Olga Vasilyeva

Some scientists see Olga Vasilyeva as an unorthodox choice for science minister.

TASS/Newscom

Ministry purge may be a lifeline for embattled Russian Academy of Sciences

MOSCOW—Continuing a summer of upheavals for Russian science, President Vladimir Putin has fired his science minister and replaced him with a historian who is known for her admiration for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

The surprise move, announced on 19 August, has left many scientists speechless. But some see it as a ray of hope for the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), which is undergoing a painful downsizing that in the coming weeks is expected to see dozens of academy institutes merged and thousands of scientists losing their jobs. The ousted science minister, Dmitry Livanov, was an architect of the reforms who had long pressed for strengthening science in the universities at the academy’s expense.

The new minister, Olga Vasilyeva, is an expert on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church who headed the religious studies department of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration and worked in Putin’s executive office. In public lectures, she has advocated “subordinating personal interests to those of the state” and has hailed Stalin for “uniting the nation” on the eve of World War II. During Stalin’s reign, tens of millions of people died as a result of purges and famines blamed on botched Soviet agricultural policies. Vasilyeva has argued that “the scale of Stalin’s repressions has been exaggerated.” She told Kommersant, a daily newspaper, that her first order of business is to scrutinize the ongoing reforms.

That’s music to the ears of RAS President Vladimir Fortov. Speaking with the press on 20 August, he welcomed Vasilyeva’s appointment. “Her experience of work in the presidential executive office and her knowledge of the problems we have been facing will help to build a constructive dialogue between the scientific community and bureaucrats.”

Some Livanov foes say he will be missed. “We are going to remember him kindly,” says Boris Shtern, an astrophysicist at the RAS Institute for Nuclear Research here. Livanov “is a man of science, a reasonable and generally progressive person. Now, he has been replaced by a staunch conservative,” Shtern says. “In my opinion, it is better to have an opponent such as Livanov than an ally such as Vasilyeva.”