June 20, 2024

Fulbright Foreign Agents?


Fulbright Foreign Agents?
Academic freedom, sort of. The Russian Life files

In March, Russia declared that the organizations running the US Fulbright Program, a prestigious academic and cultural exchange program funded by the U.S. State Department, were "undesirable" organizations. Russians who partook in the program have been labeled "fifth column," in other words, "foreign agents."

The Russian independent news outlet T-Invariant looked into how receiving a Fulbright scholarship affected Russians at home and those still in the States.

Fulbright operated on Russian territory for half a century, following the 1972 signing by the U.S. and Soviet Union of an "Agreement on Cooperation in the Fields of Science, Technology, Education, Culture, and Other Fields." The following year, six Americans and six Soviets participated in the exchange program, which was never interrupted, even as the Cold War progressed. Before the start of the war in Ukraine, 150 Russian academics were completing Fulbrights in prestigious American universities. 

On March 7, the organizations sponsoring the program, IIE and Cultural Vistas, were declared "undesirable organizations" by the Kremlin. On that day, Foreign Service Director Sergey Naryshkin asserted that American exchange organizations were preparing Russian students to become the "fifth column." Shortly afterward, IIE suspended its program in Russia to protect Fulbrighters. Yet some 100 Russian academics are still in the United States and must return soon to Russia.

Irina Perfilova is currently at the University of Tennessee, researching paralympic sports. She was eager to return to Russia to implement what she learned abroad. But now she is at risk of being labeled a "foreign agent" upon her return, because she received funding from abroad, which would bar her from being an educator. Even though Fulbright is a scholarship, the research stipend could be considered foreign funding. Perfilova said, "But now it is enough [to receive] 'foreign influence' (...) We study here, is that 'foreign influence'?" 

A lawyer, whose name was withheld by T-Invariant, told the publication that Russian authorities can be unpredictable regarding foreign agent laws. While Fulbright alums may face no persecution, they are likely to be labeled "foreign agents." It is still unknown whether former Fulbright scholars will be fined or face arrest over their connection with IIE, an "undesirable organization."

Daniil Kirsanov, a Fulbright alum, told T-Invariant that Russian Fulbrighters have been denied employment and funding because of their participation in the program. Scholarship recipients have been advised to hide their involvement in the program. Thus far, there are no known criminal or civil cases opened against Fulbright alumni. 

Many current and former Fulbright recipients participated in activities that could put them at risk in Russia. Violetta Soboleva, a current doctoral student in educational psychology at the City University of New York, commented on Navalny's death to the American media. Perfilova was involved with the Russian LGBT community. A third, Kiril Shabalin, was reportedly repeatedly asked to cooperate with the FSB, but declined. 

A lawyer who T-Invariant consulted recommended that returning Russians delete links to "undesirable organizations" and "foreign agents" in their resumes. It is also crucial, he said, to delete American banking apps, as money transferred by U.S. institutions will be harder to trace. However, texts are surveilled, so deleting those may not suffice. Their fates could depend on what border patrol officers find after searching for each returning Fulbrighter's name online.

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