British PhD student on research trip accused of 'spying' by Russia and given 10 days to leave the country

Laura Sumner was questioned for a visa irregularity while studying working conditions in 1917 and their links to the overthrow of the Tsars at an archive near Moscow

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The Independent Online

As methods of destabilising Russia go, researching “social identity among urban workers in 1917” in an obscure provincial archive would seem to be one of the less imminent threats to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

But a British PhD student has found herself the subject of bizarre claims of “spying” in the Russian media after she was questioned for a visa irregularity while researching working conditions and their links to the overthrow of the Tsars and given ten days to leave the country.

Laura Sumner, 25, a post-graduate a Nottingham University who had been studying in Nizhny Novgorod to the west of Moscow, was brought before a court on Wednesday and fined 2,000 roubles (£23.50) after she allegedly travelled to Russia on a business rather than a research visa.

The case sparked a report in an online pro-Kremlin news website with links to its security services, LifeNews, which described Ms Sumner as a “spy” and suggested Russian intelligence were concerned the knowledge she was gathering about the 1917 revolution nearly a century ago could be applied to the modern day.

Ms Sumner is understood to have been on a research trip as part of her studies for a PhD entitled The Construction of Social Identity Among Urban Workers in Sormovo 1917-24.


In an apparent nod to the far-fetched nature of the claims against the Briton, who was questioned on 1 April, a spokesman for the Russian migration service said: “We can confirm that this is not an April Fool joke. It is true that on April 1 during a routine inspection of our service there was discovered a British girl who violated Russian migration law.”

The expulsion is the latest in a number affecting Western academics studying in Russia. One report suggested that four individuals have been fined, deported or threatened with those punishments for alleged visa violations while conducting research in the last year.

Ms Sumner, who described herself on her now-deleted Twitter account as a “feminist, dog lover and history PhD student”, had made no attempt to conceal her presence in Russia or the fact she was visiting an archive.

In one tweet early last month, she posted: “Loved today that the archivist knew I was English not because of my bad Russian but because I kept saying thank you.”

Nottingham University said that Ms Sumner was safe and expected her to return to Britain shortly.

A spokeswoman said: “We are in close contact with Laura, and with her family in the UK, over what appears to be a minor infringement in visa regulations as a result of recent changes to those regulations.”