KIEV, Ukraine — Even as a tide of anti-American sentiment rose in Russia, Kendrick White, a venture capitalist and university professor, remained optimistic about the climate for startups and innovation in the country he’d called home for 23 years.
But then this week, White suddenly found himself the star of a documentary on Russian state television implying he was a spy — and out of a job.
White’s friends and supporters say his abrupt firing as deputy director of Lobachevsky State University in Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 250 miles east of Moscow, signals the beginning of a dark new chapter for Russian business and education.
(After meeting with university officials on Monday, White told state news agency RIA Novosti that he was essentially to continue working in the same capacity as before, but with a different title.)
As Russian President Vladimir Putin draws on anti-American sentiment to shore up his political power, American academics are increasingly under pressure. About two dozen have been forced to leave the country for apparent visa violations in recent months.
And as Russia’s isolation hits the country’s economy, longtime foreign businessmen like White are increasingly heading for the exit. “If you asked the long-stay Americans, people who came here 20-odd years ago who built businesses and built lives, and five years ago, would have said, ‘I may spend the rest of my life here in Russia’ — I’m seeing the largest exodus of those kinds of people that I’ve ever seen before,” said Bernard Sucher, a longtime Western investor in Russia who moved to Miami on Monday.
White, 51, told BuzzFeed News he was “still trying to wrap my head around the absurdity of what's happening,” and declined to comment further.
He moved to Nizhny Novgorod in 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. He has since spent nearly the entire time there, working at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development before starting his own firm, Marchmont Capital Partners. “He’s one of the most passionate individuals you’ll ever meet,” said Gregg Robins, a friend of White’s who used to run UBS’ Russian wealth management division. “He believes that Russia has great human capital and great potential, and that it’s right to try to unlock that for the good of Russian society and good of the world.”
Under a “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations during Barack Obama’s first term as president, White became involved in a number of projects that aimed to help develop Russia’s business sector through partnerships with Western companies. Nizhny Novgorod, the capital of a Soviet rust belt province seeking to reinvent itself for the modern age, was an ideal fit. The U.S.-Russia Foundation, a government-funded endowment, helped develop start-up technology companies in the province. Its governor visited Maryland in 2010 to sign an agreement with then-governor Martin O’Malley.
“We considered what we were doing to be ‘God’s work’ in terms of accentuating the positive in the U.S.-Russia relationship,” said Scott Blacklin, a business consultant who worked with White on several projects. “We all thought it was a win-win.”
Despite the chill in the relationship after Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin, White and Blacklin hoped their project in Nizhny Novgorod would survive. Putin continued to state his support for the educational development programs. Americans continued to teach in Russian universities.
Lobachevsky State University appointed White vice-chancellor in charge of innovation projects in 2013. Last year, Russian Education Minister Dmitry Livanov spoke up in support of foreign university professors. “We don’t need to look at a person’s citizenship, but their desire and readiness to work,” he said.
This summer, however, Putin signed a law creating a blacklist for any organization Russian prosecutors deem “undesirable.” The blacklist, which is expected to announce its first 20 targets next week, appears directed at least in part against foreign educational foundations, which Putin said were trying to steal Russia’s top talent.
“These networks have just been skulking around the schools of the Russian Federation for many years under the guise of supporting talented young people,” Putin told his presidential science and education council last week. “Actually, they just suck them up like a vacuum cleaner, get them hooked on grants, and take them away.”
Russia has been suffering from a serious brain drain, heightened following a broad crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.
The new legislation is far broader than a 2012 law branding some non-governmental organizations “foreign agents,” a term that in the Russian imagination is akin to spies. Any NGO on the new “patriotic stop list” faces a total ban on all activity within the country. Russian media will be unable to mention its existence, Russian nationals will not be able to work for it, and foreign employees will be unable to enter Russia.
Though Russian prosecutors have yet to indicate which NGOs will find themselves banned, lawmakers and political television personalities have spent weeks speculating about the most deserving victims. “It’s an intimidation campaign,” Tanya Lokshina, a senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said. “It creates an atmosphere of tension and an atmosphere of fear.”
Blacklin had already found himself a victim of the increasingly difficult conditions for Americans in the country. Last year, migration authorities deported him after he visited Nizhny Novgorod on a tourist visa to read a lecture, on White’s invitation. After consulting with the Russian embassy, he returned in May on a business visa, and took a train from Moscow to visit White again.
Before he had a chance to do so, the same migration officers arrested him again on charges that he had entered the country illegally. Blacklin spent the next 15 days in a migration detention center, where he shared a small cell with three migrant laborers from Uzbekistan. A bemused prison warden told him he was the first American ever jailed there.
One day, the warden told Blacklin he needed to come and give an interview to Olga Skabeeva, a reporter on state television who had arrived at the detention center unannounced. “If he made a suggestion to me, I was saying, ‘Da,’” Blacklin said. Skabeeva politely heard out Blacklin, then went to see White. She told him Churprunov, the chancellor, had approved the interview, though this later proved to be untrue.
The footage didn’t air until last Sunday, when it ran on Vesti Nedeli, a flagship state news magazine show hosted by top Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov. Skabeeva made out White and Blacklin to be poster boys for the “poisonous export” of anti-Russian values. Blacklin, Skabeeva said, “traditionally hides the real reasons for his trips to Russia,” and was trying to steal Russian students away to Maryland. The show alleged that White helped Blacklin indoctrinate the students by replacing portraits of Russian scientists in the corridor with Richard Branson and George Washington Carver. It said the U.S.-Russia Foundation was working to subvert Russia’s government and overturn the country’s traditional Orthodox Christian values.
On Tuesday, the university announced White had been fired and deleted his faculty page from its website. “That’s the time we live in now,” chancellor Evgeny Chuprunov told the Kommersant newspaper. A day later, a spokesperson for the university told the TASS state news agency that White would remain a faculty member, despite losing his position as an executive in charge of innovation programs. Blacklin, meanwhile, was ordered out of the country last month and banned from returning for five years.
White told BuzzFeed News he hopes to find out more details about his future when he returns to Russia this week. His supporters, however, are not optimistic.
“The Russian government doesn’t care about Russian innovators, growth, and development. It is focused on survival. For survival it needs xenophobia and paranoia,” said Sergei Guriev, a leading Russian economist who fled to Paris under political pressure in 2013. “It came to the point where to stay in power you need to kick out people like Kendrick.”
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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