This brilliant law professor living in Volgograd (south-west), the former Stalingrad, has entered into resistance since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine.
Like him, the few Russian university professors and students who publicly criticized the conflict were punished, arrested or forced into exile.
Similar lawsuits hit primary and secondary teachers, subject according to Mr. Melnichenko to much greater pressure to relay the Kremlin line.
“The intellectual elite can deprive the ruling elite of the basis of their power, hence this brutal reaction”, affirms this man with the discreet gray mustache, who nevertheless recognizes that the overwhelming majority of professors are silent and do not seek stimulate critical thinking.
On March 31, Roman Melnichenko was summoned by an ethics commission from the Volgograd State University, where he had worked since 2016. Immediately afterwards, he was arrested by three police officers.
He is accused of having shared on social networks, between February 24 and March 4, publications denouncing the offensive in Ukraine, in particular a video showing the death of a little girl in a hospital in Mariupol.
Previously, his management had ordered him to delete these publications, which he did.
– State of shock –
The opposition of this father of an 11-year-old girl to the conflict was instinctive: both of his parents live in Nikopol, a city in southern Ukraine very close to the front.
“I’ve been in shock for three months, they’re my parents,” he begins before breaking off, tears in his eyes.
On April 15, he was fired from his university for “immorality”. And he was sentenced on June 7 to a fine of 30,000 rubles (460 euros) for spreading “false information”, an amount corresponding to his monthly salary.
Fortunately, his wife, Zoïa Melnichenko, takes care of the household finances: she is a manicurist, a lucrative activity. “Russia will collapse the day they ban manicures,” Roman Melnichenko gravely states before bursting out laughing.
This lawyer by training had however long kept away from politics, like many Russians seeing there a nest of problems.
In the past, two universities had certainly not renewed its contracts. One because he had denounced a case of corruption, the other because he had discussed the annexation of Crimea in progress, he says.
But his exclusion for “immorality” is much more serious. Roman Melnichenko has sued his old college to have this decision overturned, which, if confirmed, will prevent him from finding a job in Russia.
“I need the university, the students, the teachers, this place where everyone can grow”, declares this claimed follower of the “Socratic dialogue” appreciated by his students, popular to the point of counting more than 67,000 subscribers on his YouTube page, where he regularly posts videos of his classes.
“He led us into an intellectual reflection”, testifies one of his former students, Sergei, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Because Roman Melnichenko says he is now being watched by FSB agents and undergoing a defamation campaign in local media. He fears that he is only at the beginning of a spiral that could lead him to prison.
It doesn’t scare him anymore. His setbacks pushed him to embrace another career: defender of rights.
The teacher teamed up with a local opponent, Alexander Efimov, of the liberal Yabloko party, to locate the Ukrainian soldiers prisoners and detainees in the Volgograd region.
Together, they challenged the Prison Monitoring Commission to demand respect for their rights. They plan to launch similar initiatives to locate Russian servicemen detained in Ukraine.
“In Russia, there are people who remain dignified, honest and concerned about others,” said Mr. Efimov, a 50-year-old man with a piercing gaze. “Power wants to create a monolith that would support all its nonsense and crimes,” he continues.
The two men know that the defense of prisoners is already a work of reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine.
“For the future, the prisoners are important,” says Roman Melnichenko: “That’s what will divide our two nations or help them find each other.”