Laura Sumner, a history postgrad from the University of Nottingham, was recently ordered to leave Russia due to visa violations. She was conducting research there on urban workers and their associations with the revolutions of the early 20th century, but was holding a commercial visa, not an academic one. Her activity in Russia was deemed illegal by the government. The Russian government has always been pretty strict with its visa regulations, and rarely overlooks any activity which is prohibited on the visa.
There has been much wild speculation from the media that Sumner has been kicked out because the Russian government believed she was a spy digging up information that could spark a revolution, similar to the historical ones she had been researching. Moscow-based media company LifeNews reported that the real reason she had been ordered to leave was because she was propelling attempts to bring a pro-Western regime to power. This speculation wasn’t helped by the fact that her academic supervisor, Sarah Badcock, is a specialist in “regime change in Russia”, fuelling the media frenzy around a possible student espionage conspiracy. However, a spokesperson from the University of Nottingham reassured the public that this was only a minor incident, and would not stop other students or staff members from travelling to Russia. In the past year, only six academics have had minor problems with visas, although one scholar was banned from the country for five years. This is something which the media seemed to have latched on to, blowing the reality of the situation wildly out of proportion.
This is just another example of the media trying to sensationalise minor incidents in a political climate which might be seen as a little questionable. The Western view of Russia isn’t exactly favourable at the minute, but accusations of student spies is something to roll your eyes at. It seems utterly far-fetched that a few academics could spark a ‘colour revolution’ similar to those that have been seen in the past. The links between present day Russia and the Russia of 1910 are tenuous at best.
Speaking out about the incident was Professor David McDonald, a specialist in Russian history at the University of Wisconsin, remarking that it was “ridiculous” to assume academic study of previous revolutions could ignite one in the present. He referred to the whole thing as a “political shenanigan” which would strike most historians as inconceivable. He was also quick to stress the importance of having access to primary archival sources for theses and dissertations, something which Sumner would have had only been able to acquire by visiting Russia.
Should this put off students from visiting countries like Russia in the future? Definitely not. Although there has been a certain amount of scrutiny directed towards scholars in certain areas, most are still regarded with a high level of respect and left to their own devices. Russia has a rich historical background which provides a wealth of sources that most historians would go crazy over. There’s no real reason not to visit such a dynamic and interesting country. The only piece of advice future travellers should consider is this: make sure you get the right visa!