Following war against Ukraine, Russian researcher returns to IUPUI to teach local youth the importance of neighborhood and community
Friday, February 17, 2023
Maxim Bulanov, a Russian educator who completed a Fulbright program at IUPUI in 2019, has returned to IU’s Indianapolis campus following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Using his years of experience as an urban education researcher in Russia, he is helping students in Indianapolis’s Near Eastside think differently about the ways they view their neighborhood.
Bulanov, an educational program specialist with the Collaborative for Equitable and Inclusive STEM Learning, is leading the development of a STEM Studio, a pop-up educational makerspace for elementary and middle school students. Using art activities and participatory research methods, students will engage in conversations and practices about their dreams for the neighborhood.
Through the project, he and colleagues are conducting research to understand how youth talk about STEM identities and STEM education – information which will help the Collaborative for Equitable and Inclusive STEM Learning build better projects to engage with students in the future.
“We want kids to see that no matter what their background is, they have opportunities,” Bulanov said. “This is the impact – to let them see opportunities to attain, to be successful in learning and to feel that they are capable of being responsible for their education and urban experiences too.”
Bulanov returned to Indianapolis in September 2022 with the help of Scholars at Risk, an international organization that connects scholars who are facing significant threats to their lives with research and teaching positions at universities across the world.
He was saddened when the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022 – a date which ultimately initiated his return to Indiana.
“People sometimes say you can feel it in the air, and something was definitely in the air even two years before the war started,” Bulanov said. “It started with inner-political changes – the changing of the constitution, implementing new laws and restrictions. Nobody was 100 percent sure Putin’s government was going to do this, but they did. Everything inside me was horrified. I literally thought the world was broken.”
A popular Russian educator with a large social media presence, he feared his previous experiences and personal views would make him a target of the government. Though he continued to use his voice to speak out against the war, he knew he had to be careful.
In 2018, he led a pilot project for academic success coaches in Russian universities through the Oxford Russia Fund, a foundation sponsored by oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The foundation was deemed “undesirable” by the Russian government in summer 2021 – meaning it was no longer allowed to do any business in the country – and within just a week, all information about the organization was deleted from the Internet and all contracts were stopped. Bulanov was encouraged not to mention his association with the organization since a 2015 law made it possible for individuals who previously worked for an “undesirable” organization to be jailed for up to four years.
In March 2022, just a few weeks after the invasion, the Russian television channel Culture released a documentary about innovations in education. Bulanov had been interviewed for the documentary several months before the war began. It featured a group of progressive educators from Moscow and St. Petersburg who discussed emerging education trends in Russia. Initially, he was thrilled about the coverage. However, he soon came across an article written by a public commissioner for family protection who declared all participants in the film, including Bulanov, should be found and punished for their role in disrupting the governmental system.
“When the war started, all the people who think the same way as these people started feeling like the government will now hear them out,” Bulanov said. “They wanted the government to find pro-Western people and punish us. I couldn’t believe they would say that my colleagues and I were destroying the educational system in the whole country.”
According to Bulanov, Russians who spoke out against the war were fined or imprisoned. In Moscow, the government began using facial recognition software in some of their underground train stations to identify individuals who posed a threat to their efforts. A friend of Bulanov’s, who had previously worked for the Nobel Prize winning Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was caught by Moscow police while simply waiting for a train.
“I quickly realized that even staying silent no longer guaranteed your safety, and I knew it was time to leave,” Bulanov said. “I’m grateful to have returned to IUPUI. I was looking forward to building a partnership with the School of Education back in 2019, but the process was paused by the pandemic. Three years later, we have a new opportunity to do it. I hope we’re able to contribute both to the local community and urban educational studies.”
Bulanov enjoys working with Indianapolis students and hopes his project will receive additional funding to expand into other schools in the Near Eastside. However, he has not ruled out a return to Russia in the future. Like him, his network has spread out to countries across the world, and they feel strongly that the experiences they have now will one day be useful in their home country.
“All the processes the Russian government started 20 years ago are built on corruption on the hierarchy, a very strong hierarchy, and systems like this cannot survive,” Bulanov said. “There are still activists in Russia, and people still fight on different levels. My friends and I will be ready to come back and continue restoring the social institute in our country. This gives me hope.”
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