Krieger School Welcomes Controversial Russian Scholar

By Kate Pipkin

Nikolay Koposov teaches

“They want to present themselves as the new superpower and continue the myth of the great Russian state. And I’ve learned that you cannot balance imperialistic myths with a model of critical thinking. The regime has more power and influence than the academics.”
—Nikolay Koposov

All Nikolay Koposov ever really wanted was to have a normal professional life in higher education. That seemingly simple desire, however, cost him his job in his home country of Russia and left his professional future hanging in the balance. His offense? Trying to present Russian history in a factual manner.

When Koposov’s American colleague at Johns Hopkins, Gabrielle Spiegel, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the Department of History, learned about his plight, she immediately got to work finding a way to bring Koposov to Johns Hopkins as a visiting professor. As a result of Spiegel’s efforts and support from donors, he is now here for a year, teaching two courses, including Why Putin? The Rise and Fall of Democracy in Russia, 1985-2012, in which more than 70 undergraduates are enrolled.

 Nikolay Koposov teaches

As a visiting professor, Nikolay Koposov teaches a course about Vladimir Putin to more than 70 undergraduates.

As a history scholar and founder and dean of the first liberal arts college in Russia, Koposov was comfortable writing and speaking out about what he saw as the deteriorating political climate in Russia and attempts to control historical thought. Indeed, his aim in starting Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was to create a climate of free and open scholarship and to encourage critical thinking.

The Russian government, however, has become increasingly wary of such openness and has begun to propose more repressive legislation. President Vladimir Putin even suggested a law that would punish or imprison anyone who sought to revise or criticize the history of the Stalinist years. Although the law has not been enacted, Putin did set up a commission to review historical publications with the aim of monitoring and censoring those critical of Russia.

Much of the government’s discomfort centers on accounts of World War II. In Russia, Stalin is largely credited with having won the war, and his expansive and deadly repressions are often ignored. The war and Russia’s perceptions of it have become the formative collective experience of the people.

“They feel comfortable with amnesia,” Koposov says from his office in Gilman Hall. “They want to present themselves as the new superpower and continue the myth of the great Russian state. And I’ve learned that you cannot balance imperialistic myths with a model of critical thinking. The regime has more power and influence than the academics.”

Koposov and his wife, Dina Khapaeva, also a professor at Smolny, were among a handful of Russian scholars who defended freedom of historical thought and writing, publishing articles in Russia and in France, and they were warned to stop speaking out. The couple embarked on a three-year leave at the Collegium for Advanced Study in Helsinki, Finland. Tired of the reprimands, Koposov decided to resign as dean of Smolny but return to his position as professor there when his leave was over. But then, Koposov received a phone call from Smolny saying he and his wife had been fired from their jobs as professors. That meant once their work in Helsinki was complete, they would have nowhere to go.

“Nikolay Koposov is an international scholar of the highest standing and repute,” Spiegel says. “And now, because of his and his wife’s engagement in public debates and defense of academic freedom and freedom of expression, they have little chance for returning to a normal professional life in Russia.”

Shortly after Koposov was appointed visiting professor at Johns Hopkins, his wife was named chair of the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech. Koposov travels there every other weekend to visit her and their 16-year-old daughter.

Koposov is not optimistic about Russia’s future. “I think things will get worse. I don’t foresee a major crisis, but it’s clear that more repression is coming. I know many businesspeople and educated members of the middle class are leaving the country.”

Spiegel says when universities open their doors to at-risk scholars, students’ academic experiences are enriched. “That’s why his [Koposov’s] class drew 70 students. They love being taught by someone who himself is part of the subject. Having a scholar-at-risk be part of our community doesn’t just make a difference to human rights; it makes a difference to scholarship as well.”