Rescuing dissent: Inside the yearlong mission to bring prominent Putin critics to UC Berkeley
Russian social science professors Ilya Matveev and Ilya Budraitskis, renowned for their expertise on authoritarianism, fled their country after Russia invaded Ukraine. A faculty and staff coalition helped give them a safe harbor at UC Berkeley.
By Jason Pohl
In February 2022, Ilya Matveev knew his life was in jeopardy.
The prominent critic of Vladimir Putin had devoted his decade-plus academic life in Moscow and St. Petersburg to researching his country’s embrace of authoritarianism. He regularly lectured his students on the rise of oppressors in Russia and around the world.
There was always some risk to Matveev of being detained by Russian authorities for his criticisms of Putin. But it wasn’t until the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that he and his friend and fellow activist Ilya Budraitskis learned how aggressively the government was cracking down on dissenting voices like theirs. Matveev’s department head at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in St. Petersburg had received veiled threats. Meanwhile, the head of Budraitskis’ unit at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences was jailed.
Matveev and Budraitskis worried that rumored border closures might trap them and other Russians in their homeland. Then they’d likely be detained indefinitely for their activism under increasingly harsh wartime censorship laws that made it illegal to voice support for Ukraine.
So the scholars did what millions of Ukrainians and hundreds of thousands of Russians have done since the war began last year: They fled.
As the world watched Russia’s assault unfold, airlines canceled flights over the country’s airspace. The scholars’ available destinations dwindled. Budraitskis and his wife rushed to board a flight on one of the remaining routes out of Moscow — a plane to Istanbul. He had friends there, and the Turkish capital also had a fast-growing Russian diaspora. He could wait there in relative safety for Matveev to arrive.
What neither of them knew was that their ultimate destination would be UC Berkeley, more than 6,000 miles away. Soon, dozens of faculty members and staff there would commit countless hours to creating a refuge on campus for the Russian social scientists. Ultimately, after a year in Istanbul, they arrived here last spring as visiting scholars.
Matveev finds empowerment in protest
Matveev, born in 1988, has had a front-row seat to a country in flux. His mother was a teacher and his father an engineer working for Western construction companies that gradually entered the Russian market. From their small apartment in Moscow, the family was part of a new middle class, he said. They were comfortable, mostly. But they also had to endure the financial crisis in the late 1990s, when inflation and poverty in Russia soared.
Putin’s initial years in office during the early 2000s coincided with a rise in oil prices and, as a result, more profit for Russia and a somewhat stabilized economy. It’s a fact Putin used to his advantage to “solidify passivity” among Russian citizens, Matveev said. He remembers residents being told to go about their daily business. The government would handle the rest.
“Society was not interfering with the Kremlin,” Matveev said. “And the Kremlin was not really interfering with society.”
It was a fine-sounding arrangement — in theory. But, in Matveev’s view, it laid the foundation for today's particularly harsh authoritarian regime.
As a bespectacled new student at Moscow State University in 2005, during Putin’s second term, Matveev wanted to know more about Russian politics and power. He enrolled in the university’s equivalent of a political science program and explored leftist politics and organizations. He also attended a discussion group that viewed current events through a Marxist lens, not unlike how introductory social science courses use different frameworks to explore current events in the U.S. What, the students wondered, might a new wave of political leftism look like in Russia under Putin’s continued influence?
In 2007, at one of these meetings, Matveev met an impressive speaker named Ilya Budraitskis, a baritone-voiced man seven years Matveev’s senior. His interest in leftist organizations dated to his previous involvement in trade union movements.
During the ensuing months and years, the two exchanged ideas and wrote essays about Russian citizens’ rising resentment toward their government, which had begun infringing on their lives. Concerns began circulating that rigged elections were keeping Putin in power.
In 2011, to help stop Putin’s power grab, the two scholars took to the streets. They were far from alone: Thousands flooded Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in the most significant showing of political activism the country had seen in decades. In what became known as the Snow Revolution, protesters donned white ribbons, braved frigid winter temperatures and denounced flawed election processes.
It was an eye-opening event for young Matveev, at his first mass protest.
“It gave me this idea that there could be empowerment,” he said.
The 23-year-old also wondered to himself: “Might this be the end of Putin?”
Poverty launches Budraitskis into activism
But that liberation movement and the hope that Putin’s power might be waning were short-lived. Within a year, Russian police began cracking down on protests. They jailed demonstrators en masse in 2012, and their message was increasingly strident: If you challenge the state, you’re an enemy.
That threat crystallized in the following years. The government passed various repressive laws, part of an effort to further attack prominent dissidents.
Budraitskis was among them.
As a child in the 1990s, widespread poverty hit his family hard. His parents lost their jobs, and, for a while, they lived in “dire need,” he said. Budraitskis attended his first political rally at 15, then joined leftist groups denouncing the country’s hard conditions and rightward jolt. When he entered college in 1998 to study history, the country was rocked by a miner’s strike — one of the largest organized labor movements in years.
His political resolve and interests in political theory and intellectual history soon deepened. So did clashes between dissidents and Russian police.
A photo from a 2012 protest shows Budraitskis, then 31, shoved against a concrete wall in Moscow by four towering paramilitary officers in riot gear. Ultimately, they let him go. But a steady drumbeat of news accounts described prominent critics and protesters increasingly being jailed for encouraging public rallies against the Kremlin. An especially vocal opponent was assassinated in the center of Moscow.
“Trade union activists set up a tent camp in front of the government house in the very center of Moscow,” Budraitskis recalled. “I was a participant in these protests, and they had a great impact on the development of my political consciousness.”
State-run media and Putin’s allies argued that the change leftists sought was futile and stemmed from the U.S. as part of a deep-state plot involving paid protesters bent on undermining the Russian government.
“People were drowning in this kind of propaganda,” Matveev said. “And for those who were still refusing to believe it, refusing to acquiesce, of course, there was repression.”
After those 2012 protests, foreign funding for NGOs was outlawed. Punishments for participating in street protests intensified. And the Kremlin passed laws banning anyone from educating children about LGBTQ issues. The tone at protests was even more hostile after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
A connection begins with UC Berkeley
In 2014, a class Matveev enrolled in at the European University at St. Petersburg — one taught by a visiting UC Berkeley professor — produced a bond that helped set the stage for Matveev and Budraitskis to now call Berkeley their home.
While studying the history of Russian capitalism through the lens of Marx’s theories of exploitation and oppression, Matveev took a class on economic geography from Melanie Feakins, a UC Berkeley geography professor visiting European University on a Fulbright fellowship. The small class of no more than five students allowed for in-depth discussions that Matveev said helped open his eyes to the relationship between power and geographic space.
Feakins’ husband, Alexei Yurchak, a Berkeley anthropology professor and a scholar of post-Soviet Russia and of political anthropology, knew Matveev and Budraitskis’ work. They’d spent time together at conferences and occasionally swapped ideas.
Today, eight years later, Feakins says she has “crisp memories” of Matveev as her student, and that teaching him and learning from him were among the best things that happened during her fellowship.
“He was so informed, so well-read and so generous. At the same time, he was relentlessly analytical. A totally unique combination,” Feakins said. “He jumped so easily from the texts we would read in class, to analyzing Western political trends, to thinking aloud about what was happening in Russia with its orientation to territory.
“He just has an incredible mind.”
Then, in 2015, Matveev visited Berkeley for a semester on a short-term research fellowship. He sat in on a few classes in political economy and immersed himself in his research, combing the campus’s vast library network. He also grew closer to Yurchak and Feakins.
The visit propelled Matveev deeper into social science research and the essays on Russian political and ideological developments he’d occasionally written with Budraitskis. It also deepened his longing to teach — a calling becoming more fraught as state repression in Russia ratcheted even higher.
Matveev, who had earned his first equivalent of a Ph.D in 2013, returned to Russia and continued his post-doc research.
Then in 2016, he began a position akin to an associate professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in St. Petersburg. While there, he regularly spoke and co-wrote essays with Budraitskis, who was teaching in the Department of Political Philosophy at the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences.
For the new academic, scholarly life would be no quiet refuge. Soon enough, the only refuge for Matveev and Budraitskis would be Istanbul.
A Berkeley professor in Russia: ‘I had to run’
Yurchak, by coincidence, was in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russian forces entered Ukraine. He was visiting his ailing mother in the hospital. That morning, at a café in the city center, a barista scribbled something other than his name on his paper cup of cappuccino: “No to war.”
Born in Russia, the Berkeley anthropology professor routinely spends his summers there, researching the region’s political and cultural transformations and connecting with scholars and family. On this visit, Yurchak had detected citizens’ widely-held belief that war was impractical and unrealistic, and that Putin was merely posturing.
But when the attack on Ukraine got underway, he watched crowds mass along Nevsky Prospect, a main thoroughfare and gathering space. Many people trembled with anger. Some were crying.
After the hospital visit, Yurchak returned to the gathering. By then, thousands were in the streets shouting the same message the barista had scrawled on his coffee cup.
Suddenly, tall men in riot gear stepped out of hulking black vans. They began arresting people and dragging them into their vehicles.
“I had to run,” Yurchak said. He darted through yards that wove through the city center, conscious that he, too, could be detained on trumped-up allegations of being part of the protest. Even calling the invasion of Ukraine a war was illegal. Instead, Putin referred to it for almost a year as “a special military operation.”
The next day, Yurchak saw riot police throw a woman to the ground and then into a van for holding a sign that said, “Apologies to Ukraine.”
Urgently needing to talk, Yurchak and Matveev — the scholar he’d befriended and mentored for years — met for dinner. They decided that Matveev must follow his contemporary, Budraitskis, to Istanbul, before it was too late.
Yurchak vowed to help create a plan for where the pair should go and how to get there. Then, after a five-hour bus ride to Estonia, Yurckak boarded a plane for California, where he would hatch a complex plan that would take more than a year to complete.
At Berkeley, a history of free speech and activism
To Yurchak, the reason to bring Matveev and Budraitskis to Berkeley was clear: Russia’s prominent scholars, whose messages resonated among rebels inside the country and with those who study authoritarianism around the world, must be protected. And Berkeley was a natural fit, given its long history in advancing studies of social movements.
His argument of giving refuge to social scientists wasn’t without precedent in the U.S. Perhaps most notably, Yurchak said, during World War II, refuge was offered at the New School of Social Research in New York to prominent German social scientists, like Hannah Arendt, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno. Their political and historical writings would become a social sciences bulwark.
Yurchak saw parallels between those scholars and, a century later, Matveev and Budraitskis. All had an up-close understanding of authoritarianism, were articulate and produced writings that would long influence political and social theory.
“They are the future,” Yurchak said of the two Russians. “Putin's regime will collapse. We need to have these voices. And they need to be heard in Russia and the West.”
He explained the situation in a spring email to his Berkeley colleagues. Messages of support arrived in his inbox almost immediately. Professors Harsha Ram, Djordje Popović and Edward Tyerman — all from the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures — Dylan Riley from sociology and Aglaya Glebova from art history expressed their immediate support and joined Yurchak to form a team that would prove instrumental in relocating Matveev and Budraitskis.
“Without the constant committed efforts of this group, and the generous help of so many others, this project would simply not succeed,” Yurchak said.
The two Ilyas “are very much in my intellectual wheelhouse,” said Riley, a sociology professor who studies democracy and authoritarianism and who, for years, has been familiar with their work. “They speak the language of sociology.”
Lately, that language has revolved around power grabs, state control and violence.
Insider knowledge of Putin’s Russia is essential to scholars seeking to understand what Riley calls a “much broader phenomenon” — the world fragmenting into nation-state blocks amid a rise in nationalism and authoritarianism.
Why Berkeley should welcome the Russian scholars was obvious.
The question remained: How?
Zoom meetings, time zones and patience
First, there was the issue of money. The faculty and staff team — the Berkeley Committee for Russian Critique in Exile — needed seed funding to get the ball rolling for the “Illyas.” So it turned to the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, a New York-based nonprofit that helps offset displaced intellectuals’ costs. Yurchak, in France that summer, helped Budraitskis edit his funding application via Zoom. Once again, he said, time was of the essence.
The nonprofit ultimately provided $25,000 for each scholar. Berkeley faculty members would then need to pool money to pay the pair's salaries, benefits and travel costs to California.
In a further show of interdisciplinary solidarity, scholars from the Program in Critical Theory agreed it was a high-stakes cause they would back. Then departments across the divisions of social sciences and the arts and humanities chipped in. So did the law and business schools. And Linda Rugg, associate vice chancellor for research at the time, helped pull the financial and logistical support together.
It was a “thrilling” cause, she said, one deserving of every ounce of effort.
“Voices from Russia that are critical of Putin's government and Russia's invasion of Ukraine are often stifled to the point that they find no way to reach us in the West,” Rugg said. “It seemed important to offer these scholars whatever assistance we could, given their dire situation and our need to hear what they have to say.”
Campus officials got to work creating positions for Matveev and Budraitskis.
It seemed only natural to attach the scholars to Berkeley’s Program in Critical Theory, said Dan Blanton, an associate professor of English who was the program’s director until last June. The rising tide of authoritarian leaders worldwide has “echoes and harmonies” that are unmistakable, he said, and part of a longer historical arc that needs study.
“Critical theory,” Blanton said, “has always had to do with a mode of academic research and philosophical curiosity attuned and addressed to those compelling histories unfolding in real-time.”
In higher education, creating new positions is usually a precise, step-by-step bureaucratic procedure. But in this case, roles for Matveev and Budraitskis had to be created from scratch — but Berkeley was game.
“The university has this long history of building much of its strength on extraordinary situations like this,” Blanton added. “But we don't have a handbook for how it happens.”
Red tape and a long wait
Throughout 2022, in relative safety in Istanbul, Matveev and Budraitskis became prominent international experts who spoke out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. National and international news outlets featured them, and a Russian language podcast they have been hosting, Political Diary, found a broader audience.
The scholars were confident they’d walk through Sather Gate and thrilled at the prospect of studying conflicts and social movements in the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, a place they’d long admired. Still, it remained uncertain through summer and fall 2022, and deep into winter 2023, how soon that might happen.
The biggest unknown: How long would it take to obtain the proper paperwork and clearances for U.S. visas? So began “some truly nail-biting moments,” said Patty Dunlap, coordinator for the Program in Critical Theory.
At the time, the processing of visa applications was very delayed in Istanbul. So the scholars would need to travel elsewhere to complete this critical, final step. For Budraitskis, it meant going to Belgrade, in Serbia, and for Matveev, to Berlin — cities where each scholar had friends to visit while they waited.
Matveev arrived in Berlin with a Schengen visa, which allows a person to travel freely within a section of Europe for up to 90 days. For a U.S. visa, Matveev was told to wait in Berlin, in case officials needed more information.
He waited days, then weeks. Then his request was put on hold; U.S. authorities needed to dig deeper into his Russian ties. Unfortunately, his Schengen visa, which allowed him to apply for U.S. papers, was about to expire.
The U.S. consulate told him it could take many months for the U.S. visa approval to come through — if it came through at all. The clock was ticking, and all Matveev could do was wait.
“At that point,” added Blanton, “I didn't know if we would be able to square the circle.”
Finally, just a few days before his Schengen visa expired, Matveev was granted papers to stay in the U.S. and make a new home in Berkeley, for two years.
“He was lucky,” Yurchak said. “We were lucky.”
People at Berkeley ‘cared about us’
Last February, Budraitskis was the first to arrive in the Bay Area. Yurchak and Riley, the sociology professor, met Budraitskis and his wife at San Francisco International Airport.
Matveev arrived two months later. He remembers the pangs of anxiety as he waited in line for airport customs at SFO and the wave of relief when he passed through the checkpoint. That was the moment, he said, when he could finally “relax a little bit.”
“We knew there were people here who cared about us. They were willing to help us in any way,” Matveev said. “That was a big thing. … It made everything much easier.”
There are still pangs of homesickness, but the scholars continue to start each day with Zoom calls that criss-cross oceans — mostly with loved ones, sometimes with European journalists.
Earlier in the war, Matveev and Budraitskis gave interviews to reporters, always from undisclosed locations because they feared retribution. Speaking and writing openly, now that they’re in the U.S., is an enormous relief, they said.
Visiting scholars can’t teach classes in the U.S., but they can give talks. At Berkeley, Matveev and Budraitskis did so in April in a packed lecture room in Dwinelle Hall. Organized by the Program in Critical Theory, it was the first of several talks they plan to give, and it will be published this winter in the peer-reviewed journal Qui Parle.
“I'd like people to understand that there is a sizable and very sophisticated form of oppositional thought and activity in Russia,” said Yurchak, who moderated the event last spring. “It's not all a brainwashed authoritarian society. It's much more complex, and there are a lot of incredible artists, intellectuals, academics, activists, many of them young people who are very committed to a democratic society.”
While their journey to Berkeley had high-stakes challenges, Matveev and Budraitskis are quick to point out that Ukrainians who have suffered so much loss because of Putin’s war are the “main victims” — the ones the U.S. and world must not forget.
During their two years at Berkeley, Matveev and Budraitskis are co-writing a book — a new history interlaced with their own observations on Russia’s recent rise to power, embrace of authoritarianism and threats to the future of democracy worldwide.
They’ll also keep producing their podcast critiquing Putin’s regime and his actions against Ukraine. It’s part of their quest to tell listeners anyone, anywhere in the world, who will listen about what’s happening in Russia.
“There should be no illusions that peace, enduring peace, is possible with this government,” Matveev said. “It just will not happen. It's an objective reality. It will not happen when these people are still in power.”