Is It Hard Being a Foreign Agent in Russia?
August 8, 2016
How does an organization officially declared a “foreign agent” manage? Gorod 812 asked Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) in Petersburg, what it has been like.
Did you expect to be declared a foreign agent?
On the one hand, after Bolotnaya Square, it was no surprise. On the other hand, we have never believed what we do is political activity.
Some Ph.D. in philosophy did the forensic examination on us for the Justice Ministry. I won’t repeat the stupid things he wrote. We have gone through four court trials. Recently, the Supreme Court reimbursed one of the fines we had to pay, in the amount of 300,000 rubles.
We were labeled a foreign agent, allegedly, for making recommendations on how to improve the work of magistrates, doing research on the political preferences of trade unions, and advertising a book (which we didn’t publish) on political movements in Russia.
Similar allegations have been made against us to this day.
What has changed in your work since you were declared a foreign agent?
Four times a year, instead of once a year, we write a financial disclosure report. We have to hire a specialist to help us write it. Any violation results in an “irredeemable” fine of 300,000 rubles from the Justice Ministry. But we don’t know we violated.
The Women of the Don Foundation, which deals with gender issues in the North Caucasus, has suffered because of us. It was declared a foreign agent only because we sent them 10,000 rubles out of a sense of professional solidarity, to help them pay a fine. Now we are trying to explain to the authorities the money was Russian in origin.
We cannot work with state universities and officials. We cannot do fieldwork in schools, hospitals, etc. Business is afraid to help us; it is afraid of reprisals. As for the populace, when people find out who we are, they are immediately put on their guard, and the conversation becomes stiff.
I once got a call from a major public radio station. They told me they were putting me on the air in two hours. I warned them that CISR was a foreign agent. They said it was not a problem. Half an hour later, a young woman called me and said her bosses had decided not to trouble me: they needed a cultural studies person, not a sociologist. All electronic media are now closed to us.
Recently, the Justice Ministry redefined political activity.
According to one part of the new definition, all sociological research is classified as political activity, while another part claims that scientific and scholarly research is not political activity. So sociology is no longer scientific and scholarly research.
So how do you do your work nowadays?
For example, we have been researching temporary сohabitation among migrant workers. They support each other while having families back home. Such research requires so-called participant observation. First, you help the migrant worker out. You take him or her to the doctor, get their kid into a kindergarten, and invite them over to your place. Only then will they tell you what they really think about the world they live in. It might take years to get to that point. Whose agent you are, in this case, matters not a whit.
As for working with officials and civil servants, now everything is based on off-the-record interviews.
Initially, when you opened in 1991, did you work with the state? Whose agents were you then?
We were the agents of Boris Yeltsin and his folk. We were interested in working on topics relevant to the country: grassroots movements, Russian nationalism, the new gender studies. A social revolution was underway, and values were being revised.
Did you get money from the government?
We would sometimes participate in grant competitions and get a few crumbs. The times allowed for completing the research were paltry, and the financial reporting was complicated. But we were not fundamentally opposed to taking money from the government. That became a hard and fast principle sometime in the early 2000s.
We ran up against corruption, against demands for kickbacks and rigged outcomes. The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] would send us invitations to grant competitions, but we quickly realized they had already picked the winners. Or they would ask us to do research on topics like “The Danger from Muslim Migrant Workers in Petersburg.” But we are researchers and don’t do appraisals. We are interested in how migrant workers integrate, in the issue of xenophobia. We gave up on public financing.
What is the size of the usual private grant, and how much time does a study take?
No less than a year or two, often as many as three years. The budget for a study of this sort comes to about three million rubles or more.
Do the foundations who subsidize you set conditions?
The foreign foundations set only one: the research has to be academic research, serious scholarship involving participant observation, and not just getting people to fill out surveys and quickly summarizing the results. By the way, I should note that [only] one out of fifty sociology department graduates goes on to become a serious researcher.
Russian foundations require self-censorship. We did work in Tatarstan: the republic’s president must not be disturbed by the research outcomes. We agreed to censor ourselves. We were interested in finding out why young people were leaving Tatarstan.
And why are they leaving?
It’s a nationwide problem: ours is an avuncular society. If you are outside this circle, you won’t get a good education and you will not be able to set up your own business. All this is highly developed in Tatarstan. There are confessional issues within Islam to boot. Given the circumstances, young people leave the republic or join “extremists.” We recommended an amnesty for certain religious groups that do not call for violence.
We had just finished this study when we were declared a foreign agent.
How have the foundations themselves reacted to your foreign agent status?
Some foundations, even ones with whom were on very good terms, have parted ways with us. They are afraid of being put on the list of undesirable organizations that will be cut off from all official contacts with Russia.
On the other hand, we have received offers of assistance from foundations we had never heard of before. That has been nice.
Why do western foundations finance academic research?
The conscience of the capitalists has awoken or they are unhappy with their own offspring.
What Soviet value has been forfeited in vain?
It’s a pity people have stopped reading. But this is a socialist value. Under capitalism, in new technological circumstances, it could not have survived.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of CISR