Prior to last month, Mikhail Lobanov was an associate professor at Moscow State University (MGU) and a well-known trade union activist. In 2021, he ran for a seat in the Russian State Duma as a Communist Party candidate, and overcome pro-Kremlin propagandist Yevgeny Popov at the polls (although the latter ultimately “won” the election due to counterfeit electronic voting results). Then, at the end of June, the Russian Ministry of Justice declared Lobanov a “foreign agent”, and on July 10 he was fired from the MGU. Lobanov, who has been an outspoken critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, proceeded to leave the country and announce who plans to organize a large-scale movement to unite Russians abroad and help transform Russia’s ruling regime. Meduza spoke with Lobanov about his plans.
On July 10, Russian mathematician and left-wing activist Mikhail Lobanov Announced that he had been fired from Moscow State University (MSU), the country’s leading institution of higher education, and was leaving Russia. The self-described “democratic socialist” had long been a critic of Russia’s ruling regime; Last summer, for example, he hung a “No War” sign on his balcony, leading to his arrest.
At the end of June, the Kremlin declared Lobanov a “foreign agent”, making his dismissal from MSU all but imminent. According to Lobanov, university administrators were reluctant to fire him and repeatedly suggested that he resign “voluntarily,” which he said is “the worst thing to do” from a labor rights perspective. When his termination order was finally issued, he noted that it was not signed by the university president but by his deputy: “In other words, [the rector] He didn’t want to sign it himself, so he had someone else do it.”
Lobanov’s termination of employment order
Lobanov told Meduza that while he has long been determined to continue working and engaging in activism in Russia for as long as possible, he also sees significant opportunities to influence the country’s political development from abroad. “For many months, I [and other like-minded people] they have been discussing how there is work to be done abroad that is not being done,” he said. “Now I am hopeful that maybe my participation will be fruitful.”
Lobanov’s long-term trip abroad, which he refers to as a “political business trip,” has two main goals, he said. First, he hopes to help establish a “potentially large-scale structure of political activism” intended to “play a direct role in transforming the [Russian] regime.” Second, he wants to establish links with “international progressive political forces” who could help start a “supranational coalition,” one that would not discuss “arms and sanctions,” but “pathways and proposals.” [for a postwar order] for the people of Russia, Ukraine and other countries that serve more than just the interests of political and economic elites.”
Mikhail Lobanov is not the first person from Russia to declare his intention to build a political movement from outside the country, and he is aware of the limits of what can be done abroad. But seeing his compatriots fail, he told Meduza, is part of what convinced him and his wife, sociologist Alexandra Zapolskaya, that his involvement could be valuable.
“We see that the ability of Russians abroad [to organize into a political force] it is not working as we would like. It seems to us that we can overcome all problems by adding enthusiasm and experience from our past. [activism], incorporating our social connections. Everything could be running so much better,” she said.
Lobanov said he understands that street protests outside of Russia will not end Putin’s regime on their own, no matter how big, and that he plans to take a more intentional approach.
“[One thing we hope to do is to] unite people in a political structure that allows them to maintain ties to their homeland, ties to each other, and prevent them from falling into depression [that can follow emigration],” he said. It also aims to provide informational support to protest movements inside Russia as a way of “putting pressure on the authorities”.
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In addition, the former professor aims to advocate for the Russian people in international discussions about what the post-war order should look like. “We can make the protests [in Russia] visible to other countries. This changes their relationship with Russia and helps ensure that Russia’s interest is taken into account in discussions about the post-war order and the resolution of this conflict,” he told Meduza.
This is important, he said, because if Russia’s opposition forces are invisible, other countries will be inclined to write the country off as a lost cause and isolate it rather than provide support.
“If Russia looks at other countries as a political desert where everyone hates Putin or wants nothing at all, that gives them nothing to work with,” he said. “People like that can only be fenced off and left to do what they want. […] But if we manage to show the true situation, that will stimulate strong [sympathy from the outside]. People will say: ‘These people are humans just like us. […] Let’s not leave them at the mercy of Putin for the next 50 years, let’s try to come up with something that works for both of our interests.’”
In its advertisement of his departure, Lobanov wrote that he had stayed in the country for so long because he wanted to see for himself and “prove to the whole world” that “the Kremlin had failed to kill Russian society.” He told Meduza that he now has confidence: the country’s civil society is still alive.
“[I know it’s alive because] we start projects ourselves; we create new things, and we have seen a lot of similar initiatives, including human rights projects, such as OVD-Info – no matter how much they aim that still works. Like monument: it is clear that these people will resist, even though they are being hit with tremendous force.”
Virtually every initiative created by ordinary Russians these days exists in opposition to the war, even if that aspect is not overt, Lobanov said, citing small libraries and film clubs as an example: “[A film club] it is a closed event and relatively safe: they can meet, watch a political film and discuss it”.
But while the war is the defining event in Russian life right now, it’s not the only issue on people’s minds, according to Lobanov. “People have already started to think a little further ahead,” he said. “What will happen next? They’re already worried.”
Lobanov told Meduza that while he plans to be abroad for the foreseeable future, he will return to his home country if the moment calls for it, something he believes is inevitable.
“[I’ll return when] They start processes in Russia that create a rift into which millions of ordinary people can rush and work collectively to bring about change, exert pressure and force the regime to transform,” he said. “At that point, the presence of recognizable individuals can be important.”
In the meantime, he told Meduza, he will work for that moment to arrive as soon as possible.
Summary in English by sam breazeale