In a room of his modest apartment, Roman Melnichenko, 49, has two backpacks ready, one in case he is arrested, another in case he has to escape from Russia.
“I must be ready,” says this brilliant law professor who lives in Volgograd (southwest), former Stalingrad, and has been in resistance since the beginning of the Russian offensive in Ukraine.
Like Melnichenko, the few Russian university professors and students who publicly criticized the conflict were punished, detained or forced into exile.
Similar processes affect primary and secondary school teachers, who, according to Melnichenko, are under more intense pressure.
“The intellectual elite can deprive the ruling elite of the basis of their power, hence this brutal reaction,” says this man with a discreet gray mustache, and acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of teachers are silent and do not seek to stimulate critical thinking.
On March 31, Roman Melnichenko was summoned by an ethics commission at Volgograd State University, where he had been working since 2016. Immediately afterward, he was detained by three policemen.
He is accused of having shared on social media, between February 24 and March 4, posts denouncing the operation in Ukraine, especially a video showing the death of a girl in a Mariupol hospital.
Previously, he was ordered by his management to suppress those posts, which he did.
state of shock
The opposition of this father of an 11-year-old daughter to the conflict was instinctive: both parents live in Nikopol, a city in southern Ukraine very close to the war front.
“I’ve been in shock for three months… it’s my parents,” he says before stopping with tears in his eyes.
On April 15, he was fired from his university for “immoral.” And he was sentenced on June 7 to a fine of 30,000 rubles (460 euros) for spreading “false information”, a sum that corresponds to his monthly salary.
Fortunately, his wife, Zoïa Melnitchenko, ensures the finances of the couple: she is a manicurist, a lucrative activity. “Russia will go under the day they ban manicurists,” says Roman Melnichenko before bursting out laughing.
This lawyer was far from politics like many Russians who see this activity as a source of problems.
In the past, two university establishments did not renew their contracts. One for having denounced a case of corruption, the other because he addressed the issue of the annexation of Crimea in a course, he said. But his dismissal for “immorality” is more serious.
Roman Melnichenko filed a lawsuit in court to annul that decision which, if confirmed, will prevent him from finding a job in Russia.
“I need the university, the students, the professors, I need this place where we can all grow”, declares this vindicated adept of the “Socratic dialogue” appreciated by his students, popular to the point of having more than 67,000 subscribers to his YouTube page , where he posted videos of his courses.
“He trained us in intellectual reflection,” says one of his former students, Serguei, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Well, Roman Melnitchenko now says he is being watched by FSB agents and is the subject of a smear campaign in the local media. He fears that he is just at the beginning of the gear that could land him in jail.
That doesn’t scare him anymore. His problems led him to opt for another career, that of rights defender.
The teacher is associated with a local opponent, Alexandre Efimov, from the liberal Iabloko party, to track down imprisoned and detained Ukrainian soldiers in the Volgograd region.
Both know that the defense of prisoners is already a work of reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine.
“For the future, the prisoners, it will be an important issue”, says Roman Melnichenko: “It is what will divide our two nations or help them to meet again”.