AU researchers suspend collaboration with Russia: A strong signal – but it will affect our work

Universities in Denmark have suspended all collaboration with Russian and Belarusian universities. Two AU researchers explain that, despite the consequences for their work, they believe it is the only right decision. But students will be worst affected, claims professor of Russian Studies.

The decision will have a major impact on the work of Jeremy Morris, professor at the Department of Global Studies, whose research is based on fieldwork in Russia. Photo: Lars Kruse/AU Photo

Russia’s invasion of its neighbouring country Ukraine has been condemned throughout the West. And, on Tuesday, the invasion also led Denmark’s eight universities to suspend all collaboration with universities in Russia and Belarus, who support the invasion. 

At Aarhus University, this means that several researchers need to redirect their research. 

Jeremy Morris, who conducts research on Russia and is professor at the Department of Global Studies, is one of them. He is part of a project at a Russian university, which he now has to withdraw from, he explains. 

“I am worried that it will not be possible to conduct research in Russia. I am also worried that just getting into the country will become difficult or impossible. For me, this is a major problem, because my work is based on fieldwork in Russia. For others, for example those who conduct text-based research outside Russia, it will not be as difficult. But historians will also be affected, because they cannot visit archives in Russia,” says Jeremy Morris. 

He is clear that institutional collaboration needs to stop. But he would like to try to maintain individual collaboration with Russian researchers. And, as he reads it, the decision by Danish universities does not rule out such collaboration.  

“My interpretation of the decision – which might be wrong – is that there is nothing to prevent the continuation of academic collaboration between individual researchers. In my opinion, it is very important to maintain contact with Russian researchers, because they are not responsible for the actions of the Russian state,” he says.

Danish researcher was due to work on a health project in Belarus

DPU researcher Andreas Lieberoth, who, among other things, conducts research in the area of media psychology, was due to travel to Belarus to carry out fieldwork on an educational game designed to teach children about vaccines. Last year he was in Ukraine to work on the game, which was developed by Danish designers for the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In principle, the WHO is apolitical, and Andreas Lieberoth thus finds himself in a grey zone with his collaboration. 

“Because it’s an educational game, it will of course be used in schools that are state-run in Belarus. And suddenly we are confronted by the fact that, in principle, we would have a collaboration with Belarusian partners through the WHO. This gives rise to both an ethical and a practical dilemma, but it also makes us question at which point we as researchers must draw the line,” he says.

“Right now, I think I will say to the WHO that, based on the university’s policy in the area and my own ethical considerations, I cannot collaborate with Belarus or assess material from the country, because of the situation in Ukraine. And for me, it’s nice to be able to refer to the university’s policy, because, given the situation, I would have probably withdrawn from the collaboration anyway,” he says. 

He believes that the Danish decision sends a strong signal.

“It is a strong statement, and I can only support it, even though it may give me an extra few grey hairs and a few awkward phone conversations here and there,” says Andreas Lieberoth. 

Russian colleagues are in shock and also need help 

Russian and Belarusian researchers and intellectuals do not necessarily support President Vladimir Putin and are also victims of the war, Jeremy Morris points out. 

He has colleagues in Russia whom he describes as shocked and saddened. 

“Everyone is in shock, of course. I am also thinking of my Ukrainian colleagues. Many have left Kyiv. We feel solidarity with them and condemn the actions of the Russian state. My Russian colleagues are in shock and feel shame, disgust, despair and sadness. Many of them have resigned from their Russian universities, some have left the country, and others are simply in disbelief and are trying to keep a low profile.”

“Today I talked to a colleague at a Russian university who has resigned and is seeking asylum in a Scandinavian country. And he will need a job. So we also need to think about supporting independent Russian researchers who are best qualified to tell us what is happening in Russia,” he says.

Birgitte Beck Pristed, who is associate professor at the Department of Global Studies at AU and conducts research on Russian culture, says on that we must maintain contact with intellectuals in Russia. 

“The war is completely devastating for all knowledge exchange. We need sanctions, but we also need another form of contact and exchange with the intellectual elite in Russia. It is an important part of the opposition, which exists against all the odds,” she says. 

Decision will affect students on Russian Studies the hardest

While the decision to cut ties to Russian universities will have consequences for researchers, Jeremy Morris believes that AU students on exchange programmes in Russia will be impacted the most. 

“This decision has the greatest consequences for the Danish students who are studying Russian in Saint Petersburg. We have instructed them to leave the country and to come back to Denmark. After this, we will replace their teaching in Denmark, and, at some point, we will hopefully be able to find a new partner university in the Baltic countries, where the students can learn Russian,” he says.

On Monday, 14 students from AU were in Russia. Aarhus University has been in contact with all 14 students. Whether they choose to return home is their decision, but the university has encouraged them to do so. 

Help for Ukrainian students and researchers 

The decision to suspend academic collaboration came at the request of the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, who, on Tuesday, encouraged Danish educational institutions to terminate all collaboration with Russia and Belarus. 

But it is the students and researchers in Ukraine who need to be in focus, insists Jeremy Morris.

“It would be good if the university could find a way to help Ukrainian students who have been displaced from Ukraine as a result of the war. I would strongly support this, and I think that everyone at Global Studies would too. It is important that European universities find a mechanism to help support Ukrainian students,” says Jeremy Morris.

“And we have to continue to support Ukrainian and Russian colleagues at our university. Of course, Ukrainian colleagues need this most at the moment, and we should make sure that they are okay. But we also need to support Russian colleagues so that they are not persecuted or made to feel guilty,” says Jeremy Morris.