On human rights and the 2022 ICM in Russia, a response to the Executive Committee of the International Mathematical Union

On February 26, 2021 the Executive Committee of the International Mathematical Union issued a statement regarding the recent events in Russia in relation to the upcoming July 2022 International Mathematical Congress in Saint Petersburg.

During the Navalny protests that shook Russia in January-February 2021 the already dire human rights situation in the country deteriorated even further. Thousands of protesters, including hundreds of college students as well as numerous academics, have been arrested and received jail sentences or fines in express court trials. Many have been beaten and mistreated by the police. Often the police arrested random people in the streets who simply happened to be in close proximity to the protests; even severe physical disabilities did not spare such people from prosecution. In many cases people have been prosecuted for social media posts and tweets supporting the protests. Foreign citizens have been arrested too and several foreign diplomats expelled on the charges of participating in the protests. The campaign of repression by the Putin regime against its citizens continues even now, and the higher education community, especially the students, bear much of the brunt of it. They are being intimidated and threatened by the authorities for supporting the protests, and are facing expulsions and firings. The victims of this brutal crackdown include a substantial number of our colleagues in the Russian mathematical community, both students and faculty members. These terrible events come on the heels of the January 18, 2021 verdict in the case of Azat Miftakhov where a court in Moscow handed him a grotesquely unfair sentence of six years in prison on a putative hooliganism charge in a politically motivated trial.

We are shocked and dismayed by the attitude displayed in the February 26 IMU statement. While the statement acknowledges the validity of human rights concerns expressed by the international mathematical community about the situation in Russia, it goes on to say: “The IMU as well as the International Science Council, of which the IMU is a member, oppose all boycotts of scientific events and all attempts to link scientific activities to political and societal issues, since boycotts are viewed to be harmful for all concerned.”

We regard this position, expressed in absolute and unconditional terms, as incompatible with our moral and ethical obligations as members of the global scientific community. The IMU is supposed to be more than a high-tech club. As scientists and mathematicians, we need to stand up for the basic human rights of our colleagues around the world that are crucial for ensuring genuinely free and unencumbered exchange of scientific information and international collaboration. As human beings of conscience, we are required to do more than that. Boycotts of scientific events should be viewed as measures of last resort. But dismissing such measures out of hand is itself unacceptable. Would the IMO and the ISC have opposed the boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa on the pretext that “boycotts are viewed to be harmful for all concerned”? Would the IMU have denounced the #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives movements that took place on June 10, 2020 in solidarity with our black colleagues, in the US and around the world, in the struggle against the plague of systemic racism, on the pretext that the IMU refuses “any attempt to link scientific activities to political and societal issues”?

The IMU statement saves its worst for last. The statement goes on to say: “Specifically, the IMU rejects this call for a boycott of the ICM in Saint Petersburg in 2022 and any intimidation of the ICM organizers or prospective participants.”

This labeling by the IMU of calls for the boycott of the ICM 2022 as “intimidation” is beyond outrageous. Our mathematical colleagues in Russia who support the opposition protests face real intimidation, and worse. We are not calling for the boycott of the ICM in Saint Petersburg at this time. But the efforts of those human rights activists in the international mathematical community who are already making such a call deserve a full measure of appreciation and respect. These efforts cannot and should not be equated and lumped together with the actual intimidation tactics used by the Russian authorities. The attempt to do so by the IMU is reprehensible and morally repugnant, and we reject it completely. We call on the Executive Committee of the IMU to retract its February 26, 2021 statement and to apologize for it.

The IMU’s declared policy of political neutrality should have served as a shield to protect the mathematical community against the use of their activities as a propaganda vehicle by unscrupulous regimes and against the embarrassment of seeing them associated in the organization of those activities with political agents who have a long history of political oppression or whose probity cannot be taken for granted. On this point, the ICM 2022 unfortunately does not set a good example. Future ICM participants will find the message posted by the (former) Executive Organizing Committee (EOC) Co-chair with regard to public health considerations for the St. Petersburg Congress less than reassuring when they realize that its author, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, has for some time been the object of corruption allegations.  Just a few months before that message, at the beginning of the COVID crisis, she was called “the principal gravedigger of Russian medicine.” Tatiana Golikova’s place as Co-chair of the EOC has since been taken by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry N. Chernyshenko, who is perhaps best known outside his home country for his removal by the International Olympic Committee from the Coordination Commission Beijing 2022 for his role in the Russian doping scandal.  But her letter is still visible on the July 2020 ICM Newsletter, as is the letter from the current Governor of St. Petersburg and EOC committee member Alexander D. Beglov, whose “very curious worldview” was noted over two years ago in the newspaper Novye Izvestia.  Although he emphasizes his eagerness to welcome visitors in the ICM Newsletter, a presentation to the students of the Polytechnical University two years earlier compared his compatriots to “the 300 Spartans,” whose families are subject to “powerful psychological influence” and therefore need to defend the “younger generation from mind control from the outside”.

The 2022 ICM EOC features several other members of Putin’s government, including a high-ranking FSB official, Dmitry Derevyashkin. To suggest that mathematicians’ calls for respect for the fundamental rights of their Russian colleagues are intimidating an FSB official is worse than outrageous.

The IMU also needs to address the safety and security concerns for the ICM participants raised by the recent events. The authorities in Russia have shown supreme willingness to arrest and prosecute anyone, including foreign citizens, for even minor expressions of political dissent, such as social media posts and tweets in support of the protesters and the opposition as well as single-person pickets. There is no reason to believe that the ICM participants will receive different treatment in Russia, if they decide to express solidarity with the protesters while attending the ICM or even to attend some protests themselves. The IMU owes the prospective ICM participants an honest explanation about what might await them in Russia in this regard, and whether the ICM organizers would provide any legal aid if some ICM participants are arrested and prosecuted. The IMU as the main sponsor of this event will assume legal and moral responsibilities in the event of the arrest of a participant. These responsibilities are compounded by the February 26, 2021 statement of the Executive Committee of the IMU downplaying human rights issues in Russia and putting them on the back burner.

Ahmed Abbes, mathematician, Director of research at CNRS, Paris

Michel Broué, Professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Paris

Chandler Davis, Professor emeritus of mathematics, University of Toronto.

Fabien Durand, Président de la Société Mathématique de France, Professor of mathematics, Université de Picardie Jules Verne

Ivar Ekeland, FRSC, Professor emeritus of mathematics and former President, University of Paris-Dauphine

Michael Harris, Professor of mathematics, Columbia University

Ilya Kapovich, Professor of mathematics, Hunter College of CUNY, Chair, Committee on the Human Rights of Mathematicians, American Mathematical Society

Raphaël Rouquier, Professor of mathematics, University of California, Los Angeles

Masha Vlasenko, Professor at the Institute of Mathematics of the Polish Academy of Sciences

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