war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

A Friend To Russian Science, But An Enemy To The Government

On May 26, one of the country’s biggest scientific benefactors, 82-year-old Dmitry Zimin, canceled millions of dollars in funding after the Russian government branded his Dynasty Foundation a "foreign agent," a label commonly used to target organizations seen as unfriendly to the government

It’s been a dismal month for Russian science.

On May 12, dozens of universities and research institutes lost access to online scientific articles after the government failed to pay nearly $1 million in overdue subscription fees. Days later, a Proton-M rocket carrying a Mexican satellite malfunctioned minutes after liftoff, becoming Russia’s 16th botched launch in six years.

But worse was still to come. On May 26, one of the country’s biggest scientific benefactors, 82-year-old Dmitry Zimin, canceled millions of dollars in funding after the Russian government branded his Dynasty Foundation a "foreign agent, " a label commonly used to target organizations seen as unfriendly to the government.

The move has stirred high emotions in Russia’s scientific community, which has watched with despair as mismanagement, dwindling budgets, and brain drain have eroded the country’s once-robust science program. The Russian government has ordered deep cuts in its space and high-tech programs; Dynasty, though small, had just raised its annual budget to $8.6 million, all allocated for research stipends, publishing, and outreach aimed at keeping scientists employed and at home.

"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 Russia, who didn’t remain in the West, purely thanks to this program."

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 fresh enthusiasm for science in Russia, the country responsible for the periodic table, laser technology, and the first manned space flight.

Such efforts at popularizing science made Zimin an irreplaceable resource, 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."

’Two Types Of Patriotism’

Since 2012, the Russian Justice Ministry has used the "foreign agents" law to stigmatize and fine hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding. But the blacklisting of Zimin, a former radio engineer who made his fortune as founder of the VimpelCom telecom giant, took many by surprise.

Since its founding in 2002, the Dynasty Fund has typically earned government kudos for both its generosity and its strictly nonpolitical work. Zimin has been recognized frequently for his philanthropic contributions; in February, he became the first-ever recipient of a "loyalty to science" state award, presented personally by Russia’s minister of education and science, Dmitry Livanov.

The Justice Ministry initially explained its decision to add Dynasty to the "foreign agents" registry by saying the foundation was engaged in political activity and technically received money from abroad, as Zimin holds overseas accounts. ("I’ve never hidden the fact that I keep my money abroad, " Zimin tartly told Interfax. "Russia also keeps its money abroad.")

The ministry then broadened its explanation, blaming Dynasty’s funding of Liberal Mission -- an organization, run by former Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin, with the aim of spreading liberal values in Russia. With Dynasty’s financial support, Liberal Mission in 2013 published a book, Law And Power, that was deemed "political activity" by Justice Ministry officials. Yasin and Liberal Mission were also added to the "foreign agents" list.

The Justice Ministry blamed Dynasty’s funding of Liberal Mission -- an organization, run by former Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin (left, with Dmitry Zimin), with the aim of spreading liberal values in Russia.

Supporters say the attack on Zimin just months after his state award is both self-defeating and a sign of government disarray.

"We’re seeing enormous growth in the sector of Russian citizens engaged in a new profession: The more ’agents’ you find, the more ’enemies’ you uncover, the bigger your budget will be, " says Varvara Gornostayeva, whose Corpus publishing house has put out hundreds of nonfiction works with the help of Zimin’s funding. "I think turning in the Dynasty Fund earned someone a small income, and possibly more than a small one."

Zimin, who spoke to RFE/RL ahead of the Dynasty scandal in March, 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] when a person is fixated on the merits of their own country. They take pride in them. And they see a lot of deficiencies in other countries, " he said. "The second 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."

Dueling Narratives

Dynasty’s blacklisting has met with a heated response from Russia’s scientific community, which has already grown exasperated by government efforts, announced in 2013, to push through unpopular reforms at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

More than 3, 000 researchers, writers, publishers, and students have signed an open letter,  posted by Corpus,  calling on the Justice Ministry to reverse the decision, which it called "not an ordinary example of mindless bureaucratic zeal but a direct blow to the pride, prestige, fame, and future of the country." (In a vivid illustration of the country’s brain-drain plight, a similar letter from the diaspora has drawn the signatures of more than 230 prominent Russian scientists working in the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Mexico.)

Scientists have also called for a rally to be held in Moscow on June 6 in support of Dynasty specifically, 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 organizers have written on a Facebook page advertising the event. "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 Justice Ministry claims about Dynasty’s political agenda. An NTV news report broadcast on May 31 cited "suspicions" that Zimin’s son, Boris, was secretly funding opposition activist Aleksei Navalny and independent 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 reprinted more than 300 times by pro-government bloggers on social media.

At least one government official has come out in support of Dynasty. Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the presidential council for human rights, told Interfax it would be "optimal" if the Justice Ministry moved to correct "its mistake." If it doesn’t, Fedotov said, "it will be necessary to go to court."

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.

Beyond the scheduled June 6 protests, two critical dates remain on Dynasty’s calendar for June. One is the charity’s board meeting on June 8, where Zimin is expected to finalize his decision to suspend the fund if the Justice Ministry does not reverse its decision and offer an apology. The second is June 17, when Dynasty is expected to appear in court to face up to 500, 000 rubles ($9, 300) in fines for violating the "foreign agents" law.

In the meantime, Zimin’s supporters and beneficiaries say the attack on Dynasty is nothing less than an attack on the life of the mind. Publisher Gornostayeva, who credits Zimin with single-handedly rejuvenating the culture of reading nonfiction, says the departure of Russian science’s most enthusiastic backer would sap the field of not only money, but "life."

"It’s not only because we receive support -- that authors receive a prize and the material support they need to write these books, " Gornostayeva says. "It’s also because afterward, the life of the book begins. The book will go into all the libraries in the country -- again, thanks to Dynasty. It’s Dynasty that provides the libraries with these books. The author gets to go on an incredibly exciting journey across the country to give lectures. Conferences are held."

"An entire life emerges around these books -- a big, educated, thoughtful community grows out of this, " Gornostayeva adds. "And all that will disappear, of course."

Written by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Valentin Baryshnikov and Sergei Dobrynin

 Share this