How the Russian Academy of Sciences became a Kremlin department
The Kremlin continues to destroy domestic science. After mass arrests of scientists and international isolation, the Putin administration chose a convenient figurehead president of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
On September 20, the Academy announced its president's election results. After the scandalous withdrawal of the current head, Alexander Sergeyev, his post went to the physicist Gennady Krasnikov, whose plant produces chips for transport cards using technologies outdated for decades.
Let's try to figure out what happened.
Despite its grandiose name, the Russian Academy of Sciences decides nothing and is not responsible for anything. After the recent reform initiated by the Kremlin, the Academy of Sciences lost almost all levers of influence and turned into a discussion club for near-retired scientists.
There is no self-governance left in Russian science. The Academy cannot organise the election of its leadership since the State Duma dictates the rules and the government approves presidential candidates.
In 2017, the election did not even occur because all candidates, including then-president Vladimir Fortov, withdrew at the behest of the Kremlin administration. The contest was postponed for several months, and new candidates went forward, two of whom didn't receive government approval. In the end, Alexander Sergeev became president, while Gennady Krasnikov came only third.
You don't have to be an academician to take the hint: someone wanted Gennady Krasnikov to become the Russian Academy of Sciences president. Who is this stubborn fan of science?
His name is Mikhail Kovalchuk, president of the Kurchatov Institute, a friend of Vladimir Putin and a man offended by the Russian Academy of Sciences. According to insiders, he would very much like to head the Academy, but that's bad luck: only an academician can become its president, and Kovalchuk is just a corresponding member. After fellow scientists did not elect him as an academician, Mikhail Kovalchuk declared a vendetta against them and, using his influence with Putin, initiated the crushing reform striping the Russian Academy of Sciences of any authority. And to consolidate his success, he persistently tried to install Krasnikov as its president.
By turning this election into a farce, the Kremlin has fulfilled the tactical task of finally subordinating the Academy. If the conditionally liberal Alexander Sergeyev was eloquently silent in response to the arrests of his colleagues, then his replacement would, if necessary, hand over scientists to the authorities. At the very least, the new president will do everything to purge the Academy of black sheep who still can't bend to the party line.
The following steps of this, so to speak, scientific reform are clear: the Russian Academy will lose the remnants of independence and authority, becoming a Kremlin department. And the Putin administration can always appoint a head of the Academy by decree or even wholly reduce this position. So the scandalous election of Krasnikov will be the last in the history of the organisation founded by Peter the Great.
Elia Kabanov is a science writer covering the past, present and future of technology (@metkere)
Illustration: Elia Kabanov feat. MidJourney.