On March 31, 2023, Russia’s prosecutor general labeled the Moscow-based Free University an “undesirable organization,” prompting it to shut down.
In labeling the Free University as “undesirable,” Russia stated that it “popularized the activities of organizations recognized as extremist in Russia.” Two days later, on April 2, the university suspended its activities, stating that it was closing to ensure the protection of students and faculty from repercussions.
Passed in May 2015, the “undesirable organization” law (Article 20.33 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences) provides Russia’s Prosecutor General and Foreign Ministry with the power to register foreign or international institutions as “undesirable organizations” if they present a “threat to the defensive capabilities or security of the state, to the public order, or to the health of the population.” Entities registered as “undesirable organizations” are banned from operating in Russia. Non-governmental organizations in Russia that work with or are supported by organizations classified as “undesirable” can be charged with violating the law. Since the law was passed, a growing number of foreign organizations that have been publicly critical of human rights conditions in Russia have been registered under this title. Those affiliated with an “undesirable organization” could face fines, restrictions on activities, travel bans, or jail sentences of up to four years.
A group of academics who had been fired from leading Russian universities for political reasons founded the Free University in 2020. The University was one of the last remaining autonomous universities in Russia.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about apparent retaliation against an independent university in response to its collaboration with and support from foreign entities. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of association, so long as those activities are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Actions aimed at limiting research and collaboration harm academic freedom and undermine society generally.