabilities.
The move follows a dismal month for scientists, as dozens of universities and institutes lost access to online journals after the in overdue subscription fees, and a became the country’s 16th failed lift-off in six years.
While the Russian government , Zimin’s Dynasty Foundation had just raised its annual budget to $8.6m to be allocated to research stipends, publishing, and outreach.
“The main thing Dynasty did for science was provide grants for young scientists,” says Boris Shtern, the head of research at the Institute for Nuclear Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “I personally know two people who came back to , who didn’t remain in the west, purely thanks to this programme.”
But perhaps Zimin’s greatest contribution, Shtern adds, was his funding of publications, festivals, libraries, and a prestigious award, the Illuminator – all aimed at generating enthusiasm for science in Russia, the country responsible for the periodic table, laser technology, and the first manned space flight.
Such efforts at popularising science made Zimin irreplaceable , adds Shtern, whose online science publication, Troitsky Variant, gets half its funding from Dynasty. “That’s what made him unique,” he says. “Because the government wasn’t doing this at all.”
Since 2012, the Russian justice ministry has used the foreign agent law to stigmatise and fine hundreds of non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding. But the blacklisting of Zimin, a former radio engineer who made his fortune as founder of the , took many by surprise.
Since its founding in 2002, the Dynasty Foundation has been praised by Moscow for both its generosity and its strictly non-political work. In February, of a “loyalty to science” state award, presented by Russia’s minister of education and science, Dmitry Livanov.
The justice ministry initially explained its decision to add Dynasty to the “foreign agents” list by saying the foundation was engaged in political activity and technically received money from abroad, as Zimin holds overseas accounts. The ministry then broadened its explanation to blame Dynasty’s funding of Liberal Mission, an organisation run by former economy minister Yevgeny Yasin which aims to spread liberal values in Russia.
Supporters say the attack on Zimin just months after his award is both self-defeating and a sign of government disarray.
Zimin, speaking ahead of the move, suggested that the Kremlin’s extreme pro-nationalist rhetoric had created a chilly climate for philanthropists who, by nature, serve as a reminder that Russia still has room to improve.
“One type [of patriotism]... is when a person is fixated on the merits of their own country. And they see a lot of deficiencies in other countries,” he said. “The second type... is a tender love for your country, pain at the sight of its shortcomings, close observation of all the good things going on in the world, and the desire to bring those things back to your country.”
These two types of patriotism, Zimin added, are mutually exclusive. “Either you can be prideful, or you can learn,” he said. “I consider myself a patriot, but only in the second sense of the word.”
Dynasty’s blacklisting has been met with a heated response from Russia’s scientific community.
More than 3,000 researchers, writers, publishers, and students calling on the justice ministry to reverse the decision, which they called “not an ordinary example of mindless bureaucratic zeal but a direct blow to the pride, prestige, fame, and future of the country”.
Scientists have also called for a rally to be held in Moscow on 6 June in support of Dynasty, and Russian science generally. “We can’t sit idly by and watch as the government destroys one of the best charitable funds,” the rally’s organisers wrote on . “We can’t accept the fact that the government sees teachers, scientists, and patrons as enemies.”
In the wake of the academic backlash, some state-backed media have sought to embellish the claims about Dynasty’s political agenda. An NTV news report broadcast on 31 May cited “suspicions” that Zimin’s son, Boris, was activist Aleksei Navalny and independent channel Dozhd TV.
Dmitry Zimin’s Facebook account was also hacked shortly after the justice ministry announcement, with a post alleging that the Dynasty head was colluding with “American friends” to fund the Russian political opposition. The post was later removed, but only after it had been circulated by pro-government bloggers on social media. Russian president Vladimir Putin has largely skirted the debate. At a closed meeting with business leaders, Putin was quoted as saying only that he “hadn’t followed” the story and that it remained to be seen if the justice ministry’s claim was correct. Written by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by Valentin Baryshnikov and Sergei Dobrynin