Open Letter from AATSEEL on the arrests of Egor Zhukov and Daniil Konon

President Michael Wachtel's Message to AATSEEL Members

Dear Colleagues,

AATSEEL exists for a number of reasons, most of which are “domestic,” concerned with promoting Russian and Eastern European languages and cultures in North America. However, we should not forget that there is also an international component to our work.

For those of us who had the dubious honor of experiencing first-hand what is now called the “late Soviet period,” the events transpiring in Russia today have an unpleasantly familiar feel. In some ways, the atmosphere seems even more poisonous. At least in the gray days of “stagnation,” there was no pretense of democratic norms.

On July 27 of this year, a demonstration took place in Moscow to protest the exclusion of independent candidates for election to the city council. Though the city council itself has almost no power and the demonstration was peaceful, numerous participants were detained, and a few are now facing years in prison. They are accused of participating in “massovye besporiadki” (“riots,” according to dictionary definition) and inciting others to do so. No one is actually claiming that riots occurred, but the term “massovye besporiadki” is highly elastic. Russian authorities seem to employ it based not so much on behavior as on the number of participants at an “unsanctioned” event. And since they rarely sanction anything except their own jingoistic rallies, any public expression of free speech can be deemed a criminal offense. In the present case, the harshest measures have been taken against Egor Zhukov, a 21-year-old student of the Moscow Higher School of Economics. If you look at Zhukov’s Youtube videos — and I encourage you to do so — you will see an extremely idealistic, eloquent, and perhaps naive young man, someone you would be delighted to have in your classroom. He speaks confidently and critically about Putin and the FSB, and he does not mince words.

It tells us something about the contemporary moment that a single undergraduate is taken to be such a threat. To read the official accounts of Zhukov’s “crime” is like time-traveling to the Soviet Union. Rather than attempting to defend themselves against accusations of abuse of power, the authorities are abusing that very power yet again, searching for any means possible to silence their critic.

On August 13, the presidents of AATSEEL and the publications and conference program chair wrote an open letter in response to this situation. Such letter writing is itself a time-honored tradition. In the era of stagnation, our elders consistently voiced their concern, petitioning the Soviet government to rethink its repressive policies. Our letter, however, was not addressed to the government, which has no interest in our perspective and would simply dismiss it as “American propaganda.” Rather, it was addressed to our Russian colleagues, the teachers and administrators of Russian universities. Though individual faculty members have spoken out in support of Egor Zhukov and his fellow students, no Russian university has had the courage to do so, at least not publicly.

Anyone who has followed Russian educational policy over the last years is aware that the authorities are making serious efforts to improve the quality — or at the very least, the international standing — of Russian universities. Ratings are an imprecise tool to establish the efficacy of universities, but it is nonetheless telling that not a single Russian university ranks among the top 100 in the world. Given the outstanding contributions of Russian scholars in so many fields, one may fairly wonder why this is not reflected in the reputation of their

institutions of higher learning. One reason, it would seem, is the traditional Soviet approach to pedagogy, which consists in apodictically imparting information to an unquestioning student body. The spirit of open discussion — of intellectual freedom — is so fundamental to Western education that is seems a banality to mention it, yet it has always been feared by Russian authorities. Among other things, our letter reminds our colleagues that Egor Zhukov and his fellow students have a right to be heard, and insofar as they express their ideas peaceably, they are acting in accordance not only with international norms, but also with the Russian constitution.

The poet Naum Korzhavin used to say that terror is not when you do something because someone is pointing a gun at your head. Terror is when you do that thing without them having to point a gun at your head. Russian universities appear to find themselves in this “terrorized” position, yet many signs indicate that such fears are misplaced. The Russia of today — much more so than the Soviet Union of yesteryear — is concerned about its image. There is good reason to think that if numerous Russian universities were to make a joint statement, it would have a beneficial effect.

If Egor Zhukov is silenced by a lengthy jail term, others will cease to speak out. This is clearly the intention of the government. Educators, however, need to recognize what this would mean for Russian culture more generally. Should such policies continue, Russian political and social life will return to the stultifying sameness of the Brezhnev era.

We are heartened by the fact that our letter has been posted on various Russian internet sites (Ekho Moskvy, Colta, Regnum), and we encourage our colleagues in Russian educational institutions to speak up on behalf of themselves, their students, and civil society as a whole.

Michael Wachtel

AATSEEL President

August 13, 2019

An appeal to all administrators and teachers at Russian universities
from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages

(The Russian version of the letter was published in Ekho Moskvy and

Read the responses to the Open Letter in the press:
Novaia gazeta
Radio Liberty
Voice of America, including the interview with Yurii Levin

Esteemed colleagues, administrators and teachers at Russian universities,

We address you on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL). Founded in 1941, our association exists to advance the study and development of Slavic and East European languages and cultures outside of Russia on all educational levels. Among our members are more than a thousand teachers and Ph.D. students in the USA and Canada, many of whom have close professional ties to colleagues at institutions of higher learning in the Russian Federation.

We would like to express our profound concern in regard to the recent arrests of Egor Zhukov, a student at the Higher School of Economics, and Daniil Konon, a student at Moscow’s Bauman Technical University. Both now find themselves in a detention center in connection with the Moscow protests of July 27, 2019. Egor Zhukov is accused of participating in riots (part 2 of article 212 of the criminal codex of the Russian Federation); he is threatened with eight years in a maximum security facility. We know that Egor and Daniil’s classmates — as well as students of other institutions of higher learning and their teachers — support these young men, who are facing fabricated charges of crimes that they did not commit.

The persecution of dissent is not a new phenomenon in post-Soviet Russia. But we are truly alarmed by what is occurring now in the sphere of Russian education — the open threats of reprisals coming from certain university administrators and directed at students, including expulsion for participation in so-called unsanctioned meetings. This cannot but recall events that transpired in the USSR. Young people, your students, are demanding the right of free expression. Participation in peaceful demonstrations and marches is most definitely an integral part of a civil society and is directly vouchsafed by the constitution of the Russian Federation.

We completely support the position of the graduates, students, and staff of the Higher School of Economics as expressed in their letter of support for Egor Zhukov. A university is a place that teaches students to think critically, to speak freely and to ask questions. In a democratic society, based on the principle of respect for human rights, the peaceful expression of opinions cannot be the basis for criminal persecution.

Thanks to the independent mass media and to social media we are carefully monitoring the events in Russia. For many of you, our esteemed colleagues and experts, the ratings of Russian institutions of higher learning are important. Hence it is worth remembering that such ratings are determined not only by the quantity and quality of publications and peer-reviewed journals and books, but also by factors such as academic freedom, the guarantee of political neutrality and the social position of everyone affiliated with a given institution. If the Russian academic world does not wish to find itself in the position of a pariah among the world’s learned societies, it must demonstrate a commitment to democratic principles and civic freedoms.

We appeal to the administrators of Russian institutions of higher learning to formulate clearly their position in this matter and to render legal support to the accused. We demand the immediate freedom of all students who have been turned into political prisoners by a repressive machine. And we urge you to respect the constitution of the Russian Federation by taking all measures to ensure that such flagrant disregard for the law does not continue.

We, the undersigned, on behalf of the Executive Committee of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages:

Professor Michael Wachtel,
Princeton University 

Professor Gabriella Safran,
Stanford University

Professor Mark Lipovetsky,
Columbia University

Professor Yuri Leving,
Dalhousie University, Canada

13 августа 2019

Заявление Американской организации славистов в связи с арестом студентов московских вузов и массовыми задержаниями участников мирных протестов

(Текст заявления опубликован на сайтах Эхо Москвы и

Уважаемые коллеги – руководители и преподаватели российских вузов!

Мы обращаемся к вам от лица Американской ассоциации преподавателей славянских и восточноевропейских языков (AATSEEL). Основанная в 1941 году, ассоциация существует для того, чтобы способствовать изучению и развитию славянских и восточноевропейских языков, литературы и культуры на всех уровнях образования за пределами России. Среди членов нашей ассоциации более тысячи преподавателей и аспирантов США и Канады, многие из них поддерживают тесные профессиональные связи с коллегами в высших учебных заведениях Российской Федерации.

Мы хотим выразить глубокую обеспокоенность арестами Егора Жукова, студента Высшей школы экономики, и Даниила Конона, студента Московского государственного технического университета им. Н. Э. Баумана. Оба сейчас находятся в СИЗО, по делу о московских протестах 27 июля 2019 года. Егору Жукову предъявлено обвинение по части 2 статьи 212 УК РФ (участие в массовых беспорядках), ему грозит 8 лет строгого режима. Мы знаем, что однокурсники Егора и Даниила, а также студенты других вузов и их преподаватели поддерживают молодых людей, которым сейчас фабрикуют дела по преступлениям, которых они не совершали.

Преследование инакомыслящих – не новейшее изобретение постсоветской России. Но происходящее сейчас в сфере российского образования и откровенные угрозы расправ со стороны некоторых руководителей университетов, прозвучавшие в адрес студентов, вплоть до их отчисления за участие в так называемых «несанкционированных митингах», вызывают у нас тревогу и не могут не навести на ассоциации с происходившим в СССР. Молодые люди, ваши студенты, требуют права свободы волеизъявления, а участие в мирных митингах и шествиях безусловно является неотъемлемой частью гражданского общества и гарантировано конституцией РФ.

Мы целиком и полностью поддерживаем позицию выпускников и сотрудников Высшей школы экономики студентов, выраженную в коллективном письме в поддержку Егора Жукова. Университет является местом, где учат критически мыслить, свободно говорить и задавать вопросы, а мирное выражение мнений не может быть основанием для уголовного преследования в демократического обществе, основанном на принципе уважения прав человека. 

Благодаря независимым СМИ и социальным медиа мы пристально следим за происходящим в России. Для многих из вас, наших уважаемых коллег и экспертов, важны рейтинги российских вузов. При этом следует помнить, что независимо от научной области, в это понятие входят не только количество и качество публикаций в рецензируемых изданиях, но и рейтинг академической свободы, степень обеспечения политического нейтралитета и активной общественной позиции всех тех, кто аффилирован с данной институцией. Если российское академическое общество не желает оказаться в положении изгоя в глобальной научной среде, оно должно продемонстрировать приверженность демократическим принципам и гражданским свободам.

Мы обращаемся к администрации российских вузов с призывом выразить моральную поддержку и оказать юридическую помощь обвиняемым. Мы требуем немедленного освобождения всех студентов, которых репрессивная машина превратила в политзаключенных. Мы просим академическое сообщество проявить солидарность. Мы призываем всех уважать конституцию Российской Федерации, чтобы беззаконие не повторялось.

Профессор Майкл Вахтель,
Принстонский университет

Профессор Габриэлла Сафран,
Стэнфордский университет

Профессор Марк Липовецкий,
Колумбийский университет

Профессор Юрий Левинг,
Университет Дальхаузи, Канада


As AATSEEL presidents, we would like to bring the attention of the membership to a complex issue relating to the job market and professional ethics. More and more interviews in our field are being conducted at ASEEES and via Skype or other video-conferencing software (a shift that has been in part accelerated by the shift of the AATSEEL Conference to February). This has enabled some institutions to advance their hiring processes, in some cases making offers as early as the middle of December. Such a schedule may be motivated by internal institutional considerations. However, intentionally or not, it also forecloses other hiring processes taking place in later months for which job-seekers may be considered. While we understand that every institution seeks to hire the very best colleagues, such advanced searches ultimately have the effect not only of “beating the competition,” but also of weakening the negotiating position of job-seekers—whose positions are not strong to begin with—by limiting their ability to participate in other searches. It is for this reason that the Modern Language Association “Guidelines for Search Committees and Job Seekers on Entry-Level Faculty Recruitment and Hiring” states that “No candidate should be required before 31 January to give a final answer to an offer of a position without tenure for the following academic year, however early an offer is tendered.” We strongly support this position and encourage colleagues to come together in observance of these guidelines, in order to defend the interests of our younger colleagues in search of employment, who are certainly among the most vulnerable members of our profession.

– Mark Lipovetsky, President of AATSEEL; Kevin Platt, Past President of AATSEEL; Michael Wachtel, President-elect of AATSEEL


February 19, 2018

Dear Ambassador Galt,

As presidents of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL), an organization that includes 720 scholars, college professors and high school teachers of Russian and other Slavic languages, literatures and cultures, we write to express our serious concern about the recent designation of Russia as a Category 3 risk level country with the recommendation for American citizens to “reconsider travel.”

We completely support the Department’s designations for regions of Russia such as the Caucasus and Crimea – indeed, these are areas where American tourists can encounter terrorism and harassment. We also understand that after the Russian government forced dramatic cuts of staff in the US embassy and consulates, the State Department has significantly fewer resources to provide necessary help to Americans in Russia.

However, we would like to point out that in Central and Northern Russia as well as in the Urals, Siberia, and Far East, the danger of terrorist attacks or bombings in large cities, let alone smaller places, is grossly overstated. From the perspective of a possible terrorist attack, Moscow or Krasnoyarsk is no more dangerous than London or Paris. While some harassment of US citizens traveling in official and business capacities has taken place, it is certainly not an everyday occurrence and not commonly directed at tourists or exchange students. We know this because we follow events in Russia as professionals. This will not be the case for parents of students who hope to travel to Russia to improve their language skills and expand their cultural horizons.

This is why we believe that this designation will significantly damage all study abroad programs that send students to Russia. It is obvious that the US needs and will need more rather than fewer qualified experts in Russia and that education in situ is crucial for the formation of such specialists.

We support our colleagues at ACTR and also want to draw your attention to the harmful effects of this designation, which might deprive an entire generation of American Russianists of first- hand experience in the country of their expertise. This could damage American foreign policy and might have numerous other negative consequences on international relations.


Mark Lipovetsky, Current President of AATSEEL,

Professor of Russian Studies, University of Colorado-Boulder

Kevin M. F. Platt, Past President of AATSEEL, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities, University of Pennsylvania

Michael Wachtel, President Elect of AATSEEL,

Professor and Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University

Response from Ambassador Galt

March 2, 2018

Dear Drs. Lipovetsky, Platt, and Wachtel:

Thank you for your letter describing the importance the American Association of Slavic and East European Languages places on U.S.-Russia exchanges and your concerns about the Department of State Travel Advisory. We appreciate the longstanding commitment and support of the AATSEEL and its members to U.S.-Russia exchanges. The safety and security of U.S. citizens and program participants is our top priority at the Department, and we at ECA are committed to ensuring the safety and security of every participant in the programs we oversee. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) administers a number of U.S.-Russia exchanges, including the Fulbright, National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), and Critical Language Scholarship programs. We understand the value and impact of these programs in building mutual understanding between the people of the United States and those of other countries, including Russia, as well as for increasing linguistic, regional and cultural awareness and expertise among the U.S. citizens participating in these programs.

ECA closely tracks the status of the Department's Travel Advisories, as we know the exchange community does as well, and factors advisory levels into our decisions regarding the operation of our exchanges around the world. Our goal is to have sufficient measures in place to ensure the safety and security of program participants and to provide close monitoring, support, and oversight throughout the exchange. For those program models without extensive ECA-supported infrastructure to provide direct monitoring and oversight in country, we may choose not to operate that program in countries with higher Travel Advisory levels. This is the case with our decision to limit destinations for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program to countries with Level 1 or 2 Travel Advisories. We will not operate the Gilman Program in Russia, but we do currently plan to continue Fulbright, Critical Language Scholarships and NSLI-Y exchanges there.

A great strength of the United States is our robust civil society, including the many higher education institutions and non-profit organizations that are active in exchanges between the United States and Russia. We know that, similar to how ECA manages our own exchange programs, each institution will need to decide how best to reflect the Department's Travel Advisories and other factors and considerations into their own policies and procedures regarding study abroad and exchanges to Russia. The Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) has the lead on determining Travel Advisory levels within the new Travel Advisory System that went into effect on January 10, 2018. Russia is currently designated as Level 3 - Reconsider Travel. As a Level 3 country, the Travel Advisory for Russia contains clear reasons for the assigned level, available on the website at

Among the many factors that went into the Level 3 assessment designation for Russia were terrorism, security, harassment of U.S. citizen religious workers, business persons, and students, a lack of clarity and uneven enforcement of Russian visa rules, and reduced capacity to assist U.S. citizens due to the Russian government imposed drawdown of official staff. Level 3 and Level 4 travel advisories are reviewed every six months or as warranted by the circumstances in country. If you have any further questions regarding the travel advisory for Russia, please contact Teresa Mendel in the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, American Citizen Services, at 202-485-6245. Thank you once again for your continued engagement with and dedication to U.S.-Russia exchanges.


Jennifer Zimdahl Galt

Acting Assistant Secretary


As an organization uniting scholars and teachers of Slavic and East European languages, literatures, and cultures, we are very familiar with the historical consequences of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and ethnic nationalism. In Europe and Russia, millions perished and millions more were persecuted because of nationalist and racist ideologies. The events in Charlottesville demonstrated that these tragic lessons have been forgotten by parts of American society. These lessons also have been forgotten by Russian politicians and ideologues who support and promote ultra-nationalism in Europe and Russia. Finally, we reject those movements and figures in Europe and the United States who praise the politics of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in Russia and who identify it with the Russian people or its future. We believe that our mission as Slavists is to resist nationalism, racism and white supremacism both in our classrooms and in scholarly publications. We express solidarity with those who suffer from these appalling ideologies, and we support those who oppose them in the culture and politics of the United States and Slavic countries alike.


September 25, 2017

On behalf of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL), we are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms the arrest and prosecution of the famous and culturally vital film and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov. This case presents all the hallmarks of political repression of the creative arts, which are now, as they have so often been in Russian history, crucially important as a bastion of free expression, progressive thought, and open political debate. Serebrennikov stands accused of the misappropriation of state funds that were provided for the production of a series of theatrical shows. This accusation appears, on the face of the matter, highly improbable, given that the shows in question were indeed produced to wide acclaim and at obviously great expense. As many commentators have observed, the ulterior motives for the director’s arrest are nearly certainly related to his fearless treatment of social and political issues, as exemplified, for instance, in his open criticism of religious extremism in his film (M)uchenik (Student). Yet other evidence of the political motivations that stand behind the persecution of Serebrennikov is to be found in the banning, just days before his arrest, of the director’s Bolshoi Ballet production depicting the life of Rudolf Nureyev, which presented the famous dancer’s homosexuality in a frank and honest manner. More and more in recent years, prosecution for financial crimes has become a potent weapon used to silence opponents of those in power in Russia. AATSEEL calls upon the Russian state to drop these spurious charges against Serebrennikov and to uphold the principles of freedom of expression and artistic license. Otherwise, Russia risks returning to the darkest days of political censorship of art and literature.

Mark Lipovetsky, Professor, University of Boulder, Colorado (AATSEEL president)

Kevin M. F. Platt, Professor, University of Pennsylvania (AATSEEL, past president)

Michael Wachtel, Professor, Princeton University (AATSEEL president-elect)


May 2, 2017

To Whom It May Concern:

We have just learned that Russian language program at Chugiak High School will not
have a Russian program next year due to severe budget cuts and low pre-registration
numbers. As presidents of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East
European Languages (AATSEEL), we are deeply concerned, especially since this step
will only add to many previous steps effectively putting an end to the teaching of Russian
at all levels in Alaska high schools and universities. We urge you to reconsider this
decision, if at all possible. Knowledge of Russian, the language of one of Alaska’s closest
international neighbors, is essential for the economy and security of Alaska and, indeed,
of the United States.

The University of Alaska Anchorage program started cutting advanced levels in recent years and they also lost their full-time professor of Russian. Out of six high schools teaching Russian, West High School in Anchorage has canceled beginning programs, and three regular Russian middle school programs ended the same year (Gruening and Romig in Anchorage and Wasilla Middle School). Although Gruening was put back in this year, its fate for next year is unknown. Retirements ended programs at Bartlett, East, and Service, since no new teacher was hired. The state and regional Olympiada of Spoken Russian lost at least 75 participants at the beginning levels due to those cuts. Some US organizations bring teachers from Russia to support teaching and immersion activities during the regular school year and in the summer. However, this is not enough, and the number of students of Russian in Alaska is steadily declining. With the elimination of the Chugiak High School program in Russian, the last regular high school Russian program in the Anchorage School District, and one of few programs in the entire state of Alaska, will disappear.

This is especially troubling; of all US states Alaska has the deepest historical connection to
Russia. It is impossible to learn about a country and people without learning their
language. Russia and its people are so close to and interconnected with Alaskans that
cutting off Russian Studies would have significant political and economic repercussions
that will affect relations with this powerful neighbor. In today’s economy a knowledge of
Russian is a strong asset for any graduate (whether from school or college) seeking
employment in Alaska’s businesses and state organizations. Given that the Russian
government has recently been acting much more aggressively towards its neighbors, a
knowledge of Russian is also a matter of national security and potentially even of defense.
Furthermore, to neglect the study of Russian in Alaska is to neglect its history and
geography. By economizing on the teaching of Russian Alaska is cutting off its cultural
identity and depriving the next generation of the legacy that is reflected in Alaska’s
museums, its topography and even its place names.

A near-sighted decision to cut the Russian program at Chugiak High School will have
far-reaching negative consequences. If it is still possible to avoid them, we urge you not
to make a decision that would have large-scale negative effects on Alaska’s cultural and
historical memory, identity, economics, politics and security. Instead, we urge the
support of high-school Russian, perhaps by means of creative measures that might add
visibility and prestige to the study of Russian and recruit more students. Please let us
know if we can provide any help in supporting Russian Studies in Alaska on all academic


Mark Lipovetsky, Professor, University of Boulder, Colorado (AATSEEL president)

Kevin M. F. Platt, Professor, University of Pennsylvania (AATSEEL, past president)

Michael Wachtel, Professor, Princeton University (AATSEEL president-elect)


The European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP), which is among Russia’s leading institutions of higher education, has recently been sanctioned by the Russian state oversight agency for higher education, Rosobrnadzor, for ostensible violations of administrative standards and regulations. AATSEEL stands in full solidarity with the EUSP, its administration, staff and students, as they seek to eliminate any possible lapses identified by the agency, and in their legal defense of the institution and its mission.

The European University at St. Petersburg is unquestionably a leader in Russia education and scholarship. Its professors are globally recognized authorities in a range of social-scientific and humanistic disciplines, whose publications appear in the most visible and highly rated scholarly journals and presses of the world. The graduates of the EUSP go on to become important and productive professionals in business and government, and also to pursue careers as successful scholars in their own right at other leading institutions in Russia and elsewhere. The EUSP’s programs for foreign students are among the most important centers offering the riches of Russian scholarship and culture to the world.

In all of this activity, the EUSP is one of the most important institutions presenting Russian scholarship to the world and interpreting global scholarly life for Russia, contributing in this way to global communication and mutual understanding.

This makes the recent administrative actions of Rosobrnadzor, which have placed the functioning of this extraordinarily valuable institution in question, highly regrettable. With this letter, AATSEEL expresses complete support for the EUSP and urges the Russian state and its agencies to work with the institution to overcome any regulatory concerns that might impede its important educational and scholarly work.

Kevin M. F. Platt

Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities

Chair, Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

President, AATSEEL