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Russians demand apology from Melbourne academic

Monday, 26 May, 2014

An article criticising Russia’s intervention in Ukraine written by University of Melbourne faculty head Dr Timothy Lynch has ignited local Russian ire.

On 4 March this year, while Russian forces swelled around Crimea, Director of the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences Dr Lynch wrote the article ‘Russian bear reveals its strength and weakness’ for The Age.

The article was critical in general of Russian foreign policy. Dr Lynch argued Russian power “has been far more effective at suppressing civil society than facilitating it,” referring to the Stalinist purges, the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian rebellion, the destruction of Chechnya in the early 2000s and Russia’s support for the Syrian regime today.

But the ire of the local Russian community was raised by the phrase “the barbarity of Russian invasion of Germany in 1944-45”.

A Change.org petition started by Brisbanian Olga Klepova said: “We, people of former USSR republics, want a public apology from Timothy Lynch for calling Russians barbarians and invaders of Germany in the newspaper The Age.”

The petition said Dr Lynch’s comments were “false, discriminatory and inflammatory” to Russian-speaking Australians.

“We will not tolerate highly offensive, bullying and degrading statements by Mr Lynch and your newspaper,” the petition said. “Our heritage of people from former republics of the USSR was thrown in the dirt by Tim Lynch.”

Dr Lynch told Farrago he was shocked by the virulence of the backlash. He felt his role as an academic is to present opinions as part of an intelligent debate. He said he doesn’t expect everyone to agree with him, but if they do want to present a counter opinion they should do so in a civil manner.

Dr Lynch said holding a minority opinion should not lead to his silencing. He said as an academic he needs to be able to discuss all issues without coming under criticism for a form, of what he believes, is “thought crime”.

Dr Lynch said the petition misses the point of his article; he intended to discuss the nature of Russian power and the reply has been based entirely about a single line he wrote. “10,000 people didn’t read my article, the read the caricature of it written by Olga,” he said.

In response to numerous community complaints, the Press Council decided not to refer the matter to the Council’s Adjudication Panel. They said although some feelings in the community were hurt, robust free speech was more important.

“The level of reasonable offence was considered not so great as to override the public interest in the free expression of opinion, which can at times be contentious,” the Press Council’s response read.

At the time of writing the petition had attracted over 10,000 signatures.

Klepova said she couldn’t believe the article was written by an academic “because of the tone, false facts and wrong names used”.

Initially she thought the phrase “barbaric invasion” was a typo and attempted to contact Dr Lynch on Facebook, Twitter, email.

When Dr Lynch failed to respond Klepova created the petition to force a response. “For people from former Soviet republics the issue of WWII is as sensitive as Gallipoli for Australians and New Zealanders,” she said.

Klepova said Dr Lynch should have been more sensitive, and by using the term “barbaric invasion” he implies the Red Army was an aggressive invader when they were fighting a defensive war against the Nazis.

Klepova said although academics have the freedom to offer countering arguments and are encouraged to think outside the box, she believes that Dr Lynch’s article misled readers with false, offensive and deceitful information.

Klepova said that it was a mistake to compare Soviet actions in World War II and Russian actions in the Crimean Peninsula today.